Last month, amidst a mainstream reclamation of the word ‘pussy’ with pink yarn and record-breaking attendance at women’s marches, Krissy Keefer celebrated 40 years directing Mission District-based dance company Dance Brigade. This recent heralding of a potential new politicization of American women is a struggle which Keefer has addressed with unrelenting focus throughout her career using women’s righteous anger at injustice, situated firmly in women’s diverse bodies and voices, as the fuel for her artwork. The first feminist dance theater company in the U.S., Dance Brigade’s anniversary show, “Gracias a La Vida: Love in a Bitter Time,” upheld its revolutionary legacy and honest grappling with current issues while also hinting at a path forward.
Keefer’s specialty is making art which is politically-searing, technically-adept, and unapologetically woman-centered. She came of age in the women’s movement of the seventies and her particular aesthetic communicates values of body positivity, strength, agency, and musicality. Her dancers are women warriors, owning space and being heard. Dance Brigade’s performances remain relevant, evidence that Keefer has inspired a new generation of social justice-minded artists. Feminism is no longer a bad word in the art world, she says. “I see a lot of people who are using the female-centered experience as a genesis for their work and are wanting to lay claim to being a feminist artist.”
The show revisited Dance Brigade’s classic repertoire, reprising “Break It On Down” — a brilliant nursery rhyme remix on ‘good girl’ shackles; and “Swan Song” — which utilizes ballet’s bird aesthetic to evoke the devastating imagery of oil-coated wildlife struggling during the Deepwater Horizon spill. Dance Brigade’s new era was also present; many emerging performers showcased their skills—notably, twelve female dancers under the age of 26 and three male dancers.
Keefer still bucks dance-world norms. She believes in “a tone of non-competitiveness… so that all the dancers feel featured.” This approach to directing is also evident in the Grrrl Brigade, a dance/leadership development program created by Keefer — which some of her dancers have been training in since the age of three. Grrrl Brigade’s “Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie” has been a beloved Bay Area staple for decades. Keefer’s classroom techniques, she says, model “a certain kind of intelligence, humor, and risk-taking.”
The male dancers who performed “Defection-Deflection-Devotion” came to Dance Mission Theater (operated by the women of Dance Brigade) via a performance with Keefer’s longtime collaborator Ramon Ramos Alayo. They defected from Cuba and found a home in DMT’s community. This piece was heavy in graceful athleticism and beauty, as the dancers fought each other, ego, and emotion, before being overcome with the need to embrace and hold each other. The Cubans have been welcome additions to DMT’s family, Keefer says. “We needed their kindness and their innocence in our process at Dance Mission.”
Initially, Keefer relates, she wanted a more explicit dance focus for the anniversary show. “and then the election happened,”– necessitating the inclusion of overt political statements. Nominated in 2015 for Best Premiere by Dance Europe Magazine, “Sin Palabres” (Without Words) riffs off of surveillance-state whistleblower Edward Snowden. The immersive production drops the audience into a harrowing multimedia experience, replete with white noise, roving spotlights, and dancers who evoke both paranoia and resistance.
The second act premiered a new work, “Gracias A La Vida,” which focused on the disappeared, the incarcerated, the victims of police murders, and femicide – all heavy subjects. It was set to a live soundtrack referencing everything from Nina Simone, to Neil Young, to women singer-songwriters, to Puerto Rican and Spanish hip hop, to Woody Guthrie, to Pablo Neruda—along with original numbers, guest vocals by Holly Near, and
Keefer never seems to be able to find herself too far from politics. Explaining where she stands in the current
climate, she says,“I feel very kind of traumatized around the silencing of not only people like me, but the press at the same time.” With “Gracias A La Vida,” her intention was to “tie in what happened in Chile, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where whole communities were whisked off the street and never heard from again.” Her challenge, she added, is “how to keep that [focus]center stage without going into deep fear.”
At times frenetic — bodies are constantly moving, speaking, pantomiming, yelling, drumming, running, jumping—Dance Brigade performances offer an alternative vision to frozen silence and tacit compliance. This is Keefer’s gift to audiences: a visual model of who we are and can be, if we remain flexible and adaptable to change. She sees herself as an example of that paradigm: “I spent 40 years trying to figure out how to get out of my own way, [to]actually make my resources available and my worldview shift and change.”
One of the most powerful ways in which she does that is through collaboration, using DMT as a creative crossroads and cultivation zone for dancers, musicians, and culture-keepers. In 2016 alone, DMT hosted 38 shows; the 140-seat space employs 175 primarily-female artists, musicians, and technicians annually. Keefer’s intersectional politics and activism manifests through DMT’s affordable rates, artist development and residencies, production and marketing assistance, inclusive requirements, sponsorship, grant writing and essentially sharing the institutional resources they have to create a home for the artistic community. DMT also operates a retreat and performance center, Dos Rios, near Covelo.
DMT produces, sponsors, and/or collaborates with many women and queer artists, artists of color, and folkloric and culturally-specific ensembles. House artists, festivals, and shows have included the Black Choreographer’s Festival, CubaCaribe, Meigetsu Taiko Festival, Afro Urban Society, Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival, Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers, Mission in the Mix (a semi-annual new choreographer’s showcase), as well as Grrrl Brigade’s and Dance Brigade’s own productions.
“Making sure that everybody was included was the base part of feminism, and that politic is what created Dance Mission [Theater],” Keefer says. In contrast to many arts organizations whose model isn’t quite so collaborative or relaxed, DMT has used its own footing as a step up to so many others.
After decades of holding firm in their outpost at 24th & Mission, the hallways and studios of DMT seem like a sea-strong boat riding out the storm of displacement currently threatening many Mission art spaces. The district’s artistic, economic and cultural fabric has been ravaged by gentrification, while the community has worked hard at anti-displacement efforts such as Calle 24, an officially-designated Latino Cultural District encompassing 24th St. As a recent DMT newsletter proclaimed, “We are a place of joy and we refuse to be uprooted by neither greed nor poor city planning.” To that end, DMT recently launched a fundraising campaign which would allow them to remain in the Mission in a much larger space—with a 99-year lease.
As an artivist, director, and community leader, Keefer constantly reminds us we have the ability to change things ourselves. Her advice for white allies of ethnically-diverse communities is to “study the history of people of color in this country from their point of view, not your interpretation” and, at the same time, “don’t be so passive to your own experience.”
Determination, perseverance, and vision stand as hallmarks of Keefer’s character, and reasons why Dance Brigade and DMT have not only survived, but thrived, over the years. While DMT still must raise considerable capital to make its new home a reality, its deep Mission roots and status as a beloved cultural institution suggests victory is not only possible, but probable.