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An intensive dance program for underserved youth focuses on hope and kindness, plus Melissa Walter’s most ambitious work yet
For the last few years, themes of TranscenDANCE’s annual youth summer intensive program have encouraged students to dig into dark issues. Resilience, assault, oppression and more inspired choreography — and group discussions — that had students facing trauma and troubling stories of their past or their communities.
“Last year, our show was on mental health, so there was a lot of heavy thematics, things like sexual assault, the MeToo movement and things like depression and suicide,” said Cat Corral, cofounder and executive artistic director of TranscenDANCE. “It was intense processing for everyone involved, and so we just felt like the pendulum needed to swing.”
The program launched nearly 14 years ago in City Heights, and has since moved to National City. With support from grants and individual donors, the summer program fully funds tuition, instruction, choreography, even meals and transportation for students from spring auditions through a summer performance. Their core, year-round programming works with partner high schools, including Hoover, Crawford, King Chavez and Sweetwater, and in neighborhoods including City Heights, National City, Barrio Logan and southeastern San Diego.
“We needed to be in a lighter space, a more hopeful and celebratory space,” said Corral, so they decided to focus on kindness this year. “Kindness can be part of the radical change we want to see in the world.”
This year’s program follows a model that TranscenDANCE has used in the past: encouraging dancers to write and tell their stories, and then finding a way to explore those stories — poetry in this year’s case — through choreography and movement.
And the happy themes haven’t changed the profound impact the program has on its students and community.
“There’s certainly vulnerability in writing and sharing these stories because they are so personal, so that is not different. But what I’m noticing is this very clear sisterly love,” Corral said.
This year’s teen group happens to be all-female, though some performances will include other alumni and choreographers. Corral observed that this year they haven’t seen the cliques and divisions that they sometimes see, and attributes that to the prevalence of empathy and compassion found in exploring kindness.
After auditioning and being accepted into the program, the dancers began taking dance classes as well as writing, poetry and storytelling instruction.
“The stories themselves are a throughline for the show,” said Corral. For example, one dancer wrote a poem at the start of the program that will be read in the performance — among other works — titled “I’m From The Lousy City Heights.” In the poem, a painter on a bus attracts attention from his neighbors and builds community as the other bus passengers discuss his art.
Many dancers come back to the program year after year, not just because they love to dance, but also because they love the community and feel safe and respected.
“This was a place I didn’t feel judged,” said Eliuth Lopez, a 19-year-old student at City College, who is in her 4th and final year with the program.
Lopez is one of a few seasoned participants to take on a leadership role. She focuses not just on her own performance and experience, but on ensuring that the others, some as young as 12, feel comfortable and supported.
“That’s what I remember from my first year,” Lopez said. “The bonding and connection. That keeps me coming back. This is my family.”
Performances are June 27 and 28 at the Lyceum Theatre.
I’ve been following Melissa Walter’s work on her latest installation for months. In fact, she’s been working on her latest project, largely on-site at ICE Gallery, and largely shrouded in mystery, since September.
“The owner/curator Michael James Armstrong has given artists a platform to create specific site conditional work … something we really don’t have here otherwise,” said Walter.
Throughout the fall and winter, Walter recruited friends and community members to join her in the space to construct tetrahedrons made of paper for the ambitious project. And she “in turn discovered the therapeutic aspects of repetitive action work,” she said. “The time together, doing the same action over and over again, gave all of us a place where we could open up and talk more freely than in most other settings.”
A former NASA designer, her works often explore spatial and scientific themes, and are visually surprising and gorgeous, and I’m excited to finally see the result of this large-scale installation, “Of All Things,” at ICE Gallery at Bread and Salt, opening Saturday afternoon.