Scenes From a Pandemic: 48

20 04 2021

by Suchi Branfman

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

Dancing in the gym at Norco prison, before lockdown. (photo: William Short)

Undanced Dances

Santa Monica, California

My solo starts off with my arms out-stretched towards the sky, trying to touch the rafters, stretching on tip-toe, reaching, head up to the sky.

Terry Sakamoto, Jr., is describing a dance he calls “The Mountain.” He wrote the choreography from his bunk while in Covid lockdown last spring at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security men’s prison located in Norco, California, about 65 miles from my home.

Before March 2020, when the state prison system shut down all programming and visitation due to the coronavirus, Terry was among the folks inside the prison with whom I had the remarkable opportunity to dance, make dance, and converse every Monday night for years. The project, called Dancing Through Prison Walls, began in December of 2016. The work took many forms, whether teaching credit-bearing college courses or Rehabilitative Achievement Credit workshops, collaborating on choreographies, bringing in guest artists, or simply spending hours dancing with folks inside the prison gym.

We were still dancing when the work was abruptly ended. I was given 48 hours to send in guidance as to how we might continue to dance together, apart. It was a rich challenge. I ended up writing prompts for ways that dance might be imagined/written, without actually moving. Although not a common way of making dances, there is a history of this kind of work in the dance world. And it turns out that writing dance is actually a liberating way of making dances. There are no financial, gravitational, technical, or locational limitations. Anything is possible.

Almost immediately, the dancers began sending out their choreographies for these undanced dances.

From “‘Safety and Security’: Two Nations’ Borders,” by Terry Sakamoto:

She’s slowly backing out of the driveway into the still quiet streets of Mexico, heading toward a day filled with check-points, questions, searches, and persons’ attitudes sometimes empty of human kindness and empathy.

From “I Wait,” by Carlos Rivas:

I start to feel the power of my dance as I empty out my thoughts and feelings on the dance floor. I always feel free when I dance.

From “Arm Leg Leg Arm Head,” by Landon Reynolds:

I see people gliding on water as they move fluidly across the landscape.

From “From In Here,” by Yusef Lamont Pierce:

Slide the top hand over the bottom palm from wrist to fingertips. You’re imitating the act of sliding bills off the top of a stack. This dance is called “The Hittem’ Where It Hurt$!”

More than a choreographic residency, for me the project has been a commitment to learning from and with folks inside; to making work grounded in their stories and ideas; to examining mass incarceration, its deeply racist roots grounded in the legacy of slavery, and the prison industrial complex. Prison abolition has become my North Star in the work, what gives the work context and location.

Last fall I began the process of embodying the dances to share them with the “free world.” Highlighting six, written between March and May by Brandon Alexander, Richie Martinez, Landon Reynolds and Sakamoto, I entrusted them to some dear dance colleagues who had joined me in dancing inside the prison over the years. Bernard Brown, Jay Carlon, Irvin Gonzalez, Kenji Igus, Bri Mims and Tom Tsai are steeped in hip hop, tap, breaking, performance art, Quebradita, spoken word, Bhutto, and contemporary dance forms. In these dances, movement is accompanied by the resonant narration of formerly incarcerated movers and organizers with whom I have worked inside: Marc Antoni Charcas, Ernst Fenelon, Jr., and Romarilyn Ralston.

One choreographer, Richie Martinez, was released last summer during the prison’s largest Covid wave; to our joy, he is now narrating and performing “Richie’s Disappearing Acts”:

I close my eyes and I’m somewhere else.

He calls his latest dance, written in 2021, “Richie’s Reappearing Acts.”

Richie Martinez dancing on Santa Monica pier. (photo: Suchi Branfman)

I have been overwhelmed by all of this profoundly personal yet wildly radical work. We still can’t dance in the prison, but people inside continue to send out their undanced dances, and they are always astonishing to receive. Meanwhile, the embodied work, dubbed Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic, has been performed publicly. It is currently part of the City of Santa Monica’s Art of Recovery project, examining the school-to-prison nexus. A film of the dance and a conversation with the artists was presented virtually at the 18th Street Arts Center on April 16.

Conversations among the artists have highlighted the multiple realities of mass incarceration: the imprisoned loved ones not previously spoken of, the difficulty in getting parole during Covid, the restrictions that make it impossible for people on parole to see children in other counties, the unexpected in-home police inspections even many years after parole ends.

From “Internal Battle: Negative and Positive,” by Brandon Alexander:

Every move I make, every transition, every expression is reflecting the inner conflict within me.

In December, Sming Sming Books published Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic. The book is a sort of message in a bottle (or in an envelope, so to speak), sent from people who are so profoundly invisibilized on the inside, to live in plain sight in people’s living rooms, altars, desks, kitchen tables on the outside.

From “Mapping a Journey to Visit Me,” by Landon Reynolds:

As the journey descends into Southern California with the clear skies and sunny weather, the dance transforms to a more relaxed style. A lot of open gestures which allow the sun to shine down on the body as if one is sunbathing.

Reading dances allows us to imagine them, much as abolitionists strive to reimagine society. Embodying them mirrors the act of bringing deep, well-grounded imaginings for justice into the streets. Writing and dancing itself, Richie Martinez once said, is an exercise in creating some “freedom time.” Back in 2018 a dancer at Norco, named Kamasi, told us, “You may not be able to get us out of here immediately, but you can take us out of here.” We are doing our best.

Suchi Branfman is a choreographer and prison abolition activist. A second edition of Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic is forthcoming from Sming Sming Books. Suchi is a longtime friend of Tree Frog Farm and Kopkind, having known Andy and John from the early days. For more information on her project: dancingthroughprisonwalls@gmail.com

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on April 14, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: One Night and a Fight in Miami

Site of the historic meeting in Liberty City following the Clay-Liston fight in 1965, the subject of One Night in Miami.

Those who follow the Oscars will know that on April 25, One Night in Miami is up for best adapted screenplay, original song and supporting actor (Leslie Odom, Jr.). For most of the action, the film takes place in a room at the Hampton House, where Malcolm X, Sam Cooke (Odom) and Jim Brown gather with Muhammed Ali, then Cassius Clay, to celebrate his victory over Sonny Liston. The motel is in the historically black community of Liberty City, which, though neglected by public officials and private developers for decades, is today hot property for one reason: it is ten feet above sea level. Liberty City, the public housing project long at its heart, Liberty Square, and the fight over displacement and climate gentrification are the subject of a documentaryin-progress by a filmmaking team including two former Kopkind/CID Film Campers. In 2019, Katja Esson (co-writer/director) and Ann Bennett (producer) came to Tree Frog Farm to workshop Razing Liberty Square. Katja had to leave abruptly that summer because bulldozers were about to level the low-rise housing project that had been home to generations of black Miamians. In its place, a $300 million development called Liberty City Rising. As a local resident, Valencia Gunder, tells the filmmakers: “My grandfather always would say: They’re going to come to take Liberty City because we don’t flood.” Here is a contemporary story about history and a fight in Miami, which keeps on going. Click here for a work sample.

A boy sits in ruin of his former home; in the background, the gentrifying development. (still from Razing Liberty Square)


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