“I have needles in me,” said Chris Scarver, 23, while lying on a reclining chair. It was his first time trying acupuncture, but instead of having it in a clinic, he was in a dance studio at Cal State University East Bay on Thursday night, as the Dandelion Dancetheater performers, all in white, glided before him at the opening of Dreaming Sabbath Cycle 2.
The show, billed as an “acupuncformance,” is an experimental production combining acupuncture treatment with Jewish music, dance, alternative rock, participatory theater and community ceremony. Acupuncture, a medical practice that involves needles, is believed to help treat health conditions and alleviate pain.
“I feel good. Relaxed,” Scarver said. He looked at a needle poked just above his eyes and giggled. Asked if it hurt, he said no, smiling while trying not to move.
As more guests came into the room lit with Christmas lights and desk lamps, Jeff Levin, an owner of the Oakland Acupuncture Project, lightly pinned a couple more spindly needles into the edges of Scarver’s ears, adding to the ones on his calves, his arms and the top of his head. The tall, wiry acupuncturist wearing a black shirt whispered to Scarver to notify him when he was ready for “needles out.” How would Scarver know if the needles were ready to remove? Levin said Scarver would feel rejuvenated. “It’s a little bit of a magic ride,” Levin said.
While Levin and another acupuncturist hovered on one side of the studio, director Eric Kupers, in white shirt, petticoat and dangling earrings, took the center stage and set a mood for meditation. Listen to every sound and feel every sensation and every “experience unfolding, moment by moment,” he instructed the other participants while sitting on the floor. In this performance, Kupers told the audience, people are welcome to nap.
Dreaming Sabbath, structured like a religious service, is based on the idea of the Jewish Sabbath, a time of rest every week. It is the time when “we refresh our connection to the divine, and connect with the deeper parts of life,” Kupers said.
Like a ritual, the show began with the lighting of two candles and a prayer in Hebrew. Around the room, with one member seated on every corner, the Bandelion ensemble played soothing, ambient music like the kind one hears at a spa.
Dancing, singing and prose reading followed the playing of drums, guitar, accordion, and other instruments. The Bandelion performers danced in groups, in pairs and solo, like ballerinas in white ball gowns doing lifts and pirouettes.
At the end of Dreaming Sabbath, after one of the performers signaled it was time to take out the needles, everybody got up from the reclining chairs, took a cup of wine or grape juice, tore a piece of bread from a loaf that a Bandelion member was holding, and gathered together at center stage.
Dreaming Sabbath, now on its second season, is the result of Kuper’s interest in inclusion, community rituals and putting dance in the context of other art forms and movements for social change. The associate professor at the Cal State East Bay Department of Theatre and Dance said he wanted to ask the audience what challenges they are facing, and “what are the truths that we feel are important to remember right now, in this very strange political times that we’re in … and how do we use these in a way to move forward with a sense of clarity and courage.”
Kupers, who’s also co-director of the Dandelion Dancetheater, said theater work is hard due to its adrenaline rush, leaving everyone exhausted after all the preparations and performances, as well as socializing after the show. For many years, he said, he has been exploring the question: “How can we create a performance where both performers and audience can both be rejuvenated?”
“I’m interested in how being a performing artist could be less draining,” Kupers said during an interview before the show.
Kupers said one of his inspirations is Pina Bausch, a German dance theater choreographer, whose work the director described as emotional even without telling a linear story. Another influence in his work is Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella vocal ensemble of African-American women. “I kind of grew up with their music. When they perform it feels more like a spiritual gathering or a religious service in a way. There’s a real sense of communion with the audience,” he said.
Levin and Kupers previously had positive experiences with acupuncture; enough that Levin decided to study it and Kupers integrated it into his art.
“I had an injury from surfing, then I tried everything under the sun to heal the pain,” but nothing he tried worked, said Levin. Six months later, he said, “I was studying Thai massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And the teachers I was studying with got tired of my complaints about the pain, so they said you should try acupuncture … and so I did.” The pain from the injury never returned, he said.
“I find acupuncture as very powerful for healing in my life and other people’s lives— increasingly so as the confusion around healthcare in our country is more pronounced, as a lot of people are losing healthcare,” said Kupers.
Levin said an acupuncturist first asks the clients what pain or suffering or illness he or she wishes to alleviate, and that anxiety and depression are the most common responses. Asked what the common source of anxiety is for his clients at the Oakland Acupuncture Project, he said it’s the state of American politics.
Every week, Levin gives acupuncture treatments to about 80 people. His youngest client is 3 years old; the oldest 102. “You get such an amazing glimpse of people’s humanity,” he said. “Sometimes I feel more energized because I share in that collective suffering and glory—a mark of humanity. People are going through the same stuff as I am.”
The Oakland Acupuncture Project is a member of the cooperative People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture, which promotes a business model of open group settings—as opposed to private, individual settings—and sliding scale payments, in which clients pay as much as they can within a certain range. For the Oakland Acupuncture Project, the range is $15 to $35. “We are a community clinic,” which follows the same business model as that of 200 similar clinics around the country, Levin said.
This kind of open group set-up also drew Kupers. “There’s just something powerful in going to a space where there are all these strangers napping together,” he said. “Many contemporary performances are dreamlike and impressionistic, so you don’t have to be wide awake to experience that.”
During the late-night performance at the dimly lit dance studio, some audience members had the urge to nap as the white figures sashayed around, but Evka Whaly-Maydea and Katie Wheeler-Dubin stayed awake to watch the dancers. For both of them, it was their second time trying acupuncture.
“I had no idea what to expect, but the more I watched the performance, the more revved up I became,” said Wheeler-Dubin.
“It was amazing. I was almost moved to tears,” said Whailey-Maydea. “I felt I was witness to a great beauty.”
Find more information about the show and a second performance on Friday night, click here.