[Alivia Schaffer and Dazaun Soleyn Photo by Hillary Goidell. ID: Two dancers, Alivia Shaffer and Dazaun Soleyn, dancing at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. The studio has white walls and a ballet barre hung horizontally on the center of the wall. Dazaun is holding his head with one hand and has a soft gaze. Alivia is looking over her left shoulder towards the floor.]
Editor’s note: Dance Generators is a Spring 2023 CA$H grantee. This article highlights their funded activities and vision.
In just under a week I will be dancing with the ancestors—four standing, quilted sculptures called “Quilted Ancestors.” I will be joined by dancers Liv Schaffer, Sebastian Le and Natalya Shoaf, with understudies Mary Jane Agnew and Zoë Quon.
“[We are] sharing physical knowledge…human to spirit, us to ancestors and ancestors to us,” Natalya remarked. Her observation speaks to the creative process that is currently being co-led by Liv, Dance Generators Director and me, Artistic Director of dazaun.dance and Dance Generators Guest Artist.
The upright, intricately woven sculptures were created by textile and visual artist Adia Millett. Adia has woven four large-scale quilts outlined with 12-inch feathers which are draped over 6-foot tall mannequins. The draping of the fabric brings these multi-patterned quilts to life creating ghost-like figures in the space. These quilted ancestors represent both the four elements—earth, wind, fire and air—and viewers’ ancestors as etheric beings. They are part of Millett’s larger exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art San Jose, Wisdom Keepers.
For the opening of Wisdom Keepers we will engage in a variety of partnerships: human + human; human + quilted ancestor; human + quilted ancestor + human. Gestures and phrases are built in relation to the sculptures and grounded in the rhythmic syncopation and groove of house dance, and in reverence to the four symbolic ancestors.
Wisdom Keepers explores the parallels and interplays between a craftswoman and a warrior.
One parallel between a craftswoman and a warrior informing our creative process is the intention of protecting, preserving and building a community and culture; one that both holds sacred the teachings of our ancestors, and makes those teachings fluid and relevant to our day to day lives. Through discourse and imagination we explore how a healthy relationship with an ancestral presence can be reciprocal and ongoing. In some ways these modes of questioning point to an aspect of the soul that is the creative collaboration between Liv and myself.
Throughout 2023, Liv and I built work and co-facilitated communal processes with members of the Dance Generators, a group of dancers that range in age from 18 to 91 years old. These creative rituals held the simple, yet extremely potent intention of working together to build bridges in a world divided by cultures, ancestry, systematic oppression, biases and generational differences. We have found that these communal spaces release deep-rooted emotions and generational trauma held within the body. Moving forward, Liv and I are both clear that the next step for us is to extend the invitation to these intergenerational, intentional spaces to members of our community beyond the Dance Generators network. Through the funding of the CA$H grant we are beginning to investigate what that expansion looks like.
We are in the early stages of a new project that will feature three Black and three white artists. In addition to Liv and myself we are working with composers Jordon Dapney and Max Judelson, and the remaining two artists will be older adults. This work will experiment with communal processes and methods that bridge generational, cultural and racial divides while examining and interrupting the whiteness that anchors creative aging opportunities in the Bay Area.
When I think of the lack of creative aging opportunities for Black Folks I think of my grandmother/ancestor Louise Langston. I can close my eyes and be transported back to her apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY where I hear her telling me stories of how she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. She could envision designs and she knew she had a creative gift within her. However, she didn’t have access to creative aging spaces like Dance Generators, and she didn’t have the resources to fully express that part of herself. I imagine that the work, spaces, partnerships—the resources that Liv and I will generate through our collaboration—will give elders like my grandmother opportunities to live out their wildest creative dreams.
Even though my grandmother is an ancestor in the spiritual realm, I will continue to give her spirit the space to be as creative as she wishes. This intergenerational collaboration is a practice of multidimensional healing for me. I am excited to continue to brainstorm, improvise, play, experiment with physical material and share space with Liv. To discover ways to do our bridge work with a sense of reverence, responsibility and respect for our ever-changing communities.
This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of In Dance.