September 1–5, 2020
Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic is a program conceived by choreographer and educator Suchi Branfman. As a special project within a multi-year engagement, the program began in 2016 to bring dance workshops to a California prison for open participation. During the COVID-19 lockdowns of Spring 2020, Undanced Dances developed written texts by incarcerated men. For Field Workshop: Action Projects, Branfman used ICA LA’s space to support the realization of commissioned dance interpretations of these texts by eight choreographer-dancers. Four four days, collaborators worked on-site to develop their pieces. On the fifth day, the final dances were performed at ICA LA and shared to a limited audience on-site and a broader audience via Zoom. A panel discussion with the choreographers was also organized as part of the culminating presentation.
Dancing Through Prison Walls began in 2016 as a five-year choreographic residency with incarcerated men at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) prison–a medium security men’s state prison–in Norco, CA. Due to COVID-19, the California state prison system halted all programming and visitation in March 2020. Without a physical space for movement, the authors created imagined written choreographies from their prison bunks to contribute to Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic. To physicalize and embody the texts written with movement in mind, program creator Suchi Branfman invited fellow choreographers and dancers Bernard Brown, Jay Carlon, Irvin Gonzalez, Kenji Igus, Brianna Mims, and Tom Tsai. Writer collaborator and former Dancing Through Prison Walls program participant Ernest Felon Jr. read the written texts while dancers performed.
Members of the public were invited to watch the process of choreographic development and dance rehearsal through ICA LA’s window facade along 7th Street during the week. Dancers occupied several locations at ICA LA, from the institution’s learning space, Field Workshop, and the parking lot.
The dancers/choreographers articulated the powerful imagery through various forms of movement: tap, contemporary dance, and improvisation. While some of the writing pieces gave specific instructions for movement, others provided short and emotionally charged statements to guide the dancers. As Suchi describes, the writings “were very much alive, we brought them into action.”
For the culminating performance, technology prevailed as ICA LA presented live and pre-recorded performances in multiple corners of the museum. A few members of the public RSVP’d to watch the culminating performance and to listen to the panel discussion inside the ICA LA space. This provided a rare live audience. Many others participated over Zoom. During the panel discussion, a special surprise guest entered the virtual room: Richie Martinez, a recently released, former program participant of Dancing Through Prison Walls. As one of the authors of the written dances, Richie was able to share his personal experience with the project to the Zoom audience and the choreographers involved.
Field Workshop: Action Projects not only offered space to physicalize the authors’ imagined dances, but also produced generative conversation and movement, activating the power of the words and imagination of the incarcerated authors. Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic will continue as a project, producing conversations and content that honor the incarcerated community, while exposing the realities of confinement and subjugation. Individuals who wish to engage with the project or host further conversations and viewings should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Huge thank you to the authors of Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic for creating the written dance pieces. Special thanks to Suchi Branfman, Bernard Brown, Jay Carlon, Ernest Felon Jr., Irvin Gonzalez, Kenji Igus, Brianna Mims, and Tom Tsai for physicalizing the dances in ICA LA’s Field Workshop space.
— Habiba Hopson, 2020 Getty Marrow Intern, ICA LA