This Saturday anti-abortion activists descended like so many locusts on Market Street, waving banners and yellow balloons in a mystifying display of out-of-town folk looking neither for the boat to Alcatraz nor the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Our fair city, ranked fourth "most godless" in America, responded with a collective eye-roll and tweeted about the inconvenience of the traffic snarl.
All should have the right to the peaceful assertion of their beliefs, but to really change minds, a protest should engage the public -- maybe even entertain -- shouldn't it? Krissy Keefer, director and choreographer of Dance Brigade, now in its thirtieth year of activist dance dramas in the Bay Area, seems to think so, because her latest work, Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair, on view at Dance Mission Theater January 24-February 8, fires up the stage with ferocious dancing, powerful percussion, self-conscious humor, and a set so visually arresting, the sight of it alone is worth the price of admission.
The piece is set in a junkyard, and set designer Kate Boyd must have cleaned one out to salvage the corrugated steel, car parts, grilles, tires, and discarded knick-knacks precariously stacked to fill Dance Mission from floor to ceiling and lit with a hot red glare.
In it, a community of women who have been abused, abandoned, and otherwise discarded by society tell their stories through song, dance, speech, and drums. If the premise of the piece seems implausible, set against a soundscape designed by Kristofer Hall that includes news reports and excerpts from contemporary writers including Eve Ensler and Ursula K. Le Guin, the narratives of the women -- an Iraq war veteran who is raped by her commanding officer (Sarah Bush), an African American woman first displaced by Hurricane Katrina and then by rising rents in the Mission (Kimberly B. Valmore), an artist forced into homelessness by a medical bill (Tina Banchero) -- are all too close to the truth. The issues addressed range across the gentrification of the Mission, violence against women, chemical warfare, capitalist greed, the twisted manipulations of the American empire, and global warming. It's a hodge-podge, but it works. In the hilarious, near-Shakespearean monologue that opens the piece, Keefer, a lone witch in the storm, declares, "I come from a family of schizophrenics, so I'm given to poetic rambling."
Hemorrhage rambles, but it also touches a genuine chord of anxiety that should reverberate with anyone who has noted the dissonance of our rainless skies and green lawns or wondered why governments kill civilians in the name of peace or wanted to know how many tons of plastic choke up landfills and oceans in a country where the tap water is in fact safe to drink. It overflows, shaking the audience to the bones with the penetrating beat of the drums and the intensity of the dancing, which combines street dance, martial arts, Afro-Cuban, and more, all performed with a fire lit from the core of its ten women. Yet some of its most powerful moments are quiet, such as when the dancers use wedding dresses as sleeping bags, huddling for warmth in thousand dollar garments meant to be worn only once that symbolize the virginity used to devalue every woman, or when the performers drape black veils over their heads in procession to honor the memory of peace activist Rachel Corrie.
The production frequently interrupts itself, transforming every moment into a comment on both itself and the world: tattooed and braided high priestess Richelle Donigan is halted mid-ceremony over a glass cauldron of fake blood by Keefer taking a bath in a tub full of plastic water bottles, Megan Lowe soulfully singing Sinead O'Connor's "Red Football" is joined by her mates loudly la-la-la-ing with bared teeth, a rendition of Fokine's "Dying Swan" initiated by Lena Gatchalian ends with two of the birds caught in a net of black gauze. The result is a demonstration that also questions the value and the form of demonstrating, whether hopeful ritual or direct speech has more weight in an age of virtual reality, whether spin tactics by those in power should be countered with cool reason or fists and feet, whether art makes change or only personal catharsis. It's smart, fun to watch, and very unsettling.
Dance Brigade presents Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair 8pm January 24-February 8 at Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., S.F. Tickets are $15-25; dancebrigade.org