“Dance as a radical act is dance that clears away the social, cultural, aesthetic, or political assumptions we cling to and looks squarely at what is really going on in the world.”
—Ann Murphy, dance dept. head
“Dance as a radical act” is this season’s theme for the dancers of the Mills College Dance Repertory Company, dubbed RepCo, who will perform their show “Radical Flux” free for students in Rothwell’s new Little Lisser theater.
“I think dance as a radical act means giving voice to dance in ways that an audience never thought dance could speak,” said dancer Francesca Cipponeri, who assists RepCo artistic director Kara Davis.
The dancers of RepCo are undergrad and grad students who all commit to rigorous schedules of dance technique classes at least five days a week. Each dancer must audition to join the group, which is led by artistic director Kara Davis. Joining RepCo provides performing opportunities and is a bridge between the Mills dance program, founded in 1941 as one of the first in the U.S., and becoming part of the internationally-recognized Bay Area dance community.
Famed faculty choreographers
Sherwood Chen is the dance department’s newest faculty member and is creating a score (the composition guidelines of an improvised dance) called “Nine Tend Ancestral Fields.”
Breaking away from traditional performance spaces, the dancers will perform in daylight at a yet-unannounced site with movement tailored specifically to that space.
“This dance is [an] attempt to resist historical and quotidian amnesia. To humbly acknowledge the land we walk on and the lands that walk in us,” Chen said. “Working on Ohlone land, I grapple daily with the contradiction of wanting to respect this land’s indigenous legacy while recognizing that I am an occupier as a contributing member of Mills’ fruitful community.”
In the process, Chen invited elder performing artists Daria Halprin, a legendary Bay Area performer and choreographer who visited for two weeks, and Ellen Sebastian Chang, an Oakland director, restaurateur and performing artist, as guest lecturers “to guide performers in reflecting on what they stand for and where they come from,” Chen said.
“We don’t even know what the ‘dance’ is yet,” MFA student and RepCo artistic director’s assistant Jen Gerry said. “We’re exploring right now.”
“Each rehearsal strikes a nerve in us that usually results in tears just from the pure vulnerability and charged energy,” Cipponeri said. “And isn’t that what being radical is? Charging forth with every ounce of your being to change conventional thinking or patterns.”
Additional pieces in “Radical Flux”are choreographed by this year’s featured guest artist Latanya D. Tigner based on her specialty in West African dance, and by faculty member and ballet barre teacher Sonya Delwaide-Nichols, as well as faculty member Molissa Fenley, whose choreography will be staged and taught by Mills dance undergrad alumna Jordan Wanderer.
In Delwaide-Nichols choreography of “Attente,” the dance “is about waiting, having an expectation, and hope,” MFA student Cindy Heen said. “Doing her choreography you can really feel the frustration and tension in the dance. I feel my imagination takes me in another world while doing her choreography.”
Simply waiting “is a radical concept in a world that is constantly changing…Being still and waiting,” Cipponeri said.
The late Anna Sokolow created her piece titled, “Magritte, Magritte” with inspiration from the surrealist painter René Magritte, known for his witty, thought-provoking images that question reality and became well-known in the 1960s. Artist-in-residence Jim May danced with Sokolow for 52 years and, last semester, taught RepCo each step of the dance, saying that every moment matters in the piece.
“He didn’t want us to learn the piece by looking at a video, but taught us every detail himself,” Heen said. “He also encouraged us to take the movement and make it work for us. When I dance this piece I feel my mind is being taken somewhere else and I really feel a connection with my fellow dancers.”
Molissa Fenley, a Mills alum and dance faculty member since 1999, choreographed “Mix.”
“You really rely on everyone in the group and you feel this strong sense of community,” Heen said. “It takes a deep layer of focus with staying on the right count because they are always changing.”
Everyone in the Mills dance program arrives with vastly different experience and types of training, or none, but dancing together can bridge the divide, celebrate each dancer’s unique interpretation, and promote cross-cultural understanding.
“Can unison and uniformity mean something different than the physical presentation of the body? Unison means they’re impeccably trained,” Davis said. “When you learn somebody’s dance, a culture’s dance, you embody that…it’s a felt, lived, learning exchange.”
“I think dance as a radical act is dance that moves you to think outside of your personal conventional pattern, allowing yourself to be swayed by movement just as powerfully as though someone was yelling in your face,” Cipponeri said.
For her, believing dance is radical is also personal.
“As the only ‘artsy’ kid in my family, I am constantly reminded that my choice of career is unstable and in a sense radical. I’m challenging my family to understand that the arts are a force to be reckoned with and deserve as much recognition and integrity as any other job, including other art forms,” Cipponeri said. I think it’s important that every emerging and established dancer have this spirit in their hearts. It’s a powerful motivator.”
For Davis, representation is radical.
“How do I create a company that can involve as many bodies as possible and can feature as many approaches to dance-making as possible?” Davis said.
She challenges the standard, specific ideas of what a ‘dancer’s body’ is and celebrates how bodies change—and can create change.
“When you talk about things pushing forward and changing, at the center of that conversation is the body as an agent of change, as the agent of inclusion,” Davis said. “We can actually comment on our existence through the making of art.”
Chen urges dancers to acknowledge their own existence on colonized land and to “bring these legacies with us” into the work of creating dances.
“Dance as a radical act is dance that clears away the social, cultural, aesthetic, or political assumptions we cling to and looks squarely at what is really going on in the world,” dance department head Ann Murphy said. “Then it carves out new forms of bodily expression in order to meet that reality. It’s a tall order, but this moment in time demands dancers push themselves across the borders of the status quo.”
RepCo’s influences trace back through the 20th century to dance radicals who broke past the social norms of their day.
Experiencing dance in radical ways has a strong history in the Bay Area, which Murphy calls “a place that supports experimentation and defiance.”
“The Dance Brigade’s Nutcracker (1987 to 1997) was an homage to the liberation movements in Latin America,” Murphy said. “Gay men in SF danced about their HIV status when few people were openly discussing AIDS. Alumna Deborah Vaughn launched one of the first diasporic dance companies—Dimensions Dance Theater—here in Oakland, remaking the idea of a dance troupe as a community hub that represents multiple generations.”
The word “radical” means “change from the roots,” which points to how 20th century dance icons used ancient inspiration to create their works, and these avant-garde artists became the vanguard of modern dance.
“Each of them defied existing conceptions of the female body, the black and brown body, the heroic body, and offered viewers a vision of who we really are and who we as individuals and a society can be,” Murphy said.
RepCo will perform “Radical Flux” on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and Friday, Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. plus one performance on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco, where ticket prices are $15 for students and $20 for the public.
Dance RepCo’s Davis and Murphy highlight how several radical dance artists from the past influence their work.
Early 20th century dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) is remembered for her emotive, natural movement and Greek-inspired costumes which revealed her ankles, considered scandalous at the time.
Next, prolific dancer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was influenced by Afro-Caribbean dance and ballet, and founded one of the first African American dance troupes in the U.S. with profound influence throughout the 20th century.
“As a student at the University of Chicago, Dunham headed off to the Caribbean to see if there were echoes of African culture still evident there,” Murphy said. “What she found was an Africanist treasure trove of traditions that reflected the profound heritage of black Americans. She brought Caribbean dance and music practices back to the U.S. and forged new dance idioms that continue to shape the contemporary dance scene.”
Another modern dance influencer, Anna Sokolow [1910-2000], created compositions with unusually abstract and disturbing tones. She incorporated elements of Jewish life and made references to global conflicts to explore a wide range of emotions through her movements.
Jose Limón (1908-1972) was a renowned mid-20th Century dancer from Mexico known for his technique of large gestures, falling and continuously flowing motion. He is known for lessening the divide between dancer and musician, expanding dance to include more male bodies, and rejecting the idea that dance should be pretty.
“It had to dig beneath the superficial, and find a powerful beauty, even if it had to be ‘ugly’ to do so,” Limon famously said.
Improv dance legend Anna Halprin “turned her back on what had become almost a cult-like devotion to New York choreographers and stayed in California to explore a radically unheroic ideal of the body through improvisation and task as dance,” Murphy said, and influenced the dance explosions of the 1960s and ’70s as well as somatic research of movement.