Rehearsal for Gracias a la Vida. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Through four decades, Dance Mission Theater has steadfastly continued producing shows. On January 13th and 14th, it will celebrate its 40th anniversary with politically themed performances that include drumming, ballet, modern dance, song, and even sign language at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

It’s called “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time” and it is a performance the producers promise is filled with humor, vitality and tribute. But there’s also the promised reflection on bitterness of the modern era, and Dance Mission’s director Krissy Keefer is not just grateful – she’s pissed off.

“I grew up in a time of the feminist movement….It wasn’t always nice. Anger is used to get the status quo out of the way,” Keefer said. “People don’t want to get mad, and I’m mad.”

There’s plenty of bitterness to tackle in the show. Keefer has everything on her mind from war to globalism to the environment. There’s plenty to scrutinize at the local level too – Keefer noted how difficult it is for people making $50,000 a year to keep up in a city where the median income has reached $84,000.

So what do you do?

“You make work, you make art,” Keefer says. “You take some responsibility around it…How do we celebrate and at the same time mark and witness what is really going on?”

For 40 years, Keefer and Dance Mission have been doing just that.

“In celebrating Krissy, we are standing up for imagination, grit, invention, commitment and the power of women who believe,” wrote ODC’s Brenda Way, Kimi Okada, and KT Nelson in a statement. “Dance Mission is the embodiment of her profound convictions and her vision of a deeply engaged world.”

It has also trained new generations of socially aware and politically engaged dancers.

“I’m trying to make the next generation of artist activists, girls with a strong sense of being feminists,” Keefer said.

And that’s exactly what happens at Dance Mission, at least according to Marivel Mendoza, who has been dancing in the program since she was seven years old.

“They teach you not to believe what they believe but to think and form your own ideas. As a young girl that really changed how I spoke to people and how I convey my thoughts,” Mendoza said. “Most of our pieces are political works. We wouldn’t just simply learn the choreography.

We would have discussions about what we were sharing with our audience and how we wanted it to be conveyed.”

Mendoza now makes a living working at Dance Mission Theater in various capacities, including teaching classes.

Dance Mission attracts students and masters from across a vast spectrum of disciplines, making it a highly respected institution in the dance community and culture of San Francisco and the West Coast. Natalie Terry, a student of both ODC Dance and Dance Mission Theater as well as the front desk manager at ODC, said students who want to get a full understanding of the discipline they are studying should seek out both institutions.

“DMT and ODC are both women-centric, deeply rooted in the Mission, and incredibly rich in what they have to offer,” she wrote. “In order to create a comprehensive curriculum for yourself, you really need to go to both studios.”

The company’s Mission District home and its cultural and political history and climate serves as a springboard for exploring all of these themes, from income inequality to feminism to racism to gentrification.

Rehearsal for Gracias a la Vida. Photo by Laura Wenus

The choice of the music – including activist folk singer Holly Near, and selecting Christelle Durandy as musical director and setting pieces to recordings of Nina Simone and of course Mercedes Sosa, a singer who famously performed the show’s titular song, “Gracias a la vida.”

“The Bay Area is where you went if you had an interest in social justice and solving the world’s problems. It’s become cutthroat and it’s spread like a cancer,” Keefer said. “I don’t think that things should stay the same, but this is making way for the international ruling class. We are the landing pad.”

So why have a show about the Mission at the Yerba Buena center in SoMa? Practical reasons. The theater there is big enough to hold an audience that will ensure the undertaking pencils out financially after three nights or so.  Having it at Dance Mission Theater’s much smaller space would mean a need to have a run of more than 15 days, says Keefer who is committed to paying all of her performers for their time.

Plus, it’s not just about breaking even. Dance Mission has big plans for a move to a new location, and the performances are intended to also help begin raise money for a new home.

In the performance, the task of expressing complex political themes physically takes many forms including a dance that begins in a pile of packing peanuts. Another is a kind of ranchero dance performed to a rap song from the Puerto Rican band Calle 13.

Most of the dancers too are non-white, many are women, and some of them political refugees.

Though the themes are politically weighty, the show promises more than just a litany of problems.

“People will leave with a feeling, a sense of possibility and renewal,” Keefer said.

Gracias a la Vida opens Friday, January 13. Tickets are available here.

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