“We must insist that we are all breathing the same air,” Scripps College dance professor Suchi Branfman declared to a crowd of around 200 last Saturday — a line she couldn’t have said last year, when the performance she planned was forced online.
“Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic,” the performance Branfman and her students organized, brought together formerly and currently incarcerated choreographers, professional dancers and the Claremont community. As the dancers interpreted the choreographers’ routines, some choreographers read a corresponding narrative. Others still in the carceral system had other choreographers read their narratives.
In response to COVID-19 restrictions, last year’s performance by Branfman’s students was pushed online. This year, the dance professor was thrilled to have the performance on Scripps’ campus.
To consciously involve the audience, Branfman and her students staged each dance around campus, from the Margaret Fowler Garden to the Edwards Humanities Building courtyard. After dividing the audience in two because of its large size, students from the Claremont Colleges Prison Abolition Collective led the two groups around the campus to watch performers in different locations. Branfman said this pushed audience members to see the dance in a more personal way.
“I made this choice because I am interested in the fact that these locations echo the fact that prisons and mass incarceration are hidden all around in plain sight,” Branfman said. “Rather than having it located in one place, I love the metaphor of these dances written inside being performed in six different locations.”
Aside from being in-person, the performance is also monumental in that it marks five years of Branfman’s dance residency working with students in the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco. There, Branfman gave students open-ended prompts to spark creative choreography. While she originally planned for the residency to end after five years, Branfman said she will return in January to teach in-person.
When the CRC went into lockdown, Branfman couldn’t teach inside the prison. Instead, she communicated with her students via mail, sending written explanations of their choreography and ideas. Every Friday, Branfman would drive to the gate of the prison to pick up written choreographies and exchange her own letters to the students.
Terry Sakamoto, one of Branfman’s students, wrote several dances while inside. A few of his dances, including one he narrated himself called “The Mountain,” appeared in the in-person performance. Sakamoto said writing dances was a powerful outlet for him.
“Obviously, when [you’re] incarcerated, you look for outlets that are able to escape the environment that you’re in,” Sakamoto said. “Writing for me has always been an escape.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Branfman, her team and her students translated their work into a short film last semester. This was a detour from their original plan; an in-person performance was always Branfman’s end goal.
“Being able to see three dimensions, being able to actually hear or not hear someone’s voice, all the dynamics of live performances — it’s just so deeply different,” Branfman said. “There’s no distance between the people who wrote the work, who are dancing the work, who are watching the work, which is something I’m really interested in and committed to the idea — that in terms of incarceration, those of us on the outside often distance ourselves from this institution.”
Mokhtar Ferbrache, another one of Branfman’s students, found that writing dances during his time at CRC sparked his creativity. While none of his dances appeared in this Saturday’s performance, he said writing choreography comforted him, especially when CRC was in lockdown.
Ferbrache said lockdown was a challenging time for many of the CRC residents, himself included. With constant testing and several outbreaks, Ferbrache spent a lot of time isolated and consumed by worry. However, creating choreography connected him to others and helped him find purpose.
“I don’t think I can fully explain just how much it really meant to have that sort of community when there was a situation like that,” Ferbrache said. “The dances themselves were fueled by a lot of that worried feeling.”
The performance also showcased some of Ferbrache’s paintings. A video of Ferbrache creating the works appeared alongside his colorful pieces, with “Easier” by CamelPhat featuring LOWES — which inspired the collection of paintings — playing in the background. He said his movement while creating the pieces was intentional, and the process of creating the piece is as much a deliberate work of art as the final piece.
“For me, abstract art was a way of getting away from the strict confines of incarceration,” Ferbrache said. “Out here, it’s still a way to release a lot of the things that I feel. It’s a way to say a lot of emotions that I don’t want to actually use words for.”
Attendees from both on and off campus were quick to praise the dancers and choreographers when the performance concluded.
Anna Huff SC ’25 heard about the event through one of her dance classes. She said she was taken aback by how moving the performances were.
“It’s always meaningful when you get to experience other people’s perspectives and stories through different mediums,” Huff said. “It was really cool to get to see the variety and creativity within the different pieces.”
Before concluding the event, Branfman challenged audience members to understand their connection to the carceral system.
“I’m asking folks to take a look at their own proximity to and their own engagement with the carceral system, even if it’s as a student at the 5C colleges,” Branfman said. “Who made your dorm furniture? Was it made in prisons? And were the people getting paid?”
Sakamoto said he’s continuously awed by the opportunities he received as one of Branfman’s students. After his performance, he FaceTimed his wife, beaming with joy and appreciation, then stayed to graciously thank attendees for coming.
“Being able to sit there in prison writing from these prompts, in my own head, for it to come out to become this, this beautiful art that’s actually bringing everybody together — it’s so beautiful,” Sakamoto said. “At every corner, every angle, every turn, I’m just like, it’s my hands raised on this roller coaster that to me emotionally is all highs.”