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CounterPulse’s ‘Performing Diaspora’ Provides Sanctuary in Time of Strife

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Pictured L to R: Devon Fitchett, Dana Fitchett, and SAMMAY. (Photo: Jorge Galvez / Baltazar Jonnel Dasalla)

All art is politics, as Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot, among others, have famously preached. All art is real estate, too — especially in San Francisco, where tech companies have driven up property prices and forced many artists and their sponsoring organizations out of the city.

CounterPulse, a San Francisco-based presenter and incubator of activist performing arts, lost its longtime SOMA perch when Twitter and others in that cohort cast their long shadows over downtown San Francisco.

The Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) staged an 11th hour rescue, and, after an extensive overhaul of an old theater at 80 Turk Street, CounterPulse’s new home feels like a sanctuary in the grim Tenderloin: warmly lit, spare but functional, sleek and welcoming, with its audacious crimson neon sign signaling the venue’s past as a burlesque club.

“Sanctuary” is also a fitting term for the twin bill from artists SAMMAY (a.k.a. Samantha Peñaflor Dizon) and dana e. fitchett that runs through Sunday, Dec. 4, at CounterPulse. The newest resident choreographers in a long-established program at CounterPulse known as Performing Diaspora, these two women prove a striking study in contrasts — and not just in the deployment of upper- and lower-case in their names.

Samantha "SAMMAY" Dizon in her work, 'silbihan.'
Samantha “SAMMAY” Dizon in her work, ‘silbihan.’ (Robbie Sweeny)

Of the two works, SAMMAY’s silbihan, which filters ancient Philippine rituals of faith healers into contemporary crises of migration, is the more expansive and messy — and gloriously so.


SAMMAY weaves her own matrilineal heritage into pre- and post-colonial mythology, singing and dancing the angst of a family torn apart. Slight but compact and powerful, SAMMAY sways and convulses against a backdrop on which film clips of a mysterious female dancer – at times herself, at others Joanna Ursal — are projected.

In some of these clips we see her in sensual, sometimes disorienting close-up, shrouded in sheer stretchy fabric. Others capture long shots of the dancer braving a rugged coastline, drowning in a stormy sea, enveloped in flames, chicly costumed as a firebird-like deity of an uncertain era. Dancing live onstage with these dramatic visuals behind her, SAMMAY layers ancient traditions impressionistically onto the reality of her existence as a child of the diaspora.

fitchett’s piece, unending, is more tightly welded, minimalist in design, at one with its dynamite score that stitches together Thom Yorke, Blaq Soul, and Mos Def, among others.

The piece begins and ends in silence, with the dancers’ footfalls, catches of breath and occasional finger snaps serving as the only accompaniment. The insouciant, freewheeling spirit of house dance pervades, yet the movement vocabulary is magnificently disciplined and contained.

Transitions are as smooth as butter, with a dusting of capoeira, dashes of ballet, social dance and contact improv, blithely embellished by a cartoon-like animation of aimless doodles that appear on the backdrop.

At the heart of unending is an affecting cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “Dying of Thirst” by jazz pianist Robert Glasper, who enlists his six-year-old son and his son’s classmates to recite the names of African-American victims of police shootings, and lines that include:

I enjoy being brown. Especially if my skin rips, I am thinking about brown. And I’m thinking about what color I am, but I have to be myself. You have to be happy of who you are.

The serene yet fierce movement of fitchett and her three dancer-collaborators fuses a childlike innocence with the reality of violence and an instinct for self-preservation.

fitchett identifies herself in program notes as a radical mixed-race black woman; each of the individuals that make up the quartet of mixed-ethnicity dancers mostly inhabit their own tiny sectors of real estate on the stage, intent on solving specific logistical problems.

They rarely look at one another, though they sporadically unite to dance in unison or canon, and appear to have negotiated a territorial peace treaty. In one poignant sequence, Lauren Benjamin and Lindsay Leonard travel a diagonal path together, rarely touching but very close together – as if they were taking turns to protect each other from some unseen threat.

Lauren Benjamin and dana e. fitchett in fitchett's 'unending.'
Lauren Benjamin and dana e. fitchett in fitchett’s ‘unending.’ (Robbie Sweeny)

fitchett’s movement seems to spring organically from her score, whereas SAMMAY’s score sits lightly and not always convincingly atop her grand scheme of images and ideas. Both dance works are preoccupied with tensions over real estate that threaten the homeland of native peoples. These tensions threaten to dispossess the powerless and force migrations that tear the fabric of society.

Another real estate issue looms over the production. For the first time in U.S. history, our government is to be helmed by a real estate tycoon with a pronounced territorial agenda. Will the interests of property magnates, developers and other enterprises that live and die by real estate be advanced at the expense of the business of culture?

In this climate, CounterPulse has seven years to raise the funding to make 80 Turk its permanent home. May it continue to provide sanctuary to performing artists of the multitude of diasporas that make San Francisco great.


‘Performing Diaspora 2016’ runs through Sunday, Dec. 4 at CounterPulse in San Francisco. Information and tickets here.

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