Embodied Unity | Guest Post By Amber A. Hopkins

In dance, the body is often expected to be a conceptual vessel. The dancer may be celebrated for unique strengths, but seldom asked to project personal narrative on stage. When the entire body is regularly your vehicle for communication, which is the case for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, physical articulation is intimately tied to personal expression. As an audience member pointed out last week at ODC Theater Unplugged, dancers only occasionally speak in performance, but Antoine Hunter and his Deaf collaborators were “chatterboxes.” They spoke masterfully through movement and highlighted the unifying power of visual language. Hunter approaches his work with the intention of creating mutual understanding across community and cultural lines. He strives to create entry points for audience members of all abilities. In preparation for his performance, he sat down with students of ODC Next Moves’ dance thinking track  for this interview.

Antoine Hunter Photo by RJ Muna

Antoine Hunter
Photo by RJ Muna

Amber A. Hopkins: I would like to start the conversation by returning to something you said to me in passing [at the ODC Dance Commons] one day: “Dance is a commitment. It’s a sacrifice. You have to put your whole self into it, and it consumes you.” I was wondering about that experience for you, and when you decided you were going to make that commitment.

Antoine Hunter: I sort of fell into dance. I don’t want to say that it was an accident, but I wasn’t thinking about a career or something like that. To be strictly honest, I just thought I was going to get a date! Because I thought, there are less guys… maybe people will be able to see me, because being Deaf, my image was so blurred, [people] couldn’t really tell who I was. And then I got there and it was hard. Everyone was doing push-ups and sit-ups and things; no one was really paying attention to me. I forgot why I came in. It wasn’t until Dawn James at Skyline high school asked me to do a solo, and I was doing Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”… you know, I was moving and there’s an instrumental break and something electrified in my whole body and I couldn’t hold back. When it was over, everyone was like “wow, that was good!” Hearing people and Deaf people could understand what I was saying without actually verbally talking. Many of them were describing the way that I felt. They understood what I was trying to say with the choreography. Communication! It was another form of communication.

I wanted to dance, I wanted to know more languages of dance: ballet, African, salsa, tango. I realized you just couldn’t play around. What I mean by that is that you have to respect the art. It’s like martial arts as well, you can’t just play with martial arts, you have to know where it comes from. I got to the point where I wanted to communicate clearly, through movement

Mr. Savage, from the Savage Jazz Dance Company, said something I will never forget. I wanted to start dancing, but I didn’t have the money. He said, “Come with commitment. That will take care of your class.” So I went when I didn’t really feel like it and began to feel things on the days that I was tired, like super powers were being awakened. I felt that you couldn’t fake it. You have to really go deep and shake, and sweat…4444,222,1! The pain and suffering of not giving up somehow awakened my spirit and the only way to get there was through commitment. So I feel that dance as a way to communicate and to articulate my communication was through training myself in the art of dance.

AAH: You are often regarded as a pillar in several intersecting communities. For example, you run a company, you teach and you work with members of disadvantaged communities. How do you reflect on your role? How important is that to you to actually be building community?

AH: I had a very dramatic, traumatic childhood. I’m from a very low income area in Oakland, CA. I grew up with a very Christian family. I always say I grew up in a church. Also, with people who were very strongly associated with the Black Panthers, very strong advocates for our community in Oakland. My mom raised us all, all by herself: four people and an adopted brother. No support of any kind.

I guess somehow being Deaf was something that allowed me to see things differently; I hear things differently. We who are Deaf can relate to people who [are discriminated] because we experienced discrimination and we were taught not to love ourselves or appreciate ourselves. I put myself out there so that we can find a bridge. My mother put the name “pioneer” into what I have been doing with my life. The name Antoine means “conqueror,” my middle name means “one who overcomes,” my last name “Hunter,” that’s my dad (laughs).

I am the president of the Bay Area Deaf Advocates. I support them. But that support is also about trying to get everyone to come together. Black or white. Gay or straight. It is a big load on the shoulders, but I feel that it’s my duty. Art really, really helps. I’ve worked with Joanna Haigood on Dying, Black and Brown. Her piece was about African American men. [We] use the art to help people learn about [our communities].

Christy Bolingbroke: One of the other things we’ve been talking about [in the dance thinking track] is artist as curator. One of the definitions that I come up with is to be that “bridge,” creating context across communities. So much of what you have shared connects to that idea. Do you see yourself as a curator as well?

Antoine Hunter Photo By Matt Haber

Antoine Hunter
Photo By Matt Haber

AH: I don’t try to curate anything. Maybe I am curating a vocabulary. I think my work is about problem solving. I’m just trying to improve communication. I’ve said before that dance saved my life. Now all I want to do is help other people. I found out that when people can’t express themselves, they go crazy; the community goes crazy. If we don’t get heard, it will find a way to be heard. It gets to the point where it’s so violent and so extreme, where you can rap about it. Hip Hop was lyrically a way to express that [for example]. It wasn’t the sound of battle calls, it was the sound of trying to establish unity. With my dance, it’s the same thing. It’s just that I can’t sing and rap very well (laughs).

I’m just tired of picking sides. I don’t feel that I have to be with the hearing person, or the Deaf person, so this is the reason why I created the Bay Area Deaf Dance Festival, so that everyone could come together. There were some dances and acts with interpreters, and then some without! Because we wanted hearing people to know what it’s like […] for Deaf people who go to the movies and [are] not able to understand what’s going on. Hearing people say, “you can pick up on the actions,” until they go to a movie that’s in a different language and then they feel the pain. Once that pain is understood, they come together. I’m not trying to give people pain, just awareness.

I’m hoping that I can find the structure of ASL in dance. This is one of the things I explored in the process for [Theater Unplugged]. It’s not very often that I have a full Deaf cast. Usually they are Hard of Hearing, or a mixture. This time we have three Deaf dancers, and very Deaf! It’s hard to [assess] everyone’s hearing level. Everyone feels the vibration differently. So we hear differently. I have a personal goal to understand the root of Deaf dance and American Sign in dance. Deaf acting, for example, is totally different from Deaf dance. Deaf theater and Deaf dance are separate, but there isn’t writing on Deaf dance. That’s where I am coming in. That’s my research.

AAH: How do you find funding for work and for your livelihood?

AH: I teach dance. I teach at thirteen different locations, six hours a day. That’s my greater passion. I have the knack to break down what people are doing. Many times, teachers will give the same directions for everyone to move with, but they aren’t true for everyone. Some people can’t push forward, some people need to pull back. Some people have banana legs, or hyperextension. For some strange reason, I can work with that. I can prevent injury because of my understanding of the intensity of muscular effort. Something else Savage taught me was to “look.” I really watch movement and muscle and bone structure and my imagination connects with the body. Part of being Deaf is that we are so visual and so expressive; it’s easier for hearing people to get the point. Interestingly, Deaf people watch, and they really get it a little bit faster. When you have hearing people living among Deaf people, their eyes become very strong. A lot of choreographers hire me. I may not be the best [technically], but I get a grip, I get their vision. It gets me more work.

CB: Who have you worked with?

AH: (Looks overwhelmed) A lot! That’s scary, to provide a list! Kim Epifano, Savage Jazz, Man Dance Ballet, Def Motion. There are a lot. Thank goodness I know how to do time management.

Here’s another thing that helps me to get paid: I don’t really play around. I go there, and I work with the choreographer. Some people like to be fun. I don’t have a lot of time, so when I go to the studio and I am working, I don’t play around.

CB: It’s commitment!

AH: That’s right! It’s commitment.

Amber Hopkins is an Oakland born and bred thinker. Her upbringing in an artists’ community has thoroughly informed her worldview, making art and life inseparable. Educated in creative writing at Mills College and employed by ODC Dance Commons, she follows her interests in women’s leadership and creative excellence. Amber is currently on the move to Brooklyn to fulfill dreams of being a somatic practitioner, sweating in the studio, making visual work and writing about it.

Harmonizing Beyond Geographic and Cultural Divides: Dance and Diaspora Program Notes | By Marie Tollon

Despite their different geographic and cultural origins, dances rooted in India and Cuba share a deep foundation in musicality, movements that accentuate specific body parts, and an implication of the body as a sound-making device. As part of the Music Moves Festival this coming weekend, a double bill featuring works inspired by these two traditions allows us to apprehend both intersections and distinctions between them. How do Namita Kapoor’s choreography and Rueda Con Ritmo’s dances converse with each other?

Namita Kapoor Photo by Gundi Vigfusson

Namita Kapoor
Photo by Gundi Vigfusson

It so happens that both Bharata Natyam and Cuban rumba were sources of choreographic inspiration for dance artist Jack Cole, often hailed as the “father of American jazz dance.” In her piece, Kapoor revisits Hindu Swing, the genre that Cole created and that successfully melded Indian and Western dance and music. One only has to recall Cole’s most famous trainee, Marilyn Monroe, performing her legendary “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” to picture Cole’s style, and particularly his talent to bring forth the performer’s sultry and mesmerizing physicality. Respectively versed in jazz and Indian music, the two musical directors of Kapoor’s Hindu Swing worked together to create a score based on Cole’s major influences, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, as well as on sample songs from his most well known dance pieces.

In both art forms, movement and sound operate in close proximity and support each other. As Ryan Mead explains, “my process in designing choreography always starts with the music. It could be a horn line, or a lyric, or a series of accents in the rhythm section, but I always strive to give visual form to the music. The dancers’ movements embody the hits in the percussion, the melodies in the horns, the meaning of the lyrics.”

Rueda Con Ritmo Photo by Patrick Hickey

Rueda Con Ritmo
Photo by Patrick Hickey

Retaining the colors and textures of their place of origin while assimilating rhythmic influences encountered during their journey, the sounds and movements of diaspora intertwine, harmonizing beyond cultural and geographic divides.

Pearl Marill and Sudden Glory | Guest Post By Megan Brian

In the program notes for Pearl Marill’s Some Bodies Confessional, Marie Tollon relates confessions to works of art. Marill certainly does take the confession ritual as inspiration for her performance and transcends it to art. But these confessions aren’t just about catharsis, they are also about humor.

One of the many confessions gathered by Pearl Marill

One of the many confessions gathered by Pearl Marill

Thomas Hobbes, philosopher of “nasty, brutish, and short” fame saw humor as a function of inequality. He says, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but the sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others…”* In other words, it’s funny when someone falls down because it is not us. The work of Some Bodies Confessional, I suspect, would disagree. The humor in hearing audience confessionals is not in making fun of others, it is in the coming together in shared catharsis. The confessionals are funny because we share in honest embarrassment, blushing together in the dark.

Situations are funny when there are incongruent elements. Marill gets this, and the audience is invited into her world upon opening with the performers in formal gowns asking for the audience to share taboo secrets. They are saccharine sweet as they trade wine for forbidden thoughts. Beyond the confessionals, this incongruity seems to be a way of working for Marill, as she blends virtuosic movements with vernacular pop. The movements are never slapstick, in fact, the dancers relay a seriousness, which is made all the more humorous by the pop music, and the dancers’ exaggerated facial expressions and costumes.

Pearl Marill Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Pearl Marill
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

The piece concludes with each performer dancing with a life-sized stuffed version of themselves. The tragic Fistful of Love by Antony and the Johnsons swells and the dancers move earnestly with… their wigged, floppy self-dummies. The incongruity is almost too much to take and the audience succumbs to the shared sweet madness of laughter.

* Hobbes, Thomas. “Human Nature.” The English Works of Thomas Hobbes. Vol. IV. Ed. William Molesworth. London: John Bohn, 1840.

Megan Brian is the education and public programs coordinator at SFMOMA.

The Theater As A Confessional | By Marie Tollon

A Work of Art Is A Confession.

                                                   – Albert Camus

Pearl Marill Photo by James DePietro

Pearl Marill
Photo by James DePietro

San Francisco-based artist Pearl Marill does not shy away from exploring various -and sometimes unexpected- contexts to present her work, setting it on stage (Missed Connections, 2008), on the video screen (Crunch Pop, 2012), or in San Francisco’s Dolores Park (Her 2013 Critical Ass in Dolores Park is part boot-camp, part community-building, part performance art). So when ODC Deputy Director for Advancement Christy Bolingbroke suggested a cabaret-type evening to Marill, the choreographer appropriated the term and let it inform the direction of her work.

Set in an intimate setting, Some Bodies Confessional became a series of short musical acts revolving around confessions and combining improvisational structures with set choreographic composition. The artist cites her mother, who was a Broadway dancer and actress, as a crucial influence in developing a more theatrical style of moving. “I think musical theater has been a model and an influence on me from a very young age, whether [my mother] was trying to infuse that on me or not. She actually forced me to take my first dance class when I was 11. I was horribly shy and terrified of people looking at me. The dance class basically entailed a teacher putting on music and having us free dance and interpret the music with a scarf! So my training is less traditional and much more improv’-based. I have done training at the American Conservatory Theater and also at the American Dance Festival and I have been informed by acting and dancing for so long that I am constantly looking at the ways I can fuse the two in a way that is satisfying for me to do, and takes the people watching on some sort of journey with me as well,” Marill explained.

Pearl Marill Photo by Elazar Harel

Pearl Marill
Photo by Elazar Harel

Steeped in humor and influenced by pop culture, Marill’s work reveals the artist’s interest in characters with a “darker underbelly,” such as the woman down on her luck: Marill explored that character in a previous work, where she danced with a life-size doll to Enrique Iglesias’ song Hero. This character reappears in Some Bodies Confessional, which offers Marill the opportunity to recycle and elaborate some of the themes that she has visited before. “I expand[ed] that idea and created dolls for everyone in the ensemble. Those bodies are symbolic of the bodies of the performers, but also of everybody, other bodies, [as a way to] address both the personal and the collective.”

Marill subverts the standard notion and format of a confessional by interweaving avowals from audience members throughout the evening, thus juxtaposing the voice of the performer with that of the viewer and destabilizing the conventional speaker-listener configuration. “Before the show we are going to gather confessions that people just write anonymously on paper. We will collect them and put them in a jar that we are going to pull from periodically throughout the evening to interweave those confessions with our ideas in the show (…) What I am excited about is the element of anonymity of the confessions [and] the element of surprise for us, because we won’t have any idea of what they are when we read them,” Marill continued.

Pearl Marill/M.O.C. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Pearl Marill/M.O.C.
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

Unlike the spoken confessions that inundate the contemporary public sphere –from reality-shows to live performances like Mortified– the revelations in Some Bodies Confessional are not restricted to the verbal. Indeed, as Marill states, they “also come in the form of movement itself. Our voices often say one thing, but our bodies convey another kind of confession or message.”

With Some Bodies Confessional, Marill revisits Camus’ words quite literally and includes the viewer in creating a universe that reflects both the darker and the more luminous areas of our lives.

Some Bodies Confessional will be presented at ODC Theater this coming Sunday, August 10 and Monday, August 11.

A Dance and a Song Walk into a Bar… | Guest Post by Megan Brian

The spectrum of joy and sadness is not a straight line, it’s more of a C shape with humor bridging the gap to complete the circle. Joe Goode’s work occupies that bridge. In Irresistibly Drawn, the Joe Goode Performance Group mined past work for pieces that incorporated song. The audience is brought into Joe’s Pub and shepherded through different stories by our trusty barkeep. When Goode tells of his group, “We major in sadness,” some even with PhD’s, you can feel the humor paving the way between joy and heartbreak.

Joe Goode Performance Group

Joe Goode Performance Group

The first character we see is the rambler, the classic cowboy associated with freedom. This fantasy is countered by the productive and responsible woman figure, who calls out the rambler as a gendered and white myth. The moment is charged, but also funny, as Goode is dressed up as that cowboy that she literally comes face to face with. It’s clear from the beginning that fantastical and serious issues are both fair game as topics to be explored and poked fun at.

When Holcombe Waller is welcomed to the stage, Joe’s remark on his “wit, pathos and beauty” could be easily applied to the entire evening. Waller is magnetic, bringing the audience with him through anecdotes as if you’re sitting next to him in a bar, chatting, before he breaks into layered song. His voice changing octaves with the same ease as the dances change tonalities.

Perhaps JGPG’s most immediate strength lies in their interdisciplinary approach, weaving dance, song, theater and storytelling. Those are strong tools, but it’s even more about what they are building with those tools: the bridge to close the loop between joy and sadness, the precarious but nourishing bridge of humor.

Megan Brian is the education and public programs coordinator at SFMOMA.

The Embodied Voice: Program Notes for the Joe Goode Performance Group | Guest Post by Christy Bolingbroke

When I first heard the Joe Goode Performance Group was introducing an evening of songs from select pieces over the last two decades, it made sense. JGPG acolytes have come to expect the group to regularly break into song as part of this special brand of dance-theater. Perhaps what was unexpected when one hears of a “cabaret” evening is the movement in this particular program. More than just a “best of” hit list, Irresistibly Drawn reminds us that the movement and the song are inextricably connected in Joe Goode’s work.

Melecio Estrella and Damara Vita Ganley in Joe Goode's  "Irresistibly Drawn"

Melecio Estrella and
Damara Vita Ganley
in Joe Goode’s
“Irresistibly Drawn”

Before I was to observe a college dance composition class taught by Goode, he warned me he does not teach the students to “do him” – meaning they do not all create work incorporating singing or talking, or even collaborating with other disciplines. They all create body-based work though, and Goode’s point is that even if it is simply movement it should come across as honest and emotionally felt. As part of his approach to unpacking a super-topic, Goode looks to mine the emotions of his dancers as well as his own to make work that questions what it means to be human and deal with these issues. JGPG member and teaching artist Damara Vita Ganley describes his work as “experiential storytelling that isn’t a story; it’s a question.”

Joe Goode’s artistic signature blends text, campy wit, seemingly effortless movement, and modern folk songs that create a community of performers reflecting life offstage. It is not always idyllic because Goode is not afraid of living in sadness or humanness. But by the end, he has confirmed some sort of human truth and made it evident onstage. Like listening to a good friend who talks with his or her hands, experiencing a Goode dance-theater performance is like having a conversation with someone who passionately speaks with his or her whole body.

Christy Bolingbroke is the ODC Deputy Director for Advancement.

Joe Goode Performance Group presents Irresistibly Drawn on Sunday, August 3 and Monday, August 4, at ODC Theater.

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