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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Reflection: Dance Mission Theater presents D.I.R.T Prog. C a performance by & for the people 4/23/23

Citizen SUPREME are words which title the 2023 iteration of the Dance Mission’s D.I.R.T. (Dance In Revolting Times) Festival and effectively describe Dance Mission’s place in San Francisco’s art ecosystem. It is a place where artists from historically marginalized communities are offered support and an artistic platform. Dance Mission provides equitably priced rental space, offers classes and supports internships that ensure a diverse arts workforce. It curates a wide range of community-based dance and performance festivals. In the past two months, I have seen the Women in Hip Hop, the CubaCaribe and D.I.R.T. at the Dance Mission Theater. These presentations are rich in talent and filled with performers and ideas I would not have experienced without Dance Mission’s curatorial eye and dedication to “addressing social justice issues, exploring cultural identities, [and] promoting inclusivity.”

Sunday afternoon I attend D.I.R.T. Program C which features three community-based ensembles. Each troupe uses story-telling, song, and dance to build confidence and self-esteem among its participants. Once trust has been established, these folks create performances to amplify the concerns of the group and drive social change.

Skywatchers, whose focus is the experiences and needs of the formerly unhoused residents of the Tenderloin district, opened the show with an excerpt-in-progress showing of Towards Opulence, the Opera. I am a huge fan of Skywatchers, and continue to be impressed at how their work evolves.

Today’s theater showing is indeed operatic, with song at its center. The performers are clad in purples, with bits individual touches of gold here and there; their opulence radiates. Led by professional musician Melanie DeMore in a call and repeat format, the ensemble sounds amazing. As they sing “see us rising, see us flying,” a trio of dancers rises from the floor. Connected at the shoulders, their singular form breaks into three individuals, as the choir sings, “we are newcomers, nurtured by those above and beyond.”

The second piece is movement based and and could function as a lesson on inclusivity. One of the Skywatchers is blind or severely sight-impaired. Rather than exclude him, they bring him down front where the twenty-member group can see him well. He then he leads the gestural-dance setting the stage for the others to follow.

Skywatchers’s lyrics and storytelling ground us in their reality. They sing about “lice, mice, and bed bug bites.” And remind us that “we are all one stroke away from homelessness.” Artist Facilitator, Gabriel Christian, dressed in golden robes, embodies the government official urging people to be grateful for the minimal services they receive. But as this group will tell you, they are “on a diet from bullshit.”

Skywatchers “are truth-tellers [and] love warriors.” They lift each other and us, “magnify[ing] magnificence” in places that society tends to ignore or erase from our collective consciousness. This fifteen-minute showing left me hungry to see the whole work, which is being presented June 3 & 4 at Cutting Ball Theatre.

Y Basta Ya! is created and performed by NAKA Dance Theater with members of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), “a grassroots organization promoting individual healing and community power.” Sunday’s excerpt relies heavily on spoken Spanish, but the feelings of the piece are easily understandable even for those with little facility in Spanish. A woman takes center stage. She reads a story, her voice quaking with emotion. She is both sad and outraged at being victimized. Hand-in-hand, seven Latina women stand behind her raising their fists in solidarity.

Members of Mujeres Unidas y Activas bow at conclusion of Naka Dance Theater's Y Basta Ya! Photo: J. Norris

A ritual begins with the women carrying traditional folklorico skirts cradled over their outstretched arms. Laying them carefully in half-moons, they lay dreaming upon them before spreading them out to full circles. Stepping into the center they draw the skirts up and tie them on, returning to their cultural roots. They flap their skirts like birds or butterflies, the stage filling with color.

The projected image of a woman in a field fills the back wall. The film is narrated in Spanish (subtitled in English). We hear a story of generations of women being preyed upon, including the narrator. She is focused on creating a new path and breaking the chains of pain and submission for the next generation. In the foreground the women perform a dance with wide colorful ribbons, lifting them in sweeping arcs.

The final presentation, “Our Work, Our Dignity,” is performed by twenty-plus domestic workers and day laborers. They are from La Colectiva de Mujeres and the San Francisco Day Labor Program, two immigrant worker-led collectives from the Mission District. Using pantomime, dance, poetry, and personal narratives, the members share their struggles, successes and intentions for a more just world. Each has a job: a woman acts out caring for a baby who becomes a toddler, a man cleans a floor while voicing the pride and joy he takes in his work.

Led by dancer and social justice organizer Andreina Maldonado, originally of Venezuela, and accompanied by a live band, the workers move in unison. Their arms waving, they step side to side. They become migrants, as a vast desert is projected, bisected by a single naked road. Holding their heads, covering their hearts and shielding their eyes from the sun, they scan the horizon. A long blue scarf becomes a river. Working cooperatively, half are able to ford it, while the others wave good-bye.

A candlelight procession develops as the screen fills with the names of family and friends who died on their journey to a new country. The presentation ends on a victorious note as Maldonado arrives in The Mission, her new home.

The stage fills with placards about the need for fair wages and safe working conditions, a day-laborer and domestic workers’s rally is born. Cries of Sí Se Puede echo as long rainbow-colored feather dusters wave.

Andreina Maldonado Center and cast of "Our Dignity, Our Work" Photo: J. Norris

The power of performance by and for the people is so important and yet fairly rare, at least in formal settings. Thanks to Dance Mission’s producers Krissy Keefer and Stella Adelman for nurturing these impactful and important organizations.

Reflection by Jen Norris published April 27

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