Truth Is Political: Dance Makers Discuss Art and Activism at ODC | By Marie Tollon

During the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival, writer Salman Rushdie uttered the following words: “Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.” Rushdie was confronted to the ripples created by an artwork that sparked, if not a revolution, at least conversations and controversies that encouraged reevaluating current political and socio-economical conditions. Shortly after its publishing in 1989, his book The Satanic Verses was condemned by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who declared a fatwa upon him, forcing the British Indian novelist into years of hiding. Propelled to the forefront of media attention, Rushdie became an emblem for freedom of speech and didn’t cease to reassert that art’s raison d’être is to promote social, economic, political or environmental change.

Sheena Johnson Photo by Keira Hew-Jwyn Chang

Sheena Johnson
Photo by Keira Hew-Jwyn Chang

For many Bay Area artists, art and activism are intertwined. So it is for ODC “Pilot 66” artist Sheena Johnson who presents DreamBoundFree this coming weekend as part of San Francisco Trolley Dances, the annual festival of site-specific dance. In a conversation over the phone a week ago, Johnson referred to herself as “an artist activist,” who is particularly interested in the notions of freedom and change. For San Francisco Trolley Dances, Johnson is creating a piece in response to the space where the work is unfolding, in front of a mural that celebrates African American female freedom fighters. The piece explores the question of freedom with the Black Lives Matter movement as a backdrop and was built on the “hands up, don’t shoot” imagery as a choreographic point of departure.

One of the featured women on the mural is singer and activist Nina Simone, and Johnson mentioned Simone’s impact on her reflections: “When asked about what she thought about the Civil Rights Movement, Nina Simone answered: ‘What Civil Rights Movement?’ and went on talking about the murder of civil rights activists. This has really stayed with me, especially when looking at Black Lives Matter and the continual fight for freedom in America. There is still so much work to be done.”

The title of Johnson’s piece is inspired both from the mural and Martin Luther King’s work, in particular his iconic “I have a dream” speech. “I was interested in the following question,” Johnson explained. “What are the ties that bind us? How do we communicate across differences? Martin Luther King said: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, we are bound together in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’ Our destiny as Americans and human beings requires us all to be involved in that conversation. What futures are possible for us in this land? What does freedom feel, taste, sound like?” For Johnson, art serves the purpose of addressing fundamental questions to bring change.

Some of Johnson’s concerns echo the issues debated during a panel discussion on art as activism that was organized by ODC as part of the NewCo Festival across the Bay Area and moderated by filmmaker and producer Michelle Hansen last week. Do artists whose work carries on a political message necessarily view themselves as activists? Why dance as a platform for activism? What are artists’ expectations in terms of how audiences receive their work? These are some of the questions that were posed to the panel, which comprised Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas and Bay Area dance makers Brenda Way and Nicole Klaymoon.

Nicole Klaymoon's Embodiment Project Photo by James Knox

Nicole Klaymoon’s
Embodiment Project
Photo by James Knox

The presentation referred to works in which the three artists addressed issues such as racial profiling, censorship, and forced displacement. Thematically close to Jonhson’s upcoming piece, Nicole Klaymoon’s Chalk Outlines (2015) interweaves dance, poetry, live song, and documentary theater in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Way evoked the making of The Invention of Wings (2015), the proscenium staging of Speaking Volume, a site-specific work ODC/Dance performed in 2014 for the opening of an installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island. Simas introduced We Wait In The Darkness (2014) a dance that tells part of Seneca history through the personal narrative of her grandmother.

The three panelists shared some determining facts in their personal history. Simas remembered being “one of two people of color” in college. Soon after, she started a company for women who were Native or of color, before creating her current Rosy Simas Danse. Way explained how she had been influenced by the women’s movement of the 1960s in New York City, and how the images of fragile female figures that permeated the ballet world she trained in conflicted with her reality.

Rosy Simas in "We Wait In The Darkness"

Rosy Simas in
“We Wait In The Darkness”

Simas explained that activism is not her preoccupation when she makes work. “I make dance because this is what I do. I feel strongly that being a brown body on a stage historically reserved for white performers is an act of activism. The subject matter is something I’m interested in and mostly personal. The activism becomes secondary… It’s important for me not to be commodified as a Native person. But who I am, how I grew up, who I am in my family, my tribe, my clan, make my work in the realm of activism.”

Klaymoon also debated how much of the term activism can be applied to what she does. “I don’t know if activism is something quantifiable and something that I’m doing.” But questioned about why she uses dance as a platform, she replied that she is “interested in mapping grief in the body and [unearthing] the stories that have been repressed. I’m fascinated with how dance, coupled with text, can convey subtext or activate text.”

What are these artists’ expectations regarding their audience? Simas mentioned that as an artist, “you are always thinking about who is seeing things. For me, it’s best to see myself talking to other Native people. [For] the audience who is not Native, … what they get out of it, is their own responsibility.” Differently, Way mentioned that she never has an audience in mind when she makes a piece. “Art is about values. I am proposing values, asking questions, and I hope that people will be responsive to that,” she shared.

Josie G. Sadan in Brenda Way's "The Invention of Wings" Photo by Andrew Weeks Photography

Josie G. Sadan in Brenda Way’s
“The Invention of Wings”
Photo by Andrew Weeks Photography

For Klaymoon, the conversations about race or sexual trauma that are embedded in her work are “not comfortable” but hip hop’s accessibility and playfulness help carry on messages with lightness. “The humor lifts the room, it makes it ok … and allows to access deeper stuff. Sometimes dance can trigger things, but if it’s not time, don’t rush the river. If it is serving the self, if you see some healing, there is something that is chemically relieved when truth is spoken. Truth is political.”

With its ability to communicate beyond words, and convey narratives and emotions kinesthetically, dance exists as a potent platform to question and support conversations that can set change into motion. Klaymoon summarized the session by proclaiming, “the biggest artistic risk we can take is to tell the truth.”

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Dance on The Go: San Francisco Trolley Dances | By Marie Tollon

Born from the post modern and experimental dance movements from the 1960s and 1970s, site-specific choreography has taken dance outside of the theater, transforming rooftops, streets, galleries, abandoned factories, apartments and all possible places into temporary performance spaces.

San Francisco Trolley Dances 2015 Marlie Couto of The Foundry Photo by Andy Mogg

San Francisco Trolley Dances 2015
Marlie Couto of The Foundry
Photo by Andy Mogg

As site-specific dances transform the space they evolve in, they also alter the relationship between audience and artwork. They often present viewers with a busier visual and sonic field than proscenium stages and black box theaters do. When a performance takes place outside, there are pedestrians to take into account besides the artwork, and their trajectory – a sort of non-voluntary choreography- is somehow made more noticeable next to the performers’ movement score. There are the unexpected car horns and sirens of ambulances; there are snippets of a conversation held loudly on cell phones by passers-by potentially oblivious to the art unfolding nearby. All these environmental elements tend to add layers and transform the performance experience.

Site-specific dances also activate the texture, volume, size and details of a space in ways that make them stand out and become more noticeable. You may not have notice the faded yellow mural on that building until an aerial dance company uses it as its stage.

The capacity of site-specific dance to increase our awareness of a specific environment is an aspect that Bay Area choreographer Kim Epifano is sensitive too. She is also deeply committed to the potential for this kind of work to bring people together. In 2004, Epifano created the San Francisco Trolley Dances (SFTD), which bring dance to different neighborhoods that are connected by trolley buses. In anticipation of the upcoming SFTD, Epifano and I talked over the phone last week.

Marie Tollon: What prompted the beginning of SFTD in 2004?

Kim Epifano: Trolley Dances originated in San Diego with Jean Isaacs, who was inspired by going on the train system in Germany to see art. She thought that San Diego had a great train system and started Trolley Dances there five years before we started in San Francisco. I thought: “We are the city of the street cars and trolleys, we have the F line, the Museum on Wheels!” I talked to Jean and told her I would like to start San Francisco Trolley Dances and make it into our own idea. She agreed to trademark the name and I pay her a fee to use it. SFTD is different than the San Diego Trolley Dances because theirs is ticketed whereas ours is free. Jean also tends to stay more within the modern dance tradition and I like to mix modern dance, post modern dance with other genres.

First, I had to get a hold of MUNI. They first thought: “What is this lady talking about?” Now they really respect and love the program and they have been a great partner. There are a lot of people involved – community centers, permit people…- everybody is trying to make it happen! The people I work with are fantastic.

MT: How do you choose the sites?

KE: We’ve been all over the city now, since it got too big to stay on the F line. This is our third time on the T line. I wanted to go back to a line where we hadn’t been in a while. When I go back to a line, I’ll do a different section. This time, we are going the furthest out on the T.

You don’t just plop yourself into a place and expect people are going to want you there. You are coming into their world. So I walk the neighborhood, meet people, think about whom I have worked with before. That takes a long time.

For 2015 I first secured the Bayview/Linda Brooks-Burton Library. I was there to do something else and wanted to see the new library they rebuilt. There is this beautiful atrium inside the building, and a walkway with two trees with Adinkra symbols from West Africa. I was inspired to do a piece there as sometimes places call me to “make a dance here.”

People at the Bay View Boat Club were open to share their beautiful space with us on the Bay. Once I knew I could use their site, I decided to start there. I worked with Mission Bay Park and with the police station at the First Responders Plaza. I also talked to the woman at Bayview Opera House. The Opera House is under construction, so we went to Mendell Plaza and that’s where Byb Chanel Bibene and his company Kiandada Dance are going to perform. We are working with them to try to activate the garden. Then the audience will travel to where there is a mural which ODC “Pilot 66” artist Sheena Johnson will perform her piece.

MT: There is a lot of community and network building that goes into planning SFTD. How early do you start planning for the next one?

KE: I’m already starting for 2016. I’ve already decided which line I will be doing.

MT: How do you select the artists?

KE: I don’t think Amy Seiwert has done site-specific work, so I was very excited to shake her process a bit. It’s great to have her in the program because I think she makes wonderful work. I gave her a few options but she really liked the Bay View Boat Club. I thought she could articulate the space in a way that would be very classy and elegant.

Alex Ketley had a piece that is site specific. We thought: “Let’s see what it looks like if we put it at the Mission Bay Commons Park.” I’ve always admired his work.

Zoe [Bender] had applied to Pilot. I had seen her work in the past, and admired it. There is a political and activist through line in her work. I thought it would be interesting for her to do something at the First Responders Plaza.

In the library I decided to do a collaboration with Valerie Gnassounou-Bynoe, who is the chair of department at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. I went to teach and set a piece on her students. Being at the library made me want to share. I feel that is what libraries do: they share a wealth of information. We are communicating by text, email and video about our process and then will have a couple rehearsals planned on site.

Then we have Cielo Vertical Arts at the YMCA Bay View branch. They will present an aerial piece outside on the YMCA big yellow wall. This wall is high and the moment I saw it I thought: “Can we pull this off and get the OK to do aerial work on it?” Not an easy task!

Rachel Furst and Antoine Hunter Photo by Andy Mogg

Rachel Furst and Antoine Hunter
Photo by Andy Mogg

MT: This year, two of ODC “Pilot 66” artists are performing their work in SFTD. Can you talk more about your role in mentoring them?

KE: Kimi [Okada] and Christy [Bolingbroke] approached me about including Pilot artists in SFTD and I took that on. I go to some of their rehearsals; I talk about their choreography, about sight lines, audience flow, sounds, what works and what doesn’t work in the areas they are working in. I have a lot of experience with site-specific [work]. I am not just mentoring about the exact choreography that they are making, but it’s about venturing in the production of a festival, outreach, community organization and collaboration, so there is a lot of ways in which I am mentoring them.

MT: You have been living in the Bay Area for over 30 years. Has SFTD increased your perception of all the changes happening to the city?

KE: When I am walking downtown or Mission Bay right now, I can see all the changes first hand visually because of all the construction. There are now even more homeless people so I get to hear what’s going on for them. When I go into communities, everybody is sort of feeling the same thing with changes happening fast and people moving further out of the city.  This is why places like the Bay View Boat Club that have survived amidst the change is so special. I also discover what is new or re-done and how it makes a positive impact on a neighborhood. So I think I see all sides of it. San Francisco Trolley Dances provides “art for citizens,” connecting neighborhoods and people through art making, free of charge.

For more information about the 12th Annual San Francisco Trolley Dances, visit the Trolley Dances site.

Accessing and Healing One’s Lineage Through Dance: A Conversation with Rosy Simas | By Marie Tollon

Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas’ We Wait In The Darkness conjures the many ways in which family stories are transmitted from one generation to the next. In the piece, Simas’ mother, Laura Waterman Wittstock, reads excerpts of letters written by her own mother, who recounts both anecdotes and significant events of her life. But Simas demonstrates that written words and stories transmitted orally are not the only way to access information about one’s ancestors. Personal stories, especially traumatic ones, leave traces in the body of future generations.

Rosy Simas in "We Wait In The Darkness" Photo by Ian Douglas

Rosy Simas in
“We Wait In The Darkness”
Photo by Ian Douglas

As Simas writes about her community, “recent scientific study verifies what many Native people have always known, that traumatic events in our ancestors lives are in our bodies, blood and bones. These events leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Our grandmother’s tragic childhood can trigger depression or anxiety in us, but we have the ability to heal these DNA encodings and change that trait for future generations.” With We Wait In The Darkness, which will be presented at ODC Theater from October 8 to October 10, Simas engages with her grandmother’s personal history to heal her family’s lineage through dance, as she explained during a phone interview.

Marie Tollon: In a review of your work, Minneapolis-based arts writer Caroline Palmer mentioned that We Wait In The Darkness is the first piece in which you explore your Native heritage.

Rosy Simas: It’s the first time that I do in an obvious way. I have always said that my work is Native because I am Native, regardless of the subject matter with which I am dealing. I have never made a dance that was specifically about my family or identity or culture because I’ve never felt a need to do that. This piece came about because I was doing research on my grandmother, basically unraveling oral family stories through genealogy and historical research around her. My grandfather came from a wealthier family than my grandmother, who was raised without parents. When my grandparents married, my grandmother’s family was looked down upon, and never talked about. So we have a lot of connections through my grandfather’s family but were completely disconnected from my grandmother’s family.

What’s important about this is that Seneca identity comes from the matrilineal line of the family, so we get our clan and inheritance through our mother. My grandmother is really the source of my identity. It was very frustrating for me that we knew so little about her extended family. That’s why I decided to make this dance work, to give voice to her story and family – not to educate people about Seneca history and culture issues – although some sharing of our history and culture does come through as a secondary result because of the telling.

MT: Your grandmother was one of the founders of the San Francisco American Indian Center on Valencia Street, in the Mission. Your mother is a journalist and author, and recently published We Are Still Here about the history of the American Indian Movement. How present was their form of activism when you grew up and how did it inform your work?

RS: When my mother got divorced from my father, remarried and was transitioning from being a full time parent of 5 children to being a journalist, my grandmother was already in San Francisco helping run the San Francisco American Indian Center in the Mission. There were conversations between them and letters of encouragement from my grandmother to my mother, about working in “Indian Country” in education and journalism that my mother was interested in.

Rosy Simas

Rosy Simas

We lived in Washington, D.C., when I was a child. Chiefs and faithkeepers from New York would come down to meet with government officials and would often stay with my family. So from a very young age, I was exposed to Native American political activity that was happening in the early 70s. We were in D.C. during the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] takeover in 1971, which my mother was at. So from a very early age, I was an observer of Native American political resistance and activism. My mother’s main way of being an advocate is through her writing, and work in the Native community in education, journalism, and technology. She (like my grandmother) was also a founder and director of a Native nonprofit for over 20 years.

Her position as an observer and reporter on political and cultural events – influenced my own activism, my political views and how I express them.

My life has been very steeped in urban Native culture, so I never felt the desire to do any dance work about my identity or culture. I didn’t need to share what I was living with dance audiences , which were and are predominantly white. In various day jobs, I’ve worked in Native communities in health and wellness, technology, and culture. That’s where I did that work, with other Native people.

My dance is not a catalyst for political actions, although that can be the secondary effect of them. I still feel that the issues that are important to Native people are important to me, but I don’t use dance to educate non-Native people about Native issues. I’m making work about subjects I am interested in exploring.

My next piece is very much about intertribal, interracial identity through the lens of skin and how identity is shifting in Indian Country. I have my own concepts about how we view each other as Native people. I have a lot of internal questions and conflicts within myself about how I (and others) judge other Native people, and that’s why I want to engage in that subject matter. It isn’t to educate non-Native people about Native identity. The work is to engage in discussion and the physical manifestations that identity issues create. I want to unpack what I and other Native people are dealing with – the conflicts that come from families being split apart, missing Native women, social media discussions on identity, ethnic fraud, and dis-enrollment of people from their tribes.

MT: In We Wait In The Darkness, your mother reads excerpts of letters from your grandmother. How did you discover those letters and choose the excerpts included in the piece?

RS: The second letter that is read is a part of a much longer letter I just found in my mom’s things. I asked my mother to take pieces from that letter, which is 8 pages long, and put them together. I made suggestions of what I was interested in. For the piece, I asked her to write the other one from memory. After we put them together and recorded her – we decided it would be better if she could read them in the performances. My mother’s health was not good at the time, so we had to figure out if she would be able to do this. She doesn’t perform in all the shows or go to all the tour sites. She will be here in San Francisco at ODC.

I didn’t plan for the work to have meaning for other people, that is just how it developed through the experience of performing it. Obviously my mother’s presence enhances the meaning it has for the audience.

MT: Did the letters, or the film that is projected in the piece, help generate movements or did they exist separately?

RS: The letters are really meant to have their own separate impact. It’s the stories that helped generate the movements. So for instance the story of my grandmother’s father being murdered in front of her and my research around that event, is something that generated specific movements.

Rosy Simas Photo by JB Gelle

Rosy Simas
Photo by JB Gelle

The film work is mostly film that I shot. We were shooting in New York, before we created the dance. I worked with a friend of mine, Douglas Beasley, who is an amazing award-winning photographer. He filmed the images of me that are superimposed on the images of the Kinzua dam, in Upstate New York. He did a lot of other footage as well but I ended up not using it. Because we have different eyes – different views through the lens- I ended up using all footage that I shot because it’s how I see things, it’s how I see the land. So there’s a direct relationship through my body, but I’m not necessarily responding to the film that much, even though the film is something like a partner for me on stage. I’m aware of what’s happening in the film while I’m dancing. The dance is an improvisation score. I’m interacting with the sound, which is generative music that François [Richomme] plays live during the performance.

MT: You have been performing this piece for over a year. Has something unexpected surfaced?

RS: All kinds of things can change the piece. I did a show in a museum and because of the sight-lines, they required me to wear a leotard in the first section, where I would normally be performing without a leotard. I was disappointed about it but it ended up being a very freeing performance in a different way because the texture of the fabric changed my movement. In each venue the environment is different. It’s been performed in two museums and everything from a large theater – at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center which seats thousands – to a small black box theater, at SUNY Fredonia, NY. Every environment shifts my relationship to the audience and it shifts how I move. The most interesting thing to me is the interactions with the audience and how that changes my performance. And where we are. When we work to get part of the local Native community members, to come to a show, even if it’s just a few people, it makes a huge difference for me, especially if there are any Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people there because these experiences are very familiar to them and it’s a part of our large shared history.

MT: Toward the end of the piece, you involve the audience by giving them a piece of a large map that you tear apart. I’m wondering what some of their reactions have been.

RS: There are a lot of reactions to that. Of course it depends on who somebody is. It’s a relocation map. It’s two of the maps that were created by the US Corp of Engineers to relocate Senecas who the U.S. Government displaced by building the Kinzua Dam. It might be easier to tell the story of why I do that. My grandmother was an heir to Chief Cornplanter, who owned a significant amount of land in reserve. When that land was flooded by the building of the Kinzua Dam, she was then given a piece of land off Cornplanter to somehow replace her inheritance. She was at the time in San Francisco working at the American Indian Center so she appointed one of her cousins as administrator. He sold her land and took the money. So she never got her inheritance. The reason for me tearing up the map is because it has no use for my family and me because our inheritance was stolen from us – first by the government and then by the plague of greed the whole Kinzua Dam deal created among my people.

I also want to shift the map, by tearing it and moving it around. The reactions of people that I’ve handed it to are completely different. If I’ve handed a piece to a Seneca, their response has more to do with their relationship to that whole specific event –and a lot of Native people have had these very similar things happened in their own community. The reaction of a non-Native person is all over the board, from feeling that they are being handed something for safekeeping to not wanting to be given a piece because they don’t want to have the responsibility of owning that part of history. It’s not a confrontational act on my end at all, it’s very matter of fact, but how somebody responds is how they relate to the history of this land and their own relationship to that shared history. After all, we all have ownership of the U.S. and Native treaties, they belong to all U.S. citizens.

MT: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned that you are engaged in a process of decolonization when it comes to your training and practice. Could you talk more about it?

Rosy Simas Photo by Ian Douglas

Rosy Simas
Photo by Ian Douglas

RS: Contemporary dance is based in Eurocentric and American modern and ballet dance forms. Modern dance does have some roots in Indigenous dance. So there are some appropriated connections there. For me, it’s a lot about letting the pattern atrophy. It’s not that that training hasn’t been useful in my body but a more individualistic training like I do with Klein Technique or in somatics allows me to make my own cellular connections to create my own pathways which are Native because I am Native. This is my process of decolonizing my body.

From a personal perspective of society, that’s much more complicated. Our bodies, the clothing we wear, so much of our American culture is related to colonization. We live on half-acre pieces of land. Everything is mapped out. How we are in the world is defined by this Eurocentric idea of land ownership. How we physically relate to each other is impacted by this.

I like the term atrophy: In order to unlearn the colonized cultural and physical patterns in my body, I have had to allow parts of myself to atrophy (not weaken, but soften) in order to forget, grow and re-build back in a more organic and indigenous dancing body.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amara Tabor-Smith’s EarthBodyHOME Program Notes | By Marie Tollon

Post-modern; contemporary; land-based work. When it comes to art, categorizations can feel like straight jackets, bracing a work into a confining realm of signifiers and failing to adequately represent the subtle directions it can move. Amara Tabor-Smith certainly confronted these limitations these past few years when attempting to name her practice. Yet, throughout the making of EarthBodyHOME, presented at ODC this week, a definition emerged: conjure art, a “music, visual or performance work that utilizes indigenous spiritual rituals to conjure the energies of gods, deities, and/or ancestor spirits with the intention to manifest personal, social, spiritual, and/or environmental justice, alignment and healing.”

Amara Tabor-Smith and Zoe Klein Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Amara Tabor-Smith and Zoe Klein
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

EarthBodyHOME is inspired by the work of Ana Mendieta. Born in 1948, Mendieta was a Cuban American visual artist whose work encompasses photography, body art, sculpture and performance art, and whose tragic death in 1985 sparked a fierce debate about gender and race issues that still resonates within the art world to this day. Mendieta was one of the thousands of children who were sent to American orphanages and foster homes through the Operation Peter Pan, a collaboration between the United States government and the Catholic Church, in the early 1960s. Exile and disconnection are some of the themes that permeate her work, some of which consists in ephemeral pieces created in nature, with elements such as soil, rocks, leaves, or blood and which she often referred to as “earth-body” art.

Introduced to the work of Mendieta a few years ago, Tabor-Smith reconnected with it in the summer of 2014, while pursuing her MFA at Hollins University. Throughout her research for EarthBodyHOME, she imbued herself with Mendieta’s process to connect with the places that the Cuban-born artist explored. Tabor-Smith often rehearsed in natural settings, “opening [herself] to receive information and inspiration in a space.” As a priest in the Yoruba/Lukumi tradition known as Ifa, Tabor-Smith also researched the Afro-Cuban and Taíno mythology that Mendieta drew upon.

Through pointing to Mendieta’s body of work and conjuring her spirit, EarthBodyHOME illuminates how an individual, personal and artistic trajectory reflects larger issues of identity, displacement, gender and racial inequities.

On SHORE | Guest Post By Megan Wright

On a summer afternoon, as I was driving on 101, the voice of Jessica Fechtor came up on KQED. She was discussing finding a way back to herself after suffering from a brain aneurysm and mentioned: “Home is a not a noun, it is a verb. It is not about where you live, but about how you live.” Fechtor’s definition of home echoed the questions laid out in Emily Johnson’s SHORE, which was to happen at ODC in the following weeks. With its four parts, which unfold in and outside of the theater, SHORE questions the nature of performance and attempts to expand its traditional definition. At the core of its unfolding lay the promise and mystery of communal creative making. It then seemed fit to ask some of SHORE participants to reflect on their experience of SHORE. For today’s guest blog, I asked dancer Megan Wright, who performed in SHORE movement choir, to share her thoughts.

Emily Johnson (center) in SHORE Megan Wright (left of Emily Johnson)

Emily Johnson (center) in SHORE
Megan Wright (left of Emily Johnson)

Marie asked me to write about Emily Johnson’s SHORE for you and I thought yes, okay, I can do this. Writing about SHORE feels like an extension of, not a reflection on, SHORE, because SHORE feels ongoing within me. And a thing with so many parts and aspects (storytelling, volunteerism, performance, feast) hands you many access points for an unintimidated response.

Here’s something I’m thinking about: SHORE is not a work (object) of art but the work (action) of art. And it turns out that the work of art can look very much like the work of pulling invasive mustard weed off the slopes of Candlestick Point and planting native yarrow and hollyleaf cherry in its place. The work of art can be slicing cucumbers for a salad that will feed fifty people gathered on those slopes or holding on to the small hand of a toddler whose grandfather, rehearsing a Pomo healing song, hadn’t seen him wander off towards the rocks that led down to the ocean. The work of art can be the work of going back for seconds. The work of art can be the work of listening to someone else tell a story that serves no purpose but to open up the plurality of experience. Indeed the good work of art can be work that is quietly, unreservedly, entirely not about you.

It is difficult to square this “not about you” with the directed proscenium frame of a performance, in which something very much you (if you are a performer, as I was, albeit in limited capacity) is all about abundantly. This is where the work runs into a work. This is not unique: art makers all over the Bay grapple with the relationship of process to performance. But SHORE’s multifaceted construct threw that difficulty into especially sharp relief.

So why perform at all? It’s practical to say that the capitalist device of arts funding in this country is built to understand and support works and not the work, so if you want to keep the community you care for employed and engaged, making a work is a good way to go. It’s the commodifiable thing in a way that the taste of a new tomato or the feel of dirt on your shins is not — even though those things were for me as integral to SHORE as the performance was.

SHORE Story Photo by Mica Pirie

SHORE Story
Photo by Mica Pirie

But I also think that the apparatus of performance has great capacity to heighten a given moment in time. You can use that height for many ends. In SHORE, all customary rituals of showtime nailed down a particular hour in order to say: life spreads in all directions from this point. Past the rafters of the ceiling, the sky is darkening at its own pace. Out on the shore the seedlings we planted are growing themselves. A creek used to run under this theater and maybe many years from now it will return. The stories we tell are inherited from older tales and will create new ones or fade from memory, as stories do. You’re just riding the wave of this present moment. It will swiftly be not about you again.

The comfort I found in this is ongoing, and so SHORE is ongoing within me, because SHORE is comfort and the smell of smoke and seawater as much as it was anything.

SHORE Volunteerism at Candlestick Park

SHORE Volunteerism
at Candlestick Park

Thank you to the Ohlone Profiles Project and Literacy for Environmental Justice for joining SHORE. If you are interested in continuing the projects and seeds planted by SHORE, visit these organizations’ website.

Megan Wright is a contemporary dancer based in San Francisco. She is a current member of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, a founding member of Maurya Kerr’s tinypistol, and a frequent collaborator with Katharine Hawthorne. Megan has toured both nationally and internationally as a member of the MJDC and with other work. In 2014 she served as choreographic assistant to Katharine Hawthorne at Springboard Danse Montréal, and assisted the New York-based collective I AM A BOYS CHOIR with their production at La MaMa Experimental Theatre. In 2015 she was awarded an ODC Administrative Fellowship to work with Hope Mohr Dance. Megan graduated cum laude from the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and is also a graduate of the Lines Ballet Training Program.

Response Mode versus Show Mode: A conversation with Julia Rhoads | By Marie Tollon

In an article entitled “When Dancers Speak,” Dance Magazine contributing writer Nancy Wozny addressed the increasing trend of mixing text and movement in contemporary dance: “In today’s contemporary dance field, speaking has become a necessary performance skill: More and more, choreographers are asking dancers to double as actors, spoken-word artists and onstage narrators. And as many performers find out, merging movement with sound doesn’t always come easily.”

Lucky Plush in "The Queue" Photo by Benjamin Wardell

Lucky Plush in
“The Queue”
Photo by Benjamin Wardell

The work of Julia Rhoads, founder and Artistic Director of Chicago-based dance theater company Lucky Plush Productions, combines dance and theater in a way that eschews the presentational and cultivates authenticity. To help performers be as comfortable with text as with movement, Rhoads has devised techniques and processes that her performers experiment with in the studio. In anticipation of Lucky Plush’s The Queue, presented at ODC this weekend and co-created by Rhoads and theater and dance director Leslie Danzig, I spoke to Rhoads over the phone.

Marie Tollon: The qualities of presence and liveness seem really important in your process and appear throughout your work. I’m curious to know how you activate those qualities in the performers.

Julia Rhoads: We have a lot of methods in our rehearsal room to train for it. I often give them some unknown element or improvisational prompt that they will layer on top of known material. This started many years ago. We were doing a piece called Cinderbox 18, which I have since revisited. It was about reality culture and programming, and it questioned ideas about authenticity and reality, what is real versus scripted. In that work, it was really important to me that this tension that was provoked in that was within the show itself. Once [the performers] knew the work, I gave them all these pieces of paper with a task that they had to accomplish at some point during the run. It was an evening-length work. They knew they had to stay on the track of the piece somehow, but it kept them very much all in this place of not knowing when these game changing moments would be negotiated. Some of the things that happened during those experimental processes were so delightful that they ended up in the show and it made me realize how much I care about this very thing in the work itself. I’ve continued that practice in subsequent pieces, and ultimately there is a really interesting tension when very crafted, rigorously composed elements are layered with an off-the-cuff conversational tone. It gives the performers agency in the work, and they know at what point in the show that they have freedom to play with dialogue and movement in a different way, and when they don’t. There are a lot of built-in places where we want them to insert themselves in the work.

It has become an overriding value and is key to our process. It’s to get the performers in what I call response mode rather than in show mode. In show mode, they are performing something that is always the same all the time. Response mode is when they are really listening to each other and something might be different because they are responding to live circumstances.

MT: In your work, you bridge movement and text. Could you talk about how you do that?

Julia Rhoads

Julia Rhoads

JR: It’s something I pay a lot of attention to. The perception is that if you didn’t have training in theater, when you are speaking in dance, it is presentational. For us, we are intentionally trying to figure out a non-presentational way of being on stage, so that you feel the relationship between real people having genuine experiences on stage. We don’t think of acting at all. A lot of what we do is we play games in the rehearsal room, where [the performers] tell stories, interrupt each other, and layer language on top of things. Sometimes things are very scripted but I will keep having them play with it with their own mouths until it is delivered in a way that they would say it. Sometimes it is a talking point. They know what it is about and will say it in their own way, by listening to what is happening with the other performer or with the ensemble. The minute it feels like a line, delivered in a particular way, it gets into tricky territory where it feels forced. For me, I am really interested in foregrounding the individual performers on stage so that people, when they leave, feel: “I really know that person.” Even though all of the works that we create are not exactly about the dancers, it is close to them. There might be fictional circumstances that they might be playing inside of, but for example in The Queue, it’s actually a linear plot. And it’s the first time I worked that way. I co-created it with Leslie [Danzig] and she comes more from a physical theater background, but neither of us approaches our individual work with linear plot-like structures. But this piece [is different], because it takes place in an airport, and it goes through spaces that are in a sort of time-based situations. You are first in a ticketing line, then you go through security, then you are in a line to get food or the newspaper. Because of the structure of the work, it is a lot more narrative and in a way like a play. When we were creating it, it initially tripped up the performers. They were so used to our typical process in which dialogue, choreography, and relationships are devised from prompts and play and rehearsal room, but this had more of a script driving it. Before the premiere, we ended up having to really help [the performers] to locate it closer to them. Their names in the show are their real middle names, as a way to say: “This is really you. You have fictional circumstances in the show but we want to keep it really close to how you interact with each other. You are with these people that you know very well.” So that it doesn’t hopefully feel forced. Now, as with any shows, some days it is a bit more relaxed than other days, but that’s where we find some joy, in the tension between a dance that is quite technical and a very easy, casual place of dialogue and interaction.

MT: What was the impetus for creating The Queue?

JR: It’s our second collaboration. Leslie comes from a clown theater background and we’d been friends for a very long time before we had our first collaboration. We have a similar sense of humor. We really enjoy each other’s work, were very happy with our first collaboration, and wanted to collaborate again. The impetus for The Queue was initially two things. We were really interested in understanding what makes something funny. In terms of physical comedy, and all these forms that we play in, we were thinking of looking at all classic forms of vaudeville, slapstick and different kinds of comedy that have existed in a physical vocabulary for many, many years. A lot of it has to do with your sense of timing, a rhythm, the building of an expectation and how converting expectations can trigger laughter or familiarity awkwardness or joy, and all those things that can be funny.

Lucky Plush in "The Queue" Photo by Benjamin Wardell

Lucky Plush
in “The Queue”
Photo by Benjamin Wardell

Also, the other big question in the beginning was this idea that our lives often happen and unfold in these places where we are just waiting for things to happen. So oftentimes it’s when you are waiting in line or in a public space when those of larger-than-life events can occur. We had a residency in New Zealand where we started to work on this piece. It was the international context of being in an airport that we prompted us to choose an airport as the setting of The Queue. Because an airport is utterly relatable, many people have been in one, there’s a familiarity with it. Oftentimes people are in an airport because they are going to these heightened situations – a funeral, a wedding, or a big job, and you observe other people in these big moments. People witness them. At what point do people comment on them, and possibly even insert themselves into someone else’s drama.

We were also looking at classic films like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. I have a lot of personal anxiety when I am coming up through the security conveyor belt. You have to remove your shoes, your belt, see if you have any metal on, drink your water if you have any, and you have to do all that very fast because there’s a line behind you. It made me think of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times when he is on that conveyor belt and can’t keep up with putting the things together. In the work, we started to explore how some utterly very mundane and pedestrian scenarios could leak out into public and these heightened moments go from pedestrian moment to more slapstick. During transitions between scenes [we use] a kind of Busby Berkeley choreography – he did these classic 30s and 40s films with overheard camera with women doing these complex but uniform patterns. We use this stylistically as a kind of theme and variations so the audience becomes familiar with how it functions, but also has this classic feeling to it.

Throughout this work (and in all of our work) we think about the logic of when something moves from dialogue into action, when you can earn this idea of abstraction in contemporary dance. This work also has a very vaudeville quality, and we sing in it and have live musicians, The Claudettes, who are very key to the narrative. We often talk about how it can be a jarring transition between singing and dancing. So we think about what each moment needs. We might use an awkward or messy transition between forms because it supports the humanness of the moment, and sometimes a surprising or abrupt transition is most successful in delivering content to an audience. We always think about how we are teaching the audience to see the work, or giving them anchors to understand it. So often in dance, the sort of cliché response is “Oh, I didn’t get it!” We try to create works that are layered and complex and thought provoking but that are utterly relatable. They might not get every single reference or know the form as well as we do but they feel included in it.

Rethinking Performance: Emily Johnson’ SHORE Program Notes | By Marie Tollon

Spanning over a week and activating multiple spaces and communities throughout the city, Emily Johnson’s SHORE reimagines the nature of performance. With four significant choreographed moments -a curated reading, a performance, a volunteer community action and a feast- the piece breathes and transforms according to the city it takes place in: its vocal and movement choirs are selected among the local community; the volunteer project is the result of a consultation with citywide organizations. In each location, SHORE takes on a different form.

Emily Johnson's SHORE Photo by Erin Westover

Emily Johnson’s SHORE
Photo by Erin Westover

Allowing this amorphous quality, SHORE’s walls are porous. Land and humans intertwine in the stories told by the performers, and continue to merge throughout the installation, such as during the planting of native species at Candlestick State Park. Audience and performers gather, sit at the same table, exchange food and recipes during the feast. Wearing nametags, they call each other by name.

Johnson herself proves amorphous. From storyteller to dancer, from performer to community organizer, she manifests the multiplicity of the shape shifter whose role is here to rally, to involve, to entice and to connect. Whether she invites us to watch a movement, to listen to a story, to hear a song, to plant a seed or to share a recipe, she weaves art and activism, creating a platform where a multitude of voices can come and act together.

When, at the beginning of the performance of SHORE, Johnson stands on a wooden box and tells the crowd gathered in Clarion Alley a story, she conjures the past and brings up the possibility of a joyful present and future. Later, during the feast, audience members can write what they wish this future will look like, and attach their writing to a larger quilt. Similar to SHORE’s predecessors The Thank-you Bar and Niicugni in Johnson’s trilogy, this installation becomes a temporal experience, where we are invited to both recall the past and simultaneously plant the seeds for a future that we want to envision together.

A Compelling Way of Understanding the World: A Conversation with Jacqueline Shea Murphy | By Marie Tollon

At the beginning of the performance part of SHORE, Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson stands on a wooden box and tells the crowd gathered outdoors: “There’s a story that I’ve been meaning to tell you for a really long time, except that I don’t remember the beginning, which makes me think about all the things in my life that I don’t remember.” She pauses, before asking: “Do you remember?” She goes on, telling a story that connects her, and her viewers, to the land she is performing on. With her narrative, Johnson touches upon a collective memory bank – the stories, events, feelings that exist within our DNA. In addition to conjuring up links to an archaic past, the artist also exposes the transformative power of live performance: its ability to engage us as active participants in a journey of remembering and rediscovering essential pieces of our identity.

Emily Johnson  in "SHORE" Photo by Erin Westover

Emily Johnson
in “SHORE”
Photo by Erin Westover

Of Yup’ik descent, Johnson, whose piece SHORE in Yelamu (San Francisco) will be presented at ODC next week, is one of the Indigenous choreographers that scholar Jacqueline Shea Murphy evoked during her presentation of Here and Now: Indigenous Presence and the Contemporary Choreography of Emily Johnson/Catalyst and DANCING EARTH at Stanford Colloquium on Dance Studies last May. Shea Murphy is an Associate Professor of Critical Dance Studies and Chair of the Dance Department at UC-Riverside. She is the author of “The People Have Never Stopped Dancing”: Native American Modern Dance Histories (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

In anticipation of SHORE, and Minneapolis-based choreographer Rosy Simas’ We Wait In The Darkness, which will be presented at ODC in October, Shea Murphy and I talked about contemporary Indigenous dance over the phone early this summer.

Marie Tollon: How did you come to research and write about Indigenous dance?

Jacqueline Shea Murphy: I came to write about Indigenous dance through literary studies. I was an English PhD student. As part of my literary studies, I was studying narrative theory and I was looking around for ways of thinking about storytelling and narrative that were different from what I was being taught. I became interested in and started reading a lot of Native American literary theory about Native American narrative. At the same time, I was looking at dance as a form of alternative narrative, a way of telling stories that wasn’t what I had been taught in graduate school. Because I was reading Native American literary studies, thinking a lot about the ways that storytelling connects people, and because I was also writing about dance and thinking about the way that dance connects people, how it works to make meaning in a way different perhaps than writing- I put them together. Eventually, I started to think about how they were working in similar ways.

Jacqueline Shea Murphy Photo by Bashir Anastas

Jacqueline Shea Murphy
Photo by Bashir Anastas

Then I was reading about Martha Graham who made a famous comment in one of her essays about “the Indian and the Negro” as sources of great importance in American modern dance. There were quite a lot of dance scholars writing about African American dance, but no one was writing about Native American dance and its contribution to American modern dance history. So my first book was provoked by that comment and made me want to understand why no one was writing about Native American dance history in relation to modern dance history. And that sent me on a long journey to study the history of Native American dance in relationship to dance history and to U.S. and Canadian political history, and to get to know and learn from and with and about contemporary Native American and other Indigenous choreographers. In the process of researching that book, I met many Native choreographers — and that was a number of years ago, in the late 1990s. Since then, I have been following the work of Indigenous choreographers in the US, in Canada, and New Zealand. So –I was drawn very intellectually to Indigenous studies because it provided a way of understanding the world that seemed compelling and important and different from what I was being taught in my academic programs.

MT: There is obviously a multiplicity of voices that make up the Indigenous dance world. What are the common characteristics that these works share?

JSM: Indigenous is such a troubling word. The scholar Mary Louise Pratt has remarked that people only become “Indigenous” when the colonizers arrive. Before that, they are just “The People.” So the very term is constituted through colonization, and is incredibly broad — as you note, it includes a huge diversity of peoples. Other scholars have argued recently that it is most helpful not as an identity category but as a term that can be useful for articulating a way of being in the world, so it’s more a way of doing, being, seeing, or enacting a way of being in the world rather than it is a state or category for what one is.

I do think that there are some shared approaches to understanding things that I have noticed in the choreographers that I follow. Some of it has to do with enacting situations of relationship or relationality. The dance is about coming into relationship with one another. And maintaining that relationship in a reciprocal way so that dancing isn’t just for entertainment of someone who comes to the performance, watches then leaves –although there is certainly a relationship in that as well, in that it’s foregrounding the relationships that can get made through the performance and through the making of the performance. The idea of reciprocity is central, that you support one another and that there is an understanding of shared responsibility in meaning making. By the way, these thoughts are also not my individual ideas– they have evolved through long-term discussions and continuing exchanges with many, many others–though multiple observations, and continual dialogue.

Through these, I’ve also come to see how storytelling is something that is also central to a lot of the dancing. There are stories that choreographers and dancers brought forward, through their experience as Indigenous people, whether they are creation stories –say, the Haudenosaunee story of the Woman who Fell from the Sky- or some or part of a transformation story, or some other particular story from one’s people or experience. Some choreographers work in those ways, with specific stories. Even those like Emily [Johnson] who aren’t working with storytelling in quite that direct a way are still bringing stories from their experience and from their background into the dance performance as a central part of what they are doing. And if “Indigenous” is a word that is constituted through the arrival of colonizers, one commonality is that the stories often are about that relationship as well, in some ways, even as they are also articulating worlds that are outside of that experience.

Rosy Simas in "We Wait in The Darkness"

Rosy Simas in
“We Wait in The Darkness”

MT: There is something very specific in these choreographers’ relationship to time –Emily Johnson’s piece spans over the course of a week; Rosy Simas’s We Wait in The Darkness addresses her female lineage and engages past, present and future. Would you say that these choreographers’ relationship to time is also what characterized their work as Indigenous?

JSM: I think of it as an expansive and layered sense of time. So that time isn’t just existing in this one minute or this one moment, but rather, here and now also has in it these layers or different realms of connections to other times, which sometimes get called past, present and future. What does an artist do? An artist is a visionary who brings forward a vision of the world that they see. I feel that this understanding of time as not being quite so finite as it is usually represented in the world that we inhabit –with weeks, years, minutes, clocks- is definitely there. It happens in Emily’s idea of having this dance piece not just be the dance piece. First of all, it’s not just the staged dance. There are the other aspects that are choreographed as part of it: the reading, the community volunteer action, the feast. There are also all of the performances that came before, and the people who are being accumulated into it. Then there’s the other two parts of her trilogy that came before and that are layering into it and there’s the reverberation that continues after. The conversations that continue and the way the piece might affect people and reverberate out. This way of understanding time is encapsulated within its structure, this idea that time and space are more connected and more expansive than is usually seen.

Rosy Simas’ work is doing that as well. Her piece notices the layers – like the sounds of colonization and trauma on her ancestral land–in the layers of her body. And then, she has talked about noticing who from her family, who has passed on, shows up at each performance. So there’s definitely an awareness of those kinds of connectivity in the dance and its performances to other times and realms and places. It’s also connecting from one time to another time by leaping across it without having to really travel in a linear way, without having to account for every moment in between.

MT: There is also a sense that not only time is expansive but also space, that boundaries are flexible. This is true of SHORE, which happens in many locations, but also of Rosy Simas’ performance which happens along and converses with an exhibition –All my relations: a Seneca story- which consists of objects that belonged to her family.

JSM: I went to that exhibit. It included a number the changing maps of the Seneca reservation and memorabilia from her mother and grandmother, and then excerpts of the dance were performed there as well. I sensed that she was commenting – well, on a lot of things –including the shrinking political boundaries of Seneca land in relation to the U.S. government’s broken promises, and how unconscionable that is, yes—how those boundaries have shifted. But one more abstract thing I sensed, through the multiple maps, was the misguided faith that we seem to sometimes have in the written document as stable. Things written on paper and supposed to be archival are not actually really that stable-they mark change and power relations, not a stable historical truth or reality. In a way, the dance may be a better form or site of archival history. I think there is some commentary about how we hold memory, about how knowledge is understood to be considered valid. I understood the exhibit and dance to be suggesting that dance holds knowledge in some ways that are perhaps more trustworthy than a written document. They are both different forms of holding histories and memories.

MT: You have mentioned that Indigenous choreographers are using contemporary dance in ways that strengthen and assert Indigenous knowledge. Would you say that this last point –accessing and validating these memories- is one example?

JSM: Definitely. To answer the first part of it, I think a lot of older ideas about Native and Indigenous history and culture is that it is about loss, about trauma, and the ways that colonization has depleted Native culture. On the one hand, that’s of course true and irrefutable: Native peoples and cultures have experienced incredible trauma and loss through colonization. But what I am seeing in these choreographers’ work and other contemporary native artists’ work is that’s it’s also about enacting particular Indigenous ways of being in ways that are strengthening for the future. So they are not only about enacting a healing of the past –although perhaps that too- but also and more so even, a strengthening and enacting of an Indigenous future in the now.

Rulan Tangen Photo by Henry Weinstein

Rulan Tangen
Photo by Henry Weinstein

You are asking about using somatics or bodily exploration to find knowledge. I see that happening in ways that connect to Indigenous experience. If you have been cut off from your family or your language or your tribal culture through these colonization processes, you can still locate fragments of knowledge within your body or within your process of dance making. Rulan [Tangen, Artistic Director of DANCING EARTH] asks her dancers to go back to their family, to talk with and gather stories and information from family members, from their language, and also from the internet – basically, from wherever they can — to research and bring whatever knowledge they can access in to the studio. And then, she has them explore it through their body and has them bring it forward, so that the dancers can feel the power of, connect to, access, put forward and share that knowledge. So it’s strengthening to them in that sense. And it’s kind of a nice side effect that it also reverberates to the audience. It might not be the primary goal but it has that effect also, for those witnessing. Colonization is a process of wiping out, of trying to wipe out, and this dance making counters that by locating and strengthening and creatively engaging with Indigenous knowledge that is there. I think that part of why Indigenous contemporary dance is so exciting in this process is because it is a practice that values experimentation and bodily exploration into what one finds. It is a creative, alive, process.

MT: Some non-native contemporary choreographers perform rituals and include community within the making of land-based work. I am thinking of Anna Halprin’s planetary dance as an example. Would you say that the difference between these choreographers and Indigenous choreographers is that the latters’ work is tapping into a specific body of memory, history and lineage?

JSM: This is interesting because this is a question that is really frequent. What makes this different from that? A lot of contemporary choreographers are working with experimentation, land-based work, and stories. Once, I came from Rulan Tangen’s workshops at Riverside, landed at the airport in Oakland, and went to Anna Halprin’s planetary dance– which in a lot of ways felt similar, because the language that she is using felt similar. But it also felt so different. When Indigenous peoples engage with these practices, they are addressing specific political histories that almost invariably involve how specific family, tribal, genocide and dislocation have impacted their lives in ways that are really different from the way they have impacted non-Indigenous dance makers. The dance making that they are doing is infused with understandings that are specific to their political histories, and it reverberates into the dance making. The knowledges that centuries of survival have brought, that have sustained indigenous practices through these years of colonization, come into it too. It’s not so much that the ritual is different as that the experience and history and embodied knowledge are different. Maybe the intention is different too. There’s a different intention when there is someone who is tapping into their lived experiences of colonization and accessing tools that have sustained their people in order to survive through that.

MT: In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, author and scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the way some Native elders spoke about European settlers’ relationship to the colonized land: “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they are staying or not.” Can you talk about how Indigenous dance relates to land and location?

Emily Johnson's "SHORE" Photo by Erin Westover

Emily Johnson’s “SHORE”
Photo by Erin Westover

JSM: It’s interesting because there are two ways of thinking about that quote. Many, if not all, of the choreographers whose work I’ve followed make the work in attention to where they are from. For Emily, it is the land of Alaska, for Rosy the Seneca land, for Rulan a disconnection from land that is part of this colonizing history. At the same time, there is attention to landing where you are and connecting to that land there, both perceptually—noticing and appreciating how it looks, sounds, smells on the ground where you are now — and politically. There are protocols and practices for doing that. You acknowledge the people of the land. When you arrive somewhere you acknowledge whose land it is and recognize that you are a visitor to that land and you connect to it through that relationship of visitor/host. This is something that happens at many Native events, including performances – a speaker will open by thanking the people of that land for welcoming those who are there, for permitting our presence on the land. It’s a practice that is intertwined within a political relationship that recognizes the relationship that one has with other people who have been there before you. Calling out and insisting that these host/visitor protocols be practiced is something that Jack Gray, a Maori choreographer from Aotearoa [New Zealand], works directly with in bringing his work to places like the U.S. It can be challenging sometimes, in places where there are long histories where Native peoples have been disempowered-but also really transformational –to insist that these relationships be enacted. And then, in addition to connecting to the Indigenous people of the land where you are, you study and connect with your own ancestry, your own people. My family has ancestry from Wales. What can this study of Indigenous dance here make me understand about the indigeneity of my Welsh background? I think that in some ways what Indigenous dance does is twofold: one, it makes you aware of the land that you are on and perhaps if you are not an Indigenous person, how you are not really of that land or how your relationship to that land is one with a very deep political history. Two, it prods you to become curious, interested, and wanting to deepen and strengthen your own connection to your own ancestry.

Summer Sampler Program Notes | By Marie Tollon

Summer Sampler’s program juxtaposes a multiplicity of verbal and non-verbal languages that convey narratives of love, betrayal and dislocation.

ODC/Dance in Kimi Okada's "I look vacantly at the Pacific ... though regret" Photo by Margo Moritz

ODC/Dance in Kimi Okada’s
“I look vacantly at the Pacific
… though regret”
Photo by Margo Moritz

For both of her pieces, Kimi Okada researched the multiple ways in which the body speaks through signs and gestures. Thus the material that constitutes Two If By Sea is developed from non-verbal languages, such as Morse code, flag semaphore or Navajo code. For I look vacantly at the Pacific… though regret, Okada wove insulting gestures from around the globe into the movement vocabulary to explore miscommunications in the context of cultural differences. A third generation Japanese American, Okada grew up in the Midwest, isolated from any Asian community. Curious about her Japanese heritage, she spent a year in Japan in college, and felt that she was “always doing the wrong thing: I was trying to shake hands when you are supposed to bow; I was using language that only men use; I found myself really isolated and felt lonely.”

Adding to the sense of inadequacy that being in a foreign land can trigger, voices from instructional tapes of English idioms for Japanese businessmen create a quirky sonic background for the first section of I look vacantly. In both Okada’s piece and Brenda Way’s Scissors Paper Stone, the spoken word adds an intricate layer of meaning to the language of dance. Scissors starts with an excerpt of A Street Car named Desire’s script. As the piece progresses, the tension between the three performers escalates to the poetic violence of Jimi Hendrick’s Hey Joe. The O.J. Simpson trial was unfolding when Way was creating Scissors, and its narrative “fueled the direction of the trio toward a violent mode,” Way shared.

Gestures, movements, signs and words combine to offer multi-layered portraits of individuals whose successful or failed attempts to communicate and relate to each other speak to the inner need for human connection.

ODC/Dance presents Summer Sampler at ODC Theater, from July 23 through July 25.

Reading the Other: A Conversation with Kimi Okada | By Marie Tollon

A few months ago, “This Life” New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler wrote about how young people are increasingly losing their ability to read nonverbal communications and develop other skills that are essential to social interactions. He reminded of the innate and crucial ability of humans to “read” each other:

“Reading nonverbal communication is an underappreciated skill. For most of our history, humans had no choice but to communicate face to face. With so much experience, we honed the ability to detect sometimes-lifesaving information from facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and posture. Though these cues may vary in different cultures, reading them involves decoding what people think less by their words and more by their raised eyebrows, downcast gazes or rolled eyes,” writes Feiler.

Kimi Okada's "Two If By Sea" Photo by Andrew Weeks

Kimi Okada’s “Two If By Sea”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

Kimi Okada’s Two If By Sea, which received an Izzie award for outstanding achievement in choreography and will be presented during Summer Sampler at ODC Theater next week, exemplifies Feiler’s words. In the piece, the survival of the two protagonists depends on their capacity to communicate and understand each other in non-verbal ways.

Okada and I sat down last week to talk about her two works that are featured during Summer Sampler.

Marie Tollon: Both of your pieces on the program are about communication. In Two If By Sea, the survival of the two protagonists depends on their capacity to communicate to each other in non-verbal ways, while I Look Vacantly at the Pacificthough regret is about miscommunication in the context of cultural differences.

Kimi Okada: Yes, it’s about communication or lack of. In Two If By Sea, it’s really about personal and professional communication. It’s also about a relationship that connects to an outside world where communication is not only imperative but urgent. I was interested in a “do or die” aspect and the idea of imminent danger. It was not just about a very personal physical language with someone you love but I wanted to put it in a larger context. That’s what Two If By Sea was really exploring, using all kinds of different non-verbal languages and physical codes.

MT: What about the genesis of I Look Vacantly?

KO: The piece started with my experience as a Japanese American. I grew up in Minnesota, in the Midwest, in a community that didn’t have a Japanese American population. I didn’t speak Japanese. My grandmother was Japanese, first generation, but she lived in another city. I never really used Japanese as a child. I was always interested in my Japanese heritage but really never looked at it.

My junior year, I went to Japan and was completely miserable for the first few months: everybody assumed that I was the Japanese translator because I looked Japanese. So I was always feeling incredibly awkward because I didn’t feel American, I didn’t feel Japanese, I was in a cultural identity limbo. I felt that I was always doing the wrong thing: I was trying to shake hands when you are supposed to bow; I was using language that only men use; I was trained as a dancer, my feet are turned out, how I walk is not how Japanese women walk. I was a weird person to the Japanese. They didn’t know how to respond to me and I didn’t know how to respond to them. I found myself really isolated and lonely. I think when you go to a foreign country, there’s a deep desire to communicate and to be responsive and open. When you don’t have language skills or understand cultural etiquette, you can feel completely lost.

Kimi Okada's "I Look Vacantly..."  Photo by Margo Moritz

Kimi Okada’s “I Look Vacantly…”
Photo by Margo Moritz

At the same time, I was fascinated by Japanese pop culture and the veneer of Western culture that overlays Japanese culture. I started collecting Jingrish -hilarious English translations of things that you see in public places which have a very funny use of the English language. I also started collecting shopping bags, pencil boxes and t-shirts that all had a twisted use of English. I’ve always found them really funny and fascinating, because on the surface they make no sense but they do have a weird logic.

The title [of the piece] comes directly from a pencil box that I have. One of the other sound sources consists of teaching tapes for Japanese businessmen to learn English idioms. I used three different dialogues from the tapes. Each part of the conversation crams as many English idioms as possible into an implausible, so they are pretty silly.

MT: The piece has three sections. Can you talk more about each one?

KO: The beginning is called “Language Class.” There is a sensei -the teacher- and the students, and it’s the impossibility of understanding a language when too much information is thrown at you. At the beginning, you just feel completely at sea. There’s a kind of befuddlement and a lack of clarity to being in a foreign country. In the piece, the sensei does wild improvised things that everybody has to copy as best as they can. They start with the legs, add the arms, then strange head movements. It’s silly, but it’s the physicalization of how you feel when you are learning a language.

The second section goes to a slightly darker place. It’s called “Honorifics and Insults.” I did a lot of research on insulting physical gestures from many cultures and behavior that is offensive in some cultures, but not in others. The piece is pretty much about Japan and being Japanese American but I don’t want it to be limited to that. It’s essentially about being a foreigner in a strange country. It’s like going to a foreign country and not speaking any of the language. For the second section, I took 2 couples -one Asian and one that I imagined would be a couple from Texas- and it’s about the awkwardness of not knowing how to greet somebody. They go to shake hands, but the others bow. They try to be respectful but are always making the wrong choice.

I wanted to frame it in Japanese pop culture so while those dialogues are going on, there are stereotypical Japanese pop culture things [going on in the background]. There are algorithms phrases that Japanese school kids do, there’s Godzilla, there are ninjas… I wanted to frame it in how we see Japan too, in a pop way that is very much [on the] surface but also very funny.

"I Look Vacantly..." Photo by Margo Moritz

“I Look Vacantly…”
Photo by Margo Moritz

It gets darker. I did a lot of research about insulting gestures. In Indonesia for example, it’s hugely insulting to show anybody the bottoms of your feet, I took all of these weird offensive gestures and built them into more physical phrases. There’s also a moment where Jeremy [Smith] gets really tall and everybody else is short. This references my friend Dana who was 6.5 feet tall and had bright red hair. He was more than a foot taller than everybody else. In Asia, when you don’t look Asian, you really stand out in a crowd. So mothers would point at him to their children, as if he was a circus freak. He was very shy and he ended up leaving Japan because he felt that whenever he went outside, people would stop and take pictures of him. That was a reference to how you feel out of place, and it turns into this kind of crazy merry go round of obscene gestures. It’s about not knowing where you are and feeling a hostility against strangers.

The last section, “culture shock,” is about being in a culture and just doing whatever you think is right. All the physical material was developed based on an English idiom: “Throw up one’s hands,” “up to one’s elbows, ” “speed freak,” “bad vibes,” “keep both feet on the ground,” “ruffle one’s feathers.” The dancers came up with wonderful material. We started with a very literal interpretation and made it much more abstract. The pace of it is very frenetic. I want people to identify with being overwhelmed and then just winging it. You don’t have to be in another culture to feel that.

"Two If By Sea" Photo by Andrew Weeks

“Two If By Sea”
Photo by Andrew Weeks

MT: In both pieces, you are using gestures and humor. Did your background in theater, physical comedy and circus inform these two works?

KO: Definitely. I love physical comedy. The kinds of things that engage me often end up being humorous, but I don’t really start there. For Two If By Sea, I started with tap dance and Morse code, and then took it further. Working with physical comedians -Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle- I think that there’s a great possibility to engage and communicate with an audience when things are funny that makes people responsive, which is what I like about physical comedy. I’m not a huge fan of outright slapstick but physical comedy has the potential to be pretty sophisticated. And I think the best physical comedy is actually dark, and has much greater resonance than just a laugh. The greatest clowns have that. It’s the task that may be ridiculous, but the intention and the commitment of that person doing it are humorous. I love Buster Keaton for that reason, because he is just brilliant. He is absolutely serious but the situations get the better of him. His genuine attempts at coping are the basis of the humor. The best comedians that I know are absolutely serious about what they are doing as they are doing it. I think I want people to identify with seeing some of their own experience in there. The difference between my work and straight theater, which is often literal and in real time, is that I like to really abstract an idea and take it out of the realm of logic, play with it. This is this is why I love form: you can really abstract something in a way that is not bound by reality.

Humor in choreography comes from a situation. It’s very fun to direct the dancers because it’s not necessarily how they are used to work, there is a lot of acting. There are different kinds of languages: there’s a very theatrical, pedestrian language; there’s a gestural language and then there’s a very dancy, abstract language. These three are interwoven. When I direct dancers, I’m trying not to have them try to be funny. It’s a fine line and we hope it works!

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