Going Bicoastal: RAWdance Does a Triple Take

By Sarah Chenoweth


Two people intertwined by their arms dance together

Photo by Hillary Goidell

For fifteen years, under the banner of RAWdance, Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith have been teaching and producing work in San Francisco. Their leadership in the city swelled with the onset of curatorial projects like ChoreoFest (in partnership with Yerba Buena Gardens Festival) and the CONCEPT series (produced biannually at the SF War Memorial and Performing Arts Center). Recently, and at an apex of influence in the company’s history, Rein and Smith moved to New York’s Hudson Valley.

Seem surprising? Smith shares that the motivations were personal and professional. Both directors are from the East Coast and felt the pull of their aging families. Smith also admits the practicality of the move: “We were slaves to rent control here. We want a vegetable garden, and I want a puppy,” he grins. “We were looking at the reality and creativity of not just our company, but also our lives.”

They brainstormed about the company’s existence and structure. “We really wanted to expand in a way that felt authentic,” Rein’s eyes are earnest. “It was important to have someone here, on the ground in San Francisco, to continue to see everyone else’s work, be tied to our dancers, stay face to face with collaborators, etc.” So, in a clever plan to keep the company alive and maintain its potency, they brought on Katerina Wong as a third artistic director. Wong is a long-time RAWdance collaborator and dancer. Since 2012, she has been freelancing, doing arts marketing, choreography, consulting, and dancing in the Bay. Now she is fully immersed in this single, bustling organization as its West Coast lead.

It’s pretty ideal. This way they can enjoy the garden and dog without losing the fruits of their art-making labor. It allows them to “have our cake and eat it too,” Rein concedes. Wong, apt and effervescent, reassures the decision, insisting “the personal sacrifice [for art] doesn’t have to be life long. There are solutions to think of and test out together.” RAWdance is treating the company like you might treat a timeworn choreographic habit – breaking rules, welcoming alternate endings, collaborating throughout the process.

If you’re thinking of replicating their model, take note that RAWdance had over a decade to “hone a strong artistic voice and develop the company’s infrastructure. Ryan and I ran it from the start as a duo, so we were already used to joint navigation and negotiation,” Rein clarifies. “Being a good communicator is so important in general, but especially when you’re sharing leadership.” She advocates that companies make adaptations based specifically on their circumstances and makeup.

In this case, Wong is joining the helm of a ship already at full speed. It’s a delicate and different challenge than directing a company at its nascency. There are expectations in place, relationships to maintain, and artists relying on quality resources. Wong thanks her years of free-lancing as solid training for this multi-hat position. She’s not shying away from the density of the task: “The whole first year was a massive learning experience and a joy… I am working every spare hour I can find, trying to retrain and retool myself to become even more generative.” Wong’s brows rise as she beams, “I am holding on for dear life a bit…wanting to match and surpass the goals I set for myself. It’s a dream moment.”

The reformed RAWdance is presenting Triple Take March 12-15 at ODC. It will be a mixed bag, intentionally. In its total body of work, RAWdance has bounced from making dance outside and inside of theaters, from emotional narratives to abstracted movement studies. Triple Take will highlight that miscellany because the show has no specific “theme”. The subject of each work is incomparable to the next – ancient Chinese medicine, digital identity/exhaust, and a game of choreography mash-up.

Wong will mount the final development of The Healer, a work that’s been in progress for over a year. She was compelled by her aunt, who studied acupuncture and energy healing in Beijing and practiced for decades in New Zealand and the US. She passed away unexpectedly in 2018. Her death illuminated new pathways within Wong’s family, and a curiosity about ancient healing practices in Wong. In the obscurity of her grief, Wong stepped into The Healer.

Much of Wong’s choreographic inspiration comes from having studied cultural anthropology at Princeton: “anthropology holds in a big bowl all the angles and perspectives of every story and experience: food, culture, history, ancestry, movement, art… the philosophical, economical, social, and psychological.” Her anthropological inclination certainly dwells in this work. Through conversation, writing and research, she and the dancers have tried to more fully understand qi, the meridians, the five phases, yin and yang (and the fact that they can’t exist without each other but are constantly in conflict), and other ancient wisdoms that previously baffled Wong’s Western viewpoint.

The Healer operates as the corporeal arm of her inquiry into Chinese medicine. It soothes the dancers, and it aims to soothe the audience. Fully considering holistic experiences, Wong and her dancers hope the work will be multisensory in ODC theater – possibly offering optional smells and tastes so the audience can connect to their senses. Wong breathes in. She wants everyone in the room to “go on the ride with them, in a palpable way.”

Diverging starkly from the realm of the somatic, Shadow will launch Rein and Smith’s investigation into the realm of digital existence. Shadow wonders about parallel versions of ourselves that live inside the internet – selves born from Google searches, retail accounts, and banked data. “You can find a lot of philosophy now about social media platform identities in conflict with real life identity.” Smith is mulling it over. “We’re actually fascinated by the concept of something less self-defined – the data driven identity. Where does it live? How connected to me is that awkward costume I once looked up [online]?”

They are researching digital privacy by book, podcast, and almost daily New York Times spreads that relate somehow to the expanding issue. Rein even contacted multiple companies to obtain her recorded data history. Only two have provided any information, and only after requiring Rein to jump through some pesky hoops. “We are constantly monitored, and it’s incredibly invasive. It all gets interpreted, even something you may have typed in wrong. How authentic is this version of you?” Rein, intrigued, tilts her head.

It’s a topic that widens by the second, and with “so many threads to pull on, it’s been hard to narrow it down. We keep coming back to the concept of an ever-narrowing feedback loop.” Rein continues, “The way surveillance capitalism works (the term is taken from a book of the same name by Shoshana Zuboff) is that we feed our data, mostly unknowingly, to the corporate sector, which then models a version of us, and spits back tailored suggestions. These could be to buy things or to vote a certain way, etc. Then we take action, and the suggestions become more tailored. Every action we take helps feed this thing that grows better at controlling us. It’s both terrifying and fascinating. And from a choreographer’s perspective it’s inherently about movement and power and evolving patterns.”

Rein and Smith vent uncertainty about how to make something so undetectable and intangible (like the shadow of a life on the internet) feel real and tangible. It’s a tricky assignment – bringing an idea so far from the body back into the body. Another question driving the choreography asks what parts of us are too intimate to be consciously “shared” and “tracked” online.

Finally, and cunningly, RAWdance has used the newly dispersed state of the company as a compositional tool. All three directors conspired to build a piece using the surrealist movement’s “exquisite corpse” game. Working with their SF company of dancers, Rein and Smith started making the work in New York. They shared by video only the last 30 seconds of their creation with Wong. Wong used that 30 seconds to jumpstart the next section and sent only the last 30 seconds of her material back to Rein and Smith. This exchange of semi-blind creation developed the whole darn thing. The gap in their knowledge of the full material is satisfyingly analogous to the gap in their geographic relationship. Plus, it sounds super fun – a bit of concealing, a bit of revealing. The five dancers are the “keepers”, the only ones able to see the entirety of the piece, for rehearsal needs.

Smith’s lips quicken, “wildly different is good here. We don’t need this to come back to a theme or something ‘legible’.” “Exactly,” Rein affirms, “And regardless of whatever habits we all have, which will surely come out in our individual sections… the approach to this piece is inherently different.” Via the piece, they have committed to listening and decision-making in a different way, as a triad. They are allowing themselves to see the full piece and make edits in the final weeks before the show, you know, for the show’s sake. But this latest choreographic approach further mirrors the “emergent” attitude RAWdance is taking toward the company as a whole. They are thinking beyond prevailing structures, trying not to let a dance be forced into “a single sentence we wrote two years ago”, and trying to allow the future of the organization to define itself as it goes.

After starving for space in San Francisco for many years, Rein and Smith have dreamt of starting a residency program in the Hudson Valley. Smith is eager; “space is actually abundant in the Hudson Valley. There are so many beautiful studios and barns that have already been converted but are underutilized. We are considering how to activate those spaces and partner with others to make use of them. And of course try to bring some Bay folks out once we’re established.” Rein leans forward to spell it out: “The pipe dream is to have a more formalized East/West Coast exchange.” Being in New York just a few months has already deepened their conversations with Jacob’s Pillow and other organizations.

The addition of Wong and a second location bring RAWdance a real sense of momentum. All three directors are expressly receptive to sharing responsibility, artistic voice, and future choices. Wong is patently inspired by Rein and Smith, emphasizing her gratitude for stepping into a job with people who have been doing it for “so long and so well. There is so much trust and admiration.” Equal esteem comes from Rein and Smith: “Conversely, Katie brings a distinct voice and a lot of energy. After being in this game a long time, the fresh perspective is huge.” There are many avenues RAWdance could explore next, and it is clear they are still processing which they will follow. But, for now, SF dancers can continue to count on delicious popcorn at the CONCEPT Series and have a few more friends on the East Coast.

Series of three images side-by-side showing the same three people in different poses each time
Photos by Elena Zhulova

This article appeared in the March 2020 issue of In Dance.

Sarah Chenoweth is a dancer, teacher and writer based in Oakland, CA. She teaches at Shawl Anderson Dance Center and writes for Dance Teacher Magazine and DIYdancer.