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.
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.