Hewlett 50 Grants Support New Creative Work by Bay Area Dance Groups

Paul Kotapish on June 22, 2020

Arts organizations scramble to make ends meet under the best of times. For shuttered nonprofits in the age of the pandemic, the situation is dire. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation — via the Hewlett 50 Arts Commission — has thrown a substantial lifeline to 10 Bay Area dance groups by way of major grants for partnerships with world-class artists to create new works of dance and movement-based performance and premiere them in local communities.

According to the press release, “the grants will support new work by artists deeply rooted in their communities who are also innovators and celebrated leaders in their fields. The works they create will explore themes of identity, shared histories, connections to place, as well as common challenges and hopes for the future.”

The Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions comprise a five-year, $8 million initiative launched in January 2017 to mark the foundation’s 50th anniversary. The initiative awards 10 grants of $150,000 each to local nonprofits annually in one of five performing arts disciplines. Previous years’ grants were awarded in the disciplines of music composition, theater, and spoken word performance. The new works created with this year’s awards will premiere in Bay Area communities over the next three years. 

The themes of the supported projects, which include racial justice, inequality, and rising xenophobia around the world, seem tailor-made for the present moment, but were conceived well before the Black Lives Matter protests and the onset of the pandemic. Emiko Ono, the foundation’s performing-arts program director, said, “At a time when our country is grappling with its failures and trying to chart a path forward, these artistic projects can illuminate the lives of individuals and our diverse communities, provoke debate, and help reimagine our shared future.” 

Choreographer Yayoi Kambara

Choreographer Yayoi Kambara talks about what the commission means for her project with the Japanese American Citizens League:

What I’ve really appreciated about these projects is that there is room to imagine, from the beginning, the entire concept design, which concert dance doesn’t usually have the luxury of doing because of our smaller budgets. I actually tried to make a version of IKKAI means once: a transplanted pilgrimage in 2018, and while IKKAI builds upon an early iteration of some of these ideas, this project represents a significant step, artistically, in partnerships and community building, in the scope of the work, and the venues and audiences being reached.

We have formed a multigenerational collaboration with artists like Paul Chihara, composer, and Janice Mirikitani, poet laureate of San Francisco — who were both incarcerated as children — with sound designer Miles Lassi, and my Opera Parallèle director Brian Staufenbiel. I’m really excited to work with another collaborator I met through my opera work, David Murakami, who is a live projectionist filling our installation performances with images. This is a durational, relational project at a scale that has not been possible with past projects. Weston Teruya, a local visual artist, is creating a set piece for these projections which will transform during the performance. This funding also allows us to bring the performance to premiere in January 2023 at San José Buddhist Church Betsuin Annex and February 2023 at the Glide Memorial Church Freedom Hall, free of cost.”

Prumsodun Ok | Credit: Lim Sokchanlina

Multidisciplinary artist Prumsodun Ok received a grant for a project with the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI), with whom he has been collaborating for more than 10 years, and ARTogether. Ok describes the intent of their new work, A Deepest Blue, this way:

CERI, ARTogether, and I share a commitment to the Khmer American community, which faces many complex challenges. Khmer Americans remain one of the poorest and under-educated of Asian American communities and nearly 50 percent of Khmer American youth surveyed by Khmer Girls in Action and UCLA displayed symptoms of depression. CERI, ARTogether, and I are committed to breaking the cycle of pain, poverty, and violence, by creating opportunities for healing, growth, and change that is wholesome and lasting for the Khmer American community and all refugee and immigrant peoples.

The Hewlett 50 Arts Commission gives us the opportunity to put our strengths and resources together, to dream and collaborate together, to bring different people and ideas together for the sake of our shared community and future. A cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary project of this scale that brings together artists and communities from Cambodia, Japan, and the United States would not have been possible without such a major commission. We are extremely grateful, but the work is only starting as we still have more fundraising to do.”

Ok notes that work on the project has proceeded despite the strictures imposed by the pandemic response. “As the project is being developed in Cambodia, Japan, and the United States simultaneously, a lot of the work was supposed to happen remotely already. We had already foreseen that much of our exchange would happen digitally, and that each creative party would go back to the studio. Ultimately, I do not foresee any major changes to the shape and direction of the project [due to the pandemic].”

The work that the collaboration is developing, Ok says, is a positive response to the many negatives dominating the world at the moment, particularly human interaction with nature:

I think the ills of our world today — the lack of respect and value for black and indigenous lives, lack of education and miseducation, rampant fear and xenophobia, this global pandemic — are ultimately related to how humanity has lost its connection to nature. We do not understand the value of life. We have been destroying our soils, forests, and waters with greed and without care, and the suffering world is in so many ways at an inflection point. If there is anything this pandemic has taught me, it is that life and existence does not revolve around humanity. It will move on without us, whether we like it or not. Therefore, we as a species need to work together to develop a newfound balance and connection to nature and life — and this is ultimately the question guiding A Deepest Blue.”

Here are the 2020 Hewlett 50 Arts Commission Awardees:

Brava! for Women in the Arts with Vanessa Sanchez: Ghostly Labor illuminates a history of abuse, activism, and perseverance by Chicana and Native women working in the U.S./Mexico borderlands.

Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants and ARTogether with Prumsodun Ok: A Deepest Blue uses a founding myth common to Cambodia and Japan to contemplate humanity’s relationship with and responsibility to our threatened oceans and the natural world.

Circo Zero with Ishmael Houston-Jones: TRY is an experimental improvised dance that aims to subvert traditional notions of race and masculinity.

Dancers’ Group with Joanna Haigood: The People’s Building investigates movement and visual storytelling in relation to the history, architecture, and metaphors inherent in San Francisco City Hall.

Green Music Center with Liz Lerman: An evening-length dance-theater piece, Wicked Bodies (Sonoma) wonders about the persistence across time and culture of old crones, evil stepmothers, and powerful institutions’ use of the female body as a source of fear. 

EastSide Arts Alliance with Amara Tabor-Smith: This too shall pass is part of a ritual dance theater project addressing the well-being, displacement, and sex-trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. 

Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu with Patrick Makuakāne: MĀHŪ is a work of multimedia hula-dance theater that aims to reclaim and celebrate the traditional place of honor, respect, and influence given to māhū (transgender) people in ancient Hawaiian society.

Japanese American Citizens League, San Jose Chapter with Yayoi Kambara: IKKAI means once: a transplanted pilgrimage incorporates modern dance, Bon Odori, storytelling, and taiko to guide audiences through the impact and legacy of Japanese American incarceration during World War II.

Filipino-American Development Foundation with Alleluia Panis: Nursing These Wounds investigates the impact of colonization on Pilipinx health and caregiving through the lens of Pilipinix nurses’ history.

Margaret Jenkins Dance Company with Margaret Jenkins: In Global Moves, artists from China, India, Israel, and the U.S. explore the current waves of isolation and xenophobia in their countries and around the world, using cultural texts as prompts to make a work of hope and unity.

Awardees were decided based on five selection criteria: artistic excellence, project concept, project design, audience and community impact, and financial capacity.

For more information about the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions, please visit www.hewlett.org/50commissions.