April 02, 2019

Session 4: localizing histories and practices of making live performance

Notes and Materials for March 26, 2019

Third of four weekly classes workshops events trips performance happenings gatherings.

Thanks to Claudia and all the helpful staff including Laura. Thanks to Alley who has supported me throughout this project. And to my guests from weeks one and three, Kanyon Sayers-Roods, Randy Reyes, Stephanie Hewett, and to our four writers, Sarah Cargill, John Wilkins, Ryanaustin Dennis, and Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, who have documented or responded to their experiences in the class.

We’ll take occasional phone snaps to accompany the online documentation which includes both the above mentioned writings and my notes from each week, with links to artists and resources.

I have copies of two of my zines.

    1. future friend/ships: poetic speculative fiction project about Arab and Muslim futurism created with Jassem Hindi. It’s free.
    2. Questioning Contact Improvisation: looking at CI from critical race and queer-feminist perspectives. $5 if you have it.

Reminder: you do not have to do the proposed activities.
Someone not doing “the exercise” is a more interesting and generative tension than everyone doing it but three people wishing they weren’t. Especially today, i.e., in a cultural historical moment of increased attention to consent, power abuse, and social control/surveillance, when the studio, class, or performance experiment can be used to practice more complex and respectful relating or co-existing.

1. Arrival
Serving tea that supports communicating with the dead (sage, mint, maple syrup), the ancestors.
Casual tarot readings and tea sharing.

2. Money
I always tell students how much I am getting paid. Open Space, the community outreach and discourse platform of SFMOMA that is producing these workshops, is paying me $1500 to write/create and facilitate each workshop for a total of $6000.  This fee is aligned with the ethical artist-centered rubric designed by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy). In addition to my fee these workshops have generated income for four writers, three guest artists, and my production manager. The majority of these artists are both queer and POC.
W.A.G.E.’s mission is to establish sustainable economic relationships between artists and the institutions that contract our labor, and to introduce mechanisms for self-regulation into the art field that collectively bring about a more equitable distribution of its economy.
I considered taking this time to identify the top funders of SFMOMA but the research wasn’t easy and would have taken more time from the class than I wanted. Without more rigorous research and citation SFMOMA will not allow me, on this platform, to make quick comments about their top donors and the paradoxes of 1% wealth, conservative values, and humanist art institutions nor about the conflict made visible by artist Nan Goldin and the opioid-crisis activist group she founded, Sackler P.A.I.N. Let’s all continue to follow the money. Thanks to Hans Haacke whose many works revealing the power and violence within art funding inspired my work in (since) the 1980s.

3. Breathing
Small groups. Holding breath contest: inhale all together. Try to be the last to breathe. Try again, holding breath after exhaling. Try to win.
Shake three minutes to shift your breathing and bodymindetc. state.
Anti-yoga yoga: In an uncomfortable or unsustainable position, notice your breathing. Use the discomfort to be aware of each inhale and exhale. Expand your attention to the transition between inhale and exhale, between exhale and inhale. If you need or want to change position, do not settle into comfort.

4. Land acknowledgement
Small groups, do it and rehearse it. There is no perfect script. This is an old practice being revived and redesigned for settler colonial contexts.
Speak from the heart.
Don’t be anonymous.

Acknowledge the land and its original peoples.
Acknowledge where and who you come from. (Ethnicity/tribal histories, names of lands/regions/nations, perhaps notable geographic features that speak of home or your peoples’ homes…)

We are in and on the original territory of the Ramaytush Ohlone. We are in San Francisco, a settler colonial city occupying several village sites including Yelamu. The Bay (maybe better to consider as an estuary, a fertile borderlands of land and sea, fresh and salt water) is lined with village life and ceremonial sites that have left historical/ancestor traces in numerous shell mounds, burial sites, prayers, memories, and surviving descendants.

We give thanks to the Ohlone living today and to all the local and regional Indigenous people whose service and activism make this moment possible.

After doing this practice in a group, what happened? How do you feel? What are you thinking about?

  • I feel more connected.
  • I feel more curious (to which I responded: Curiosity is one of the highest forms of respect. Of course white folks need to be cautious or aware that curiosity can be used to justify an extractive entitlement, e.g., I have a right to know about you and where you’re from because clearly you’re not like me, but curiosity and respect is a basis for solidarity, for mutual aid, and caring about and for one another.)
  • I am drawn to think more about genocide, about the afterlife of colonialism.
  • Thank you because I don’t usually have the inspired and safe space to feel my own Indigeneity, as a Filipino, coming from a place/people that has been colonized by the Spanish, the US, and the Japanese.

5. Tarot

Reading images. Poetry training. Metaphor, symbolism, interpretation. A fusion of intuition, imagination, traditional wisdom, and contemporary experience. A game with the potential for revealing underlying truths. A tool for divination, for pointing at potential futures and unveiling hidden or obscured aspects of our past.
Tarot history is contested. The first decks of cards (that I know of) based on the four elements and the numbers 1–10 was found in the Levant region (roughly today’s Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Cyprus) before 1400. The first actual tarot cards are dated to the 1400s in Italy. I am drawn to the complicated and cross-cultural symbols and interpretations of the tarot reflecting influences as diverse as Kabbalah/numerology, “European” alchemy and pagan spirituality, Christianity, Egyptian mysticism (including Coptic and pre-Arabic Egyptian mythology). The tarot belongs more to the Mediterranean histories of exchange and contamination than to any land-based nation. I like to think of tarot as a hybrid system for hybrid people and therefore especially well-suited for most of us, diasporic people of mixed ancestry, relocated or dislocated from traditional and tribal lands, cultures, and contexts.

The four elements as represented in both tarot and regular Western playing cards:
Earth / Pentacles / Diamonds
Air / Swords / Spades
Fire / Wands / Clubs
Water / Cups / Hearts

Ask a question or feel the moment. Pull a card. Before reading a book, read the image and your response to it. Then show it to someone else and discuss.

I turned to tarot to reclaim an intuitive and poetic practice in response to the “conceptual turn” in contemporary dance, when it seemed that young choreographers were being taught that dancing required a good idea, a smart question to research, a conceptual practice, while the desire to dance and the pleasures of dancing and making dances were being de-prioritized.

6. Dancing

Dance for seven to ten minutes, solo, with or without objects. I’ll play music.
Dance for ten minutes with a partner. Improvise a relationship. You don’t have to touch or to do the same actions, but stay aware of each other and make something together. I’ll play music.
We are creating kinetic images or energetic moments that could be read/interpreted like a tarot card. Foreground the intuitive approach to moving, dancing, rather than its potential meanings or interpretations.

7. Death and dying practices, folkloric and contemporary
Death, history, the ancestors have always been a central theme of art and performance.
From Dying Swans to current Bay Area projects (House/Full of Black Women, Lenora Lee at Angel Island, Dohee Lee’s ancestor ritual performances, among many others), dancers have been speaking to the dead, with the dead, or of the dead.

Two theories of dancing and death, one Greek (kinda) and one Dagara, told with a drawing.

1. On the blackboard I drew a circle with the audience comprising half the circle and the past or ancestors forming the other half of the circle.
Consider the artist as a medium between the past and present.
Past: the “back space,” the history of the craft, traditions learned and rejected, the teachers
Present: the live performance, the performer-audience communication or experience
Future: the audience impacted by the performance

2. I learned the following from Malidoma Somé (Dagara) who was born in Burkina Faso.On the blackboard I drew a horizontal line to represent linear time, an arrow moving from left to right. Over this line I drew a circle, as a curved arrow that returns to its starting point. Then I invited everyone to imagine this two-dimensional map in three and then four dimensions, a model of multiple kinds of time, in movement. Imagine that below the horizontal line is the invisible or other world, the land of the ancestors and unborn. Imagine that above the horizon is the visible world, this world, the land of the living. Notice how the circle is close to the horizon line at the beginning and end of a life but that for much of one’s life there is considerable distance to the corresponding circle in the other/under-world. According to the Dagara people, the only way to bridge that gap is through practice. A child or an elder has less distance to travel to contact the other worlds. Practice might be spiritual/prayer/meditation but it also might be artistic/political/service.

Malidoma Somé, born in the Dagara community/tribe/nation of Burkina Faso, went to a residential school, i.e., he was kidnapped, and then physically, intellectually, and emotionally abused by colonial French Jesuits. After a complicated return to his people, and a much-delayed initiatory ritual, he moved first to France and then to the US, earned two PhDs, and became a teacher and spiritual guide bridging West African and USAmerican peoples and cultures. This teaching is rooted in both Indigenous wisdom and colonial violence.

8. Dying Practice

In the late ’80s at the height of the AIDS crisis and the radical queer political and cultural responses to it, I began to study and work with Body Electric in the emerging fields of sexual healing and sacred sexuality. Body Electric was started by Joe Kramer, a visionary teacher influenced by liberatory gay male sexual culture (radical faggotry, gay bathhouses, gay public sex and cruising) as well as tantra, Taoism, Christianity, and feminism. His work, and therefore mine, was in dialogue with the feminist orgasm empowerment of Betty Dodson and later with porn star/artist/activist/healer Annie Sprinkle. Joe (and others including me) developed a training for Sacred Intimates, a new idea of sex work that drew an inspired link to sacred prostitution and ritualized sexual healing. Because there were men with HIV and AIDS at all of our workshops and rituals, and because everyone with HIV was imagined soon to die, an aspect of Sacred Intimacy was midwifery to the dying. Care for the dying was linked to the pleasure practices and anti-shame advocacy of sexual healing. My life and artistic practices have engaged death and dying practices ever since.

Tonight I invite you to practice dying. In this game, you don’t get a choice, everyone will die from cancer.

Some of you will cry. If someone in your group starts to cry, don’t “dam the river,” as I learned from Malidoma Somé. Don’t immediately touch them or try to calm them. Maybe they don’t cry very often. Maybe these tears have been suppressed for a long time. Maybe you don’t know why they’re crying. Get consent before touching or calming. If you want help, reach out, with a hand, or a verbal request. People want to help.

This practice, called “Through the Fire – A Dying Exercise,” was created by Joan Stempel, MSN. You can find the full text here.
Each person writes on a separate piece of paper:
Four favorite living people
Four favorite foods
Four favorite places
Four favorite activities

Then the facilitator reads a sixteen-paragraph narrative of a person dying from cancer. At the end of each paragraph or vignette the player gives up one of the pieces of paper. When the narrative ends, the last piece of paper is given up, you’re dead.

Five minutes integration, feeling, unwinding…
Some crying. Some snacking. Some stillness and rest. Some hugging and holding hands.

Group grounding. Jumpdowns, an exercise adapted from aikido, to release or ground one’s energy after an intense workout or fight. Three jumpdowns, one for yourself (thank you), one for the group gathered here today (Thank You), one for those who aren’t hear including ancestors and those yet to come (THANK YOU!).

9. Improvisation, History & Ancestors

A brief and idiosyncratic history, i.e., my personal history, or, three of my biggest influences who inspired me and gave me the confidence (root, history, foundation) to perform non- or post-disciplinary improvisations: Ed Mock, Akira Kasai, Terry Sendgraff.

  1. Ed Mock (c. 1938–1986) was a legendary dancer, teacher, choreographer, and improviser. He was active in San Francisco in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s until his death from AIDS in 1986. His work lives on through his many students including Amara Tabor-Smith, Pearl Ubungen, Wayne Hazzard (Dancers’ Group), and Shakiri (Skywatchers), among many others. His teachers include Lester Horton, Katherine Dunham, and the African and African American diasporic forms and influences that inspired jazz dance. Two video clips. The trailer for Brontez Purnell’s 2018 documentary Unstoppable Feat, the Dances of Ed Mock:


A rare YouTube clip of Ed improvising, 1979:


Thanks to everyone.


We didn’t have time to cover all of the following but I’m including it here anyway.

2. Akira Kasai

Acclaimed Japanese dancer and researcher, an early Butoh pioneer who danced in the early 1960s works of both Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata. Left Japan in 1979 to study Eurythmy in Germany and did not return to the stage until 1994. The SF Butoh festival (curated and produced by Brechin Flournoy, who has participated in these workshops) was an early advocate and presented Kasai at two or more festivals. I first saw Kasai in 1995 at the Cowell theater. Here is an excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle’s brief review:
“After intermission, Kasai, with glitter in his hair, pranced through the theater in a shift, muttering in Japanese, German and English, climbing the ladders at the sides of the proscenium, exhibiting his genitals. Later, he and Yoshie Ishii met in an undraped sequence, featuring simulated copulation. The music, believe it or not, was Bach’s ‘Musical Offering.’”Pass around book given to me last week by Brechin.

A photo book of Akira created by his son, Chikashi Kasai.

I couldn’t find any good videos of Kasai dancing but here is a short clip of him dancing with French dancer Emmanuelle Huynh.

3. Terry Sendgraff

Terry Sendgraff is a pioneer of aerial dance and improvised performance. A former gymnast, Terry studied (and performed) improv with Al Wunder. For years she ran a studio and school in the Sawtooth Building in Berkeley. Terry developed a practice called Motivity, which involved the invention/development of a single point, low-flying trapeze. Unlike a trapeze with two support ropes, the Motivity trapeze could spin and spin and spin. Unlike a traditional trapeze, most Motivity trapezes were accessible to a dancer standing on the ground, which facilitated an ease of transition from air to floor, from solo flight to duet improvisations. Terry’s life, teaching, and performance will always inspire me.

Terry is one of the main reasons that so many aerial dancing feminists emerged from within Bay Area dance scenes: Joanna Haigood/Zaccho, Jo Kreiter/Flyaway, Amelia Rudolf/Bandaloop). The first Bay Area feminist aerial artists that I’ve heard of were Tumbleweed, an influential 1970s women’s performance collective instigated by Theresa Dickinson, and featuring Rhodessa Jones among others.

On the plastic sheeting I wrote the names of these improv masters with lines of historical influence.
Ed Mock — Katherine Dunham, Lester Horton, jazz, gay SF
Akira Kasai — Butoh (Ohno, Hijikata), Eurythmy (Steiner), modern dance
Terry Sendgraff — performance improvisation (Al Wunder), gymnastics, the women’s movement, contact improvisation, lesbian culture in the East Bay


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