‘I always feel free when I dance’: Incarcerated choreographers enchant in dance film directed by Scripps College professor

A person wearing a black hat, black sweater, blue pants, and white shoes does a head stand.
Professor Branfman directed a short film with dances by incarcerated choreographers. (Courtesy: Suchi Branfman)

Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic,” like many shows and performances done in the last year, had to rewrite itself. Suchi Banfman, choreographer and Scripps College dance professor, had emerged from a multi-year residency at the California Rehabilitation Center with the project “Dancing Through Prison Walls,” a retrospective on confinement and escape.

But when the pandemic limited visitation to CRC, Banfman’s project was halted — and so it rewrote itself. 

Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic,” a short film directed by Banfman with the help of production assistant Selina Ho SC ’21, is markedly different from its predecessor while still holding space for conversations about regulation, confinement and, newly, loss amid a devastating pandemic. The film found an audience April 16 in an event collaboration between 18th Street Arts Center and the Santa Monica Department of Cultural Affairs, which screened the film and hosted a discussion with 11 artists involved in the production.

Formerly incarcerated choreographer Richie Martinez conveyed his experience of confinement in his piece “Richie’s Disappearing Act,” which featured his narration atop a dance piece.

“You’re in prison — there was a lot of rioting and a lot of bad [things], so what was a little good came out of it: I would just imagine myself there in a different place. That way, I stay positive. Otherwise, I’d probably lose my mind also. That’s what inspired me to write that piece. I would just show people where I disappeared to,” Martinez told TSL, reflecting on his work. 

Yet, at the end of the show, Martinez offered a road to redemption for both himself and the future of the U.S. justice system as he closed with his piece “Richie’s Reappearing Act.”

Martinez was released from incarceration in the summer of 2020, allowing him to partake in the filming of the dances. His work, along with that of three other incarcerated choreographers — Brandon Alexander, Landon Reynolds and Terry Sakamoto, Jr. — was showcased in the event.

Branfman’s experience in the prison includes teaching college courses through the Prison Education Project, collaborating on choreography and spending countless hours dancing in the gym with incarcerated students. 

In spring 2020, Branfman taught Choreographing Our Stories, an Inside-Out class offered at CRC. A student in this class, Ho had previously been a facilitator with Branfman in past dance classes at the prison, and this experience allowed her to transition to being a production assistant and acting as a general support in the filming process in February this year.  

Branfman’s dance residency at the CRC shifted paths after the pandemic took hold. Given fewer than 48 hours to devise an alternate plan, she turned to a medium not often synonymous with dance: Writing became the avenue for the creative visions to connect to the world outside. 

The change in title reflects the project’s transformation — on a screen, the recorded dances are technically undanced.

“There’s sort of a bit of a legacy in the dance world and people writing dances, sending postcard descriptions of dances to each other, like in the ’60s and the ’70s,” Branfman said. “I had no idea whether, when sending that stuff in, if anyone was going to be able to get anything out to us or how long that would take.”

But the connection prospered. After receiving written choreography from incarcerated dancers, Branfman enlisted other dancers to perform it. While some writings were more literal in their descriptions of movement, others were defined by feelings and emotions. 

A person wearing a blue, denim jacket, yellow pants, and a beige hat lays on a blue box with their arms and legs spread out to each side.
Incarcerated choreographers and dancers perform for the 5C community. (Courtesy: Suchi Branfman

According to an article by Branfman, choreographer Carlos Rivas wrote, “I start to feel the power of my dance as I empty out my thoughts and feelings on the dance floor. I always feel free when I dance.” 

The six dances featured in the film were all written and choreographed inside CRC. Branfman entrusted the interpretation of these writings to dancers she had already worked with in the prison, including Bernard Brown, Jay Carlon, Irvin Gonzalez, Kenji Igus, Brianna Mims and Tom Tsai. 

Branfman was filled with gratitude for the close collaboration with the formerly incarcerated dancers and credited them entirely for the extraordinary performances.

“A lot of people say that [I’m] bringing it to life, the work of these people inside, but I don’t think that at all,” Branfman said. “I think what the work that people sent out from inside the prison is filled with life. I just offer a platform.”

The writing nature of the dance program caused new emotional boundaries to break within the circle of dancers within the prison. 

“It became really personal. I know that even reading other people’s, everybody’s, all those dances were really personal. Everybody opened up, and you don’t see that a lot from prisoners. Even when we were dancing, we had a lot of tension at first, but we broke that tension, those barriers, down,” Martinez said. 

The creation of this final work of art proved to have effects far beyond what Branfman or Ho could have imagined.

“I think this project shaped the way I viewed this pandemic … through the whole process, the dances became a part of me,” Ho said. 

I think that the discussions around mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex are very urgent right now,” she said. “People see the intertwined relationship between policing and incarceration. I think people want to be more educated and more informed. We provide information and we talk about it. Students were super responsive to that.”

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