The countdown to San Francisco Movement Arts Festival at Grace Cathedral continues! With three weeks until the winter Stations of the Movement program (for the first time, the festival will also host a summer edition as well on July 19th), we’re concluding our blog series highlighting just a few of the participating choreographers/companies/dance artists. For this final installment, we caught up with Ashley Gayle and Noah James, Co-Artistic Directors of Visceral Roots Dance Company.
|Ashley Gayle and Noah James|
Photo Lynne Fried
Visceral Roots has a great origin story, one that goes back about six years to when Gayle and James were members of Raissa Simpson’s PUSH Dance Company. In addition to performing with PUSH, Simpson invited the pair to participate in PUSHLab, an incubator designed to foster choreographic creativity. While both had choreographed work before, this opportunity had a measure of newness – they would have six weeks to create a new piece together and it was each of their first time collaborating with another dancemaker. They dug into the process, curious to see what it might reveal and what emerged was Unparalleled. “Unparalleled is an ensemble work for six that confronts how society portrays people of color in the news and media,” Gayle recalls, “after it showed at PUSHFest, the response was really positive and from there, things kind of took off.” Things certainly took off, indeed! A deep collaborative partnership had been birthed and a new company had joined the Bay Area dance landscape. Since that 2016 premiere, Visceral Roots has been busy. Alongside residencies at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center and SAFEhouse Arts, they were chosen for AMP (Artists Mentoring Program) at the Black Choreographers Festival, were part of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival and performed in the longrunning Works in the Works showcase at Berkeley’s Western Sky Studios. San Francisco Movement Arts Festival producer Jim Tobin had been watching Visceral Roots over these many Bay Area engagements, and last year, extended an invitation to be part of the SFMAF’s Stations of the Movement event.
|Visceral Roots Dance Company|
Photo Jason Hairston
SFMAF wasn’t new for Gayle, as she had appeared in previous years with LV Dance Collective. But it was new for Visceral Roots, who made their festival debut in 2018, bringing District 6, a work built during their SAFEhouse residency, to the Station of the Glass Doors. “District 6 is about homelessness, specifically youth homelessness,” explains James, “its goal is to bring awareness to this human condition, to educate and to inspire change; really all of Visceral’s work has that foundation and hope, that it can be a catalyst for change.” Choreographically, the group work flows in and out of several genres and styles, which felt like an apt metaphor for the complexity of the homeless community. It mines hip hop, African and contemporary partnering, as well as what Gayle calls a “soulful expression of jazz.” Underscoring the movement is a character-driven narrative that the company created through different compositional prompts. “We were struck and compelled to speak to this issue as young adults,” James shares, “it was personal and raw; some of our company have first-hand experience with homelessness.”
|Ashley Gayle and Noah James|
Photo Carmen Crocket
As Visceral Roots prepares for this year’s festival, those themes of ‘personal’ and ‘raw’ are once more front and center in Begin, Laugh Again! A duet, which will be performed by Gayle and James, Begin, Laugh Again! unpacks the concurrency and intersection of two lines of inquiry or “tracks,” as the pair described. For Gayle and James, this dance started percolating last Spring. Gayle had just given birth and James had recently experienced a medical crisis related to sickle cell, and they found themselves yearning for physical renewal. “We wanted a process where we could really have fun; where we could enjoy our bodies again,” Gayle says, “but at the same time, as people of color, there is this other track of racial inequity that you have to deal with every day, that hampers that fun and that joy.” The horrific murder of Nia Wilson last July at MacArthur BART became a huge part of their artistic process, “Nia’s death, in particular, brought so much up,” James laments, “this Bay Area community, which is so much more diverse than other places, suddenly felt less and less like a safer space.” To simultaneously explore these impactful themes, Begin, Laugh Again! utilizes big, expansive physical vocabulary, fusing contemporary and modern partnering with some ballet. Also integral to the work is a poem written by Amber Kimmins. Because Visceral Roots will be at a silent station for this year’s SFMAF, they are currently playing around with a few ways to incorporate the text. No final decision has been made yet; be sure to stop by the Station in Front of the Nativity Chapel and see the powerful final iteration!
As has been the trend for every SFMAF company highlight, we concluded our time together with the following question: why do you keep coming back to perform at this event? Like Lissa Resnick and Claire Calalo, Gayle and James shared several responses. Both agreed that the festival provides a unique opportunity for participants to be performers and viewers – when you’re not on, you get the chance to take in the artistic riches brewing in the community. For James, the space itself has a particular call, “my journey as a professional dancer began in liturgical worship; the cathedral feels like a home space, a spiritual space, yet not strictly a religious space.” And Gayle added her appreciation for the close proximity between the audience and the art, “it’s fun to be on a classic stage, but when the material is so deep, there’s something incredibly satisfying about being in an intimate setting.”
To learn more about Visceral Roots Dance Company, please visit their website at: https://www.visceralroots.org/