Whose land are we on? What histories are held here? How is that marked? Who gets to mark it? This is the entry point for Mapping Our Stories – a series of three short films from choreographer/performer: Bernard Brown/ bbmoves, poet/songwriter: Jessa Calderon and dance group: Primera Generación Dance Collective.  With funding from the City of Santa Monica’s Community Access and Participation Grant,  Suárez Dance Theater has commissioned these artists to create films in collaboration with filmmaker Leonardo Rivas. Each artist  highlights the site of a different history of Black, Native and Latinx people in Santa Monica, amplifying  stories that are often erased and ignored, with the intention to spark curiosity in people who are completely unaware of these narratives. 18th Street Arts Center’s Culture Mapping 90404 was where much of the research began.

Suárez Dance Theater  will be releasing one film a week online from their Instagram account  and on their  YouTube channel Fridays in April – starting April 16, 23 and 30. Accompanying each film will be resources to further explore – Offering viewers something to read, hear, watch and how to support. The film series will culminate on Friday, May 7th @ 6pm with a virtual gathering to screen all the films and hear from the creative artists.  Register here for the May 7th event.

Bernard Brown/bbmoves’ film “…at leisure…” seeks to reinsert the Black, queer body into the public space of Santa Monica’s historic Belmar neighborhood – the once vibrant African-American community. Choreographer and arts activist Bernard Brown was inspired by the many layers of parallels of the history of this neighborhood and what is happening now in our country, state and city. Bernard says, “I see more and more displaced people – which I connected with this idea of the Belmar Triangle community that was uprooted by government action and inaction on their behalf. I’m finding a deep commonality to people displaced by COVID-19 and this historic neighborhood in Santa Monica.” The film begins in front of the  landmark site of Phillips Chapel CME Church – built in 1909 and at the time the first church in Santa Monica serving the African American community.  The film journeys down Bay Street towards the beach – calling the ancestral spirits forward. Bernard dances at the “Inkwell Beach” plaque – which marks the one area along Santa Monica beach where Black and Brown people were allowed to enjoy the ocean. Bernard says, “I am inspired by the connection to nature as a birthright – and the ability for Black people to rest – truly rest in public space. Throughout our history, in the United States, Black bodies have been assailed, assaulted and terminated in the public space without this sort of opportunity to be at rest. There is a sense of always being on alert.”  Bernard’s dancing body  seeks connection to spirit. Bernard’s process of coming to understand  the Orishas of West African origin informed this journey. With his choreography and a driving electronic score from composer DeFacto X, he calls forth Obatala – the creator spirit and Yemanja – goddess of the sea.

(L to R) Leo Rivas and Bernard Brown - Photo courtesy of Suárez Dance Theater

(L to R) Leo Rivas and Bernard Brown – Photo courtesy of Suárez Dance Theater

“Strolling in the city of what was once Sa’anga – Overlooking Moomat – I ask who stood here pre city lights – What was it like?” These words open poet/songwriter Jessa Calderon’s “Before the Noise.”  Jessa who is of the Chumach and Tongva Nations says she was inspired by the knowledge that Santa Monica is on Tongva territory. “It was important to me to help others to make that connection. I felt through a poem maybe people could close their eyes and visualize what I am describing. And it would be a good way to make that connection.” She often starts her creative process with a question. For this project, she asks “Whose land is Santa Monica on ancestrally?” Her poem creates a vision for that question.   “Ancestors are always close. There are fields of green with trails in between. Paradise is what I see.” Her words reflect what she sees, hears, smells and feels. The visual component of the film begins in the overlook at Tongva Park with the Pacific Ocean, Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica Pier in the distance. The film closes with her at the shoreline with an offering to the ocean and ancestors. Embodying the essence of the poem was a seamless process for her. Jessa says, “I feel like Leo (Rivas, the filmmaker) was inside my head with what I wanted to do.”  She can imagine this being a seed for a longer film. With this project she  aims to bring to light the Native peoples who were here before colonization, as well as knowing that they are still here. “I hear the heartbeat of the people. This is our world. This is our home. These are our ways.”

(L to R) Jessa Calderon and Leo Rivas - Photo courtesy of Suárez Dance Theater

(L to R) Jessa Calderon and Leo Rivas – Photo courtesy of Suárez Dance Theater

Primera Generación Dance Collective (PGDC) is Alfonso Cervera, Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier, Irvin Manuel Gonzalez, and Patricia “Patty” Huerta. They offer “low riting”inspired by the history of Westside Classics Lowrider Car Club in Santa Monica. PGDC started their research using 18th Arts Center’s Culture Mapping 90404 Project.  Alfonso says, “Unearthing the history of lowrider communities, as an integral part of Los Angeles culture, was the juice of the work.” “PGDC’s projects often draw from our community and tradiciones as a repertory for inspiration.” says Rosa. “low riting”  focuses on the mechanics behind sociality, embodying ways in which lowrider clubs construct legacies and cars that strengthen community, familia, and cultura. PGDC pays homage to the many processes involved in the development of lowrider clubs. Irvin explains, “All of our work speaks to the multi-faceted experiences of being Mexican-American in the US and how often these identities form a subculture of resistance.” Westside Classics Car Club co-founder, Ralph Rocha shares in an oral history interview on the Culture Mapping 90404 project about how they are often targeted by the police and how ultimately these cars and the community became a way to be proud of who they were. Ralph and his beloved canary yellow 1953 Chevy BelAir are featured in the film. “We always initiate from a place of play,” shares Patty. They talk, move and research. And through this process, they could confront their own biases. “We always want to bring to light the hard realities of the stereotypes of lowriding culture. We collectively asked: how can we deconstruct that?” asks Patty. Ultimately they landed in a place to honor the “Brown Joy that comes from lowrider culture” – as Irvin so succinctly put it. From the hydraulics that bounce to oldies tunes to the familial grooving that takes place at gatherings, the dance film showcases the power behind the cars and people that maintain lowrider culture alive in LA.

Primera Generación Dance Collective and the 53 BelAir - Photo courtesy of PGDC

Primera Generación Dance Collective and the 53 BelAir – Photo courtesy of PGDC

Inspired by the racial uprisings of the last year, Mapping Our Stories sees Suárez Dance Theater pivot from their usual live performance work focused on joining communities in public spaces to short films that shine a light on these often invisible histories. Covid restrictions prevent in-person gatherings, but these limitations have driven the company to commission work on film that can reach a wider audience and foster community in the digital realm that can reconvene in public in the better days to come.

You can watch Mapping Our Stories on the Suárez Dance Theater’s Instagram account  and on their  YouTube channel Fridays in April – starting April 16, 23 and 30

To register for the May 7, 2021 event of Mapping Our Stories, click HERE.

To visit the Suárez Dance Theater website, click HERE.

Written by Christine Suárez for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: (L to R) Leo Rivas and Jessa Calderon – Photo courtesy of Suárez Dance Theater