Dance Mission Theater's Krissy Keefer voices her opinions and concerns about the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community at the intersection of arts and politics.
Interview with Krissy Keefer
Christine Joy Ferrer: Tell me a little bit about who you are, and your role at Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater.
Krissy Keefer: I am an artist, an activist, and a mother. I’ve been running Dance Mission since 1998, but I’ve been an artist my entire adult life. A group of women [and I] formed the Wallflower Order Dance Collective in Eugene, Oregon and performed all over the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Canada doing very bold feminist dance theater. That’s a 40-year career at this point. I’ve been creating social justice art for nearly all of my adult life. I run Dance Mission with those principles and out of a strong feminist belief about equity and fairness and multiculturalism. I really try to dig into the hearts and minds of struggling people everywhere in order to create the kind of art I make.
Ferrer: How are the arts used as a catalyst for social change?
Keefer: Throughout history there have been art exhibitions, performances, and writings that have served as wakeup calls for the community—Isadora Duncan, Guernica, Stravinsky, Pablo Neruda, Lorca, all the Nueva Trova artists and poets from Latin America—they all reflected and led the people in an understanding of their current conditions through art. That is very powerful, transformative, and threatening to the status quo. I like to think of myself in that tradition of art and social justice. I also think that sometimes people who aren’t necessarily artists [think of] artists as being an anomaly, [art as] something separate from what’s actually happening in the daily lives of people. For me, art isn’t separated, it’s my whole life. It’s something you do, like taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, or running a business.
You don’t have any culture in the world that does not have art, just like you don’t have any culture that does not have food. Art is people. Art is life. Art is. I just choose to use my art and my talents to further a social agenda. I get a lot of questions about how art changes the world. Well, it’s any way people organize. Thought patterns change the world, and I happen to do it through dance and theater.
Ferrer: How do artists explore social issues on the dance floor and foster collective action in the streets?
Keefer: Artists are smart and capable of making a lot out of nothing. They are forceful when they want to be in getting their ideas across, so artists are good representatives of social change. They’re good negotiators and they pitch ideas well. Just being present and participating in activities that are already happening is really helpful to those organizations. There are a lot of art actions happening. The ones that are shutting down the Google buses are doing a lot of artistic displays as part of their process. Demonstrations against the war were highly visual and creative in terms of dance, music, drumming, puppets, and elaborate artistic displays of culture and resistance.
Ferrer: What happens when art isn’t happening from the ground up?
Keefer: The ground is usually poverty and the up usually means entitled and well paid. I have a personal belief system that what comes out of a community that is struggling, unfortunately, is the most powerful. The art that’s highly institutionalized with an extreme amount of professionalism and an enormous amount of money actually stagnates impulse. I think that’s why you have masses of people around the world imitating African culture from the United States via hip-hop, jazz, or whatever. These people have struggled their entire lives and their art reflects the deepest sort of humanity, struggle, wisdom, and beauty. They’ve had to have that in order to survive. Unfortunately, rich white people don’t actually have to do anything to transform because they’ve got everything at their disposal all the time and all their needs are constantly met. The art that comes out of that class of people isn’t that interesting.
Ferrer: How has the work of Dance Mission, as a multicultural community space, impacted the greater good of the Mission?
Keefer: When we moved in here this was a corner with lots more drug activity. There was a fear factor that I didn’t actually ever really feel, but a lot of people projected a lot of negativity onto it. I think that having the children’s program come in so strong actually helped keep the neighborhood moving. When you have parents and kids walking up and down the stairs everyday, all day long, it changes the character. Probably 1,200 people come through our building a week.
We’ve enriched the lives of a lot of kids. Traditionally, Latino families do not target modern dance as a path for their families or children. We’ve provided an opportunity for children and immigrant children to actually pursue modern dance as a career—or a pathway into high school, like the School for the Arts. We perform a lot here. Dance Brigade performs at Brava too. I’ve been around for a long time, so I have established strong relationships with people since the 1980s. We’re doing solidarity work for El Salvador, Nicaragua, and all of those struggles that happened [such as] the non-intervention movement.
Ferrer: Tell me about your experience with gentrification as a Mission resident.
Keefer: Today, Valencia Street is like a death zone. Valencia has a huge culture and backstory of being the lesbian Mecca. In the 1970s, lesbian businesses flourished up and down Valencia Street, anchored in part by the Women’s Building. Then, that whole area was really big for the next wave of lesbian artists like Michelle Tea. Now it’s nothing of interest to me—no vitality and no creativity. It’s a destination place for the 30-something crowd bar culture, restaurants, furniture stores, and boutiques. This area was cheap real estate where people without any money could move in, make a cultural expression, and gather in their own interests. People aren’t going to discover themselves on Valencia Street anymore.
It’s heartbreaking when the government colludes with the developers to tell us what our communities should be and look like. Whose idea was it to sprinkle the glitter on the sidewalks down Valencia? What they’re telling us by doing that is, the dirt and natural grime and accessible real estate for people to live together is no longer there. Now it’s going to be a restaurant… an upscale restaurant. You’re going to have to look this way to get in and you’re going to have to agree that getting this kind of food is actually the food that you want in order to be there.
I feel like we’re in a civil war here. There’s a general hostility between people making $150,000 a year starting salary and artists who are in their 50s making $40,000 a year. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been affected by this, and I also feel like people have a deep anxiety about getting evicted. It feels very unstable and scary. The easy, relaxed situation is diminishing.
I’ve lived here a long time and watched lots of economies rise and fall. I’ve watched city governments and how they operate. This winner-take-all mentality is operating so seriously right now in terms of real estate. California’s in a major drought with many communities actually potentially losing their water source. What are the plans around that? Why are they just extracting more resources from the earth, building more high-rises, more high-end housing; where are the people in Northern California, who don’t have any water, going to go? I’m always stunned at the lack of a big picture among city officials and how much everybody falls into the trap that capitalism needs to be protected. If you can make money on your property you have a God-given right to make that money. That holds precedent. It’s business. Why does that dominate the landscape when there are so many other factors? It’s like gun control. Yeah, the Second Amendment says we have a right to have guns, and the Third Amendment says you have a right to make as much money as you want and those things dominate everything. It’s not indicative of a healthy, forward-thinking, female-centered, or any way of looking at how we need to live as a group of people.
It’s really important that the city support and preserve their cultural centers or you will have the most boring city on the face of the planet. It will be rich people of one age group, and it’ll be a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. There’ll be a complete corporate takeover. Those young people will leave eventually because there will not be anything here for them either.
Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for Reimaginerpe.org and contributing editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. She is also the founder of eyesopenedblog.com.
Interviews transcribed by Daniel Salazar