Dance with A Mission: Thirty-five Years of Dance Brigade
Near: You are an artist, an activist, a mother. You run a nonprofit and have worked in local politics in San Francisco. But what I want to start with is your work in Eugene, Oregon with the Wallflower Dance Collective. That was 1975 and your work seemed to change the course of dance or at least have a huge effect on dance in America. You challenged the way we looked at women’s bodies in dance. Your art mixed all the genres from dance to theater to martial arts, sign language, and gymnastics.
Keefer: Modern dance has a real history of strong radical women using their bodies to express their ideas and feelings. Our founding mothers used lots of mythology to tell their stories, often weaving in Eastern mysticism. There was a radical art movement during the 1930s funded by the government that took on social justice themes. But I do think that we were the first dance company to use the word feminist to describe what we were doing and the first to express explicit lesbian sensibilities and concerns. I also think our content-driven work made us unique and accessible to a wide range of people who would not normally see themselves at a dance concert. We did dances about the environment, the war in El Salvador, about class and race and gay rights. We got lots of feedback from the community in Eugene about our work and that nurtured and pushed us in certain ways.
Could you describe Eugene, Oregon in the 1970s and what was relevant about that experience?
Eugene was the wild west of the women’s movement. There was practically a dual power structure of women’s collectives and collectives in general. You could write a book about the collectives in Eugene as an anthropological study on social change in the United States. In a town of 90,000 people there were probably 35 fully functioning collectives that offered every service imaginable. This was the community that we were part of, it was our audience to whom we were accountable. It was also a national phenomenon. Every town had lots of collectives.
How did the WOW Hall in Eugene influence you?
The most important thing was we performed in the round. There was no proscenium stage. The audience sat in a semi-circle around us and we warmed up on stage. The feeling was more like a rodeo or a barn dance. You have to remember that we (social change artists) were all trying to break down the barriers between audience and performer. We called ourselves cultural workers. It was a community center for dance, music, and theater—a perfect 1970s venue like the Peoples Cultural Center in San Francisco. The San Francisco Mime Troupe played there as did Utah Philips, and all the women music artists.
What skills did the company have when it started?
Lena Gatchalian and Debbie Kajiyama
“Cave Women” 2003—photo by Andy Mogg
Most of us trained in dance as kids or in college, but none was so skilled we could direct or lead a company. The collective model, as hard as it was at times, allowed us to develop and explore. We shared everything and were able to get help for our ideas in a way we could not have done if one of us had been expected to be the main director. We were very young. Wallflower Order was together for ten years, touring all over the United States Europe and Canada. We toured with Group Raiz raising money for El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile and we toured as part of the women’s music network through Road Work.
How did you keep a balance between art and politics?
As far out as our material was, we were a curious part of the dance scene. Right away we got lots of press. We were being reviewed in the Village Voice and New York Times. We got funding from the NEA. It all happened so fast and we wanted to meet the expectations of our press, so we took our training seriously. We also hired a director to help shape our material because we were a collective and we could not always see what we were doing. We managed to find a balance between the content and the art. We went for a feeling. We argued forever about our intention. We wanted to be understood. We wanted a collective response to our work. We wanted the audience to get in a groove with us; to go on a journey and at one point at least say, yeah, that represents me, my intention, my life.
I still get letters from people who said they heard my music at a certain point in their lives and it motivated them to make changes at a time when they felt very alone. Do you think you helped people, women? Was that your goal?
Remember our other motto was the “personal is political.” We were looking at our personal lives as a barometer in the community and the world. A lot of that was about being women, being lesbian, and in touch with our own experiences and the pain around race or class or abuse or lack of opportunity. When you feel alone in your pain, nothing gets you closer to your real self and/or your ability to change your life than culture. I would imagine the New Song Movement of Latin America or the poetry of Pablo Neruda or Alice Walker or Roque Dalton from El Salvador and rap music from the African American community has saved many lives. I would think our work had a similar effect.
What was your main message or thing you got across?
I suppose at the beginning it was about strong women dancing. Not ballerinas or skinny modern dancers, but athletic dancers who did not shave their legs or wear make up, that had authority with a sense of humor and worked as a collective. So many women wanted to dance but there were no real role models for dancers and social change enthusiasts. But the question of what changes someone is so interesting. Sometimes it is not the message at all, but the energy that surrounds it. The integration of the sound, lights, movement and music is something small and subtle that opens people and holds their pain or mirrors their dreams. That is the power of art I guess. There were women all over the country hungry for the experience.
Who were your producers?
There was a production company dedicated to women’s culture in every city and we were lucky to be part of that. There were a bunch of us on the network. You (Holly Near), Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Ferron stayed out there for a long time. But there was also the Berk Women’s Music Collective, Alive, and the Varied Voices of Black Women tour with Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, Pat Parker, Vicki Randle, and Gwen Avery. This network of producers really got women’s music and culture on the road and gave all of our careers a shot in the arm. We were the only dancers and because our material was so specific in content we toured a lot.
Now, you run a community center in San Francisco’s Mission District, Dance Mission. How did that happen?
It was a natural outgrowth of trying to change the world through art and politics. And I had a child and needed to get off the road and get a “real” job. I have been producing other artists since Eugene and the whole time we lived in Oakland. We produced other artists as a way to share our resources and have a more multicultural experience and community. We created Furious Feet and the Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie.
I then started a theater in San Francisco and it quickly blossomed into a program of African dance arts, a huge children’s dance program, adult dance classes, a 140-seat theater, a home for Dance Brigade, and rehearsal space for lots of local dance companies and performers. We teach everything from hip hop to salsa to modern dance and taiko drumming. Our theater is booked about 46 weeks a year. The women who dance in the Brigade also work in the office and were instrumental in building Dance Mission and the school. I could not have done it without them. Both Lena Gatchalian and Tina Banchero played a huge part in building the business and the school and making it all work. We are an artist-driven community center. All of us in the office are artists as well.
Do you see your influence on other artists?
There are 400 young people in the school and 70 girls who are part of our Grrrl Brigade program. They learn Dance Brigade and Wallflower Order repertoire. That is amazing to be part of. I love watching our efforts go on to the next generation. They create work about their lives and the lives of women and girls around the world. I also have danced with so many women in Dance Brigade and some of them are now choreographers in their own right. I can see Dance Brigade’s influence in their work. There are three social change dance schools in Northern California that came out of the Wallflower/Dance Brigade tradition: School of Performing Arts and Cultural Education in Ukiah, Destiny Arts in Oakland, and Dance Mission.
What are you most proud of as a choreographer?
I really tried to come out against the war in Iraq. My dance company played at every rally against the war in San Francisco. We played taiko and we gave speeches and danced. We also presented four Women Against War concerts in Northern California, trying to give a cultural voice to what was happening. In 2004, we did a show called Spell, which was a ritual piece to change the Bush administration. I did a piece on global warming with Barbara Higbie and we have done a lot of work with Cuban artists and the Cuban revolution, including a birthday letter to Fidel with Lichi Fuentes.
My next big work is about veterans. I am broken hearted about what we did in Iraq, how many people are still dying and now we are bombing Afghanistan. Our current president is doing this “just war” thing and the response from the left is so bewildered. We can’t get a footing to be an oppositional force to Obama’s policies. It’s like if you say anything you are a party pooper. Yet we feel terrible about what is happening. The toll these wars are taking on our children and communities—like how many vets are committing suicide, committing crimes in their towns and violence against their family. The ultimate display of child abuse is sending young people to two or three tours of duty. Luckily, there are vets groups springing up and doing tons of work. We are collaborating with the San Francisco Chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
I can’t jump like that anymore. On a personal level I practice Tibetan Buddhism. I needed a way to deal with my habitual responses—mostly anger. My front line of defense was always to get mad and I can say that there is some distance now between a problem and how I react. I also had two very close friends die from cancer within a short time of each other. One was Nina Ficther, co-founder of Dance Brigade. I found great comfort in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. I am now working on a piece based on the book called The Great Liberation Upon Hearing. It follows the journey of a deceased person through the Bardo to rebirth.
Do you ever get overwhelmed or depressed or wish that you had made a different choice around your art, to perhaps not be so public about your politics?
You know as well as I do that being a social change artist is a unique experience and responsibility. And being an artist in general often feels like a thankless task. Art is not really supported in this country. We all live on the poverty line and people who create events and produce us easily forget how powerful we are in exacting social change. Social change artists, unless they are truly successful, often feel like fish out of water. Personally I am very happy and grateful for this incredible life I have been able to lead. I am concerned about our future, my daughter’s future, and all the wonderful children I teach. For now, today, in this moment, I can only say brava to what we all have been able to do.
Holly Near is a singer, teacher, and activist who also founded an independent company, Redwood Records, in 1972.