Activism & Magic:
Krissy Keefer In Her Own Words
by Debbie Smith
Lynette Harris called the Dance
Brigade office and left a message for Krissy asking if she
had any articles or text discussing her thoughts on politics and
dance, I knew right away what to do. I returned Lynette’s
call myself and offered to interview Krissy on the subject. Since
I work for Krissy Keefer and am also a long-time
Gilded Serpent reader, I thought I would be in a unique position
to elicit her thoughts on dance, art and politics and share them
with the Middle Eastern Dance community.
Krissy has a long, distinguished career as the artistic director
of Dance Brigade, San Francisco’s groundbreaking dance theater
company that combines a feminist orientation with a political,
social-change oriented vision. She is also the director of Dance
Mission Theater, a dance center at 24th and Mission in San
Francisco which serves the dance community as a theater, school
and rehearsal space. Since I am the program manager there, working
in the office with Krissy every day, I am in a privileged position
to see the drive, intelligence, creativity and fearlessness she
applies to her work as an artist, a choreographer, a producer,
a community organizer, and a political activist.
My first experience with the power of Krissy and Dance Brigade
in performance came last year when I ran the box office for the
6-week run of her show Cavewomen. I saw the show 17 times
and the combination of the eternal female archetypes, fearless
satirical text, heartbreaking images of war, and the militaristic
Taiko drumming was both incredible and transformative.
As a Middle Eastern dancer, I do not feel that the Egyptian raqs
sharqi that I so love to perform and study lends itself as a vehicle
for political or social commentary. However, I do think that is
vital for dancers in our field to have a broader awareness of
what artists in other dance genres are doing to expand the potential
of dance as a theater art. In that spirit, here is Krissy Keefer
in her own words on dance, politics, and her upcoming show, Spell-
13 Invocations for Regime Change.
Krissy, tell me why you were drawn to
dance as a young woman as a vehicle for expressing yourself.
Well, I started dancing when I was a child, so I heavily identified
with being a dancer from the time that I was six years old. In
fact, my first ballet teacher told me that when I was six years
old, I told her that I was going to be a ballerina. So whether
to be a dancer or not was not a matter of choice for me. It was
more about how was I going to integrate all of the things that
were thrown at me, from being a young girl growing up in the fifties
and sixties in Columbia, South Carolina, to being the eldest in
a large family. I was in trouble a lot as a kid because I
had a lot of energy. Concern for the underdog
was always a big part of my makeup and something I learned from
my mother; it could be translated now as a concern for justice.
How to take all the parts of who I was and integrate them into
my dance? It was kind of a natural thing that I became a political
artist, because I burst into being as an adult at the time of
the Vietnam war and the women’s
movement and so I gravitated toward those causes. My sexual relationships
with women were also integrated into the company that I started
when I was twenty-one, the Wallflower Order, so all of
those influences together created the “mosh pit,” so to speak, for
the kind of dance that I would do.
So a political consciousness has always been a part of your dance
life, because you grew up with this consciousness of the “underdog”,
and your dance career and your sense of social justice evolved
at the same time.
Exactly! I had the unique opportunity of following
high school with three years of wandering around, figuring
out what I was going to do. Five years later, I was running
and being part of a dance company that would tour the
world in another five years. My career as a choreographer
and a performer with a very large and unique audience started
when I was 21 years old, which I believe is pretty unprecedented.
Most people mentor with someone for quite a long time and then
branch out on their own in their 30’s, but that was
not my experience. I was grasping at everything to find the materials
that would make up my dance while I was in a collective with
five other women in Eugene, Oregon. We started the Wallflower
Order. The genesis of my work was being part of an enormous
movement in the United States: the
It sounds like your work really captured the zeitgeist
of the times you lived in, in terms of the women’s movement,
political protest, civil rights, the growing awareness of third
world cultures - all sorts of social issues.
Yes, we were very much a part of the times. I would
say that if I mentored with anybody energetically, I mentored
with Alvin Ailey, just by seeing his
work Revelations. I sobbed through Revelations, because it was
about the heart and soul of the black community. I knew it was
deep, whatever was going on there. I learned about art and
politics when I was able to hang out with the Living Theater
when I was a teenager. Then I was in Eugene, Oregon with all of
the collectives, and so my influences were brilliant artists who
were already merging arts and politics. Again, I didn’t
work with any of them, I only saw, captured, and took on their
art and then moved forward with it.
It’s just so unusual that you use dance as a vehicle
for social change and social commentary.
Well, it’s not so unusual, since the politics of the
female body are so enormous.
sometimes think of dance as being something besides the body,
but because dance is about the body, all of women’s
issues especially segue right through the performer onstage,
whether it’s issues of how women are supposed to look,
to anorexia and bulimia, to fashion, to whatever else those
issues are. Just the power of ritual and collectivity to set
social standards and make change is a natural thing that comes
out of dance.
There’s a new book out about Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan,
and Ruth St. Denis- they were very intellectually astute and smart
about feminism, women, power, and mythology. They kind of set
the stage, and their “palette” was very similar to
And as women and artists, they were also very subversive
for their time in terms of not following convention. Do you see
yourself as part of a direct lineage from these foremothers of
Yes, I do- although I didn’t have access to them at
the time that I started out, because in
1975 it was really Merce Cunningham’s work that was the dominant modern
Which was a very post-modern, abstract,
formalistic aesthetic that was not content-driven.
So male! It’s about form and how form is put
together. We rebelled against that because we felt it was
boring. That’s kind of harsh to say, but for me Merce’s work was really boring, all those
people moving all those different ways! I’m sure there is
genius in it somewhere for somebody, but not for me.
back to the question you asked about how I combined dance and
politics, I think that question gets asked because, although
women do the majority of dance, there is sort of this thing
about “dumb dancers” and “bunheads,”
and women dancers are not expected to think and speak.
So the question of how I took this form and did something really
revolutionary with it comes as a result of this perception. I
feel that dance as an art form has really suffered and that
I have suffered from the perception of what dancers are, even
within the women’s movement. “Oh, you dance?”
It’s not quite as good as being a guitar player, or
a folk singer, or a poet!
It must have been hard to hang onto your vision through
all the decades of your work
Yes, except that we created an art form that has immense
popular appeal. So many people want to see work that reflects
their lives, so our audiences have always been enormous, hearty,
and wildly enthusiastic. And we are good at what we do.
me what your thoughts are about the idea that art should not be
used to make political statements, or statements about social change,
because it then becomes “propaganda.” There is a history
of poets, painters and other artists using their work to reflect
the political and social times they live in, but there are those
who think that art should be the expression of a
pure, abstract aesthetic idea. Do you think that
great art can be created that still reflects the political realities
of the times?
who live and work according to spiritual values cannot
and should not remain indifferent to the conflict in which
the highest values of the humanity and the civilization
are in game."-Picasso
I think the greatest art reflects the political realities
of the time. The problem with all art is whether it’s good
or not - that’s really what it’s about. Often
political work is so specific to its time that perhaps it can’t
be seen as a great work in thirty years, because it was too
specific to its time. However, there are many poems, many
paintings, many dances which endure because they have such artistic
merit along with whatever their “statement” is. I
think that if you look at any area of artistic endeavor, the greatest
works are those that have something to say about the human condition.
And what is the message of the human condition? Is it that we’re
all really alienated, and that life is dark and meaningless, a
la German existentialism, or it is it Mao’s revolutionary
Red Detachment of Women, fighting the landowners, or is it the
Bolshevik paintings - or is it Dance Brigade or Holly Near or
Pete Seeger or Mark Morris’s new
ballet, Sylvie, which has a feminist slant to it? Or rap - hip
hop culture has changed the face of everything, and it’s
about the experience of African-Americans trapped in the urban
ghetto. Anybody who says that that is not happening, is completely
out of touch with what’s going on. Even with the operas
and the ballets, the ones that really get people are the ones
that are like Dead Man Walking. Of course, there is
really bad art, and really bad propaganda art - but I think the
real intersection of the human condition and art is the oracle
of the future. The oracle for the future.
This year, being an election year, has provided you with a unique
opportunity to speak to the current post-9/11, wartime political
climate. As a political artist, you have so much to work with!
There is a sense of being in a dire situation on both the
right and the left. Talk a little bit about the show you are working
on right now.
What’s happened for me around this election is that
I can’t actually go to a swing state and work for Kerry’s
campaign, but I feel that there are so many people in Northern
California that want to participate somehow, even though we know
our vote doesn’t really count. And I thought, well, what
have we been practicing for the last
20 years? Magic! Magic and ritual and making circles, tarot cards
- all the esoteric and occult arts are a big part of our “agreed-upon”
culture in Northern California. I thought why not do a spell or
a ritual to get Bush out of office? We would try to
see if we could actually focus our intent and participate psychically
in the process of getting him out of office. So I created this
show called Spell: 13 Invocations for Regime Change. It’s
a multimedia performance art piece using dance, theater, drumming,
martial arts, sword form and text. It’s a 45-minute ritual
story and as a group, the dancers and the audience cast a spell
for regime change.
That sounds like so much more than a typical dance theater experience,
it sounds more like Antonin Artaud’s
idea of transformational theater. You are actually trying to give
your audience an experience that they will fully engage in, as
opposed to their just being spectators.
shows at 8pm except Sun at 7
Performances begin outside,
Day of the Dead Gallery
I think I feel this very deep need to provide an opportunity
for the community to come together at this point, because I feel
like we are in very dire times right now. We take our ability
to coalesce, to come together and ritualize, for granted as our
birthright. Well, currently nothing is our birthright. Our constitution
is in jeopardy, democracy is in jeopardy and everything is
breaking down all around us, on every level. So let’s not
take it for granted, but let us use every opportunity
that we have to find community together through the arts. This
is my offering. The character that I am playing is Hecate,
the queen of the witches - she is about the breakdown of form,
about decomposition, the rotting forest floor, the mushrooms,
the compost pit, where form breaks down. Inside of this
breakdown, the vision of the future starts to come out. Hecate is called the phosphorescent goddess, because out of
the compost comes phosphorus, some kind of light. Things shift,
and turn, and move, and her prophecy will be revealed. I am working
with all of that imagery to create the piece. I am working with
the dancers of Dance Brigade, Keith
Hennessey and Circo
Zero to do a whole piece outside, and Copper
Wimmin are doing the music.
We are creating the spell together.
How is it for you to journey into embodying this archetype, Hecate, queen of the witches, who obviously represents the
wisdom and all-seeing of the crone figure?
I think part of my mental health is that I embrace the
part of myself that is not nice.
I feel that as a woman, and as a mother, and as somebody who
has had to elbow her way to a certain place in the community,
that I like the part of me that can cut through the bullshit
and tell it as I think it is. I honor that ability in myself,
and that is Hecate, who tells the prophecy and tells the truth. She joins
with society, but lives underground.
always identified with that, with being a witch. I have partially
transformed the myth into Tibetan Buddhism, because
they have a strong witch culture through the Dakinis and dark goddesses - that iconography is all over
the world. All cultures have the dark goddess. We need this now,
more than ever, because it’s important for people to tell
the truth. People like Amy
Lee - anybody who is willing to say “this is wrong.”
And that’s what your art has always been about- telling
the truth from your experience as a woman.
Women have been burned at the stake as witches for telling
the truth. I have a book right now, called Against Forgetting,
of poetry written over the last 200 years by people who have witnessed
atrocities, in China,
Latin America, all over the world. People have been tortured and
killed for telling the truth. Lorca
was assassinated, and he was a genius! Any one of us who speaks
the truth could be killed.
That makes you very brave to be willing to do that.
Well, I’m scared now! I don’t know what is happening
anymore. I know the Muslim community feels targeted, put in jail,
accosted, separated out, made the “other” - the black
community has been under siege for years, in economic injustice
- people are still subject to being isolated, pushed out, incarcerated.
That’s one more thing I want to say about the show. It’s
really easy to get caught up in the darkness of the world right
now, but Dance Brigade shows are exhilarating, and that’s
why people come. They don’t come because the shows are dark
and heavy, they come because they are funny; it’s enormously
powerful to watch women playing drums; the dancers are stunningly
beautiful, the costumes, the sets - everything has got so much
magic in it that it is gripping and transforming, it changes the
audience at the molecular level. That has to be there in order
for the ideas to take seed - the shows are not just great politics,
but they are alive with magic and possibility and really great
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
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