Raissa Simpson’s PUSH Dance Company Builds Vibrant Contemporary Dances To Gain A Deeper Understanding Of The Challenges Attributed To Mixed Heritage.

#theRona Chronicles | with Allegra Madsen

#theRona Chronicles invites the performers, collaborators and staff of The Motley Experiment to reflect upon its postponement from its original March 2020 premiere to February 2021. Created in residency at Bayview Opera House, set to live music by Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids, Raissa Simpson’s The Motley Experiment, and the collaborators who bring the project to life, are adapting and moving along with changes in the time of the COVID-19 (Corona Virus) pandemic.

What were you doing before the COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place order?

I am the Program Director at The Bayview Opera House, the oldest operating theater in San Francisco and the community arts hub of SF’s African American Arts and Culture District. Through our arts programming, we cultivate an environment dedicated to creative excellence and ambition with the knowledge that increasing access to art will inspire, educate, and transform lives. The Motley Experiment is an amazing project that represents a meaningful collaboration between the artist, Raissa Simpson, and our institution.  Oftentimes, institutions are not active participants in the production of new work and artists work singularly to source funding and manage the business administration involved in executing a large scale project.  At the Opera House, we not only offer a space for artists to produce work but we want to create an environment that amplifies the artistic voices of black and brown artists, so we try to offer support from the initial stage of developing a concept into a fundable project.  With The Motley Experiment, our collaboration with Simpson began with a joint fundraising effort that has been 2 years in the making.  Which is where my role comes in.  I work with Simpson and her staff as the representative of the Opera House to ensure that the facility is open, well maintained, ready and staffed for rehearsals and the production, and that Simpson’s artistic vision is technically well executed.  My favorite part of working in the arts nonprofit space is that no matter what one’s role is on paper, we are all called upon to use our creative energies and so I also did the graphics for Motley promotion.   

And directly before the Shelter in Place order was issued I was working on promotion, promotion, promotion and some technical projection elements that are going to make Motley absolutely breathtaking when we are able to execute the final production.

How did you feel when The Motley Experiment was postponed until February 2021?

I felt awful and really conflicted. I saw the work that went into this, I was part of the team that was pulling this together.  The realization of a performance-based artwork is totally the realization of an artist’s vision but it is also the culmination of the work of a ton of people that are absolutely dedicated to making something extraordinary.  Also, as the Program Director, I saw how many people were depending on this production for their livelihoods.  The goal of my technical crew is to help create the illusion that a production is seamless and easy; an audience member should feel that they stumbled into something magical and not necessarily the work of dozens of people coming together and doing some amazing heavy lifting.  I was and am concerned about what is happening to all those people, they are my friends, they are my coworkers, they are incredibly talented and they are now completely unable to work.  And that is the conflict: I knew folks were depending on this production for their financial health but I also had to realize that for their  physical safety and health and that of our community we needed to postpone.  The conversations about moving this production to February were incredibly hard but I also feel thankful that we will be able to realize Motley in February.

How are you practicing your craft during the pandemic?

I am lucky enough to still be working, which is not a given, especially in the arts. I see a profound need to figure out new and nimble ways to support our arts community, and particularly artists of color.  Additionally, we know that our Bayview youth need support and access to creative outlets right now.  Under the leadership of our Executive Director Barbara Ockel, we are pivoting our institution’s operations to be that of a production company.  Almost immediately, we created our Six Feet Apart project.  Under the Six Feet Apart umbrella,  we are working with artists and actors to produce a weekly reading of Harry Potter and we are using our communication channels to reach Bayview youth at home.  We are in the early stages of an online art making class with various teaching artists. We’re also producing a weekly Zoom comedy play called The New Normal, featuring local actors and our theater manager Ashley Smiley as writer and director.  This is a fun poke at all of our ‘new normals’ now that we are socializing and working from a computer screen.  I think The New Normal is also an important look at the future of live productions and how we as a society may have to bounce back and forth between gathering and creating art in person and/or online. 

I see this as my craft. 

In the middle of all this, I am also homeschooling my 6 and 11 year olds. I am married to an essential worker so I am doing this single-handedly and I am also looking at this as my craft. 

What do you look forward to doing with The Motley Experiment when the order is lifted?

I really look forward to being in the same space with all these beautiful and creative people again and celebrating that we made it through. Though we are 6 feet apart, we are in this together. 

And when February 2021 comes and we finally realize The Motley Experiment, I will have the biggest cleansing exhale!

What is a current grounding practice you are using right now?

I’m going one day at a time, I try to let the day before go and meet the new one fresh.  I’m trying to slow down and enjoy the sweetness all around me.  I’m counting my blessings and looking for ways to share them.  

I’m doing a lot of time-based projects with my kids. When this started we planted a bunch of sunflower seeds, then we planted some and delivered some to friends (minding the social distancing protocols.)  Now, we ride our bikes around our neighborhood and check on the progress of everyone’s sunflower.  It is a sweet sign of life and connection.

Allegra Madsen is originally from the Great Dismal Swamp on the coast of Southern Virginia; in search of lands less dreary, she moved to California and attended the California College of Art where she received her M.A. in Curatorial Practice.  Her interests in art, art practice, and public programming have been centered on building a platform for cultural activity that promotes deep community investment and active cultural participation. Throughout her career, she has been devoted to working in and with diverse communities to develop programs and activations that are accessible to all and promote critical dialogue.  Allegra is currently the Program Director at the Bayview Opera House where she designs and implements a programming strategy that aims to situate this institution as a steward of the rich social history and cultural production of a historically African-American, San Francisco neighborhood. 

To learn more about PUSH Dance Company’s response to COVID-19, and how you can support our Artists, Teachers, and Outreach program, read our statement here.