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Since September, the Hope Mohr Dance Project has been presenting Power Shift — a series of art and activism workshops, improvisation intensives, performances and practices — now in its last month. The series centers on the improvisational practices of Black/African American, Latinx/Latin American, Asian American, female-identifying and queer improvisers and social-justice activists through the mediums of jazz, dance and other contemporary forms. The workshop entitled “The Keystone of the Arch” will be co-facilitated by artists Tammy Johnson and Yalini Dream and will be a two-day event taking place this weekend on Saturday and Sunday. This workshop closes the Power Shift series.
Johnson has been doing movement work for about the past 30 years. She got her beginnings as a community organizer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and moved to Oakland in 2000 to work with what is now Race Forward for the next 11 years. Race Forward resulted from a merger of the Applied Research Center and Center for Social Inclusion. Both organizations had already been closely aligned. Now, as one, Race Forward is continuing to bring systemic analysis to complex race issues and helping people take effective action toward systemic racial equity.
Johnson became an independent consultant about 10 years ago “to make room for my other passion in life, which is dancing.”
Her consulting allowed her to join both of her passions — the arts and racial justice, by helping organizations infuse equity in their practice. “What does that (equity) look like in the way we treat, live and work with each other?,” Johnson says.
Dream’s entry into the arts and movement-building was through children’s theater. “I felt that I could express myself in a way that school, family and the world did not allow me to,” Dream says. In her early days, many of her roles in theater were racialized. “These were the roles for someone that looked like me in the ’80s,” Dream says. “I always played the role of animals, never humans.”
During her undergraduate years at the University of Texas in Austin, her awareness of politics began to form. She describes her time there as being “called back but never cast.” It was clear that the field of theater was not ready for actors such as herself who did not fit neatly into the traditional hierarchies, and in response to that, she and another friend started their own theater company of color at the university. “I had really internalized racism as a young person … and I tried so hard to assimilate,” Dream says.
In a University of Texas theater production of “In search of a golden teardrop” by Betty Havens, Dream has played a court minstrel. Even though the role represented a minstrel as a person who entertained the king and queen’s court, Dream felt that “the way in which the play was directed and performed had racialized tones that went beyond the original intent.” It was through writing and the arts that she was able to heal from some of this self-hatred. When Dream decided to create her own work independent of the industry, she began to understand what it meant to be a cultural worker. “Our creativity is what is going to lead us into just and liberated futures,” Dream says.
How did you end up envisioning and co-facilitating this workshop together?
It all started with a mutual colleague, Aisha Shillingford, who is a part of Intelligent Mischief, a creative design lab for social good. Shillingford has suggested to the Hope Mohr Dance Project that Johnson and Dream do a workshop because of their collective experience doing movement and imagination work together. Dream and Johnson had been studying with Movement Strategy Center’s Norma Wong for quite some time. Wong’s 100-year arc concept “explores seven generations behind you and seven generations in front of you,” Johnson says. Hope Mohr Dance then approached Dream and Johnson to understand how they could facilitate a short series around how we (as a society) all sit within this short scope of time. This concept of the arc was taken from indigenous beliefs and should be looked at as grounding in how one pursues their work and life. How is someone able to hold that as their kuleana, or sacred responsibility?
The times that we are in show us that every individual’s action really does matter. “It takes that idea of personal and sacred responsibility, how we are interconnected with each other and how we need to be more intentional about that connection” Johnson says. In the context of social and racial justice, this work aims to bring the concept of the arc and how we move forward to a whole new level.
What does improvisation look like for BIPOC?
Improvising demands a certain level of presence. “Being present in our bodies allows us to be able to receive messages — whether that’s from our subconscious, our dreams or our ancestors,” Dream says. For her, improvisation is found right in the way we are responding to this pandemic and current uprisings. In social-justice work, Dream reminds us to look at our bodies to understand how we can improvise through these situations. “How do we respond rapidly to the moment in a way that aligns with this 100-year vision?”, Dream says. If we only respond only in a reactionary way, we are allowing the dominant forces to control our focus. Those forces are patriarchy, militarism, neo-facism and the varying systems of oppression. In this context, those dominant forces continually attack and impact BIPOC communities. “We constantly have to respond to that, and that in itself can tie us up and keep us from moving towards our larger vision,” Dream says.
As BIPOC, “we need to choose the direction we want to move in as we are on that path to creating communities that are free of violence but full of liberation and sovereignty,” Dream says.
“People tend to look at artists, especially those who improvise, as having some sort of magic, when really it takes hours of practice,” Johnson says.
In this workshop, Dream and Johnson will be offering tools to help practice the concept. “Our world is definitely in a moment where a lot of unexpected things, good and bad, are showing up onstage,” Dream says.
“It is the practice of improvisation that allows us to move in a way that is wise, with integrity and in alignment with our own values,” Johnson says.
What can participants expect?
“That’s a good question,” Johnson says. The most important thing to consider is “what is the practice that will allow us to be fully intact, fully present and hold people in the moments that will happen as we move forward?”
This work has taught them both to expect anything when they walk into a room. “The anchor that we have for this is being deeply present and responding to current conditions in a way that accelerates our path on that 100-year vision,” Dream says. The workshop will create space for people to envision a new world.
Johnson anticipates that both she and Dream, as co-facilitators, will be doing their own form of improvising to be able to meet what’s in the room. “There will be movement, getting people into their bodies and allowing participants to think conceptually about how their bodies feel in that very moment,” Johnson says. “A habit is done unconsciously and a practice is done very intentionally.” The workshop will explore habits that need to shift in one’s practice. Johnson and Dream are excited to explore this version world-building through movement and the practice of improvisation.
Power Shift is more than performance. It is an opportunity to nurture resilience and collective power in the realm of shifting landscapes. The concept of the arc, seven generations behind and in front of us, is essentially a linking of our past and present to our vision of what is to come. Looking at moments in the past that have helped shape our collective activism such as the Warren County protests that started the environmental-justice movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the very recent Black Lives Matter uprisings to the current shift in our government and push toward more climate action are just some of the many moments in time pushing us toward a more abundant future.
* Power Shift’s “The Keystone of the Arch: Embodied 100 Years Vision” workshop featuring Tammy Johnson & Yalini Dream — for artists, educators, activists, nonprofit professionals, and anyone interested in how embodiment can support social change — takes place on Zoom noon-5 p.m Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available on a sliding scale of $100-$250 at https://hmd.simpletix.com/e/55358.