A single dancer crouches in the dark, clutching his head with both hands. Over the speakers, the audience hears a voice.
“Today we’ve got more people incarcerated than any time in history,” says the voice, which belongs to Sergio Arroyo, an Oakland youth advocate and arts teacher. “Folks of color make up about 80 percent of everybody locked up.”
Performers ran through this scene from Claudine Naganuma’s new work, Freedom House: Dancing in the Flatlands, during a dress rehearsal this week. The piece will be shown three times at East Oakland’s EastSide Cultural Center this weekend, starting with an 8 p.m. performance Friday night. Naganuma is the director of Danspace, a dance studio in Rockridge, and the founder of the dance company dNaga, which will be performing the piece.
Freedom House is a marriage of modern dance, voice recordings, video projection and original musical compositions—with Oakland as its subject. “I pick out the things that really speak to me, and I take it into the studio and I play it for my dancers,” Naganuma said, describing the interviews that provide narration throughout the piece, and their relationship to the choreography. “We come up with a movement vocabulary together, and I create a dance out of it.”
Naganuma began the creative process for Freedom House by recording her own interviews with Oakland residents. Among those she chose were Jeff Duncan-Andrade, a former East Oakland teacher who has studied and lectured on approaches to education in urban schools; and Miakoda Jyll Taylor, who works with incarcerated juveniles in Alameda County. Naganuma said she was inspired by their work in the community. In the performance, the voices of nine interviewees are heard, including those of Oakland’s young people. The interviews touched on elements of racism and inequality—and visions of hope and possibility.
Through dance, Naganuma said, she searches for grace in the gritty subjects her interviewees address, “How can we look at the underbelly of something and find the beauty and the lesson?” she asked.
As Naganuma and her dancers developed the piece, they discussed the interviews and what they meant. “We’re dancing to someone else’s words; to someone else’s experiences,” said performer Antonio Ortiz, 34, who grew up in San Diego and has been living in Oakland for four years. He said he knows that racism and violence are real problems, and that hearing personal accounts gives the abstract concepts palpable force. Ortiz has also had to master a new style of movement; he formerly only had experience in ballroom and country clog dancing, which are structured around basic steps, unlike the freer form used in this piece. Participating in Freedom House has been “enlightening,” he said.
Because the themes of the show are complex, Naganuma said, she purposefully incorporated multimedia elements to create “sophisticated layers.” Throughout each show, software engineer and artist Tim Thompson will be filming the dancers with a security camera that captures images even in darkness, and manipulating the picture with a controller. The live video is projected onto three screens, created from a band of sheer fabric hung between the columns that frame the performance area of the Cultural Center. As the dancers move, their spectral representations will be simultaneously projected on the screens.
On a raised platform, musicians play live over the voice recordings. Musician Joel Davel plays the marimba lumina, a device he co-created and describes as “an electronic mallet instrument that’s like a vibraphone and a mixing console in one.” Richard Howell accompanies Davel on the saxophone. “It’s sometimes melodic and sometimes not,” said Naganuma. “The sax is so soulful so it creates another layer of emotional response.”
In developing the performance, Naganuma has examined her own perspectives and biases, she said, and looked at how she could make a difference in the world. “I just wonder if audiences can’t help but do that when they come away from it, too,” she said.
Dancer Andre Simms, 15, said he has never been a part of this type of performance and called it “exhilarating.” Andre, who has been with dNaga since June, wants the piece to make people reflect, he said, explaining that the interviews present “real issues” that may make people uncomfortable.
“I hope they leave here and think about it,” he said.
Freedom House: Dancing in the Flatlands will be shown at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 21 and Saturday, September 22, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 23. Admission is $10-25, but no one will be turned away from lack of funds, according to dnaga.org. Call 510.420.0920 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve seats.