Keefer of the flame

Pub date November 11, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionDance

DANCE Next year it will be 30 years since choreographer and dance maven Krissy Keefer cofounded the radical feminist Wallflower Collective in Oregon, and 25 years since she relocated her social activist Dance Brigade Company to San Francisco. Perhaps those upcoming anniversaries naturally suggested a time for taking stock. Or perhaps it’s that Keefer’s 17-year-old daughter Fredrika (remember the little girl who couldn’t get admitted to the San Francisco Ballet School because she had "the wrong body"?) now dances with the company invited a look at the future — both Keefer’s and the country’s.

The new, full-evening The Great Liberation upon Hearing, Keefer’s largest work in years, is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead; it runs Nov. 13-22 at Laney College in Oakland. For Keefer, this meant revisiting material she had already worked with in the 1995 Ballet of the Banshees. But her perspective has changed.

"I have been making issue-oriented work for over 20 years," she explains at her home base, Dance Mission Theater. "None of it has actually improved the social environment. The international trafficking of women is worse; the prison system is worse; the abuse of children and women is worse. And the polar cap, something I have made work about for years, is melting. That is no joke."

She admits having been skeptical about the new administration, yet jumped on the Obama bandwagon because "I did not want to be a party pooper." Now she is developing serious doubts. "What will happen in 2012? What if our puffed-up idea of hope doesn’t work out? What do we have left then?"

Strong-willed with a powerful voice and as articulate as she is opinionated, Keefer also has a sense of humor. Describing herself as "a little bit of Paul Revere because I always want to shout ‘wake up, wake up, wake up’!" she figured that theater-based information about that universal leveler — death and dying — might actually be useful in these troubled times.

"Useful" has been a key component in all of Keefer’s work. As an agent for social change in life and art, she may not have seen the hoped-for results. Nevertheless, she still believes that art can become a catalyst for people to "look deeper into our community structures or dig into our own personal hopes, joys, and oppression."

She can also point to at least one area of success where she has made important contributions: "Women’s music and culture have given rise to a whole generation of women who seem themselves reflected in it." Integral to Dance Brigade activities is its all-female taiko group; Grrrl Brigade, a junior ensemble for girls 9-18; and women-focused festivals such as the annual "SkyDancers: Women who Fly Through the Air." So perhaps taking on the taboo of death is just another way to accomplish Keefer’s dual goals of making good art and good social road maps. "We all have to die, and I find the Buddhist way actually liberating. It takes the fear of death away."

Her involvement with the Tibetan way of dying is also deeply personal. "When Nina [Fichter, Keefer’s friend and cofounder of Dance Brigade] died, I read the Tibetan Book of the Dead for 49 days." Thematically, Liberation is probably as big and ambitious a project as she has undertaken.

In a run-through at the company’s Dance Mission Theater, two weeks prior to the premiere, Liberation looked like a pretty straightforward dance theater realization of the process — in Tibetan Buddhist belief — that happens from the moment of death until reincarnation into a new life. Unusual for Dance Brigade, the cast includes a number of men: newcomer Clint Calimlim, the very experienced Jose Navarrete, and the magisterial Ramon Ramos Alayo.

The book is written in the form of a guide talking to the deceased to make the journey as peaceful as possible. The direct speech lends itself to the kind of dramatic dance theater Keefer often embraces. Here her voice weaves in and out of dance passages and speaks as much to the audience ("this is what will happen to you") as to the dead woman (portrayed by Lena Gatchalian).

The gorgeously intertwined Ramos Alayo and Tina Banchero represent the Samantabhadra, the Primordial Buddha who appears to the lucky ones at the moment of death. Recognizing the blinding light of ultimate reality, they enter nirvana. ("They are off the wheel," Keefer laconically observes.) Like most mortals, Gatchalian’s character has to go through "bardo" (transitional states) before being reincarnated. On her journey, she encounters the five Buddha families — in both their supportive and wrathful manifestations. Since they are danced by stylistically very different dancers, Keefer encouraged them to choreograph their own characters. The remaining choreography is by Keefer with contributions by Sara Shelton Mann. *


Nov. 13–22

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m., $23

Laney College Theater

900 Fallon, Oakl.

(415) 273-4633