For several years Suchi Branfman has curated the closing night for the Fireside at the Miles series at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica. Branfman is a dancer, performer, curator, choreographer, educator and abolitionist. She has worked hard to combine art with activism in hopes of making the world a place where everyone is freer and more welcome. On Saturday, February 22, 2020, Branfman curated ROPE, an evening of intertwining dance and film about incarceration and freedom. As with all of Branfman’s performances, it was thought provoking, interactive and inspired everyone to take action to bring about change. Branfman currently serves on the faculty at Scripps College.

Suchi Branfman conducting an 1-hour storytelling and movement workshop "Dancing Through Prison Walls" at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans - Photo courtesy of the artist.

Suchi Branfman conducting an 1-hour storytelling and movement workshop “Dancing Through Prison Walls” at the Orleans Parish Prison in New Orleans – Photo courtesy of the artist.

Branfman is in the fourth of a five-year artist residency at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium security state men’s prison in Norco, California. She works with inmates to create movement that provides them a true sense of freedom. Branfman takes four or five dancers with her and has inspired other artists to do the same. As her program bio stated, Suchi Branfman “….has worked from the war zones of Managua to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and from Kampala’s Luzira Prison to NYC’s Joyce Theatre….”

With the comforting fireplace as a background, ROPE exposed the injustice of America’s penal system, incarceration for profit, and a system that is not-so-covertly modernized slavery. Dancing Inside, a message from Kenji Igus was provided via film, as Igus was working in Las Vegas and could not make the performance. We were not only treated to his amazing tap dancing that took one’s breath away, but we watched and listened to him speak about his experience working with men in prison. It was clear that Igus was inspired by working with these men and called it a life altering experience.

A Mediation, choreographed and performed by Brianna Mims, was a haunting work performed to music by Nicholas Britell. The movement was fluid and Mims demonstrated extraordinary control as she created physical waves with her torso, and rapid arm gestures that seemed to take her into flight. A Mediation was a perfect title, as the dance gently flowed by like a wise spirit informing us of better times ahead.

Two chairs placed on either side of a small table, a potted rose bush atop the table and a basket of plastic cut roses lying on the floor in front of it. This was the homely setting for POPS, a dance theater piece that pried one’s eyes open to an awful truth. POPS was performed by Ernst Fenelon, Jr. and Branfman who created the work in collaboration with Fenelon.

(L to R) Ernst Fenelon, Jr., Suchi Branfman in POPS - Photo by RM Holman for LA Dance Chronicle

(L to R) Ernst Fenelon, Jr., Suchi Branfman in POPS – Photo by RM Holman for LA Dance Chronicle

With the section titled “Reflections on the Angola Prison Rodeo,” Branfman and Fenelon began each description with the word “picture”, a word that immediately brought an image to mind. “Picture” a rodeo poker game where four men sit at a table as rodeo bulls charge at them and the last man seated is the winner. This was a reference to the spectacle of Roman Colosseum style gore that takes place at the Angola Rodeo, a huge attraction in Louisiana, that draws thousands each year. Branfman and Fenelon brought mental pictures of many horrifying events that take place, leaving one sick at heart and angry about how inhumane people can be.

We were then told the story of Moreece Bickham, a man who served 38 years in prison and through it all remained loving and hopeful. Bickham was the uncle of Branfman’s friend Jimmy “Duck” Holmes.  This led to a stark, but powerful movement duet where Branfman and Fenelon slowly moved with stilted steps in a square around the table and chairs, like an inmate pacing the perimeter of her or his small prison cell. Their movements were plain, but the message was one of confinement which ended with a sense of assisting others to freedom.

Degrees of Visibility was a series of projected photographs taken by Ashley Hunt. They were photographs of state and federal penitentiaries throughout the country. Some were taken up close and others appeared as landscapes with the prison facility barely visible on the horizon. It was a reminder how people who are incarcerated are not only separated from each other in jails and penitentiaries, but that they are in buildings that are located miles away from cities or towns, isolating them even further.

The audience was then instructed to form groups of threes with people that one did not know. Once accomplished, each group was to express and discuss individual ideas of a perfect world. My group spoke of equal and free education for all and a more balanced judicial system where offenders are put to work improving the lives of others rather than hidden away for years in a cement cell. People then shared their thoughts with the entire audience.

Suchi Branfman's "Dancing Through Prison Walls" - Photo courtesy of the artist

Suchi Branfman’s “Dancing Through Prison Walls” – Photo courtesy of the artist

Freedom, Dances. L.A. CA. was choreographed by Branfman in collaboration with the performers and numerous others inside the California Rehabilitation Center. Inmates or insiders were asked to create gestures and/or movements to the word freedom. A brief film was projected on the wall above the fireplace of men and women moving individually through this practice.

This was followed by a dance relating to that experience performed by the dancers who worked with Branfman at the Center. The five women moved through the gestures meaning freedom, shouted the word and formed moving tableaux with one dancer stretching and reaching outward toward freedom. The performers were Emily Dauwalder, Marley Evans, Selina Ho, Amy Oden, and Anna Paz. The first names of the men who created the movement were Marc Antoni, Terrance, Joshua, Jeremiah, Sheboyea, Robert, Neto, Raymond, Trenell, Jesse, Chris, and Atlas.

Thank you Suchi Branfman for your activism, for opening the minds and hearts of your audiences, and for giving men and women whose lives have been stolen, a brief sense of total freedom and hope for more to come through dance.

The Lighting Designer/Technical Director for this inspiring evening was Katelan Braymer.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle, February 24, 2020.

To listen to “Dancing Through Prison Walls: A Conversation with Suchi Branfman and d. Sabela Grimes, click here.

Featured image: Suchi Branfman curator of ROPE at Miles Playhouse – Fireside at the Miles – Photo by RM Holman for LA Dance Chronicle