The sixth annual Contemporary Dance festival at the Odyssey Theater, as curated by Barbara Mueller-Wittman, has once again brought cutting edge dance companies and choreographers to their perfect black box venue.  On Friday February 10th Suchi Branfman and her collaborators, who are the company members, presented “DATA or 7 ways to dance through prison walls.” This was the next-to-last weekend of the festival.  To purchase tickets for the final weekend performances, please click HERE.

Bringing the arts to the incarcerated has proven successful in transforming lives and dropping the rate of recidivism. This is reason enough to see Branfman’s work but don’t expect a dance show, think a “participation” workshop.

Gathering the audience together in the lobby we were introduced to Ms. Branfman who in turn introduced Shonda Buchanan who chanted a Chumash children’s song, acknowledging the land on which the Odyssey sits.   Some educational comments here would have been welcomed and helpful in understanding this now common but not well understood trope.  As Ms. Buchanan progressed through the crowd, she requested that we join her in singing the simple tune.  This was the first in what would become an evening of audience participation events.   Once inside the theater we were asked to remove our shoes (our choice) and walk the aisles created by enlarged, scrolls of yellow note paper that lined the stage floor.   These would later be used as hanging backdrops.  Each scroll was filled with statistics related to the numbers of Covid 19 infections and deaths within the California prison system.  Ambient sound and the almost indiscernible voices of the incarcerated filled the space.

Once the audience took their seats Ms. Branfman took the stage.  She counted out “One,” and hit a pose as a reader stated the first line of a freestyle poem “I am You” written by incarcerated prisoner Forrest Reyes.  With each number stated by Branfman, another line was read and a new pose was struck, until she reached the final line and the number eleven.  This was repeated several times, in what would be preparation for a later group participation.  It’s meaning was an obvious interpretation of the words but without any sense of the writer as a person or a prisoner.  Lacking throughout was any real introduction to the very people we were there to learn about, understand and perhaps empathize with.

A reading of the horrific statistics of the Covid pandemic within California state prisons, 91,138 cases, 260 deaths is upsetting yet Ms. Branfman’s presentation does not hit home.  The very people most affected by this catastrophe become nothing more than numbers as no personal stories are told.  Who are they?  How did they get there?  What are or were their fears, their dreams?

Ernst Fenelon Jr., Tom Tsai - Dancing Through Prison Walls - Photo by David Torralva

Ernst Fenelon Jr., Tom Tsai – Dancing Through Prison Walls – Photo by David Torralva

Within the reading of the grim numbers three dancers, Amy Oden, Selina Ho and Tom Tsai improvised simple solos.  But the more heartfelt interpretations were by formerly incarcerated movers, Marc Antoni Charcas, Ernst Fenlon Jr. and Mokhtar Ferbrache.  How wonderful it would have been to know their stories.  This was a missed opportunity to explore more deeply the many issues within the prison system and the mission of this project.

The strongest moment of the evening was when all seven members of the company repeated the “I am You” movement in unison.  Had the sound score become music, this might have been a transformative moment.

From this point the audience was asked to participate in learning and repeating the “I am You” poses which many did.  It was invigorating to get up and move around but the connection to the stated purpose was lost   We were then asked to gather with audience members in our area and discuss our dreams for a better world.  And so, the idea of “dancing through prison walls” disappeared altogether and a dream workshop ensued.

Ms. Branfman’s mission is a laudable one but, this show lacked cohesion, focus and moreover dancing.

Additional Credits: Sound Score, Jimena Sarno and Andres Orellana; Lighting Design, Katelan Braymer; and Set Design Advisors by Kimi Hanauer and Ronnie Brosterman.

The Dance at the Odyssey Festival will conclude with DaEun Jung’s BYOULNORRI (별놀이) February 17 – 19, 2023. Pansori (Korean folk opera), electronic beats, irregular folk rhythms, Hangul (Korean alphabet system) and chance operation that deconstruct, reinterpret and transform classical Korean dance vocabulary.  For more information and to purchase tickets, please click HERE.

For more information about Suchi Branfman, please visit her website.

To learn more about Dance at the Odyssey and to see the theater’s full season, please click HERE.

Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Dancing Through Prison Walls – Photo by David Torralva