Poignant Ballet Examines Homelessness

by Heather DeSaulniers

“Every day I notice more and more homeless people in San Francisco,” says choreographer Marika Brussel. “I can’t ignore it; I don’t want to be one of those people who just walks by.”

In her new ballet “From Shadows,” premiering in mid-October at ODC Theater, Marika Brussel takes a deep dive into the issue of homelessness. Framed by a two-scene, narrative arc, the ballet follows the protagonist, a young girl, whom the viewer first sees in a happy, secure family setting. Yet, beneath this seemingly normal picture, the dark pull of addiction looms. A blackout indicates the passage of time, and in the following scene, the same girl, years later, searches for her father in a gritty urban environment. As she encounters people in difficult and seemingly hopeless circumstances, she confronts her assumptions and fears, develops empathy and demonstrates the human capacity to change.

“When I was growing up in New York, my Dad was homeless for a couple of years,” Brussel says. “He suffered from drug addiction and when my parents split up, he ended up on the street.” Initially the link between her story and “From Shadows” wasn’t obvious to her. “I wasn’t thinking that the dance was about my father, and then someone asked me about my connection to the material,” Brussel says. “I off-handedly responded that my Dad had been homeless, and in that moment I realized, of course, this is about me.”

Brussel chose ballet as vehicle for her highly personal narrative; it is a dance genre that is profoundly important to her. A lifelong dancer, she studied on scholarship at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City and danced professionally with Ballet Rep New Mexico and Napoles Ballet Theatre. While still performing, she also began working as a choreographer, pulled by a keen interest in storytelling and narrative work. In the past five years, she has created pieces for Bay Pointe Ballet, Emote Dance Theater and Berkeley Ballet Theater, where she also teaches Dance for PD® (movement for people affected by Parkinson’s Disease). She has also contributed choreography for various programs at ODC and is currently a dedicated member of its ballet faculty.

“‘From Shadows’ uses ballet vocabulary and pointe work in a contemporary, grounded way,” explains Brussel. “I’d like to challenge the perspective that pointe is ‘pretty,’ and show [instead] how it can reflect tougher stories; the dancers have been willing and open to exploring that side of pointe work with me.”

In addition to the 10 San Francisco/Bay Area dance artists that make up the ensemble, several collaborators are joining Brussel to bring “From Shadows” to life. During the blackout between the ballet’s two scenes, a video projection series shows photographer Tom Stone’s portraits of the homeless. Street Sheet, part of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, is creating the program, which features a resource page. Other collaborators include Jason Dineen, lighting, and Susan Roemer, costumes; the ballet is scored by selections from the album “Dream House,” composed by Mary Ellen Childs and recorded by the string quartet Ethel.

Brussel says that she hopes “From Shadows” sparks positive change by encouraging empathy and kindness and perhaps motivating action through volunteerism. She reminds us that everyone has a story. “The homeless guy on the street could be someone’s father—someone loves them, they have a history.”

Oct. 12 & 13

ODC Theater

3153-17th St., San Francisco