“The Devil whispered in my ear, ‘You are not strong enough to withstand the storm.’ Today I whispered in the Devil’s ear, ‘I am the storm.’”
On a recent afternoon in the Mission, a group of young women skipped and trotted around the corner onto 24th, then turned a hard right and disappeared into a bright mural-wrapped brick building. Above the door: Dance Mission Theater. You could hear the excited conversation following them up the stairs, joining a cacophony coming from the second floor.
Dance Mission is packed this afternoon with dancers spanning generations, just like every day of the week. The steady rhythm and motion of this cultural space spread across this corner like a blanket of inspiration.
Krissy Keefer is the Executive Director of Dance Mission. I first met her over twenty years ago. I was asked to do artwork for a poster for the LGBT dance festival she was co-producing. Krissy’s work immediately drew me in. Dance Brigade is unapologetically political at every turn, and pointedly addresses the issues tearing at us locally and globally. To feel the amazingly hopeful and direct power of Dance Brigade as members take on male oppression, global greed, climate change and each and every serious crisis (de)facing us is liberating and inspiring. They mold into movement the issues, and ruthlessly smash them back into audiences, heightening our awareness. They take on things that need saying in a way that we cannot always hear.
Krissy was running Brady Street dance those 20 years ago. She had taken it over, with Dance Brigade, after a previous executive director had given up. Brady was a buzz of dance energy. Every time I went over to Brady Street, there were groups of young people dancing around, laughing, and clearly feeling empowered by what they were learning there. I, in turn, found out about the work Krissy did with Wallflower Order, a dance collective founded in Eugene, Oregon. It gave movement and rhythm to the Women’s Music movement forty years ago, providing the heartbeat for fierce feminism and lesbian rights. Her work and teaching have inspired so many women to break through the barriers that once held them down.
A challenge then and now, for many in San Francisco, was finding affordable housing and business space. In the 1990s, a connected group of builders were skirting the rules of live-work, a program intended to create live-work places for artists. In fact, the program was being used for high-end lofts, and actually wound up displacing artists, one of whom lived right next door to Brady Street. Krissy took note and became active in local socioeconomic issues, rallying an “art army” to take up such causes. She was eventually evicted from Brady Street because the residential units built next door fueled complaints against the “noise” of dance and drumming. Undaunted, she took the leadership helm of Dance Mission in 1997, and has helped to turn it into one of the most successful and respected dance companies and organizations around.
Less than a decade later, in 2005, Dance Brigade started Grrrl Brigade, a program to train future dancers. I have watched Krissy’s daughter Frederica grow from a talented, take-charge youth into one of the Dance Brigade dancers and teachers. Frederica is also a rising hip hop star, having also been instructed by Allen Frias at Dance Mission. Beams Fredrica, “The legacy here lives through each and every person who comes through. It trickles down through us all. All of us keep this vision alive and going.”
Holly Near, a powerful social justice artist whose work has led revolution and change for decades, shares in this enthusiastic view of Dance Brigade. Holly has collaborated with Krissy from the beginning, and she is performing in the 40th anniversary event, Gracias a la Vida – Love in a Bitter Time, January 13–14 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Concerning Dance Brigade’s influence, Holly told me for the San Francisco Bay Times, “For 40 years the vision we have come to know as Dance Brigade has been exploring and expressing dance generated from the depth of the feminine—from witches in the Middle Ages to revolutionaries leading the multi-cultural dialogue in the 21st century. To have kept such a vision, such a dance company vibrant and solvent all these years, is magnificent and worth celebrating!”
So much of the work in Gracias a la Vida – Love in a Bitter Time grew from seeds sown over the past four decades, in overcoming struggles to scream at indifference with powerful movement and words. Krissy told me, “I started working on this show anticipating a different outcome in the election. It was celebratory. But then we lost. My community is devastated and I feel we have to respond. So we are.”
Joining Dance Brigade to celebrate their historic past on this 40th anniversary will be many artists and musicians who, like Near, have done groundbreaking work that promotes cultural diversity and community engagement. They include musical director Christelle Durandy, vocalist Gina Breedlove and numerous others. Several have been with the troupe for ages, and as for Frederica, I have watched and admired them over the years.
One evening, for example, I was in the audience at a recital, sitting next to the parents of a young dancer who was about to perform. The performance began, with the 8–9-year-olds presenting a piece about domestic violence. They dared to name it, and to stand up to it. The compelling, well-choreographed piece gave me goosebumps and brought the parents next to me to tears. They were so proud of their daughter and the rest of her fellow dancers. That is what happens at Dance Mission.
Sydney Vermilyea and Mariel Mendoza, classmates together since they were very young, are now very excited to be dancing with Dance Brigade for the 40th anniversary production. Marival, a regular since she was six, started assisting teachers at 14 and has come up through Grrrl Brigade. Her parents wanted her to be an athlete, but she knew that dance was her passion. She settled into Dance Mission very quickly, and took to the political power of the programs, which she loves passing along. “The opportunities to be informed about global issues and to have opinions (expressed through dance) about the world is very empowering and it is especially empowering to be able to teach that to the young dancers, like I learned,” she said. “I am so very excited to be dancing with my mentors in my first professional performance.”
Sydney has been studying at Dance Mission since she was four years old. She is now in her first year of college in Los Angeles, and is back in San Francisco performing with Dance Brigade after advancing as one of the first class of Grrrl Brigade.
She still remembers her very first dance class. “I showed up at Dance Mission in my pink dance skirt and ballet shoes we bought at the Payless down the street,” she recalled. “I couldn’t even reach the bar in the studio.” The unique and powerful schooling of dance become apparent when she discusses her own work. “There wasn’t really a time for me when dance wasn’t merged with a political, powerful background. I dance to have a positive impact on the world.” And those lessons also have an immensely personal effect. “When I started, I was all short and shy,” she explained. “Dance alone couldn’t have changed that. Dance Mission did.”
Back at rehearsal, the dancers sweat and breathe heavily as they run through, time and time again, each piece. The connection in every movement and in every directional change evokes the feeling that somehow, in this time of political crisis, their common visual voice will make everything okay. I could see them take the reins and pull magic seemingly out of thin air while raging at the machine in genuine despair. Even as a viewer, I could feel the energy of their coordinated chaos and motion. It made me believe that the confusion of nature and humankind will all come together and be saved somehow. Such is the power of dance and of art. It clears our vision and provides strength and direction to find a way forward, and to be a catalyst for positive change.
Stella Adelman, Program Director, is assisting Krissy and the Dance Mission Board in trying to find a permanent home for Dance Mission. Just as Krissy’s organization was displaced at Brady Street, Dance Mission is faced with current challenges at the building at 24th and Mission. Dance Mission has fought to stay there, and with the advisement of our city’s arts stabilization program, has devised a plan forward. Says Stella, “Having a permanent home allows for long-term planning and more effective budgeting, instead of having to deal with big fluctuation in rents and having to put off capital investment because we can’t get funding. Funders won’t fund improvements and repairs if you don’t have a long-term situation. It would give us so much more freedom.”
The legacy of Wallflower Order, Dance Brigade, Dance Mission and Krissy Keefer is therefore being moved forward with plans of a new home. Dance Mission is partnering with Local 648 United Food and Commercial Workers to rebuild and reside in their building with them at 16th and Mission. Working with the Mission Economic Development Agency, the Northern California Loan Fund, and the city, Stella, Krissy and their team are striving to make the existing building home to Dance Mission and the union. The plans are for a permanent home for Dance Mission and for community-focused dance into the future. The upcoming 40th anniversary event then not only offers reason to celebrate past achievements, but also the potential for more quality, inspired art and dance in San Francisco over the years to come.
For more information about Gracias a la Vida – Love in a Bitter Time, and other upcoming Dance Mission performances, please go to: http://www.dancemission.com/performances/upcoming.html
Tickets for the 40th anniversary event may be purchased at: https://www.ybca.org/whats-on/dance-brigade
Debra Walker is a Commissioner for the City and County of San Francisco Building Inspection Commission. A past president of the Commission, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club, Walker is also an internationally recognized painter and printmaker. For more information: http://www.debrawalker.com/