D.I.R.T. To Stir Up Dance Mission Theater

Photo courtesy of the Embodiment Project

No, it’s not a janitorial problem — D.I.R.T. at Dance Mission Theater is actually a vibrant showcase of artistic and physical skill opening this weekend. Dance In Revolt(ing) Times is a compilation of works featuring choreographers and dancers taking on deeply political themes in a form that gives social thought visible, tangible life.

Rehearsal for Qinmin Liu's choreography for DIRT, exploring the power of paper

Rehearsal for Qinmin Liu’s choreography for D.I.R.T., exploring the power of paper

“Dance is interesting because it has a long history of being radical and socially relevant,” said Dance Mission’s artistic director Krissy Keefer.

The theater put out a call for choreographers that would carry on that tradition, and 64 hopefuls answered. 16 of them would pass muster to present material “that we could dig our teeth into,” Keefer said. Dance Brigade, the organization that runs Dance Mission Theater, provides them affordable rehearsal space and a chance to get their work seen, as well as support in everything from procuring funds to marketing to lighting. Funding for the project came from the Fleishhacker Foundation, Zellerbach Family Foundation, and Grants for the Arts, with additional funding for some individual artists provided by CA$H Theater Bay Area.

Dancers rehearse Kristin Damrow's piece, "Rocks In Her Knees."

Dancers rehearse Kristin Damrow’s piece, “Rocks In Her Knees.”

The themes that will be explored range from feminism to human rights, and include elements like men en pointe, an exploration of the effects of war seen through a Filipino-American lens, and a commentary on a 1984 gas leak in India that killed over 3,700 people known as the Bhopal Disaster. The Embodiment Project will present a piece on police brutality, while Luis Valverde will show “Taki Unkay,” the name of an indigenous movement that arose in the Andes during the 16th century which is Quechua for “dancing sickness.” Kristin Damrow has choreographed a routine called “Rocks In Her Knees” that explores the expression of individuality in a culture that often suppresses it.

Choreographers for D.I.R.T. have chosen to get their message across in ways that range from subtle to overt to all-out bizarre — Said Keefer of one piece on third-wave feminism: “I don’t completely get it but it’s edgy and energetic and it’s weird.”

In the “overt” category, choreographer Qinmin Liu is producing a piece exploring the dirt, power, and beauty of paper. One dancer has a monologue, and at some point, long tubes of rolled up paper are picked up, spun around, and thrown to the ground. Later a dancer blows through a tube, funnelling air into the audience’s faces.

Qinmin Liu and one of her dancers rehearse part of her DIRT piece about paper.

Qinmin Liu and one of her dancers rehearse part of her D.I.R.T. piece about paper.

And that’s not even so strange for Liu. A multifaceted performance artist, Liu has wandered city streets covered in rice for the sake of art. She nods, unconcerned, at the suggestion that people might be frightened off by the absurd and politically charged nature of her art.

“That’s fine..I always make statements. I love the political. We say what we want to say, we give voice to the things we haven’t said out loud,” Liu said.

Enabling artists to do fearlessly do exactly that is part of the purpose of D.I.R.T.

“There’s kind of a damper on freedom of speech right now,” Keefer said. “Individualds grapple with self-censorship because we keep being told Big Brother is watching you.”

With D.I.R.T, performers have the freedom to express themselves.

Stella Adelman, the Adult Program and Theater Director at Dance Mission, said part of what builds the sense of community and enables dancers like Liu to push the envelope is the emphasis on “taking care of one another.”

Assistance with the logistical aspect of putting on a show is a significant part of that care.
“One of the ideas that D.I.R.T. was based off of was how hard it is to self-produce. The cost of space is astronomical.”

Rehearsal for Kristin Damrow's piece at Dance Mission Theater.

Rehearsal for Kristin Damrow’s piece at Dance Mission Theater.

But it’s also the percolation of work through the different artistic groups — the “diversity of established-ness” as Adelman called it. Newer artists have the chance to get their work seen by more experienced choreographers and have access to one anothers’ audiences. The theater is also run by performers, meaning administrators are tuned in to the needs of the artists.

“What happens here is a real cross-fertilization,” Keefer said.

“There’s a kind of damper on freedom of speech now. Individuals grapple with self-censorship because we keep being told Big Brother is watching you,” Keefer said. At the same time, she added, “art is being used as a way to trigger and torment issues and call it freedom of speech.”

D.I.R.T. runs two weekends, from January 23 to February 1. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door, with discounts for multiple-program tickets. Tickets may be purchased here.

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