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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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PerformanceDanceHow to tell our stories of the last three...

How to tell our stories of the last three years? Dance ‘In the Presence of Absence’

For Deborah Slater, it took a profound collaboration with community to encompass the vast experience of the pandemic

Choreographer Deborah Slater, who founded the Deborah Slater Dance Theater in 1989, says she started thinking about her newest piece, In the Presence of Absence (Fri/10-Sun/12 at Dance Mission Theater, SF), after things were shutting down in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic.

Slater had just done a major show right before all performances were cancelled. 

“I started wondering if I’d been retired and no one told me,” she said. “I started talking to other people about what their experiences were, and I realized that my experience was very particular to my economic status, my financial world, the fact that I live in a house and the age that I am. I just found out that other people were having very different experiences of the same experience.” 

What has resulted from her efforts is “a multi-media stage performance that brings together a wide range of individuals to tell some of the millions of stories of the last three years—how the pandemic brought into focus the vast diversity of experiences, and yet provided a unifying lens through which to view our world.”

In putting together In the Presence of Absence,” Slater wanted to be sure to include different perspectives. She thought of Tammy Johnson, an Egyptian-style belly dancer and cultural curator who had come to one of Slater’s residencies. Slater featured Johnson on a panel and discovered she was a Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consultant. 

“I thought, ‘I want to talk to her about this and see if she thinks it’s even a good idea,’” she said. “It turned out to be a three-hour lunch, and at the end of it I said, ‘You have to do this with me.’”

Tammy Johnson co-created the piece. Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Both Johnson and Slater came up with people to interview, trying to cover a wide range, from a 15-year-old to an 80-year-old. Together they wrote a list of questions that they asked everyone.

“Our approach to it was not clinical. The first thing that we said was ‘What adjectives come to mind, and you don’t have to talk in sentences.’ That launched people into a completely different way of rotating what we were talking about.”

Slater had her own adjective she used to describe the stories people told: “breathtaking.”

“I thought I was going to hear people complaining. I really thought people were just going to bitch and moan about how hard it was,” she said. “But for the majority of people, it had a kind of given them time to think, and they were very, very philosophic. It was beautiful. Absolutely amazing.”

Slater says the breadth of information they gathered impressed her. For example, what she heard from Jabari Banks, another DEI consultant.

“Jabari is an amazing human. I use his voice in the piece along with those of several other people,” Slater said. “He talks about how he perceived love and how he had to rethink his whole concept of love. It just was not a lens I was using. He speaks in metaphor. And I just kept saying to him, ‘You have to write—you’re a poet.’”

Marcus Shelby composed original music. Photo by Malik Senefru

Along with dance and interviews, In the Presence of Absence explores the social disorientation that happened with COVID and people’s different situations through other mediums, Slater says. Marcus Shelby composed the original music, Slater commissioned people in Youth Speaks to write pieces, and a group she’s been working with, the Cosmic Elders, will perform as well. 

She’s been working with them for about a year on this performance, Slater said. 

“I just knew I wanted a visual chorus in this,” Slater said. “What I realized, in my mind, what this sort of is, it’s like each person has their own hero’s journey that they go through, where you start out not paying any attention and suddenly, you have to pay attention. We have moments in the piece, which in our minds, are the elders teaching the youth something and the youth teaching the elders.”

Slater says she looks forward to seeing what people who worked on the piece came up with since she gave them free reign. 

“Like how were the costumes from the costumer’s point of view going to reflect what was happening on stage? From the videographer’s point of view when she looked at the pieces we were making, what was her response?” Slater said. “My invitation to everybody who worked on this was, I wasn’t going to tell them what to do. I wanted to see what they thought when they went through their own filters of this experience, so this is a profound collaboration on every level.”

IN THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE November 10-12, Dance Mission Theater, SF. Tickets and more info here.

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Emily Wilson
Emily Wilson
Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She has written for different outlets, including Smithsonian.com, The Daily Beast, Hyperallergic, Women’s Media Center, The Observer, Alta Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, California Magazine, UC Santa Cruz Magazine, and SF Weekly. For many years, she taught adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco. She hosts the short biweekly podcast Art Is Awesome.

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