Dance

Nature takes astounding flight in ‘Viva MOMIX!’

Photo by Max Pucciariello

With its 40th birthday fast approaching in 2020, the MOMIX dance company is excited to bring a vibrant “compilation album” of its “greatest hits” to San Jose (Sun/20-Mon/21 at Hammer Theatre Center) and Berkeley (Sat/26-Sun/27 at Zellerbach Hall) this month.

Entitled Viva MOMIX!, the two-act performance includes highlights and segments from eight full-evening works from the prop/mixed-media-oriented modern dance group, including Botanica (about the seasons), Lunar Sea (the moon), and Opus Cactus (the landscape of the American Southwest), set to rock and classical music.

Nature, which permeates many of these works, has been a major interest of MOMIX Founder & Artistic Director Moses Pendleton, since growing up on a Northern Vermont dairy farm in the 1950s. His curiosity about the natural world peaked in the summer of ‘69 after the then Dartmouth college student spent the season in San Francisco putting flowers in his hair, dancing naked for local psych band Quicksilver Messenger Service in Golden Gate Park, and taking part in marathon encounter groups in Big Sur.

Since the multiple award-winning choreographer for ballet companies and special events (most recently, the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics) looks back on his years of shoveling manure and exhibiting his family’s dairy cows at the Caledonian County Fair with great fondness, it made sense to him to name his widely acclaimed Pilobolus Dance Theater, which he co-founded in 1971, after a barnyard fungus and his current dance company, MOMIX, after a milk supplement fed to veal calves.

I spoke to Pendleton—who creates his shows with his wife and MOMIX’s Associate Director Cynthia Quinn at their 22-room Victorian house and converted horse barn studio in rural Washington, Connecticut — about Viva MOMIX!, drawing inspiration from Mother Nature, and how his shows take on an added importance as the debate over global warming continues to heat up.

48 HILLS How would you describe your current show?

MOSES PENDLETON It is a nice cross-section of the aesthetic of MOMIX over almost 40 years, so there are three to four fairly new pieces from the last couple years and some that go back before you were born. So it’s a fast-moving surreal vaudeville attack showing off MOMIX, which is very funny and visual and tells stories.

But each piece is a haiku or a little single on an album, if you think of it as a musical evening. There’s a side A and side B of these relatively short but intense pieces that have an overall musical curve to the evening without really telling a story. It’s not a full-evening work, but it is a full-evening experience of MOMIX.

48 HILLS You’ve described each production as concentrating not only on “the beauty of the human form, but also the beauty of nature…”  Where does your interest in nature come from?

MOSES PENDLETON I’m very influenced by nature. The plant, animal, and mineral and how the human relates to it all has always been an interest of mine. I find a lot of inspiration in growing tens of thousands of marigolds and sunflowers, and the company is based out in the country where we have access to that kind of energy, so the illusion, magic, mystery, and energy of nature from making those contacts will reflect itself in the show.

I’m a Naturmensch, or someone who found my soul in the soil, so I do a lot of exploring with photography and paying attention to very close workings of nature and that’s kind of what the essence of the show is.

Photo by Max Pucciarello

48 HILLS You also grew up on a Vermont farm and named your first dance company, Pilobolus, after an active fungus known for its ability to grow very rapidly.

MOSES PENDLETON Yes, I spent most of my time as a young boy shoveling manure, so I’m very familiar with the pilobolus, and I used to sprinkle MOMIX on it to grow even more energetically, so there’s an agra-organic theme to everything, even back into the Pilobolus days. MOMIX was something you also gave to veal calves as a milk supplement.

Being out and playing in the great outdoors is also how we entertained ourselves. But it’s something that’s always been very important to my well-being, so I’ve been fortunate enough to have a dance company and create where I live and make a living in urban environments.  But we have a studio here that we call “The Barn” for obvious reasons, and we make and work out in the country, so I haven’t changed that much.

48 HILLS How do your natural surroundings influence your productions?

MOSES PENDLETON I grow like Monet, who said that it gave him more inspiration to actually grow the flowers before he painted them. First you grow them and then you show them. We have one example in the show, which is an excerpt on our full-evening work on plants called Botanica. It’s a wonderful quintet with the MOMIX girls, packed in orange tutus made to look like marigolds, dancing. That was totally inspired by the garden that I’m looking at right now, which is 30 thousand bright orange puffball marigolds in 16 rays to shape a giant sun, if you can picture that.

So some of the ideas and visions come from outside of the dance studio. They might come from the marigold garden with its magnificent bioluminescent orange or the back oakwood or an ice storm or a morning sunrise — lots of things that stimulate the eye and the brain. So there’s plenty of information out here for me to stay creative and enthusiastic. I can’t really say why that excites me, but that’s what turns me on.

Photo by Max Pucciariello

48 HILLS Does the emphasis on the wonderment of nature in your shows take on an added importance as the world begins to wake up to the perils of climate change?

MOSES PENDLETON Yes, it’s kind of like a Native American principle where you make dances about the things that you venerate and celebrate—flowers, rock formations, and tree forms, for example.

Not that we literally go out and try to tell people about global warming, but I think in the material, itself, there’s a sense of the awareness of something beyond us that is important in any ecological idea — that if you don’t see the connection, then how are you going to maintain that connection and how are you going to even help global warming?

At Dartmouth, when I was getting my BA in English Literature, I brought my professor out into this sacred glade in Hanover, New Hampshire at six in the morning and did this little piece about bodies moving in and out of trees creating optical illusions. My thesis was an environmental idea that if people could come out and sense the contact with the natural world, then there might be some hope in protecting it. This was my thesis 50 years ago.

VIVA MOMIX!
Sun/20, Mon/21 7:30 pm, $45-$60
Hammer Theatre Center, San Jose.
More info here.

VIVA MOMIX!
Sat/26 8pm, Sun/27 3 pm, $30-$76
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley.
More info here.

Dancing in different senses with ‘(in)Visible’

Dancer Tiffany Taylor. Photo by Robbie Sweeney

For many of us, going to a dance performance means going to a theater, sitting in the dark and watching the bodies move onstage. 

But what if you can’t see? The Jess Curtis/ Gravity company wanted to make dances that visually impaired people could enjoy, and with their newest performance, (in)Visible, Oct 3 through 13 at CounterPulse, they do that by having touch tours before the show and audio descriptions of what’s going happening onstage.

Tiffany Taylor, one of the six visually impaired, blind, and sighted performers in (in)Visible, studied theater in college. She went with a group at Lighthouse for the Blind to a show that choreographer Jess Curtis did a couple years ago.

“It was accessible with audio description and a haptic tour. It was really cool and that’s how I knew I wanted to dance,” she said. “After that, Jess was teaching a contact improvisation class that I took from him. It’s not set choreography and often not done to music. It’s more about how bodies work together to form movement.”

Along with becoming a dancer, Taylor is consulting for Curtis’s invaluable Gravity Access Service: she and Curtis launched a project to help people find performances in the Bay Area that provide different services for visually or hearing impaired people. 

A scene from Jess Curtis/Gravity’s ‘(in)visible.’ Photo by Sven. A. Hagolani

As a consultant, Taylor works to make sure that arts websites and PR material are accessible to people who have visual impairments, testing it out to make sure with screen reading software, people can find what they need. 

“I test the websites to see can I find where to buy tickets?  Do the photos have captions? Can I find information about the show?” she said. “Typically disabled people aren’t made that welcome. We’re trying to get people to think about considering description. Like if a musical is coming, one night you might have audio description. We’re trying to offer subsidized help to reach out to deaf people or blind people.”

For (in)Visible, visually impaired people will have different ways to access the performance, Taylor says. 

“Some of description is built into the show by actors with microphones they speak into and the patrons have sort of like a headset for court reporting where they can hear in their ear what they’re saying about an individual dancer or the whole show,” Taylor said. “With a haptic access tour, people come before the show and tour the space and maybe touch the props or any costumes and meet the performers.”

The performers recently staged the piece in Berlin and now it’s premiering in San Francisco with dancers from both the United States and Germany. The Bay Area has been a place known for forward thinking in disability rights, Taylor says, and she’s excited to bring more diversity and access to performance here. 

“A couple years ago, I first met Jess and he introduced me to this, and now I’m in a piece, so it’s sort of full circle for me,” Taylor said. “I didn’t do this till I saw a show, and now I hope people can challenge how they think.”

(IN)VISIBLE
October 3-13

Counterpulse
Tickets and more information here

Ethnic Dance Fest transcends borders 41 years in

Guru Shradha + Antara Asthaayi Dance + Navia Dance Academy: Akhil Joondeph, Riya Bhatia, and Meera Suresh. Photo by RJ Muna

Patrick Makuakāne, the founder and director of the Hawaiian dance company Nā Lei Hulu i ka Wēkiu, wants to keep traditions of the dance form intact. He also uses modern music to add another dimension to hula. 

For example, one of the signature songs his company performs is “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

“You might think, ‘That doesn’t sound like hula at all,’” he said. “But it’s very similar to Hawaiian and hula songs in that it professes a love for a place. I can’t tell you how many hula songs say the exact same thing, so there’s a natural connection that feels authentic.”

Makuakāne said traditional artists contemporizing their art while keeping its integrity intact fascinate him.

“Hula is always accompanied by poetry and the dance adds power and resonance to the words. If you took away the poetry no one would understand what the hell you’re talking about,” he said. “As a modern day Hawaiian living in San Francisco, sometimes you use different words, but they all stem from a traditional place.”

When he first took a hula class at 10, Makuakāne hated it. 

“I couldn’t run far enough from it,” he said. “In high school, I joined the Hawaiian club because I wanted to play Hawaiian music at my family’s luaus. They said you have to learn hula and if you don’t want to, there’s the door. After two weeks, I was hooked. I felt a connection to my culture, I’d never felt before and to dance your story is very powerful.”

Makuakāne is now a co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (July 6,7,13,14), where artists dance stories from countries including China, India, Japan, Liberia, Mexico, the Philippines, Republic of Congo, Tahiti, Egypt, and Uzbekistan.

San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Artistic Directors Māhealani Uchiyama, Patrick Makuakāne, Latanya d. Tigner. Photo by RJ Muna

Niharika Mohanty is the Artistic Director of Guru Shradha, one of the 28 groups performing at this year’s festival. They will perform with Antara Asthaayi Dance and Navia Dance Academy, each doing a different form of Indian classical dance—odissi, kathak, and bharatanatyam.

Mohanty grew up in Canada and starting studying odissi, the oldest surviving dance form of India. Her parents came from the state, Orissa, where it originated, and she always felt connected to it. As a young woman, she went to India and trained with Kelucharan Mohapatra, who is credited with reviving the dance form. 

 It was demanding, but completely worth it, she says. 

“It was almost like he chiseled dance sculptures out of me,” she said. “You have to develop beautiful and graceful upper body movements. There’s some relation to ballet in that in the lower body there’s a lot of footwork while the upper body is very fluid, and they’re in complete isolation from each other.”

Mohanty first learned of the festival from banners in San Francisco, and she started performing in it in 2008. 

Getting a spot in the festival lineup isn’t easy, Makuakāne says. 

“When I first started in the festival in the ’80s, it was a lovely showcase of traditional arts—sweet, nice, and community-driven,” he said. “Through the years it’s transitioned into a vibrant showcase of technical excellence. You have to audition to get in, and every year people notice the bar is being raised. You get a 10-minute space to audition, and many people work for a year on that 10 minutes. About 100 groups try out for not even 30 spaces. People want to be excellent representatives of their culture, and they step with their best foot forward.”

At the end of the festival the dancers all come together onstage and then go out into the audience. Introducing people to different dance forms is inspiring, Mohanty thinks. She saw that when she took her son when he was three. 

“He was completely absorbed, and his eyes went back and forth across the stage. The Chinese Lion Dance had such an impact on him and he was moved by the drummers and how the lion moved his head, and afterwards, he was moving his hands like he was drumming and moving his head like the lion,” she said.

“The finale is incredible when you see everyone together, and you really feel like the world is a small place. It’s like the peaceful feeling reaches more people because it’s not verbal.” 

SAN FRANCISCO ETHNIC DANCE FESTIVAL
July 6,7, 13, 14

Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Tickets and more information here 

Fresh Meat Festival serves up revolutionary trans-queer dance, 17 years on

Queer bachata: Jahaira Fajardo and Angelica Medina perform at the Fresh Meat Festival

DANCE You will not find another festival out there like this one, or at least one that has embodied the same ongoing dedication to exploring the artistic possibility that is created by the trans body. Fresh Meat Festival (Thu/20-Sat/22 at Z Space) began back in 2002, when dancer and founder Sean Dorsey was compelled to put together a gathering that honored trans artists and the exciting work they were doing in the field.

This year, Dorsey has scheduled three nights of talent. Standouts among the programming include Ah Mer Ah Su’s synthy conjuring of electro pop and deaf dancer Antoine Hunter, who back in 2017 told 48 Hills that, “It’s just not about dance. It’s about expressing yourself, showing your art creatively, history, background, language. We need a platform to present who we are, be heard.”

AXIS Dance Company takes the stage at this year’s Fresh Meat Festival. Photo by Misako Akimoto.

Some of the stars of Fresh Meat 2019 were nice enough to chat with us about what they’ll be serving this year. We checked in with festival founder and dancer Sean Dorsey, Pittsburg vogue troupe kNOw SHADE, and groundbreaking queer bachata competitors Jahaira Fajardo and Angelica Medina.

SEAN DORSEY

Photo by Lydia Daniller

48 HILLS Tell us about your 2019 curation. Were there new focuses or goals in the programming?

SEAN DORSEY We do work to keep things fresh every year, and this year all across the US we found that artists are responding to this moment in America. It’s an intense time. Our curation this year reflects intentional, intersectional thinking about our bodies, our creativity and our collective movements for justice.

48 HILLS What are some of the artistic possibilities and opportunities that are revealed through trans dance?

SEAN DORSEY I love being transgender; I consider it a profound blessing, and I give thanks every day for it! Trans dance is enriched by a deep, layered, complex relationship to embodiment and to consciousness that cis dance artists will never experience and can therefore never make/share. I love that the Fresh Meat Festival gets to offer this to audiences: gorgeous, deep transgender and gender-nonconforming and gender-defying dance artistry. This is what revolution looks like.

kNOw SHADE VOGUE ENSEMBLE

Photo courtesy of Fresh Meat Festival

48 HILLS What is the most rewarding part of being a group that acts as an ambassador for vogue? 

kNOw SHADE We get to educate about ballroom, we get to showcase our talents, and we get to elevate our artform. It’s a win on all sides to lead the charge on this. 

48 HILLS The most challenging?

kNOw SHADE Schedules—in addition to being voguers, our group are working artists and leaders of organizations. We have busy people on this team! 

48 HILLS What do you see in the future for your ensemble?

kNOw SHADE We are going to keep it hot in Pittsburgh! We would also love the opportunity to keep traveling to other cities and show what we serve on the East Coast. 

JAHAIRA FAJARDO & ANGELICA MEDINA

48 HILLS What are you excited about when it comes to queer Latin dance in the US in 2019?

JAHAIRA & ANGELICA We are excited to see more and more queer Latin dancers dance as leaders or followers, regardless of gender, at the competition level. 

48 HILLS You created a new piece for the festival via Fresh Meat’s FRESH WORKS! commissioning program. Tell us about your new piece.

JAHAIRA & ANGELICA In Latin dance competitions, a couple is defined as a man and a woman. While there are same gender divisions, never has there been an openly queer couple doing partner work in a romantic piece. We join Fresh Meat Productions in its mission that sees art is a powerful tool for social justice and cultural transformation. This commission supported us to make a new piece that demonstrates that leading or following has nothing to do with gender. With the support of FRESH WORKS!, we continue to expand the Latin dance community and make it more inclusive for all.  

FRESH MEAT FESTIVAL
Thu/20-Sat/22, 8pm, $15 and up sliding scale
Z Space, SF.
Tickets and more information here.

Dancing to a different Russian in ‘Shostakovich Trilogy’

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky's 'Shostakovich Trilogy.' Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet

ONSTAGE Dmitri Shostakovich’s music isn’t typical for a ballet. That’s because of shifts in the tone and tempo, says Sasha De Sola, a principle dancer in the San Francisco Ballet who will be appearing  Shostakovich Trilogy (May 7-12).

“It’s not like Tchaikovsky, who wrote for the ballet who has full phrases that are easy to dance to,” she said. “There’s a 7 and then a 6 and then a 9 and then a 12, so they’re either cut short or elongated, so you don’t know what to expect. But once you know it, it makes perfect sense.”

Another principle dancer, Mathilde Froustey, who appears with De Sola in two of the three ballets, agrees.

“It’s a bit unusual and not the easiest to dance to,” she said. “It’s hard to count and hard to hear the nuance, but once you get the music and you know which note goes after which other one, it’s like an achievement and you feel proud of yourself.”

Both women agree the choreographer, winner of a Macarthur Foundation “genius grant” Alexei Ratmansky, brought out the beauty of the piece. 

“I find that his work is a real symbiosis, and there’s this quality of dancing with the music, not just the dance being on top of the music,” De Sola said. “Both of them are working together. It’s very hard to achieve that balance.”

Critics and audiences agreed when the trilogy of distinct ballets—Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony, and Piano Concerto #1—premiered here in 2014, co-commissioned by SF Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, where Ratmansky is choreographer in residence.

Sasha De Soula. Photo by Chris Hardy, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

For KQED, Rachel Howard wrote about Ratmansky: “His Shostakovich Trilogy is, simply put, a contemporary masterpiece, an astonishing and quite possibly perfect whole. Ratmansky catches the inner current of the music, with its oscillation between sweet melodies and grotesque parodies, so that, in watching the dancers, we live inside Shostakovich’s emotional dissonance.”

Both Froustey and De Sola appeared in the ballet in 2014, and Froustey, who calls it an honor to work with Ratmansky, remembers some advice he gave her then. 

Symphony #9 was my first dramatic role in my life and I was a bit confused, and I remember Alexei said just listen to the music and do the steps, and your steps and the music put together are going to make the drama.”

Mathilde Froustey. Photo by Chris Hardy, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet

In 1945, Shostakovich was commissioned to write a symphony like Beethoven’s 9th, to celebrate Russia’s victory over the Nazis. Shostakovich started to write that piece, but then abandoned it and instead made Symphony #9, something that was interpreted as satiric and “thumbing his nose at Stalin,” according to the program notes. Both De Sola and Froustey appear in this ballet, and De Sola says she sees the satiric aspect, and that Shostakovich includes a Russian folk dance she believes is supposed to be comical.

Froustey recognizes how Shostakovich is critiquing the fascism under Stalin in this ballet. 

San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s ‘Shostakovich Trilogy.’ Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet

“It’s a ballet in two parts, and the first part is very rigid,” she said. “Then the second part is about trying to have a life despite the rigidity and having to hide to be in love.”

Along with the dancing and working with Ratmansky, Froustey enjoys being in the ballet with De Sola, a good friend. They share a dressing room at the ballet and a room when they’re on the road, she says, and often they dance the same parts and help each other although their dance styles aren’t the same. 

“The SF Ballet has a principle dancer for every taste. We are all so different from one another,” she said. “It’s one of the big strengths of the SF Ballet.”

SHOSTAKOVICH TRILOGY
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
May7-May 12
Tickets and more info here.

‘The Wait Room’ expresses the physical effects of a loved one’s incarceration

Half the cast of 'The Wait Room' pulled upon their own experience with incarcerated loved ones to bring the piece to life. Photo by RJ Muna

When my husband was first sentenced, people would cross the street to avoid me,” remembers choreographer Jo Kreiter, writing to 48 Hills before her aerial dance production The Wait Room, inspired by the experience, debuts Fri/19. The stigma that surrounded Kreiter’s experience is incredible given the fact that one in four United States women has a family member who is incarcerated—a figure that rises to one in two women in the Black community.

The choreographer’s work revolves around physical embodiment of political issues. In this case, the painful experience of her husband’s absence stirred in her the instinct to make art, but throughout her career inspiration has come from many sources. Those familiar with Kreiter’s 2018 work, strung up the facade of the Tenderloin’s gentrification-witnessing Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin, will recognize her and Flyaway Productions’ tactic of employing public space to compel dialogue on issues too immediate to relegate to interior stage.

The Wait Room will be staged for eight free productions in a vacant lot in front of United Nations Plaza, starting Fri/19 by a cast of six women, half of whom have an incarcerated family member themselves. The piece is the first installation in Kreiter’s “Decarceration Trilogy”, a triptych of work whose edges go far beyond her family’s dolorous experience. (Her husband is now out on probation, a shift in situation in the prison industrial complex.)

A white woman, Kreiter linked with the Essie Justice Group when her husband’s family needed community support and found a largely women-of-color network of people fighting to transform the incarceration system and bolster those who have been left to carry on while a loved one serves time. She discussed the particular physical affects of incarceration adjacency with us, and the potency of the Essie Justice Group.

48 HILLS The piece is built around your own experience having a husband who has been incarcerated. Can you talk about some of the physical conditions and situations that inspired specific movements in The Wait Room?

JO KREITER When you visit your loved one in prison, you have to start the day really early in the morning. You arrive tired. If you’ve brought a young child, which I did regularly, you run into the problem of having nothing to do as you wait for hours in line. You can only bring in your car key, your ID and a see-through bag of quarters. You cannot bring any kind of game or book for your child. So my son and I spent a lot of time playing hand games. Double O Seven. Rock Paper Scissors. And Chopsticks. Sometimes you get there and the prison is on lockdown and you are turned away. Sometimes you are turned away because you have an underwire in your bra and that is not allowed. Sometimes you don’t have the right pants on and the corrections officers won’t let you in.

We open the piece with a section called “Visiting.” We interviewed six women from Essie Justice Group for the project, and the opening reflects their experiences, as well as my own. Megan Comfort, who wrote a book called Doing Time Together, describes visiting in the context of ceremonies of degradation. The section is made up of several ceremonies, as we reflect the degradation and dehumanization cast onto families who visit their loved ones. In the piece we play chopsticks as one of our ceremonies. We abstract it in time and space as part of the choreography.

Jo Kreiter: “The process of living under secondary incarceration radicalized me.” Photo by Suzanne Kreiter

The process of living under secondary incarceration—meaning living as a woman with an incarcerated loved one—radicalized me. I didn’t truly understand the imperative of prison abolition until I lived through a six-year prison sentence, as a family member, on the outside. The dehumanization is so real for both families and for those living inside the walls. And the shame is so real. When my husband was first sentenced, people would cross the street to avoid me. Close friends begged me to leave him. My world got very small. My experience with shame is pretty universally felt by women with incarcerated loved ones. In the dance, we created a whole section dedicated to shame and isolation. Dancer Bianca Cabrera plays a women alone on a tilted ledge, with no one but herself as company.

48 HILLS How did you work with the dancers to prepare them for communicating such a complex topic?

JO KREITER Half the cast has a family member who is or has been incarcerated, so they had their own experiences to call upon. Equally, many of the dancers have been with Flyaway [Productions, the “apparatus-based” dance company where Kreiter serves as artistic director] for a long time. So as I lived through secondary incarceration, they lived through it with me, at my side, as artists and collaborators in various projects over the last several years. They watched me struggle. They watched me fight back. They watched me fall down. They helped keep me connected to my own strength. Finally, composer Pamela Z and I created a series of interviews of Essie women whose fathers, partners and/or sons are incarcerated. The dancers listened to the tapes, to learn more about the women whose experience they are embodying.

Physical sensations of having an incarcerated loved one play out in the aerial staging of ‘The Wait Room.’ Photo by RJ Muna

48 HILLS Why did you think it was important to take on proximity to incarceration, rather than incarceration itself?

JO KREITER I love this question. My first answer is data-driven. One in four women, and nearly one in two black women has a family member who is in prison. This is the statistic that Essie Justice Group has verified. It includes trans and gender-diverse women. So proximity is common. And proximity is gendered, as these women are being asked to be in collusion with a system that is simultaneously bringing us down.

There is a lot to say about women’s experiences behind bars. There are some amazing activists—those who are formerly incarcerated in particular—who are raising public awareness about crucial issues. But my own experience is as a women with an incarcerated partner, as he was herded into prisons around the country. The Wait Room focuses on proximity because mass incarceration is a violent system that damages so many more people than the ones who are locked behind the walls.

48 HILLS How did you get involved in the Essie Justice Group? What compelled you to partner with them?

JO KREITER I first learned about Essie when my husband was sentenced. I went rooting around on the internet for support and Essie came up in my search. I was not able to participate with Essie, though, until my partner came home on probation. I wanted to take the training but was deep in survival mode as a single mom negotiating the trauma of my partner’s incarceration. I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to spend one night each week for nine weeks away from work or my son. I regret not pushing myself to connect with Essie sooner. They are a powerhouse group of women who laugh and cry and fight back.

I am honored to be a member of Essie, and also thrilled to engage them in a partnership. I’ve spent a lot of the last 25 years building coalitions with women marginalized by gender, race, class, and workplace inequities. Essie has connected me to a sisterhood of mostly POC women who’ve been mounting extremely effective political actions to end mass incarceration since 2014. They are a group of women who share my prison experience, who can expand on the connections between racism and the Prison Industrial Complex, and who can help me along as an artist, to illuminate the daily steps of secondary incarceration and communicate our triumphs as well.

THE WAIT ROOM
Fri/19-April 27, 8pm (2pm Saturday matinees), free
1125 Market, SF. 
More info here.

Dimensions Dance comes ‘Armed with Joy’ and ‘Sanctuary’

From left, Dorcas Mba, Marianna Hester, Phylicia Stroud and Erik Lee for DDT's 'We Have Ourselves.' Photo by Ed Miller

DANCE Choreographer Erik Lee has always seen dance as a form of worship. Now he thinks that idea has growing acceptance, and he’s glad to be able to combine two things he loves in working with the Dimensions Dance Theater.

Lee’s new piece, Armed with Joy, premieres at Dimensions’ spring show, We Have Ourselves, at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Sat/6 and 7. Lee sees joy as a kind of weapon and a way of combating terrible things in the world.

“I was thinking about all the police brutality and anger and violence and how we’re constantly asking ourselves what is our response as a community, and how we come with different ideologies of what to do and how to do it,” Lee said. “What’s the universal thing we all share in? It’s joy—in spite of death and ill wishes and hindrances, joy enables us in being able to live and not just survive. We all share the right to live a joyful life in spite of what’s going on.”

We Have Ourselves features another premiere: Sanctuary by Latanya d. Tigner, co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and a member of Dimensions since 1986. Tigner’s newest piece examines ideas of safety, both privately and as a community. The piece brings in examples from apartheid-era South Africa (with music by the late South African musician Hugh Masekela) and the United States. Specifically Tigner’s looking at Oakland and how people may not still feel safe in places that they used to be comfortable in.

Justin Sharlman, left, and Erik Lee for DDT’s ‘We Have Ourselves.’ Photo by Ed Miller

“It’s been all over the news that African American neighborhoods are being gentrified at a huge rate, and neighbors that you’ve grown up with leave and get pushed out, and then you have people moving in and calling the police for things that are normally done,” she said. “It’s not just in Oakland. It’s happening all over.”

Most of Dimensions’ company members lived in Oakland not that long ago, Tigard said. Now about half of them have left due to rising housing costs. Tigard is worried about what will happen to the Malonga Center, Dimensions’ long time home, now that two high-rise buildings are going up right next to it.

“It’s an art center that’s been there for decades and there’s drumming that happens there till 10 pm some nights,” she said. “When those people move in, there’s a potential spike in noise ordinance complaints, and we who have been in that building for years will not be safe.”

Tigard choreographed a piece to Masekela’s “Stimela,” which tells the stories of gold miners leaving their families and traveling long distances to work in oppressive conditions. Since the workers weren’t allowed to talk, they developed a nonverbal way of communicating, which evolved into gumboot dancing.

For the pieces set in the United States, Tigner started by looking at African American social dances from house parties and family reunions. Three other choreographers in the company contributed to the pieces, she said, using traditions from Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago. Tigner found all the dances have a common structure even though they come from different places.

Working on Sanctuary has been an interesting storytelling and choreographic challenge, Tigner says, and she’s grateful that Dimensions gives her and others an opportunity to explore work from Africa and the African diaspora to address both current and historical issues.

Lee also loves being part of the company, which he joined eight years ago. He says he’s so shy that he never danced in front of people till he was in high school, then at the University of California, Berkeley, dance was a “fire in his bones” he says. Lee credits Dimensions dancer Laura Elaine Ellis for introducing him to Deborah Vaughn, the artistic director of the company.

Lee says he’s been doing solo work for a while, and he’s excited to present Armed With Joy, which he sees as a hopeful piece.

“There are moments where the dancers get to touch each other or embrace each other or are praying for each other,” he said. “We’re just taking a moment to dance and to have fun.”

DIMENSIONS DANCE THEATER: WE HAVE OURSELVES
Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Oakland
Sat/6 at 8PM, Sun/7 at 4PM
Tickets and more info here

David Herrera Performance Company explores the power of empathy—and loss

From David Herrera Performance Company's 'Resurrection of Everyday People.' Photo by Emma Massey

DANCE The mission of David Herrera’s acclaimed dance-performance company is “to promote the diversity of the Latinx experience in the United States, in an effort to diversify the look and content of modern dance,” the choreographer told me in an email.

That’s a necessary yet huge undertaking, and Herrera, whose company is now 12 years old, confirms that he thinks big: “Normally we create dance works that speak to issues affecting the country at large. Our last home season took on race and skin color biases that many still hold onto—and that seem to be on the rise after the 2016 election. In 2015, we premiered TOUCH which shed light on the practice of child separation many immigrant families endure at the hands of US customs, border patrol, and government. This was before it became front page news in 2017 and 2018.”

In 2017, Herrera’s intentions were just as encompassing when he started planning his 10th season. But the death of his father intervened, and changed, his direction. The company went on hiatus while he grieved and reoriented his thinking. Now, his new work Resurrection of Everyday People is debuting at Z Space (Previews April 5-6, premiering April 11-13), and it’s taken a far more personal turn—it’s become “an audience-immersive healing exploration of loss and empathy.” No less expansive, but nonetheless different, intimate, and fascinating.

I spoke with Herrera about the new work, and how he has moved from being a choreographer to a collaborator.

From David Herrera Performance Company’s ‘Resurrection of Everyday People.’ Photo by Emma Massey

48 Hills Resurrection of Everyday People was originally meant to be a commentary on national political events, but then, with the passing of your father, it became more intimate. What was your journey toward transforming the work through grief?

DAVID HERRERA With Resurrection of Everyday People I was originally interested in taking on bigger social issues: the cultural and political struggles affecting the country, and the social, geographical, political, personal loss and survival tactics marginalized communities are experiencing after the current administration took hold in 2016.  

Before returning to the studio in 2017, my father passed away in his sleep unexpectedly. And because I needed time to process, heal, and re-evaluate, the company went on hiatus for that year. Additionally, the concept I had in mind suddenly shifted as loss had come to me in a very direct and immediate fashion.

For a year, I thought about how loss affects everyone in one way or another. I thought about how personal loss feels for each person. I wondered why it was so hard for people to consider how loss, no matter what type, can truly cause damage or hurt to an individual. This lack of consideration for another person’s hurt led me to think about empathy and how we don’t use empathy enough to help connect other people’s plights and needs to be understood. I began to wonder if empathy held the key to help heal individuals while simultaneously repairing the many broken relationships across our social-political fights. 

Returning to the studio in 2018, I told the cast about how my ideas had shifted and that I wanted to make loss and empathy the center point for the new work. We began to discuss our own losses, resiliency, and the times empathy from others helped us heal and persevere. We also spoke about the times our gained empathy helped us reach out to a person in need. It was at this point that I recognized that to really capture that feeling, I couldn’t just “choreograph” my own experience upon the cast; I had to let them speak for themselves and create movement that was real to them and without filter. 

I had to let the personal and intimate be the driving force for their movement. I stopped being the sole choreographer and stepped aside while remaining an active participant when needed. Each dancer dug into their own history and pulled out true life-changing situations that they had lived through. The choreography became raw and emotional and it is all true to each dancer. To honor the privacy of the dancers, it is not my place to disclose their shared personal experience but you can witness some of it during the show.  

The process has also been cathartic for many of us. Many of the experiences the cast chose to explore were things they had not spoken about since it took place. We all had moments of sharing, breakdown, and reflection. We recognized that we are much stronger people not only because we overcame these obstacles but also because we learned that empathy has the power to heal us and create relationships with people from different walks of life.

From David Herrera Performance Company’s ‘Resurrection of Everyday People.’ Photo by Emma Massey

48H The work is intended to be an audience-immersive healing exploration of loss and empathy—can you talk about that a little? In what ways can dance fulfill this mission, and in particular this piece? What can we expect to see as the audience, and what should we be open to?

DH: The piece is an exploration of healing, loss, and empathy in that it does not provide any ANSWERS per se, but rather speaks to universality of these emotions and experiences. It is providing a safe space in which guests are invited to reflect and connect to strangers. The cast is having a direct conversation with the audience, treating them more as engaged confidants instead of strangers watching them on display. To further the ideas of immediacy, we made the piece immersive. 

We always intended to make the work immersive in some fashion but as the piece transformed from the larger concepts to the more personal, we knew we wanted the audience to inhabit the same space as the dancers to create immediate intimacy. In this case, cast and audience will be co-inhabiting the Z Space stage.  

In sharing the space and eliminating the audience/performer dichotomy, viewers will be able to recognize the human aspects of the cast; in short, the “dancers” are seen as the real people they are. Vice versa, the cast will be able to look the audience at eye level, unable to hide from them, and be made to converse with them, sharing with them their narrative of hurt, survival, and empathy. The audience is encouraged to walk about the space, follow the dancers from one side of space to the other, they should be open to dancers’ proximity to them, we invite them to take in the moment with other audience members, and consider their own relationship to empathy.

Dance helps emphasize this mission because body movement, like emotions, is a universal experience that most people have. To have a body is to be human, and to be human is to feel emotion. We are not “presenting a dance”; we are wanting to live out an honest experience with attendees. It is my hope that the presentational format of this piece pushes the ideas of “watching a performance” to a place of shared experience.  

From David Herrera Performance Company’s ‘Resurrection of Everyday People.’ Photo by Emma Massey

48H How has your company changed over the last 10 seasons? And how has your own technique or choreographic vision changed? 

DH In the 12+ years since fist becoming an organization, David Herrera Performance Company has changed in so many ways. Our identity and mission become unapologetically clearer with each passing year. I feel like we have carved a small space into the dance landscape in San Francisco, and yet know that we still have a lot more fight for cultural equity that we need to do for ourselves and for upcoming artists, particularly artists of color.

Though we are over a decade old, we are still fighting for position, visibility, and funding as a cultural equity focused organization. Besides presenting our own work, DHPCo. has also become a producer for other companies. We have become known for having guest companies and organizations in our home seasons and our tours. To date we have given performance opportunities to over a dozen companies during our home seasons and tours. 

 I joke that I will soon have to find another name for the company as we move away from the archaic single person perspective model found in many of the older companies in which the choreographer or director shapes all the movement, concepts, and identity of company and its works. 

Instead, I am more interested in embracing a true collaborative approach in which power is decentralized from the director/choreographer, and shared with the cast and design team. I now recognize that it is central to have each individual company member voice be heard/seen within any give dance work as we don’t all come to a concept from the same positionality, but rather have a unique lens(es) that can make choreography more nuanced, rich, and contextualized. In this model, dancers have agency and ownership of their contributions. I don’t want to speak for a group, but I do want the group and I to speak up together. 

 In this same tone, DHPCo. is also moving away from the “fourth wall” between audience and dancer; hence the immersive aspect of this premiere. I have been looking at ways in which we can make an audience an active contributing participant for each new dance piece. No longer having them be separate but rather making them a living part of the concept and presentation.  

RESURRECTION OF EVERYDAY PEOPLE
Previews April 5-6, premiering April 11-13
Z Space, SF. 
More info here

Reviews: Gender under the microscope in ‘Queent’ and ‘Boys in Trouble’

Fauxnique and VivvyAnne ForeverMore in 'Queent.' Photo by Robbie Sweeney

DANCE What happens when drag gestures are codified as dance? What happens if drag struggles are brought to the dance arena? And how can drag be used to probe both dance and gender? Fauxnique (aka Monique Jenkinson) and VivvyAnne Forevermore (Mica Sigourney) are two of our most insightful artists who have been asking these questions for several years in their performances together. (Separately, Jenkinson tackles feminist issues and Sigourney geopolitical ones, both wonderfully).

Their latest, Queent—which opened the 2019 CounterPulse Festival, themed “To Be Free,” on March 15— was abstract and mesmerizing: Sigourney, especially, has a way of making drag seem challenging again, by amputating its familiar punchlines, playing it straight-faced, as it were, and warping it into something weird. Jenkinson compounds this with serious acting chops and a sparkling stage presence. You aren’t getting any easy laughs or clever “reveals” here—this drag is eery and open-ended.

“There’s a common drag queen rule—don’t tell anyone what song you’re going to perform,” the artists note in the program, as a way of deflecting questions about their intentions. Meaning seemed subsidiary to short-circuited glamour as, in the opening, both queens walked like very slow Egyptians through the crowd to an endlessly looping “Love Boat”-like theme.

Later, Fauxnique managed to imbue an onstage electric fan—necessary equipment for any drag show—with a quality of random, existential struggle. (I thought of Beckett as confetti flew aimlessly). And both donned hip-thickening body suits for a mirror/runway exercise that brought up their differences, and similarities, in gender, and heightened the cartoonish aspect of femininity that drag plays with. (The title “Queent” is a naughty portmanteau in this regard.)

Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Jenkinson the professional dancer/choreographer and Sigourney the career drag queen provided a fascinating hour of movement some might recognize, but couldn’t quite be nailed down with a “Yasss, Queen!” (A very short bit of lackadaisical lip-syncing to over-played pop songs is all you’re going to get from traditional drag.) At the end, a hypnotic stretch where the two tumble into each other in slow-motion, grappling their way to the floor and out of their clothes, provided a poetic outro. Both performers are so good at this by now that you wonder where they’ll take it next.

Ideas carried forward in Sean Dorsey Dance’s “Boys in Trouble,” a returning work that served as Dorsey’s 15th home season, March 14-16 at Z Space. The work evolved from a series of community meetings and workshops Dorsey held throughout the country, dealing with the topic of masculinity, mostly in its toxic form. Dorsey, famous as SF’s first transgender choreographer, and his first-rate company turned this subject and its consequences into an exhilarating night of dance, dialogue, puffing of chests, and limping of wrists. There was so much rich material that the energy never flagged.

The focus of “Boys in Trouble” is Dorsey’s own autobiography, which complicates any easy notion of the gender binary, especially when it comes to expectations of how trans people should act and present themselves. “Gender is over!” is one of Dorsey’s exhortations, and it was liberating to hear him speak about loving Barbies and pink leotards when he was young (as opposed to more familiar trans histories) and not wanting to fit into any masculine mould later in life as a trans man. A breathtaking moment during a monologue where he simply confirms the fact that we can do whatever we want with our bodies seemed revolutionary, mostly by dint of Dorsey’s expert timing and stagecraft.

Throughout the evening, dances were accented by recorded voices and pretty music (much of it by Anomie Bell and Alex Kelly) and punctuated with comic bits and broadly played pantomime. These interludes managed to bring freshness to perhaps overly familiar material—white fragility, the patriarchal clubhouse, how men act around each other—by deploying up-to-the-minute takes and terminology on the subjects. (Has Dorsey been reading my Twitter feed?) But it was the dances that really opened the material up: Dorsey’s choreography is clean and undulating, so easy to watch and full of momentum that I always want more of it.

A lovely opening that likened the distressing emotional tenor of the times for queer people to flocking birds did, yes, bring us bird-like formations, but the real story underlying the piece was breath: How are we holding our breath in these dark moments? The dancers breathed conspicuously and, sometimes, in concert. It was a blessing and release. Later, a dance about a queer-bashing included a pointed section where the attacked caresses their attackers—forgiveness? attraction? a form of letting go?—and the costumes blended into one another. (Tiffany Amundson designed the costumes; Clyde Sheets did the lights, including some clever periods of darkness.)

Other standouts were a pas de deux by Arvéjon Jones and Will Woodward that turned on the deep complexity and beauty of the love Black men can have for each other, an elegant solo in toe shoes by Nol Simonse, and the wonderful stage presence of Brian Fisher, whose little wave atop a pyramid of dancers at the very end made my heart leap. Why? It all comes down to Dorsey’s choreography, which can whip a perfectly whimsical gesture from the churn of contemporary concerns. “Go on with yourself.”

Sean Dorsey Dance continues to shatter boundaries, 15 years on

Sean Dorsey Dance in 'Boys in Trouble.' Photo by Kegan Marling

DANCE “I’m still pinching myself at this 15th anniversary milestone!” says Sean Dorsey, whose groundbreaking dance company celebrates a decade and a half this week, launching its 15th anniversary season with “Boys in Trouble” (March 14-16 at Z Space).

Dorsey and company have been performing and developing “Boys in Trouble,” which tackles the effects of toxic masculinity, for some time—hosting community forums, teaching free movement workshops for and recording interviews with transgender, gender-non-conforming, cisgender, gay, bi, and queer people on the masculine spectrum. It’s all of a piece with Dorsey’s method, which combines community outreach, personal dialogue, and visceral choreography to form a deep bond with audiences.

Dorsey himself is a pioneer of dance, bringing transgender issues and bodies alongside others to the stage in humane, poignant, visually stunning, and often funny ways. His company’s a local gem that spends a lot of time touring and researching (sometimes to unusual and heartening places, where I imagine his dances inspire younger generations hungry for this type of art), but bases itself in a changing San Francisco.

I spoke with Dorsey over email about his company’s breakthroughs, the SF arts scene, and exciting things in store for the future.

48 HILLS First off, congratulations on your 15th season—that’s so huge! What are a couple highlights from the past 15 years that spring to your mind? 

 SEAN DORSEY A few highlights that really stand out for me are:

— The life-changing experience of traveling the US between 2013 and 2015 to record 75 hours of oral history interviews with trans and LGBTQ longtime survivors of the early AIDS epidemic, to create my show “THE MISSING GENERATION.” 

— I very fondly remember my first Home Season at ODC Theater in 2005 (“The Outsider Chronicles”). It was a breakthrough for a lot of reasons: I was the first-ever transgender dance artist to present a season at ODC Theater, and it was my first full evening of work. At the time, no one was really presenting trans performance, so it felt scary and important. Even today, you hardly see trans artists presented there; I am very proud of what I have accomplished, despite enormous obstacles.

— My first tour! Right before our first SF Home Season, Sean Dorsey Dance was presented in Salt Lake City(!) and the local LGBTQ community there was incredibly loving and welcoming to us. Since then, I’ve toured my work to 30 cities across the US and abroad (most recently Stockholm Sweden).

— One of the most powerful things I experience again and again are the transgender and gender-nonconforming (gnc) people who come up to me after a performance, and who lovingly spill tears as they share their experience of seeing themselves finally reflected onstage. After a lifetime of never seeing MYSELF anywhere in modern dance, this one always gets me and affirms what I’m doing, despite the challenges I face every day.

Sean Dorsey. Photo by Lydia Daniller

48H So much has changed in terms of trans and queer visibility and rights in the past 15 years. When you started the company, sodomy was just being outlawed in the US. And there have been some terrible steps backward as well. What are your thoughts on how valuable the arts, and specifically your contribution, are in the struggle for equality?  

SEAN DORSEY I am proud of the barriers I have helped shatter—and the new space and support I have created for transgender artists and communities. I know how life-saving the arts are: We ALL have a deep need to see ourselves and our stories reflected in the culture around us.

I am proud that I’ve been fighting for trans equity and justice in the performing arts for all these years—and that I’ve commissioned/presented/paid/supported more than 500 trans/gnc/queer artists through my arts nonprofit Fresh Meat Productions.

I am also proud that Sean Dorsey Dance has left a swath of all-gender restrooms in theaters we’ve toured to across the US. Cisgender people often don’t realize that gendered restrooms keep us gender-nonconforming people out of public spaces and theaters.

So it’s a game-changer for my community to have all-gender restrooms, which Sean Dorsey Dance has inspired now in cities large and small—from New York’s Joyce Theater to Whitewater Wisconsin’s Young Auditorium Theater to Pittsburgh’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

48 You tour the world, but your home is still in SF. What is your view of the arts scene here now compared to when you started?  

When I started presenting my work here 15 years ago, almost no one would present, fund, or support transgender and gnc performing artists. My own experience of this inspired me to choreograph work that lifted up trans/gnc/queer bodies and stories; it also inspired me to found Fresh Meat Productions in order to build community, funding and support for trans/gnc arts.

Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions have been an important part of transforming the Bay Area cultural landscape. Today, there are so many brilliant, innovative, and active trans and gnc artists across the Bay Area—who have in turn founded dynamic new projects and organizations.

Sean Dorsey Dance in ‘Boys in Trouble.’ Photo by Lydia Daniller

48H What would you love to accomplish in the next 15 years? 

In the next 15 years, I want to continue creating dances that all kinds of audiences resonate with and find beautiful, powerful and transformative. I want to continue teaching in communities across the US, and to keep touring my work widely.

My next project is called “The Lost Art of Dreaming” and will explore expansive futures for trans/gnc/queer people. At a time in America when our communities are under attack, I want to give my communities love and space to dream and imagine.

For the next couple of years, throughout the Bay Area and across the US, I’ll host DREAM LABS—creative spaces where we’ll support trans/gnc/queer people to dance, move, write, sing, craft, and/or creatively express what it is they most want and dream of. We’ll premiere a sneak peek of the new work in April 2020 at Z Space.

I hope that in the next 15 years I will look across the arts landscape and see many, many more transgender and gnc people—especially people of color and/including disabled folks—in cultural leadership, supported in their artistry, and in decision-making positions. These are the trailblazers and visionaries who will light our continued path toward justice.

SEAN DORSEY DANCE 15TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON: ‘BOYS IN TROUBLE’
Thu/14-Sat/16
ZSPACE, SF.
More info here