Why Citizenship? YBCA Invites Artists to Ponder the Question

by Jean Schiffman

“Transform” offers world premieres by nine local artists responding to a provocative question.

"Why citizenship?” is the core question that drives “Transform,” the first of a planned biannual performing arts festival presented by YBCA, the city’s internationally known arts institution. The festival comprises world premieres by nine local artists, all of them commissioned to create new work in response to that probing inquiry. A variety of thematically related interactive events, some of them free, are part of the mix: discussions with the artists and other experts, exercises, workshops, dance classes.

For nearly a quarter century, YBCA—a hybrid organization that presents curated works, establishes community partnerships and provides rental space for local arts groups—has been showcasing visual art and film as well as live performance; this is its first foray into curating its own comprehensive performance festival. More than that, says curator Joseph, “We’re kind of inserting ourselves inside the process, which makes us an institutional collaborator and not just a venue for the work of these artists.”

The lineup is dance-heavy, with three multi-part programs. In Program A, performance artist Jesse Hewit imagines “a new concept of citizenship,” sharing the stage with 10-year-old Embodiment Project, which combines street dance, song and “choreo-poetry” and will explore the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Program B is Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein’s RAWdance, a contemporary dance company that has performed internationally and has been hailed as experimental and inventive; the company’s response to YBCA’s challenge is to explore power structures versus culture-makers. Also on the bill is Fauxnique, the drag-queen persona of ballet-trained dancer/choreographer/performer Monique Jenkinson; as Fauxnique, her work veers toward “radical queer performance,” as she describes it. For the festival, she examines “citizenship and belonging, artifice and authenticity.” Finally, in the three-part Program C, contemporary ballet company Amy Seiwert’s Imagery features five dancers, depicting, in solos and duets, immigrants’ stories; the dance-theater company Fogbeast, which integrates text and dance; and a three-way collaboration among dancer Larry Arrington, Iranian-born multimedia artist Minoosh Zomorodinia and singer-songwriter-musician Sandra Lawson-Ndu.

The central challenge to the artists evolved from ongoing discussions among YBCA leadership and community participants. Joseph says he and colleagues have long wondered, how do we as arts institutions plan our programming so that we’re not always being reactive at climactic moments? The solution has been to ruminate about larger societal concerns over time. For a while now, three seemingly abstract questions have been under examination: Can we design freedom? What does equity look like? And finally, the one chosen for this season’s festival: Why citizenship? “The 45th president got elected, and we didn’t [just suddenly] think, ‘Oh, let’s talk about this,’” Joseph points out. “We’ve focused on this question for at least a year and a half.” The choreographers too were selected before the election. (Three more questions are already on the table, one of which will be the organizing force for the second festival of the season, in spring 2018: “Where is our public imagination?”)

The performances take place in YBCA’s flexible Forum on a set commissioned from Peruvian-born architect Giacomo Castagnola of Mexico City, designed as a unique, site-specific installation that engages both dancers and audience in experiential ways. Seating arrangements, scale, height: All such physical elements combine to create a different environment every night, for dancers as well as viewers.

“I’ve never seen any process like this before,” comments Isabel Yrigoyen, YBCA’s associate director of performing arts. “The choreographers are not only responding to ‘Why citizenship?’ but also to Giocomo’s take on the question.” Ultimately it is a deep and artistic conversation among organization, choreographers and designer, she says.

“The question of citizenship is marked by papers and documentation rather than participation,” observes Joseph, himself a child of Haitian immigrants. “Whether you’re a citizen of this country or not has much more to do with where you were born than how you behave once you’re here.” He, Yrigoyen (from Cuba) and the rest of the festival planners hope all of us—audiences, artists and curators alike—rethink what citizenship is “in the light of participation.”

If the festival is successful, muses Yrigoyen, it will be in line with YBCA’s mission, which, she says, is “to really create culture that transforms people to think beyond themselves: to think socially, politically, about what’s happening around them . . . and to have a diversity of voices from different parts of the Bay Area.”

Can “Transform” transform culture? “I believe there is a little bit of undue burden on artists to wave a magic wand and shift culture,” says Joseph. “I think that artists change the trajectory of culture, and… whether we’re talking about your own body or the body politic, change takes place over time.

“But I am clear that the creative currency, our future currency in the world, both socially and artistically, is empathy. …What the arts often do [is to] become a hub where empathy is the common and most valuable currency. The more we participate, the more likely we are to traffic in a culture of inspiration and also to engage with one another with empathy, solely because we’ve experienced something beautiful and provocative together.

“No magic wand here, but definitely a shift in the path.”

Sept. 14 → 23

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission St., San Francisco 978-2787