Performing Diaspora Festival Explores Critical World Issues

by Jean Schiffman

CounterPULSE presents the innovative work of six artists, developed outside the Western European tradition.

When choreographer Byb Chanel Bibene brought his new work-in-progress, "Taboo and Heroes," to a rehearsal at CounterPULSE--where he is one of six artists to appear this month at the Performing Diaspora Festival--the score he was working on for his piece included the sounds of gunshots. "Taboo and Heroes" is a multimedia work that reflects Bibene's experience as a survivor of the wars in the Republic of Congo in the 1990s, and it is the first time he is telling the story of that genocide. "He was struggling with how literal, how figurative do I want to be," explains CounterPULSE executive and artistic director Jessica Robinson Love, of the process by which the resident artists, all representing different cultures, have been providing one another with feedback and encouragement during the six-month development period.

Choreographer and composer Jewlia Eisenberg--whose new work, part installation, part music performance, part narrative, is called "The Ginzburg Geography"--suggested to Bibene that a cello might work better to convey the idea of bullets and artillery rather than a literal soundscore. "It was one of those beautiful moments," says Robinson Love, "where [Jewlia], a composer of Jewish music, who's making a piece about an Italian anti-fascist activist who was killed, is giving advice to a young choreographer from Congo.

"That symbolizes the idea of this program," Robinson Love adds--"[artists] making exciting work and supporting one another in that process."

The original impetus, in 2009, for the Performing Diaspora Festival was Robinson's interest in developing work outside the Western European tradition. "I was excited about some of the artists coming out of the classical and folk dance forms, and experimenting with those traditions," she says. "And there was a sort of gap in the field. Traditional artists [such as dancers, choreographers and musicians] can participate in the Ethnic Dance Festival. But sometimes if they want to innovate, or push the boundaries to true contemporary, or to fusion, their work doesn't fit within those boundaries. . . . a whole new generation is coming from those traditional forms, but they're . . . not being recognized as innovators by contemporary dance presenters. I felt this was an important group and represents the future of aesthetics in California as our state changes."

Some of the Festival participants are young and emerging artists; some are mature and established and can provide mentorship to the others; all are based in the Bay Area.

Eisenberg's "The Ginzburg Geography" tells the story of Natalia and Leone Ginzburg in various ways and through various manifestations, including an installation to be seen elsewhere in the city. Eisenberg drew from the writings of the Italian-Jewish husband and wife to "track their journeys and connect it to our own," as she writes on her blog. Leone was imprisoned and tortured to death by the Nazis.

Bibene, also blogging, explains the title of his piece: "Taboo stands for the lack of expression, things we were not allowed to talk about . . . Heroes are the victims . . . who bravely endure the hardship to protect their families." And, he writes, "I would like audiences to be conscious of how the body of a man struck by the force of an exploding grenade vibrates . . ."

Bibene's piece is not the only one in the Festival to emerge from the culture of Congo; Muisi-kongo Malonga uses elements of that culture, as well as African-American culture (specifically, spirituals), in "Kimpa Vita!," which evokes the life of a 17th-century Congolese prophet, Mama Kimpa Vita, often known as the Congolese Joan of Arc. Malonga first learned of this heroic figure as a child and, she writes, "I was drawn to her . . . found small traces of myself in her story." Malonga's own writing, singing, original compositions and choreography comprise the performance.

Chinese-American dancer/choreographer Jia Wu's "Mama/Madea" uses masks, costumes, martial arts with sword, contemporary dance and traditional music to explore a decidedly Western tale of the classical Greek figure Medea, who, betrayed by her husband, killed her own children in revenge. Wu uses two major forms in her piece, Chinese classical dance and Peking opera, as the historical and artistic context.

"Red, Saffron and Green" is Joti Singh's dancerly examination of the Gadar party, a San Francisco organization of expatriate activists who promoted India's independence from Britain. Singh's great-grandfather was the party's president in the early 20th century. Singh uses Punjabi folk music and Bhangra (a harvest dance from Punjab) as well as West African dance technique to connect that period with her own life as a first-generation Indian-American, drawing links, she writes, between her ancestor's struggle and "what I'm fighting for as a Punjabi-American living in San Francisco today."

And Nadhi Thekkek's "The Cloud Messenger" is a Bharatanatyam adaptation of a romantic poem by the 5th century Indian poet Kalidasa, about an exiled demi-god who sends a rain cloud to deliver a love letter. Thekkek commissioned new music based on traditional music techniques. She writes that she was particularly taken by the existence of insentient messengers in the poem--not just the clouds but also the wind. "I saw myself, characters, dancers--all of us embodying Kalidasa's imagery and sentiment," she writes.

"One of the givens of working with culturally specific artists is that the movement-based art can't be separated from storytelling, musicality, costume choices," muses Lily Kharazzi. One of three curators for the Festival, Kharazzi manages several programs at the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. "To call them musicians and dancers, we're limited by our Western sense of those words." The whole point of the CounterPULSE program, she says, is for each artist to work within his or her own canon and push the form wherever they want to.

"I think what we don't understand in looking at traditional art," she continues, "is that in every generation, the artist who performs is interpreting the canon anew." The Festival will be full of surprises; if you have a certain expectation of what, say, Indian dance looks like, you may find it to be quite different. And any storyline, Kharazzi points out, no matter how traditional, is always infused with an individual's interpretation.

Curator Roko Kawai, an independent dancer/choreographer and performing arts coordinator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, notes that for artists working in the diaspora, in the crossroads of traditional dance and performance technique as well as in the aesthetic framework of post-modern representation, it can feel like a lonely endeavor. Her own work uses post-modern improvisation to explore classical Japanese dance. "In this day and age, with so much globalization, exile, displacement by war or economic or other reasons, [artists] who have a long history and sense of belonging to a homeland, or to the art forms of that homeland," want to create new work about their new experiences, she says, yet also maintain the voice and aesthetics of their background. She sees this as a budding genre, which the Performing Diaspora Festival is promoting. The Festival, she says, is creating a community within which artists are vulnerable yet encouraged to experiment.

Of Bibene's "Taboo and Heroes," she observes, "He's coming to a place now where he can not only put onstage his own autobiographical journey but also balance the tragedy with the complicated aspects of life in the Congo which were happy and joyous for him. Any major tragedy will always have more than one element, and he's looking directly at that complication."

Importantly, too, the work to be seen at the Festival calls for discussion of issues that arise for artists in the diaspora working with traditional themes. To that end, CounterPULSE includes several symposia for which speakers are coming in from other parts of the country for, says Robinson Love, "significant discussions about tradition and innovation." For example, what happens when you take something that is normally liturgical or religious and put it onstage? "We're exploring the ethical dimensions of this work. I find that unusual in the arts field," she says. Other topics to be discussed: "What is our responsibility, as those of us who haven't experienced genocide, or as audience?" she wonders. "Is awareness enough? It's a big question."

How is trauma represented in art? asks Kharazzi rhetorically. And she throws Bay Area issues into the mix: What is African dance and how is it represented here in the Bay Area--who is producing it, and what is the imagined or real romance around Africa that you see onstage?

Kawai, who will lead a "Body Destroyed" panel, plans to discuss how trauma affects the performer's body.

Observes curator Umi Vaughan, who has researched Afro-Cuba music and dance extensively, "Sometimes we doubt our ability to… shape tradition--which we actually must do."

Robinson Love points out that although themes explored in the performances at the Festival may sound heavy--Italian activists killed; genocide in the Congo--in fact the overall theme that emerges from these works is one of resilience, even celebration. The performances, spread over two weekends with each weekend comprising a mix of cultures, is, she says, quite uplifting.

Aug. 5-15, CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St. 626-2060.