Lenora Lee Tells Story of Historic Cameron House Through Film & Dance

Dancers Yao Dang and Peter Cheng in one of the startling background images for Leonora Lee's immersive dance, 'The Eye of Compassion' at Cameron House. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

As I was wandering through Chinatown on my way to Lenora Lee’s haunting multimedia dance piece, The Eye of Compassion, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic. I haven’t been to San Francisco’s Chinatown in years -- like Fisherman’s Wharf, it seems made for tourists, not locals. But as dusk set on Grant Street and the red paper lanterns lit up, I realized how much I missed going there and how much it felt like a real neighborhood.

The Cameron House, the majestic brick building on Sacramento Street where the performance unfolds, was founded in 1874 to protect and shelter young Chinese women. Its architecture and the way it rests on the hill has the feel of a sanctuary. The space still functions as a Chinese-American community center and when you walk in you can’t help but be struck by both its beauty and the day-to-day business of any social service non-profit.

What’s funny is that the setting seems at odds with the type of immersive theater and dance performances we’re used to at San Francisco venues that most often present this type of work, such as Z Space, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and CounterPulse. Yet it turns out that the Cameron House’s lack of pretense allows for a slightly different kind of immersive performance, one more radically attuned to place and community. Yes, there are theatrical lights and an audience, but it feels more like a meeting than an event.

Lee gets up in front of the audience -- the lights don't change -- and speaking from notes, relates a bit of history about the House. She warns us that the dancers will be splitting up (I saw the performance twice so that I could catch most of it), that the performance is fast, and we’d have to chase after the cast members to keep up with them.

(L to R) SanSan Kwan and Wei-Shan Lai dance from room to room in Lenora Lee's 'The Eye of Compassion' at Cameron House.
(L to R) SanSan Kwan and Wei-Shan Lai dance from room to room in Lenora Lee's 'The Eye of Compassion' at Cameron House. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

And then that’s what we’re doing. Two terrified women run through the hall, and we hurry after them, or with them? It’s hard to tell. They split up: follow one and you run through the basement, hallways, and many hidden rooms of Cameron House; follow the other and you’re in an alley facing a parking lot and a 30-foot high retaining wall on which a film of the dancers running through Cameron House is projected. It’s a disconcerting effect, as if there is no temporal difference between the nightmare and the reality from which it springs.

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The parking lot dance is especially striking. It starts with one dancer and eventually blooms to six and looks as if the dancers  are exploding out of the film and into the world. Lee prizes fluidity and static poses in her choreography. And so she simultaneously conveys a sense of escape and entrapment. When the dancers finish a series of movements, they do so with both arms straight and angled towards the horizon, and when they freeze they stand erect and grab their throats.

Then the dancers disperse and we’re off again. Instead of escape, we’re in the midst of trauma. In a side room off the lobby stairwell, a doctor and nurse calm a frightened woman. Here, Lee’s choreography is explosive and precise -- quite a feat considering the lack of space -- and catches how feral and animal a person can be when terrified. The dance between doctor and patient is one of the highlights of the evening, a celebration of the healing powers of service to and care for a community.

At the same time, you can follow two women up the stairs to the second floor. There, standing in the hallway between opposite bedrooms, you can watch both of them attempt to imagine different ways to freedom and psychic relief.

One dances with a bible, curling up on a sky blue comforter, and then springing up again to hold the book out in front of her in a series of repeated gestures. It’s rare in the Bay Area dance and performance scene, which is so enamored with transgression and disruption, to find artistically sophisticated expressions of faith.

The Lenora Lee dancers (L to R), Yi-Ting Hsu, Yao Dang, Peter Cheng, and Chloe Luo take to the upper deck court in her multimedia, immersive dance 'The Eye of Compassion' at the Cameron House.
The Lenora Lee dancers (L to R), Yi-Ting Hsu, Yao Dang, Peter Cheng, and Chloe Luo take to the upper deck court in her multimedia, immersive dance 'The Eye of Compassion' at the Cameron House. (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

For a 75-minute piece, Lee covers an impressive amount of ground: a beautiful duet on a deck with Chinatown and the bay in the background; a dance on an outside stairwell ascending three stories up; and the final section on an elevated court, framed by a chain link fence and -- projected on the side of the apartment across the street -- a film of the dancers submerged in water.

Are they drowning or free? I think mostly free, as The Eye of Compassion begins on the ground floor, descends to the basement, and ends up floating in the sky. Though unsettling to watch the performers place their hands on their throats, more often and with greater force their arms slowly ascend from their bodies and reach towards the stars. It’s a mesmerizing ending.

The Eye of Compassion runs through Sunday, Oct. 2 at the Cameron House in San Francisco. For tickets and information please click here.

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