Moving Forward…dances in dire times was curated by Suchi Branfman for the final performance of the Fireside Series at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. The program featured works choreographed and performed by Suchi Branfman, Shruti Bala Purkayastha, Tom Tsai and Bernard Brown. The overall theme centered on activism; artists making statements on women’s rights, civil rights, Taiwan’s independence from China and reactions to the recent presidential election. The performances were packed with personal feelings which spilled over into the audience through dialogue and audience participation.
Suchi Branfman is a choreographer, educator, curator and activist. Her contribution for this program was titled First One Hundred as presented in three parts. For First One Hundred, Part One, she incorporated questionnaires that audience members listed ten actions taken in response to, or personal reactions to January 20th, inauguration day. She asked the audience to discuss these with someone seated nearby that they did not know. I spoke with a woman of my generation. We discussed how we had already fought for and won the social battles that are once again being threatened by the current administration. For First One Hundred, Part Two, Branfman asked eight volunteers to read what they had written while she improvised quite beautifully on their statements of protest. She and the eight audience participants then moved forward and back as a group at Branfman’s command. This demonstrated how human rights movements take steps forward, only to be driven back again and again. It ended, however, with the group moving forward. First One Hundred, Part Three came at the end of the evening with the audience singing Ella’s Song by Bernice Johnson Reagon; a song inspired by Ella Baker’s lifelong work and teachings to stand up and fight for freedom.
Shruti Bala Purkayastha is an Indian artist and healer. In her work Widow Counsel, she read and interpreted through dance, stories of two Indian goddesses: Sati, a Hindu goddess of marital felicity and longevity; and Lalita, the Goddess of bliss. The work was laced with humor, rage and protest, interweaving traditional Indian dance with dialogue and music by Nandita Chowdhury, Nazrul Geeti and Kendrick Lamar. The thread of her readings was sometimes difficult to follow due to Purkayastha’s accent, but her physical emotions regarding women’s struggles came through loud and clear.
A Fantasy of Going Home is very personal for Tom Tsai. Born in Taiwan, Tsai was raised in the US and through dance “found an awareness of a physical place”. We see a decade old video of Tsai’s work (ashamed) as he walks about relating personal stories of growing up a bi-national person. He then beautifully combines his break dancing skills with facial and hand gestures to express frustration and anger at the United States’ Taiwan/China policies, and his desire to return to Taiwan to fight for its independence. Tsai has a unique way of allowing an audience to see themselves through his eyes by pointing out our social and political hypocrisies.
Box is a dramatic solo inspired by Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th century Virginia slave who in 1849 escaped to freedom by mailing himself in a wooden crate to abolitionists in Philadelphia. Choreographed and powerfully performed by Bernard Brown, Box examines the emotions of one black man’s history and the on-going struggle of the Black people to be free. Brown performs to strong music composed and performed by Los Angles based Steven Gordon, and ends by beautifully singing the powerful gospel, I’m Building Me A Home. The lyrics in this song that directly related to the evening’s focus on activism were “This earthly heart Is gonna soon decay and the soul’s gotta have, oh Lord, somewhere to stay”.
Moving Forward…dances in dire times proved that the arts can be used successfully to make political statements and/or as a method of activism. For many in the audience it was a cathartic evening; a moment of solidarity and action.