Rocked by Women: Interview with Sarah Bush

Rocked By Women 2014, Photo by Desdemona Burgin

By Brittany Delany

Sarah Bush, Artistic Director of Sarah Bush Dance Project, discusses her new show ‘Rocked By Women’, premiering at Dance Mission Theater this weekend, May 9-11, 2014.

Brittany Delany (BD): Can you talk about your dance company mission–’empowerment through art’ ?

SarahBushSarah Bush (SB): For me it’s important to be creating work that shows women as strong, well-rounded, full characters on stage. And I think we’ve all had the experience of going to see dance performance where that’s not the case. Often that’s true in ballet and different styles of dance where I don’t feel like I get to connect to the women on stage, or relate to their experiences. My experiences are not reflected on stage.

I appreciate getting to work with women artists; teach them, encourage them; explore their strength, explore their expression. Encourage that in rehearsal process, in classes and then in performing the work…encouraging a lot of floorwork in the choreography, a lot of partnering work: lifting and supporting each other–literally and figuratively–so that in and of itself is a powerful practice.

Sometimes I think it’s leading by example of just living what feels true to me and my life experience and the women whom I’ve known in my life–showing all of that; those stories.

BD: What are the stories in ‘Rocked By Women’ ?

 SB: The stories in the ‘Rocked By Women’ show are of feminist leaders and women musicians in the women’s music movement. Also, this show in particular is somewhat autobiographical–following some of my life experience and abstracting some of that in to fiction. It’s showing pieces of my life around first love, first crush, first coming out, and telling a lot of lesbian life stories and experiences. All these stories are stories that can get forgotten and aren’t always given voice to in the performing arts.

BD: How would you describe some of this dancing that we will see in the show?

SB: Well all of my dancers have training in ballet, as well as in contemporary and modern dance. And then a lot of us have experience in varying degrees in other styles as well: Hip Hop, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Haitian, Contact Improvisation, Jazz–which make for a really rich blend of movement and I think there’s a different quality of performance within each of those styles. For ‘Rocked By Women’, we’ve been working with a Becca Wolff, a theater director. She has brought great craft of storytelling and theatricality to the show. So I’m very grateful for that. It’s brought out a particular aspect that I believe is in my work already, and really highlighting the acting component that can be possible with dance. That’s so important to me: showing the human emotion and expressing the storytelling through dancers’ face, eyes, gestures — that makes the movement more human and accessible to audiences and more emotionally poignant as well.

BD: What do you think about breaking down certain stereotypes in dance?

SB: I don’t know if it’s a stereotype or an archetype, but women, often in dance styles, will be portrayed for “feminine” qualities of softness or seductiveness and sexuality or sensuality. And there are a lot of women in the world who don’t experience their bodies in only those categories. My personal life story and representation of the women whose stories we’re telling through this show– women feminist leaders, the women who built the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, the women who built Olivia records, different performers– many of these women don’t fit that stereotype. For example, a stereotype from a magazine image of femininity: long flowing hair, outfits that accentuate your curves, high heels and whatever our culture has defined that is feminine. Most of the women in my life don’t fall in to that category. I don’t fall in to that category. So, in breaking down stereotypes, we are showing women in so many other ways, other ways of dress, other ways of body language, other ways of connecting and relating to the world.

BD: Congratulations on the recent leadership award from Bay Area Dance Watch. Could you share your thoughts on leadership and name any leaders whom you look up to?

SB: I guess as I get older and I’ve been in the Bay Area longer, I feel like it’s been a transition to step in to a feeling of leadership, but it has been sort of a gradual shift. I’ve been really grateful, like lifetimes grateful to Krissy Keefer and Dance Brigade and that family of a company being my real home base through my time here in the Bay Area. And that has been a female, feminist run company with Krissy Keefer at the head and other amazing strong women to make that possible. People who dance in that company dance in the company forever and I think that speaks to Krissy’s leadership. As a leader, she’s creating work and an environment that people feel so strongly and connected to. And I think she’s been a role model to me in terms of leadership. I know that what I’ve received out of being a dancer in her company and that informs what opportunities I want to give to my dancers. I want to do what she has done, which is create a working environment that is fun and challenging and engaging for the dancers, where they can work with peers who they really enjoy and respect and look up to. I hope my dancers will have opportunities to create work that touches audiences and the chance to travel and perform all over the world in all different communities. Those are things I’ve gotten with Dance Brigade and with Krissy Keefer and hope to give to my dancers in the future.

BD: Do you engage with political issues or events with your work?

SB: We’ve performed at different Pride festivals, locally and abroad. That celebration of queer life is important to me: queer life, queer arts, queer community. Again, it’s been my connection through Dance Brigade–getting to perform at Michigan Womyn’s Festival also feels like what I choose to participate in can be the way that I am political. I don’t think I am as overtly political as some other companies and some other work. I think it’s a little bit more just by the nature of who I am, the communities I’m involved in and the work that I create ends up touching on some political issues.

I feel pretty passionate right now about Oakland as a city and teaching, performing and connecting with Oakland artists to really build up, grow and highlight the arts that are there. I feel proud to be a part of the scene as it grows there.

SBDP Rock LineBD: I understand you teach adult dance classes in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Have you also worked in teaching youth?

SB: Yes, it’s been wonderful to be asked to come as a guest artist at middle schools and high schools. It’s great to teach young girls at different ages about partnering work, sharing of weight–some of those contact improv skills.

It became important to me about being very thoughtful about the music that I play when I teach with adults, and especially with youth. Of course they hear everything they hear on the radio. But I started to realize that as a teacher, that by playing something in class, I’m really putting my stamp of approval on it and it’s representing me. So I work really hard to play music in classes, workshops, performances, where I can really stand behind the artist and the lyrics and the music. Even that, I feel like it’s a little act of rebellion when you go and teach high school girls and they’re ready to hear all the ‘drop it like it’s hot- booty pop’ type of music…which is fine to be in the world…it just doesn’t represent me and what needs to be taught.

My company and I have also done a lot of dancing in churches and have worked with all ages, sometimes incorporating community members. We’ve been able to dance with different generations and in a different community, not just fine arts communities, but also at schools, churches and nightclubs. Certainly, how to bring that same sense of female strength and empowerment to something like a nightclub…it’s an important hurdle: how to figure that out; how you present that in an entertaining way that still feels like it holds true to my personal values.

BD: You just shared the importance of music in teaching. I can’t wait to hear some of the music in ‘Rocked By Women’, which celebrates women musicians. What kind of music can we expect to listen to in this upcoming show?

 SB: Yea! It is exciting. Julie Wolf is our composer and sound designer for the show. She has a wonderful rich history of working with a lot of amazing women musicians and making her own music. So she has done a great job of taking original tracks from artists and making her own compositions for the show. We’re basically touching on music from the early 1970s through the early 2000s…and of course we can’t put every single thing in there…I wish we could, there are so many artists! So we started with the early days of Olivia records, which was the music I was raised on…so the songs of Cris Williamson and Holly Near are featured in the show. And as we travel through the decades, we get little snippets of music from different genres- hip hop, folk, singer/songwriter, a little bit of electronic, some pop, through the ‘80s, through the ‘90s,…we’ve got some Missy Elliot in there, we’ve got some Joan Jett in there. I’m excited that Shelley Doty did a special recording for the sound score too. We really tried to show strong women’s voices who have been there through my life and hopefully through a lot of our lives, through those last four decades of music. Aarin Burch is doing video design, adding a lot to the multimedia aspect of the show. Her work is fantastically edited to the music and very artistic. I’m grateful for her work.

 BD: Anything else you want audiences to take away from the show?

 SB: I really hope they walk away from the show feeling inspired. And the way I hope they are inspired is by seeing what feels like some part of their own story reflected on stage, so that they feel honored; that their life experience is honored. And I hope they are able to feel inspired by the strength of the women dancing onstage and the strength of the voices they’re hearing in the music. I hope audiences are given the chance to reflect on the women that they are grateful for in their lives: their mothers, their sisters, the musicians, the artists who have informed them and whose work they celebrate and are grateful for. Artists like Cris Williamson changed my life just by boldly bravely doing what they loved. And I hope audiences leave feeling good about themselves and inspired to do what they feel passionate about that will touch and inspire others.


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