Category Archives: Interviews

Rogelio Lopez’s “Empty Spaces”: Dance as an Art of Redemption

Berkeley’s Shawl-Anderson Dance Center has been incubating modern dancers and choreographers since 1958. Lately it’s been especially fertile ground, nurturing resident artists like Tanya Chianese and Stranger Lover Dreamer, whose recent performances garnered critical and audience raves. Dancers and dance makers thrive in SADC’s open-minded atmosphere, where intimate studios provide safe harbor for creativity, and performances often include familiar faces.

One of those is Rogelio Lopez, familiar from Berkeley to Los Angeles as a modern-dance teacher, performer and, now, as a choreographer. His new work, Empty Spaces, premieres at SADC March 27–29 through the studio’s Dance Up Close/East Bay series, and though the 38-year-old Lopez has a decade of choreography to his credit, Empty Spaces is his first evening-length piece.

Rogelio Lopez's "Empty Spaces."
Rogelio Lopez’s “Empty Spaces.”

Spare and abstract, Lopez’s choreography is also layered with feeling. Empty Spaces is especially rich in subtext drawn from Lopez’s difficult childhood in Mexico and Southern California, with themes of tenderness and grief, abuse and anodyne, fractured memories and the trade-off of forgetting the past—self-preservation exchanged for irretrievable loss.

One needn’t know Lopez’s history to fully experience Empty Spaces; the movement has its own identity, embodied by the gifted dancers Tanya Chianese, Ann DiFruscia, Sarah Genta, Leah Hendrix-Smith, Abigail Hosein, Rebecca Johnson, Erin Kohout, Katie Kruger, Jeni Leary, Laura Marlin, Andrew Merrell, Mo Miner, Chantal Sampogna and Shaunna Vella (familiar faces all). The show yields only fragmentary glimpses anyway—no one in the audience will see more than seven of the fifteen pieces it comprises.

Here, Lopez opens up about his origins and how they inform Empty Spaces, and about dance as an art of redemption. Please be aware that this interview contains sensitive and extremely personal subject matter.

—Claudia Bauer

{Empty Spaces runs Friday through Sunday, March 27–29. Fri. & Sat. at 8 p.m. & 9:30 p.m., Sunday at 8 p.m. only. At Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, 2704 Alcatraz Ave., Berkeley. Buy tickets here.}

Speaking of Dance: You describe Empty Spaces as an exploration of memories, and a way to bring them to light. Where do those memories come from?
Rogelio Lopez: It’s mostly different memories that I had in my childhood. I grew up on a ranch where the population was about two hundred, three hundred people. My dad owned the land and he had workers working for him. But he would be gone and then would come back. My mom would do everything that she could to make money. My dad would milk the cows, my mom would make the cheese. My dad will kill the animals, my mom would sell the meat. It was that type of a family business.

I was raped from age eight until I was ten at the ranch. Everybody knew everyone, but nobody knew what was going on. I thought that it was all my fault, because I grew up with Catholic beliefs. As I grew older, I suppressed all these memories. I really detached myself from that kid. So I am constantly using dance as therapy to find out if I can attach myself to my past. After I moved from the ranch we went into the city, which wasn’t a very happy thing. I kept getting raped until I was thirteen. So there are vivid memories that happened then, but also other memories that I don’t want to think past right now.

SoD: Is that why you structured the show so that the audience in each room sees only part of it, because it echoes that sense that you know that things happened but you don’t have access to memories of them?
RL: If the audience gets frustrated because they can’t see the full movement or they can’t see the full show, because it’s four different shows and they only get to see one, I want them to feel that urge that they want something but not the instant gratification of getting everything all at once. I want them to feel that emptiness that I feel sometimes when I think about this stuff.

Rogelio Lopez
Rogelio Lopez

SoD: How much of your history have you explained to the dancers?
RL: They know everything. Some of the pieces, they ask me what it is about, and I tell them. I also tell them not to try to replicate what I’m feeling, just to feel the movement and feel each other when they’re dancing. But not trying to re-create what happened to me, because I want it to be abstract enough for the audience to relate to.

SoD: Yes, your story is very specific, but the movement is abstract. You could come into this as an audience member and know nothing of the context, but still see it as a rich and complete piece of art. Is that something you strive for as a choreographer?
RL: Every piece that I have made has something to do with my life and my own experience, because I honestly feel like I can’t really say things in words. And when I say it in movement, even though people don’t know what I’m literally talking about, I feel like I actually said it out loud with my body. So I feel like I am a storyteller, but I also use movement as therapy. But I think it comes from within, versus trying to do the hops and kicks.

SoD: Why did you call the show Empty Spaces?
RL: I keep thinking of the space in my heart, that there are spaces for memory. I always feel like we have metal boxes that we put certain relationships that we had, and we go back and we look at them. Those memories are pretty much empty, and I want to fill them up with positive energy. I completely ignore them most of the time, because I refuse to see myself as a victim. But those memories are still there, and I think that those spaces are empty but they need to be filled out in order for my heart to be a bit lighter than what it is now.

SoD: Has the process of creating this show helped to fill those spaces?
RL: It has. Actually, I have never said these things out loud and to so many people, of what has happened to me. Usually it never comes out, and I was always nervous and scared to say anything to [the dancers] because I felt like they would see me as a broken person. But as I got to know them better, I felt like I could actually say it out loud without being judged. I’m feeling that people don’t see me as a broken person. And I’m starting to feel like I am not as broken as I thought I was.

SoD: You’ve made very personal music selections as well.
RL: “Daughter,” for me, is about a child not knowing where their mother was. “What Happened to the Rain” says that the rain falls all around, but then the grass and the boy are gone and the rain keeps falling like helpless tears. It’s honestly what I feel sometimes, that I was standing in that ranch but I wasn’t a boy anymore even though I was eight years old, but that eight-year-old boy was completely gone by the time he got to be nine. And that’s how I feel. I’m gone, and I want to find that out.

SoD: Everyone in the show is a part of the family at Shawl-Anderson. And the show is at SADC, the home of this family. What does that mean to you?
RL: When I was growing up I didn’t know the concept of people being kind. I didn’t know that people actually can help someone without asking anything in return. That’s what Shawl-Anderson has done for me. They’ve taken me into their family. And all of the dancers have absolutely just taken care of me and showed me what kind people really look like. I feel very, very blessed.

I really want to say that Shawl, Rebecca Johnson especially, has helped me so much with this process. I didn’t know if I ever wanted to do a company. I didn’t know if people would want to dance for me. She kept saying, “Oh yeah, there’s a lot of people who want to work with you.” My husband, Andrew Merrell, kept telling me, “Oh yeah, people will work with you,” and I never believed that. I never believed in myself. I feel very, very grateful and happy to have all of these people supporting me.

SoD: Empty Spaces is about many things, but it seems to me that one of them is the power of dance, and how dancers care for each other. I’m really touched by what you’ve told me, and by everybody coming together for you. It’s clear that they’re giving you their best.
RL: Yes, they are. It’s just unbelievable how giving everyone has been. This piece is also about the connections of love, not from just family, but from everyone. The love that they have given me and the love that I’m constantly looking for nowadays, when I didn’t know it existed. I thought it was everybody for their own, and it’s really not. You might think that as a professional dancer that everybody is out for their own, but in Shawl-Anderson it’s really not. Shawl-Anderson doesn’t have an ego. It’s not ego-driven, and it’s not a factory of dancers. It’s actually a family.

SoD: I think I’m going to need to bring tissues to the show. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with me.
RL: Thank you so much.

San Francisco Ballet Programs 1 & 2

SF Ballet's Maria Kochetkova in Helgi Tomasson's Giselle. (c) Erik Tomasson.
SF Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova in Helgi Tomasson’s Giselle. (c) Erik Tomasson.

SF Ballet’s season began with two programs that ranged from Balanchine to the beyond. I shared my thoughts on DanceTabs:

Program 1: Balanchine’s Serenade, Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU, Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena

Program 2: Giselle

The big excitement is the upcoming world premiere, on February 24, of Myles Thatcher’s Manifesto, the first regular-season creation for the young SFB corps member and emerging choreographer. We had a nice chat about his Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative mentorship with Alexei Ratmansky, and you can read all about it in the February/March issue of Pointe Magazine.

Ready to Fly: ODC School and Theater Present Pilot 57

Normally, when multiple chorographers decide to coproduce a show, it’s because they like each other, or feel a creative synergy, or have harmonious work styles. Their artistic or logistical strengths and weaknesses being complementary, they shoulder different responsibilities to bring their unified show to pass.

But what happens when six up-and-coming dance artists who don’t know one another—and who have varying degrees of experience, vastly different priorities, and potentially conflicting decision-making styles—are given eleven weeks to put together a joint show at one of the Bay Area’s most prominent theaters?

ODC’s Pilot Program, that’s what. This year marks Pilot’s 20th anniversary and 57th “graduating class,” which includes Raisa Punkki of punkkiCo, Nathan Cottam, Daria Kaufman, Elizabeth McSurdy, Charles Slender of FACT/SF and Amy Foley. Their group show, Pilot 57: Pilot Light, takes place Saturday and Sunday, December 4 and 5, in the brand-new ODC Theater—the first and only time a Pilot show will appear in that 170-seat space.

“A lot of times when you start out, you do a piece at this small space here or this small space there, and we’re talking sometimes 10, 15, sometimes 20 people will show up,” said Cottam, a classical ballet dancer who recently earned his MFA in choreography and performance at the University of Arizona. “To put up a piece and have its mettle tested at a place like the ODC Theater—you’re riding some pretty significant coattails on a program like this. So you get to test out your ideas on a stage that really has some draw.”

The portal into ODC’s multilevel mentorship system, which continues with Migrations and House Special, the semiannual Pilot program tutors emerging choreographers in self-production, their most common outlet for showing work. For a minimal $95 fee, which includes application and enrollment, participants learn the basics of marketing, press and publicity, house management, lighting and box office from ODC staff, and then put those lessons to direct use as they develop the show. Participants get half off rehearsal space at the ODC Dance Commons, a useful resource as they create a new piece of up to ten minutes in length, plus the theater—and the production staff—free of charge for the performances.

Charles Slender. Photo: Rob Kunkle. Design: Kat Foley.

More than 290 artists have taken part in Pilot, among them Erika Chong Shuch, Private Freeman, Amy Seiwert and Lizz Roman, who is also Pilot 57’s choreography mentor. Choreography, however, is the smallest slice of the Pilot pie. And in that bit of irony—a choreography mentorship that isn’t really about choreography—lies Pilot’s greatest challenges and most useful lessons. Each Pilot member heads up one area of production, but everyone has to agree on decisions about how the flyer will look, negotiations on staging needs, plans for the post-show reception, and how to publicize the event.

“It is interesting to not only have six cooks in the kitchen, but also to put a show together with anybody else, even just one person,” said Foley, who recently retired from Robert Moses’ Kin after dancing with the company for eleven years. “Because we are sharing the stage, that means we all have to have the same light plot, we all need to decide about the setup of the stage—some people want a cyc and a scrim, and other people are more interested in having a really kind of bare performance space. You have to agree on that, which is a good exercise for everyone. Because when you’re [dancing] in a company, that’s just all taken care of.”

“Often artists aren’t asked to do this, and we think that’s really an important skill because it initiates self-reflection,” said ODC School director Kimi Okada, whose tenure with the organization goes back forty years to its original incarnation as the Oberlin Dance Collective in Ohio. “A lot of inexperienced choreographers don’t know where to begin; they just go in and start making stuff. But communicating is really what art is about, and if you want to take the next step in getting more recognition, you have to get your work out there. And in order to put your work out there, you have to either get presented or have enough production skills that you can figure out how to self-present, or you collaborate with other people. You have to be resourceful. I’d like to think that the Pilot program really gives you resources and certain skills to be able to take that step.”

Unlike the majority of mentorships, grants, and residencies, Pilot doesn’t require a video or DVD submission. Applicants range from recent graduates to more-established artists exploring new ideas, and each one writes a brief proposal for a piece they’d like to put together during the program. “What we’re looking for is a succinct and articulate description of why they want to make a dance, what they want to make it about, how they plan to do it, what are the elements, what is the movement style, what is the music,” Okada continued. “We don’t hold them to it at all, but we just want to hear that they have an articulated vision of what it is they would like to do.”

Once they’re accepted, participants can veer from that proposal as much, or as little, as they’d like. ODC doesn’t meddle in their artistry beyond feedback given during one choreography workshop and two work-in-progress showings.

Everyone Gives, Everyone Gets

As infrequent as the choreographic feedback may be, it has been productive for Slender, whose two-year-old contemporary company, FACT/SF, will debut Pretonically Oriented v.1 in the Pilot shows. “It was totally brilliant. A group of us were thrown into an environment where we had to observe each other and observe our own work but not be too critical of it, and just see what we could make. Since I primarily make my own work, I’m like the little dictator in the studio; what I say goes. When you’re working with other choreographers, everyone has a different idea of what things mean, because we’re all artists. There’s a way that the experience made me relearn how to see things.”

Foley comes from the opposite perspective: that of a dancer accustomed to embodying another person’s vision. “I don’t want to show my work and have someone say, ‘Well, she clearly danced with Robert Moses for ten-plus years.’ I want it to be my voice and my work.” Pilot’s bite-size format offers a safe way to take her first steps as a creator of dance. “There are challenges, of course, in making a ten-minute piece. But it’s definitely been helpful to me, because I say, OK, it’s not an evening of work, it’s not even half an evening of work, it’s just one piece.” Foley ventures into choreography with Nearly/Known, in which she plumbs the nature of happiness—after all, why not start small?

Kaufman, on the other hand, has been presenting her own work since getting her MFA from Mills College in 2008. With her bent toward creating experimental performances, “I’m used to lower-budget venues where it’s more informal, or lower-tier, I guess you would say.” For Kaufman, showing work at ODC is an experiment in itself. “I wanted to see what it would be like to make something being presented by a more mainstream organization that…operates in this very different way than what I’m used to.” The ODC Theater won’t let her throw paint on the walls, so Kaufman will rely on an electronic noise-scape as the backdrop to 11:56 PM, her exploration of city life and city dwellers.

Pilot is a focused program with very specific goals. But like most things in life, it is what one makes of it. Cottam sees Pilot as “a little laboratory that gives you an opportunity to do some choreography, to cooperate with people, to extend your network. Raisa Punkki and I just had a conversation for 5 or 10 minutes, and I’m thinking to myself, I really like this person, and this is a person that I would enjoy working with in the future.”

Relatively new to professional choreography, Cottam has used that laboratory to dream up Aneurotypical, Man, set to Thelonious Monk’s solo piano music. “It’s fun and a real challenge. In the beginning I wanted it to be kind of contemporary ballet, but it’s kind of a mixed bag of really random movements. Some of it looks almost like soft-shoe-y tap dance, even though I don’t have any background in tap—it was just like, well, this seems like something we would do to this music!” Pilot’s creative freedom is also part of the appeal for the audience, which gets to see fresh ideas from up-and-coming artists—Pilot shows consistently sell out.

That ready audience makes Pilot a superb vehicle for McSurdy, a recent transplant from Boise, Idaho, to introduce herself to the Bay Area dance community. “I have more of a background as a designer and a dancer, not as a choreographer. So this is not only a debut piece for me in San Francisco, but one of the first pieces I’ve ever created.” Quite a coup for someone who applied to the program on a whim.

 “I told myself that when I moved to San Francisco I would just be a dancer—show up and stretch and be told what to do. And I was really looking forward to doing that!” she said. Of course, we all know what happens to the best-laid plans: “This process really taught me that making stuff is way more enjoyable than I thought it was all of that time.” McSurdy’s recent life transitions—from Boise to San Francisco, from creator to dancer and back to creator—figure in her reflective piece on being a newcomer, Not just passing through. The title suggests that her new direction has staying power.

Punkki came all the way from Finland, moving to the United States in 2003 and founding her company, punkkiCo, two years later. The translation from life in Europe has been met with grants, awards and successful shows, but it hasn’t always been easy. “It’s a totally different way to maneuver things—funding, everything, is different. Some things I already knew; [Pilot] is kind of just confirming those things. What has been new to me is how you have to approach the press. It’s really hard to get a critic to come see you; if somebody comes, it’s so huge. In Europe I used to get critics every time I did something.” She connects with her roots in Polar Night, inspired by the darkness of the Northern Hemisphere in winter and set to a shamanic score by Finnish composer Kimmo Pohjonen.

Raisa Punkki. Photo: Rob Kunkle.

In addition to better navigating the American arts world, “what I needed now is just to talk, to be able to share the artistic part of it,” Punkki said. “Working with Lizz Roman and talking with everybody, it’s wonderful. And we have been staying afterwards and talking about where the pieces are going, so it’s been really, really good for me.”

It’s not Yalta, But Still…

Merging six perspectives on art and business, meeting six people’s needs and negotiating compromises requires maturity. If one doesn’t bring it to the table, one learns it along the way.

“You throw these six artists together, and they have to come up with how to become a cohesive whole,” Okada said. “You have to figure out, OK, how do we intersect, what do we share, what are we interested in. It’s a way also of getting people to articulate what their artistic and aesthetic sensibility is.”

For Slender, the exercise has strengthened some underused muscles. “I’m gonna sit in this meeting at 8:30 in the morning with five other choreographers who are all at different places in their careers, and we’re all going to find some common ground. And we’re not going to find it because I’m gonna tell them what the common ground is, which is how I run my company, but because we’re going to figure it out.”

He also sees the bigger picture of how this experience can help a dance company grow. “The skills of learning and listening and observing are immediately applicable when you need to identify what other people can contribute. Maybe they have this other skill set that I don’t have, or they are making work that is just so different from what I would consider making, so maybe there’s a collaboration that can happen.” It’s not the easiest skill to master, but it’s a powerful tool to employ in art, in business and in life.

So from the crucible of Pilot, artists emerge with potent skills and practice using them. “One of the real beliefs of the Pilot program is that you should know how to do this yourself and take it on,” Okada said. “Don’t wait around for the opportunity and cry because you didn’t get picked. It happens to everybody—carry on! You gotta have a thick skin, but you have to have the chops behind it to survive. That’s what we hope this will give them.”

ODC School & ODC Theater Present
Pilot’s 20th Anniversary
Pilot 57: Pilot Light

Saturday and Sunday, December 4-5, 8 p.m.
Tickets $12

ODC Theater, 3153 17th Street (@ Shotwell), San Francisco

© 2010 Claudia Bauer/

AXIS and inkBoat Redefine Dance

AXIS and inkBoat in ODD. Photo: Michele Clement

ODD integrates dancers in wheelchairs and on foot.What’s in a name? AXIS, the name of Oakland’s renowned physically integrated contemporary dance company, plays on the turning axes of wheels and on accessibility; before it formed in 1987, world-class opportunities for dancers with disabilities were few. For choreographers like Joe Goode, Margaret Jenkins, Sonya Delwaide, and now Shinichi Iova-Koga, AXIS Dance Company also means access to uncharted dimensions of creativity. “We realized early on that instead of having disabled dancers in the company being a limitation, it actually opened up this huge potential for movement and partnering and ensemble work,” said artistic director Judith Smith. Combining dancers in wheelchairs and dancers on foot, AXIS achieves speed, fluidity, inventiveness, and freedom that other companies can’t match.

AXIS “presents a completely different body than I’ve been working with, and that gives us a whole new series of investigations that we can get into,” said Iova-Koga, choreographer of ODD, a new evening-length piece inspired by the moody, figurative paintings of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum and performed by an ensemble of dancers from AXIS and Iova-Koga’s award-winning company inkBoat.

Read the rest of this preview in the East Bay Express.

Sailing Away: Joanna Haigood choreographs San Francisco history

In Dance, October 2010

Flooded with Gold Rush lucre and teeming with the adventurers who hunted for it, San Francisco in the 1850s was a rootin’-tootin’, quick-shootin’, prostitutin’ Wild West boomtown. Halloween in the Castro has nothing on the Barbary Coast.

As choreographer Joanna Haigood describes it, “The energy was very chaotic, wild, violent, excessive. The city was being burned down on a regular basis, people were shooting each other in the street, there was a tremendous amount of crime and mayhem. There was so much money, it was absurd; rents were comparable to today.” That kind of drama holds obvious appeal to an artist whose métier is performance, and it provides the inspiration for Haigood’s latest site-specific contemporary piece, Sailing Away, which her company, Zaccho Dance Theatre, will premiere October 7-10 on Market St.

Read the entire article here.

Bridging Borders: Nina Haft & Co. in the Middle East

In Dance, July 2010

Nina Haft visited the Middle East in 2007 to experience the culture and see firsthand how people there use dance to address the immense challenges in their lives, from restricted travel to conflicts that last for generations (In Dance, September 2009). Choreographing her latest work, SKIN: One Becomes Two, was Nina’s way of processing the experience and exploring “what happens when boundaries are crossed during times of love and conflict.” This May, she and dancers Lisa Bush, Becky Chun, Rebecca Johnson, Edmer Lazaro, Mo Miner and Frances Sedayao, accompanied by Frank Shawl, performed the piece at the Ramallah Dance Festival and at a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a dance school in Jerusalem and in Amman, Jordan. Claudia Bauer sat down with Nina and Rebecca before and after their trip.

Read the interview at