Show and 'Tell' — dancing towards racial healing

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday October 31, 2023
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Samara Atkins and Keith Hennessy in 'Tell.' (photo: Alexa Burrel)
Samara Atkins and Keith Hennessy in 'Tell.' (photo: Alexa Burrel)

Dance Mission Theater will host "Tell," a new interactive dance piece, which, according to creators and choreographers Sarah Crowell and Keith Hennessy, will begin a dialogue geared towards racial healing.

UPDATE: Originally scheduled for November 3-5, the shows have been postponed to December 8-10.

Crowell and Hennessy will be joined onstage by six other dancers, Larry Arrington, Samara Atkins, Amber Julian, Sheila Russell, Ainsley Tharp and Shaunna Vella. Collectively they comprise four white dancers and four Black dancers who will emphasize the importance and necessity of multi-racial collaboration. Both Crowell and Hennessy have long histories of working for social justice causes thro9ugh their art. Both dancers participated in a Q & A style interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

Keith Hennessy and Sarah Crowell (photo: Robbie Sweeny)  

David-Elijah Nahmod: Please tell me about this show.
Hennessy: "Tell" is an opportunity for us to think and approach racial healing.

Crowell: It's an opportunity for dancers to embody racial healing. "Tell" is a unique offering that gives an audience an entryway into a process that's been a year long with two groups of dancers. We created a piece that isn't really a traditional performance. It's more of an offering.

We peel away the veil from the process of what we've been working on for the last year, so the group of dancers started rehearsing together in separate groups and we talked to each other about racial healing, we talked about white supremacy, we talked about re-centering people of color in order to open the circle of human concern and to expand it rather than contract it. So, we had these conversations in those separate groups, and then we met after a few months of working separately, we met and created sacred space.

Hennessy: the audience is coming to an event that feels like a performance, and when they come, they're going to get this hybrid activity where a performance meets a behind-the-scenes making of, and where they're also part of the process. We refer to the work as interactive, and just to clarify for audiences, it's completely optional. No one has to do anything, but there are gentle invitations.

I'd imagine that the show is very timely, because the Black Lives Matter movement is still happening, and there's a lot of discussion going on regarding how the police treat Black people.
Hennessy: Yes, it is both timely and timeless. I think everyone in the piece is activated by a long-term commitment to a movement for Black lives. I think all of us see that movement as something that is more than two hundred years old. It goes back to abolition movements against slavery.

Dancer Samara Atkins (photo: Robbie Sweeny)  

Why is the show called "Tell?"
Hennessy: The name of the show has been growing its meaning since we started. There's a line in the performance where one of the dancers says, "welcome to 'Tell' where we tell you things, and you draw your own conclusions." And I think there was this feeling that we are going to use dancing to tell, not just the story but to tell about new ways to live in a body and to live in bodies together, that our dancing was going to do the telling. That our relationships were going to do the telling."

And the audience will participate in the dancing?
Crowell: The audience is invited, it's an invitation, a gentle invitation in some very simple movement as a way to have the audience connected to the process, because we understand that the project of racial healing is lifelong. It involves peeling away layers of mistrust and fear and anger.

Because we're all skilled at facilitating spaces that involve the body, we're like, "Let's scaffold in gently and intentionally a way to connect with the audience." It doesn't feel confrontational, but feels like a truly tender invitation. The audience will be invited to do some gentle movement, and dance a little bit as a way to introduce ourselves to bring everybody into the space. Then there will be an opportunity for small groups of folks, facilitated by each dancer, to have a conversation about what they've seen so far.

What are the challenges in marketing a show like this?
Crowell: One challenge is that I've never done anything like this before. This project feels very unique to me. I've produced, choreographed and co-directed many, many dance theater productions. This one is less show and more tell, it's less showy, it's telling through the body, it's telling through experience.

So it's not about, "Let's come up with this flashy experience for an audience." It's really about what we just shared about inviting the audience into a process. So it's a sweet challenge to create a new process, to allow relationships and movement to unfold rather than to be forced.

UPDATE: Originally scheduled for November 3-5, 'Tell' performances have been postponed to December 8-10. Free-$30, pay what you want, Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St.

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