“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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.
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 HILLSHow 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.
48 HILLSWhy 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 HILLSHow 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.
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.
“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
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 Peopleis 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.
48 HillsResurrection 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.
48HThe 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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
48HSo 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.
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.
“A courageous/ambitious idea,” is how co-founder Laura Ellis characterizes the birth of her and fellow choreographer Kendra Barnes’ enduring yearly event, the Black Choreographers Festival. The 15th anniversary of the festival starts on Thu/14 and will take place over four consecutive weekends at three venues on both sides of the bay, inviting audiences to take in a vast breadth dance talent on both San Francisco and Oakland stages.
Twenty-one choreographers will present their works at BCF this year. In some instances, artists will show work in venues that have partnered with BCF’s mentorship program to provide free rehearsal space and other resources. A presentation at SF’s SAFEhouse Arts on March 2-3 will feature two mentorship program participants; Frankie Lee Peterson III, an Oakland resident since 2014 who was commemorated by KQED’s “If This City Could Dance” series, and Natalya Shoaf, who recently choreographed local funk band Con Brio’s “Body Language” music video.
Barnes is working double duty this year, serving as festival organizer in all the capacities that requires and also choreographing a piece herself. It is a three-woman performance entitled “ReD zONE”, to be presented at Laney College’s March 9-10 BCF showing, and will explore issues of sexual violence — but not as an event in itself. Rather, its movement explores “the reside and residual effects of assault and how one creates a ritual towards healing,” explains Barnes to 48 Hills. Audiences will traverse the path between common reactions like (in Barnes’ words) “This is not OK! I did not ask for this!” to finding one’s voice after trauma, aided by a score by Oakland singer-songwriter Jennifer Johns.
Their bold notion struck BCF’s founder duo in 2002, when Barnes’ K*STAR*PRODUCTIONS held a symposium that focused on the resources and challenges faced by Black choreographers. She and Ellis connected over first-hand experience with dance festivals with a dearth of opportunities for Black programming, and began to brainstorm a strategy to boost choreographers like themselves and their peers.
Barnes and Ellis were inspired by those who had taken on the issue of Black representation in the arts — not just performance opportunities, but quality funding. It was Ellis who first invoked the memory of Black Choreographers Moving Towards the 21st Century, a Bay Area group founded by Dr. Halifu Osumare that had presented dance productions in the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s.
Previous success of such ideas empowered the two women, who thought they could provide a central point, a high profile showing of talent that would involve a focus on longevity and monetary resources. They started BCF with that sense of historical continuity — coupled with the key blessing and continuing support of Dr. Osumare.
They were not wrong that BCF was an opportunity to which the community would be willing to contribute to make happen. A decade and a half into its trajectory, the festival runs on grants and generous resources from a community that believes in the lasting impact of the program. “When we call upon artists, they don’t hesitate to respond,” says Barnes, who also salutes the volunteers who put their time into making the showcases run smoothly.
That willingness to contribute may stem from a sense that the support goes both ways. BCF’s artist mentorship program links emerging to mid-career choreographers with resources from established artist support, performance sponsorships, and free rehearsal space. This year two institutions are partnering with BCF on the incubator — in addition to SAFEhouse, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center is working with multiple year BCF artists Shawn Hawkins and Josslyn Mathis-Reed.
It seems clear that BCF founders’ have felt lifted by their event’s road to its 15th anniversary. “It is amazing to witness the growth of choreographers — creating their own companies, artists going from mentee to mentor, as well as traveling and truly making a ‘name’ for themselves and creating solid careers in dance,” says Barnes.
BLACK CHOREOGRAPHERS FESTIVAL: HERE AND NOW Opening weekend: Thu/16-Fri/17, 7:30pm, $15-25 Dance Mission Theater, SF More info here.
The ballet of Don Quixote, the San Francisco Ballet season opener, doesn’t tell the whole tale of the man who read too many novels, decided he was a knight, and went off to chivalrously tilt at windmills, his faithful Sancho Panza by his side. That would be an awfully long evening.
Instead, the ballet composed by Ludwig Minkus, with Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov updating Marius Petipa’s choreography, focuses on one story. It is that of Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter and her love, the barber Basilio. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza play supporting roles, and it becomes a sort of romantic comedy, ending with a wedding.
Angelo Greco, who plays the role of Basilio, loves classical ballets. This is one of his favorites, for the story and the physicality.
“It has really beautiful music, kind of sparkling, and a lot of technique,” he said. “It’s a pretty fun story. I’m dancing with Mathilde Froustey, and we’re starting to have more feeling and being like two bodies in one. You can understand each other just by looking at each other.”
Greco, who was named one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch last year, appreciates the joyful, energetic nature of Don Quixote.
“I see myself a lot in the first act — I want to have fun, I want to enjoy my life. I have that kind of energy, and I need to do something all the time,” he said. “I really find myself in this ballet technically. I’m the kind of dancer who likes to do jumps.”
Don Quixote is known for its physicality and jumps — the most famous being the “Kitri jump,” where the dancer jumps into the air, and her back leg comes up, almost hitting her head.
“In the third act, there’s a wedding and a big party,” Greco said. “You need to really work hard and breathe and concentrate and get everything at once. That’s why I love this ballet.”
Greco loves the rigor of ballet and training every day
“You cannot be rigid. You need to know how to use your body, and how to breathe,” he said. “It helps me to discover myself. You need to concentrate, and you cannot be in another part of the world — you have to be there.”
Greco, 23, is from Sardinia. He started dancing at 13, which is considered late in ballet. He worked with a teacher he loved and who he felt understood him and his dancing, so he said no to many scholarships he was offered. When his teacher told him he needed to move on he went to La Scala Ballet Academy in Milan. There, he had class in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon. In 2016, he came to dance with the San Francisco Ballet. He wasn’t so sure about it at first.
“I was scared, and I couldn’t speak English,” he said. “The second month I decided I have to go [home]. I had a conversation with my family, and they said you made a choice, you have to keep going, step by step,” Greco said. “I started to enjoy it more after that conversation. It’s a beautiful city and a beautiful company with a lot of talent.”
DANCE Choreographer Jess Curtis grew up in Chico and studied dance and English at Cal State there. Then he came to San Francisco, which changed his perspective.
“I grew up a nice middle-class white kid,” he said, “I thought, ‘Oh, wait, there are so many things in my life that have been excluding so many people in different ways.'”
Curtis, now the artistic director of Jess Curtis/Gravity, wanted the company he founded in 2000 to be inclusive as well as innovative. In the show Beyond Gravity at CounterPulse this week, there will be sign language interpretation, touch tours of the space so visually impaired patrons can feel what is there, and audio description, where someone explains via a headset what is happening on the stage. (An example: “She is stepping forward with one hand on her hip and the other holding a coffee cup.”)
Curtis is inclusive of styles as well. In the ’80s, he was in iconic companies, such as the group Contraband and the radical performance collective CORE with Keith Hennessy, a dancer and choreographer known as a pioneer in queer and AIDS- themed performance. He and Hennessy didn’t want to be limited to dance, Curtis says.
“We thought, ‘We can talk onstage even if we’re dancers,'” he said. “We can play music and sing and dance and do whatever we want…
“Then at 37, I ran away to join the circus.”
The circus he joined was the experimental Compagnie Cahin-Caha, in France. While in Europe, Curtis got asked to do aerial training for people with disabilities, and he enjoyed working with physically diverse casts. Curtis says he saw how disability arts were much more common and better funded in Europe, and he hopes to bring that sensibility here.
Curtis, splits his time between San Francisco and Berlin, and both his company and his choreography have won numerous awards, including six Isadora Duncan Dance Awards and a ‘Fringe First’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Curtis works with partners, such as the Lighthouse for the Blind. Asked about visually impaired people’s response to the audio description, Curtis pauses for a minute.
“There’s a range of reactions because it’s some people’s first experience of contemporary dance, and some people are like, ‘Whoa, that was weird,” he said. “Then one woman, Tiffany Taylor, loved it and came to my next workshop, and she’s been working and consulting with us.”
Sometimes Curtis says he gets the impression that while people appreciate the audio, they don’t know what to make of the performances.
“We joke that blind people and people with visual impairments have the right to experience theater they don’t like, like anyone else,” he said.
Beyond Gravity—whose tagline is, “Witness legends from a future queer revolution and experience new ways of being with each other at a family reunion for a post-human universe”—features three world premieres:aleph is for annals, with live performers and a projected one about a queer militant uprising; From the room beside me, about intimacy, visibility, and closeness; and Lindenau (rifle club) party for the other siblings, about a party for the forgotten in an empty dance hall.
All the artists involved are part of the company’s Artist Services program, which assists mid-career artists, giving them a platform and some fiscal support. Curtis says the company also supports artists to get their work to Europe and to bring international artists here.
“We’re trying to help them utilize our administrative and production resources,” he said about the choreographers and performers. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey world, we can do a little bit better at trying to communicate with each other.'”
PRIDE “One of the reasons vogue is coming into vogue again,” legendary practitioner of the venerated black, queer dance form Luis Extravaganza tells me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “is that it’s such a powerful form of self-expression. You have classic dances like the Twist or the Mashed Potato, but vogue is different because there’s such an essential improvisational element. It opens up and allows people the freedom to express themselves. And it keeps morphing into new ideas, it’s changed, but at the core it’s still vogue.”
Luis should know. Along with his fellow House of Xtravaganza brother Jose (currently starring in vogue-based sensation “Pose” on FX), he helped bring vogueing to out of its subcultural recesses of rented hotel ballrooms and underground clubs and into national consciousness. Yes, they introduced Madonna to the dance style, and then rocketed to fame a she rose to number 1 on the pop charts with her eponymous ode to the dance. (Not everyone was happy about a straight white lady hopping aboard the “giving face” train, but it’s undeniable that her MTV performance of the song, with the brothers Xtravaganza at center stage, is one the great queer media moments of the twentieth century.)
The duo even produced their own vogue dance floor classic, “The Queen’s English.” (Jose told me, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “DJs still play that sometimes when they see me in the club if they want to have a little kiki.”)
Madonna’s ‘Vogue” and, even better Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning were the touchstones of vogue’s ascent in the early ’90s—and the dance has remained a vital, evolving underground staple since. Now there’s a resurgence of pop culture interest in the dance with “Pose,” and practically everybody under DJ, musician, and dancer the sun seeming to cite vogueing and the music that accompanies it as a major influence. (Jose and Luis even starred in a recent documentary about being Madonna’s backup dancers, called Strike a Pose.)
The artform’s impact is being officially recognized at our very own SF Pride parade, Sun/24: Jose and Luis have been named Celebrity Grand Marshals—so expect a lot of arms, shoulders, and face, face, face as their car rolls down the parade route.
I asked Jose, who was just coming off the set at a “Pose” location shoot in NYC, what it’s like to be a big part of the vogue revival. “It’s full circle, I’m reliving my own history in a way, re-experiencing something that’s so symbolic in my life,” he said. “It was a little world created by the gays, mostly here in New York City, so now be able to bring it to a major platform for everyone to see what it is, to see where it comes from and the history, the struggle back then, the lives of the people on the scene. It’s like art imitating life.
“It was a fantasy world that we created, and that those before me created. I am very passionate about it because it was our own,” Jose said. “Now, with social media, it’s blown up to a whole other level. I teach it in Japan, Russia, all around the world. Some people see a video and think they can just do it. But it’s like ‘Oh no, honey, it’s deeper than that. It’s not just the movements, you need to feel it. You need to know the story. You need to do the research.'”
Luis, who teaches a hip-hop-jazz-vogue fusion class in LA (“we get our hearts pumping and we act a little fierce”) also sees vogue as a political outlet. “It’s a show of strength and artistry that also presents freedom and identity.
“Things are so strange right now, because it feels like we’re going back to the ’50s, everything is going backwards,” Luis said. “It feel like we have to stand up and say, ‘we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,’ all over again. Really? I mean, it’s just a goddamn wedding cake. I can’t believe we have to go through this all over again.”
What is Jose and Luis’ message for Pride? “We’ve always had to fight for our rights to love each other, to fight to not be discriminated against,” Jose said. “I want to tell this new generation that now that we have all these privileges and honors and we can get married and you can see us on television…. I want us to not forget that people fought for these rights, people died for these rights. And as we go through more of these these dark times, I want young people to know that the torch is being passed down to them for a reason. And they must continue.”
Luis added, “As Jose always says, just be yourself. Just be.”