Making Magic Out of the Past

January 30, 2012

Joanna Haigood finds inspiration in African American history.



Matthew Wickett and Raissa Simpson
in Haigood’s
The Monkey and the Devil. Photo by Walter Kitundu, Courtesy Zaccho.



To mark Black History Month, we decided to focus on a choreographer who has been inspired by the history of African Americans: the extraordinary Joanna Haigood. Known for her daring and provocative site-specific works, she has followed her interest in the heritage that she unearthed during some of those projects. Haigood also teaches in the Bay area and directs a youth company in aerial work.


Hunched over with knees to their chins, four male dancers precariously balance themselves on top of a stick house that looks as if a child had drawn it. They align their bodies with the structure’s roof, its color matching that of jumpsuits for the 718 prisoners on California’s death row—the most of any state in the nation. The dancers, members of San Francisco’s Zaccho Dance Theatre, couldn’t be more different from each other. Byb Chanel Bibene incorporates traditions from his native Republic of the Congo into a contemporary style; Fawole is a modern dancer working towards a Ph.D.; Travis Rowland was a competitive gymnast; and Michael Velez teaches a fusion of modern and funk at LINES BFA. But slowly, as the men unfold their torsos and reach for each others’ arms, they develop a common bond.

It’s late November and Zaccho artistic director Joanna Haigood is rehearsing Dying While Black and Brown, a commission by the Equal Justice Society, which is fighting to have the death penalty overturned in California and elsewhere. The piece, which premiered in December in San Francisco, investigates the death penalty’s disproportionate impact on men of color.

is but the latest of Haigood’s explorations into African American history. The process started in the mid-90s in preparation for her magnificent Invisible Wings, the site-specific work that was inspired by Jacob’s Pillow’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. (A beautiful dancer with a poetic presence, Haigood herself gave a haunting performance in this epic piece.)

just may be the most emotionally disturbing piece Haigood has created yet. “I have to restrict myself,” she says during a break. “The material is so devastating.”

The first rehearsal of Dying didn’t quite turn out as planned. Haigood asked the dancers about their personal experiences with the penal system. One of them had been unjustly arrested and badly treated in jail. Another had an older brother in and out of prison. Then Haigood showed a documentary on the death penalty’s impact—including on those charged with carrying it out. At the end of the presentation, everyone was so emotionally drained that Haigood just offered the dancers tea and sent them home.

Yet a week later the men were fully engaged in giving the distressing material choreographic shape. The process is a collaborative one. “Joanna gives us suggestions and images and we work out the details,” says Rowland. “She refines what we do and makes the final decision.”

Working on Dying is harrowing—and not just emotionally. Rowland finds himself repeatedly going back into his gymnastics training. Balancing precariously on what serves as a parapet, the dancers stretch limbs into the void and pull and yank at each other until the structure’s foundation shakes as though from an earthquake. The men drop from above with their full body weight, hitting the floor like sandbags, only to climb up and fall again and again.

Yet Dying also shines with a weird beauty when the quartet engages in a stately roundelay. They take turns engaging in some kind of communal ritual in this confined space that is both home and cage.

For much of her career, Haigood’s tributes to those who have gone before us—whether they be soldiers, factory laborers, or dockworkers—have involved physical locations. Every one of these works started with trying to get a sense of place, to find residue that clings to walls or the faded footprints from people long dead. Haigood calls the process “creating a window between the present and the past, where memory and imagination meet.” In one form or another, she brings these spaces back to life.

Rowland joined Zaccho in 2008 as part of Sailing Away, in which Haigood examined a little-known historical fact. In the 19th century, Market Street, San Francisco’s main thoroughfare, was home to a burgeoning black middle class. Yet in 1858, because of increasing discrimination, some 800 of them sailed for British Columbia.

“Her investigative process is so intelligent and so intense,” Rowland says about working with Haigood. For Sailing she took the dancers to First Street, which had been the edge of the Bay where the emigrants would have embarked. Haigood’s choreography also has a quiet authority that allows Rowland, who is physically very strong, “to more fully use my whole body and develop a character.” In Sailing, which was actually performed on Market Street in authentic Victorian dress, he portrayed a shoe store owner who traveled with his teenage daughter. Keeping what Rowland calls a “meditative” focus while walking down the street amidst camera-toting tourists wasn’t easy. He recalled one tourist taunting him with “Isn’t it a pity what you people have allowed to happen to yourselves.” But he also remembers an African American man gently putting an arm around his shoulder and walking with him for a while.

When the physical site is intact—a street, a warehouse, a gym, or grain silos—Haigood has tangible evidence of past lives. But sometimes not a stone remains. So she recreates the spaces for us. They become physical islands of contemplation surrounded by 21st-century noise.

For Departure and Arrival, commissioned by the 2007 San Francisco International Arts Festival, Haigood looked at the San Francisco International Airport’s segmented roof. It reminded her of ships’ hulls. So she built, with designer Ricardo Rivera, a huge panel with documentary slides recounting the Middle Passage (the ocean crossings that took Africans to the New World to be slaves from the 15th to the 19th centuries) inside the terminal. Next to it on a platform, weary travelers expressed their identity in both African and contemporary choreography while Haigood herself floated in from above. Suspended stick houses—one of them found its way into Dying—suggested dreams for a home in the Diaspora.

In Monkey and the Devil she went head on with racism. Performed in a one-room house designed by Charles Trapolin, cut into two equally unstable halves placed inside YBCA’s Forum, Monkey drew for its gut-wrenching impact on almost balletic formality. Two couples—one white, one black—tried to destroy each other and themselves in mirrored synchronicity.

Though Haigood knows that Monkey was tough viewing for the audience, she pointed out that this type of material was also difficult for the dancers. During rehearsals for Dying, she repeatedly asked the four men whether they needed a breather. They didn’t. But there was no levity during the scheduled breaks. Even Rowland, who admits he likes to joke around, was very quiet.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that her search into the African American struggle would lead her to W. E .B. Du Bois, the early 20th-century thinker who helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement. Haigood is currently mining his writings for a new piece to be shown this month as a work in progress at ODC Theater. She is drawn to Du Bois’ idea of “double consciousness” that forces African Americans to live in two worlds, divided by “the veil of race.” This veil prevents either of the inhabitants in these two universes from seeing each other or themselves clearly.

Du Bois developed the concept in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. His ideas, Haigood notes, “are by no means out of date. The dilemma of who we are, what our position is in the world, and how we are perceived is really an important thing to explore.” A technical residency at ODC in January allowed her to work with media artist David Szlasa on “immersion technology” to create an environment that helps physicalize the concept of double consciousness. “It’s an enormous task,” she says while smiling ruefully, “and I don’t even know whether it is possible.”


Rita Felciano is the dance critic for the
San Francisco Bay Guardian, and a regular contributor to


Inset: Haigood rehearses Michael Velez and Byb Bibene in
Dying While Black and Brown. Photo by Raissa Simpson, Courtesy Zaccho; Lomask and Wickett in The Monkey and the Devil (2008). Photo by Joseph Seif, Courtesy Zaccho; Al Pozzo di Sogno, at Oliver Ranch, CA, in which Haigood combined site-specific and aerial work. Photo by Chelsea O’Brien, Courtesy Zaccho; The Monkey and the Devil. Photo by Walter Kitundu, Courtesy Zaccho