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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Lenora Lee Dance – In the Movement, ODC Theater San Francisco – September 1-11, 2022

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Lenora Lee’s In the Movement is a masterful example of how art can be used in support of social justice. It is an immersive sixty-two-minute experience that educates and entertains. This world premiere, presented by Lenora Lee Dance, ODC, Asian Improv aRts, and the API Cultural Center, is being performed at the ODC Theater September 1 – 11.

Cleverly titled, In the Movement refers to both the movement of the dancers and the social justice workers, movement members, whose recorded stories are the foundation of the piece. Lee worked with two organizations to identify the interviewees: the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (ASPC) which raises awareness about the growing number of Asian and Pacific Islanders being imprisoned, detained, and deported; and 67 Sueños, a youth organizing program, focused on political education and trauma-healing for Latinx undocumented youth, and those from mixed status families.

The nine narratives we hear are personal, heartrending, and enthralling, focusing on immigration experiences and policy over the years in the United States, leading to the current prison to ICE detention pipeline. Each features a Southeast Asian or Latinx individual sharing their immigration story. First we hear Guisela Ramos Guardado. She tells of traveling solo, at the age of seven, from her birthplace in Guatemala to Oakland. Another, Rhummanee Hang, speaks of her brother’s detention and subsequent fight against deportation. Taken as a whole we hear how the system cycles immigrants between incarceration and detainment with deportation looming.

The choreography grows out of the verbal accounts. As Guardado’s voice conveys her solo childhood immigration story, dancer Felicitas Fischer rolls into the space covering the diagonal from audience to far upstage corner. As the sound score switches to Ericson Amaya’s voice speaking about his family’s migration to the U.S. during the civil war in El Salvador, Johnny Cox enters through the audience down the center aisle. He is joined by Miguel F. Forbes and the two perform a duet. In unison, they run in slow motion, balancing on one leg reaching forward with their arms for something out of reach.

Amaya shares about his mother’s love of teaching and former career as a leader in education, whose credentials and qualifications are unrecognized in the U.S. The three walls surrounding the stage fill with video of colorful murals. Moyra Silva Rodriguez, with fists clenched, performs a powerful solo. At one point she performs a handstand flip, perhaps a metaphor for the ways in which immigrants are forced to contort themselves to fit in.

Borey “Peejay” Ai tells of wrestling with a woman over a gun during an attempted robbery. Its inadvertent discharge fatally injures the woman, resulting in Ai’s juvenile life sentence, at the age of fifteen. Johnny Huy Nguyễn, loosely cast as Ai, collapses onto his knees, falling face forward to the ground his wrists locked together behind him as if in handcuffs.

Throughout the dancing is grounded, not elegant or fussy, but graceful and measured. Nothing is jarring or frantic. People come and go without fanfare, as solos meld into duets, or larger groups. The dancers wear pedestrian clothes in a warm neutral pallet. No one person stands out in the crowd, though each is seen as an individual. Little emotion is present on the dancers faces, though the tension in their bodies is palpable. Telltale gestures, like the back of a hand to a forehead, reveal frustration and fatigue.

Photo: Lynn Huang and Johnny Huy Nguyễn, photo by Robbie Sweeny

Movements repeat and patterns develop, the incarceration and detention cycle repeating. Dancers grasp into the sky from standing and seated positions. They polish the floor with their palms. Often earthbound, they push themselves up with their arms. As one melts into another, they support each other physically. Trust develops. They lean into each other palm to palm, stiff armed, maintaining a delicate balance. Repeatedly, we see arms behind backs with wrist clenched by the opposite hand as a detention officer might hold a prisoner. Twisting back bends with chests up and knees bent, the weight of the world pushes constantly down on their bodies.

One memorable section is performed in the confined space defined by the brick backwall, the diagonal steel support girders, and the foot-wide hip-high wall ledge. Working side-by-side, in separate small triangles, Lynn Huang and Nguyễn wedge their bodies against the girders straining to get out. Inverted, Nguyễn balances on one arm as his feet search the sides and roof of his “cell.” Their anxious entrapment is evident.

There is an ingenious quartet for four men, in which three of them, dressed in prison blues, are projected larger-than-life on the wall. One man on stage performs in unison with them, expanding the community of characters.

Storytelling is a proven way to bring attention to social justice issues, and artistic presentation is a great way to make sure we hear the stories. In the Movement is a rich and sometimes overwhelming experience, worthy of a second viewing. The interviewees, who are present in voice only, prove to be strong cast members. The visuals of projected murals, texts, photos, and dance film enhance the experience, though at times it isn’t possible to absorb all that deserves our attention.

I attended the Sunday September 4 matinee, which was followed by a panel discussion with three of the interviewees. They conveyed deep gratitude, emotion, and humility at the experience of seeing their experiences amplified artistically. A panelist spoke about how when someone is in pain it effects the whole community. Thank you to Lenora Lee and her collaborators for sharing some of the pain. May what we learned make powerful ripples through our community as the work to create immigrant justice continues.

Review by Jen Norris September 5, 2022 - Revised September 7


In the Movement

At ODC Theater - 3153 17th St, San Francisco, CA 94110

Thursday - Saturdays, 9/1, 9/2, 9/3, 9/8, 9/9, 9/10 at 8pm

Sundays, 9/4, 9/11 at 2pm

Conceived, Produced & Directed by Lenora Lee

Choreography by Lenora Lee in collaboration with the Performers / Dance

Collaborators (in order of appearance): Felicitas Fischer, Johnny Cox, Miguel F.

Forbes, Moyra Silva Rodriguez, Sawako Ogo, Johnny Huy Nguyễn, Lynn Huang,

SanSan Kwan.

Dance Collaborators (video): Keanu Brady, YiTing Hsu, Hien Huynh

Recorded music directed by Francis Wong & Tatsu Aoki, with Kioto Aoki, JoVia

Armstrong, Mwata Bowden, Suwan Choi, Deszon X. Claiborne, Coco Elysses, Jamie Kempkers, Melody Takata, Edward Wilkerson Jr., Michael Zerang

Vocals sung by Helen Palma include the songs “Gracias a la Vida” written and

composed by Chilean Violeta Parra in 1966 and “¡El pueblo unido jamás será

vencido!" ("The people united will never be defeated") composed by Sergio Ortega

with text by Quilapayún in 1970. Both songs are part of the Nueva canción chilena

(New Chilean Song) movement.

Interviewee Voiceover (in order of those speaking in the audio): Guisela Ramos

Guardado, Ericson Amaya Bonilla, Anonymous, Borey “Peejay” Ai, Melanie Kim,

Cindy Liou, Rhummanee Hang, Enrique Cristobal Meneses, Jessica S. Yamane

Panelist Sunday, 9/4 - Borey “Peejay” Ai, Guisela Ramos Guardado, Rhummanee Hang

Media Design by Lenora Lee & Olivia Ting

Media Programming: Lucy Tafler

Videography by Edward Kaikea Goo & Lenora Lee, filmed on Alcatraz Island

Artwork in Projection by (in order of appearance):

- Salvador Moncada

- “Dreaming and Changing” mural lead artist Francisco Amend Sanchez,

assistant artist James Pops Delgado, 67 Sueños youth artists Alan, Alina, Angel,

Areyto, Ayshah, Camila, Cassandra, Daniel, Evelyn, Genesis, Ime, Jade, Jessica,

Jesus, Karla, Lili, Luna, Lyna, Mikayla, and Yajaira, 67 Sueños mural staff leads

Jacqueline Garcia-Martinez, Ericson Amaya, Guisela Ramos, Edith Cercado, Daniell

Lopez, Felix Amaya.

- “Warrior” & “The Aztec” by Adan Castillo Moreno

- Enrique Cristobal Meneses

Photos in Projection courtesy of Borey “Peejay” Ai and Asian Prisoner Support

Committee, Enrique Cristobal Meneses

Resource Partners: Asian Prisoner Support Committee, 67 Sueños

Light Design by Jack Beuttler

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