Photo by Robbie Sweeny
WORD. In the vernacular, you say “Word,” to express agreement, validating you’re listening to what someone is saying. You might also hear it when something said is truthful or insightful. Words hold so much power. With words you can speak both life and death into being, shed light on the truth and hide the truth. We use words to reflect, inspire, story-tell and the list goes on. When words aren’t enough, use dance, music and art to further express. Give depth and meaning beyond the words. Make movement your vocabulary. Embody everything. Speak through it all.
Dance Mission Theater (DMT) presents the WOMXN SPEAK: WORD! series – Womxn Oracular Radical Dance featuring different groups of women identified artists with intersecting identities, who share their oracular truth, while representing their communities through dance.
This series started in the Fall of 2018, with Nkeiruka Oruche and Tossie Long of Afro Urban Society in collaboration with DMT presenting Bakanal De Afrique: What Had Happened Was…, an Afro-Urban musical; and collaboration on a new program with La Colectiva de Mujeres (Baile Colectivo) spearheaded by Andreina Maldonado and Vanessa Sanchez. And this year, it expanded to include Rulan Tangen/Dancing Earth (Between Underground and Skyworld), Kanyon Sayers-Roods and Bernadette Smith (REINDEGENIZE), Lenora Lee (In the Skin of Her Hands), Susana Arenas/Arenas Dance Company (Eso sí), and finally finishing up the season with Krissy Keefer/Dance Brigade (Butterfly Effect),that will run for three weeks in January 2020.
The vision of the program is to elevate the female-identified artistic voices that aren’t always heard. “Women have oracular power to see into what’s happening in the world. These voices are critical for social change, without their voices, we don’t have social change, social justice and equality,” says Kristy Keefer. “These artists are really visionary and are creating something so deep and profound with their work; supporting cultural preservation through the dances they create, the spoken word and text they are writing and incorporating into their productions, the groups of people they bring together. These efforts transform humanity.”
WORD! weaves various themes through performance ritual and multi-media storytelling. Tackling issues such as: climate change, perspectives of blackness internationally and nationally, the rise of indigenous voices—acknowledging that we are on occupied lands—immigration, spirituality, health equity and living with breast cancer.
I spoke with three choreographers – Rulan Tangen, Susana Arenas and Krissy Keefer – about their intention behind their participation in the WORD! series. With this program, Dance Mission Theater also worked closely with Tangen and Arenas through production, specifically inviting them to present full-length works and highlighting their voices as woman of color. For years, DMT has supported both their projects. Keefer, as both the executive director of DMT and artistic director of Dance Brigade—the resident dance company of DMT—finds herself in the same trajectory since 1975, creating content-driven choreographies at the intersection of arts and politics. These stories deepen witnesses understanding of spiritual and cultural perspectives as they move in-between spiritual and material work, encouraging viewers to reimagine their own power because our actions collectively matter.
The following are excerpts from their interviews that have been condensed and edited.
Rulan Tangen’s Between Underground and Sky-world (BTW US) is a multimedia dance theater work that illuminates the practical, spiritual and cultural aspects of renewable energy, combining intertribal perspectives with Indigenous futurities. Fusing tradition with technology, Indigenous interdisciplinary artists engage creation and constellation stories in tandem with geo-sensitive new media to conjure visions for a more sustainable future.
The creative process behind BTW US started a few summers ago, when Tangen started collecting different elements of nature and putting them in her backpack. Later in the studio, she asked each dancer to reach into her bag and pull something out. The dancers wrote about these objects. Spread out all over the studio floor were beautiful rocks, leaves, branches, and roots, but scattered amongst them were also things like safety pins, hair ties, a plastic bag, a rubber ball and other inorganic materials. Tangen imagined that some of the writings would be about toxicity in our environment or humanity’s disregard for nature. But in their reflections, dancers strived to find the connection between ALL elements, even man-made. (Plastic bag) I am transparent / Even if you disregard me / I will never go away / and will shape to your every dream. And now that it’s made, how do we repurpose? Find the beauty and life force in everything. How does it translate into our actions?
BTW US ran from Oct 26-27, 2019. And on Sunday, October 27, BTW US opened with REINDIGENIZE that included pre-show activities and performance rituals curated by California Native people who are currently living here in the Bay Area. “They brought their vision and genius to the streets at 24th and Mission BART,” says Tangen. “It’s important to remember that we are respectful guests on Ohlone land. We use our power and privilege as artists to bring them visibility.”
Christine Joy Ferrer (CJF): What was your intention and process behind Between Underground and Skyworld? One of your main themes focused on recovering ancestral knowledge and making that accessible to the audience’s level of understanding. But, was there an overarching theme that you wanted to convey?
Rulan Tangen: Between Underground and Skyworld speaks to energy, between two places and two sacred realms, retelling what is in-between and the impact each space has on the other. Space, being marginal can become bridges, which is the space of infinite potential. The overarching question is, what is the future we want to bring forward? I generally invite my performers to collaborate, but this time was different, I decided to let them lead. The future is young people, indigenous centered and it’s in their hands. What they choose to create is going to be the future. My previous works have been environmentally themed, and indigenous cultural bearer and elder driven, but this is about acknowledging that young people too are the cultural advisers and the power that they have.
The first act is about storytelling setting up the journey. The second act is more of an energetic ritual. You move through this portal, up a staircase, running away from the apocalypse, learning about the creation story, traversing waters, climbing mountains. They open up their backpacks to find medicine bundles and pieces of trash. They process their connection to the objects. Recognizing that the energy and life force that is spirit, matter, history and future, connects us all, which is directly invoked in imagery on stage. It’s not about spirit vs. matter or inorganic vs. inorganic. Or even the past vs. present. It’s about the in-between. Everything is sacred.
Dancing Earth Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations dynamically activates their mission to support Indigenous dance and related arts, to encourage and revitalize awareness of bio-cultural diversity through artistic expression, for the education and wellness of all peoples.
Eso sí, Arenas Dance Company’s latest work, celebrated the 20th anniversary of choreographer and director Susana Arenas Pedroso. The evening-length work, featured Afro-Cuban folkloric and popular dance, live drumming, incorporated movement and text, and integrated the sacred and the profane in Cuban culture. With sold out performances, Eso sí ran at Eastside Arts Alliance and and Dance Mission Theater October 6-13, 2019 at Dance Mission Theater.
CJF: In Eso sí, you integrate your own spiritual practice and honor your ancestors through Afro-Cuban folklore and vibrant visual storytelling. What does Eso sí mean to you? How does it reflect who you are as a cultural bearer within the Afro-Cuban diaspora?
Susana Arenas: Soy hija de Elegua y mi mama es Yemaya. As a Cuban, raised in Havana, for me, dance is about life, spirit and soul. Cuba is all about music and dance. We are born with its rhythm. Eso sí is my story, as a dance instructor, as a professional dancer and as an Afro-Latina. Eso sí is about who I am through Afro-Cuban folklore and dance. I came to the U.S. from Cuba 20 years ago. It’s about my spirituality, with the orishas and Santeria, Yoruba traditions that come from Nigeria, and Bantu culture. It’s about ceremony. Eso sí is about music, and that no matter what age you are, everyone’s welcome. I mix rhythms of Rhumba and Comparsa with both passion and heart. I honor the two cultures of Bantu and Vodou through dance.
In Eso sí, the Godmother (La Madrina) has a dream of one of the dancers (me), traveling to different places, teaching and performing Afro-Cuban Folkloric dance, making money, learning about other cultures. So, bless Yemaya. Connect with the ocean. Yemaya provides safe passage across the ocean, and represents the seven seas. In Cuba, El Malecón is very important. It’s the place where Cubans come to sing, cry, dance, maybe find a love. La Madrina says, someone is going to find you while you’re dancing in the Malecon and take you abroad. And this is how my journey to United States begins. At the time, the situation between U.S. and Cuba was hard. But, it’s my job as a cultural bearer to teach and educate others about my culture. We dance more for heart than for money. Más que bailar en Cuba bailaremos por Cuba.
Founded and directed by Susana Arenas Pedroso, Arenas Dance Company’s mission is to preserve and promote the rich and diverse Cuban folkloric and popular dance traditions.
Krissy Keefer’s upcoming show, Butterfly Effect, runs from January 26 – February 9, 2020 at Dance Mission Theater. Her latest work is site-specific centered on climate crisis. Keefer’s work explores contemporary social issues by creating, producing, presenting, and teaching feminist and multicultural dance and theater.
CJF: With the heightened awareness of the unprecedented global climate crisis we’re facing, why is Butterfly Effect so relevant?
Krissy Keefer: I came out of the 1970s, deeply aware and conscious of the environmental crisis. Back then, we were all about not shopping at Safeway, or at least, not taking plastic bags from Safeway. Save the Whales! Save the Planet! But, it all changed with this massive march towards consumerism. However, in our current environmental and political state of things, a lot of people are taking a hard stance around the world right now about the climate breakdown that is happening in their cities, towns, and countries. There’s a huge global environmental movement coming out of the U.K., Extinction Rebellion. In Honduras, hundreds of activists have been killed each year, trying to defend their lands and rivers, against multi-national interests.
I have never done an entire, evening-length work on the complete degradation of our climate until now. Butterfly Effect is all about climate change and catastrophe. With a cast of 16 performers, people are singing, drumming, acting and dancing. Images depict the apparent climate crisis, people in a state of despair, who feel trapped and caught up in day-to-day activities. They are so focused on Trump, they don’t even notice the bigger problem.
The dances take place in different rooms. One room is about consumerism and fashion. Getting sucked into the beauty of a fashion show display that turns dystopian at the end. The audience will witness through visual imagery how entire towns get wiped out because of flood and fire. Remembering Paradise, California and people trying to fight for their lives in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa.
It’s time for me as an artist to participate in the best way I can to make a difference, and piggy back on grassroots movements that are trying to enact social response and social change.
Dance Brigade’s Artistic Director Krissy Keefer explores the intersection between art and social issues with fierce inventiveness and a deft comic touch. Dance Brigade’s dynamic multi-racial troupe of women proves that socially relevant dance can be technically brilliant, as well as exuberant with down-home hilarious fun.
We breathe life into our WORD, and it becomes reality.
Like the Holy text reads, “In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God.” So let’s continue to uplift the beginning of the WOMXN SPEAK: WORD! And the oracular knowledge and spirit that follows it. Visit dancemissiontheater.org for more info and if you’re interested in donating to support this work.
This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of In Dance.