Openness to Imagination: An Interview with Kim Epifano

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREGORY BARTNING

Physically, Kim reminded me of a lion, with her long mane of wavy hair and her muscular arms, torso and legs. In contrast, a whimsical, soft quality appeared in her when she spoke. I had never met her prior to our interview, but had seen her perform and was familiar with San Francisco Trolley Dances, an annual event she produces where San Francisco dance takes over local transportation for a day of performances en route. I met her at her office at Intersection for the Arts. “How did you find me?” she asked. I almost laughed. As if I hadn’t known her vivacious presence around the dance community from the minute I set foot in San Francisco.

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When did you start dancing and what have been some highlights along the journey?

I did gymnastics as a kid. I hated ballet because I had to put on those tights. I liked to climb trees and get sticky in sap. My mother eventually found a class where I could both do ballet and make up dances, and that got me excited. I ended up going to the University of Utah, where I trained in ballet, modern, composition and anatomy. I found it a struggle there. That environment exposed me to the ugly side of what dance can be with regards to body image. I didn’t get through school. I only went for about two and half years, and then I took a break because emotionally and physically I was breaking down.

I took off to Guatemala with the intention of not dancing for a while, and I ended up getting into a circus with the Peace Corps. They were travelling around Guatemala doing a show for the National Year of the Child, and I was hired to juggle, dance and sing. It was great, touring to these little villages all over Guatemala.

I decided to move to San Francisco and start taking dance classes. I also started getting into capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. I was doing capoeira in the Civic Center when these two women approached me and asked if I danced and if I wanted to audition for their company. It was Krissy Keefer and Nina Fichter from the Wallflower Order, now Dance Brigade. So I was sucked backed into the dance world.

I also started taking class with Sara Shelton Mann of Contraband and fell in love with it. Whereas Dance Brigade was outwardly political, dancing about the issue of lesbian rights or Palestine, Contraband was more abstract and focused on body politics and ritual. I trained with Sara for a long time and eventually joined Contraband. So I was doing Dance Brigade and Contraband simultaneously.

I started my own company, Epiphany Productions Sonic Dance Theater, 16 years ago. In my own work, I incorporate dance, song, theater and aerial. Improvising is probably my favorite thing as a performer. That’s what excites me the most, conjuring the essence of the architecture and energy where I am.

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What does your current dance practice look like?

That’s the hardest part–my own practice. I spend so much time behind my computer every day, and to counter that I try to do some Pilates or go to some contact improvisation classes. Obviously when I’m teaching my own classes I’m more physical. One of my favorite things to do is to walk in the woods with my dog for an hour or more and do yoga along the way. That’s sort of my practice right now. Or this might sound crazy, but I’ll do tree dances. I improvise everywhere.

How have the reasons for why you dance changed over time?

When I was younger, there was a bravado element to it. I wanted to be seen. Now, it doesn’t feel about me as much. I’m not trying to show something. Younger dancers are often trying to achieve something. At some point as a younger dancer, I asked myself, “How can I be in the now and respect where I came from? Whom have I developed into and how do I refine that?”

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What does the idea of success mean to you?

That comes up constantly. It’s a very small percentage who become famous, so what is success? Yes, I think I’ve been highly successful in my little world. But in my little world I’ve really hit a broad span.

Do I feel like I can exist solely on that feeling of success? No. But if I’m going to perform, I better get out there, because I don’t know how I’ll feel in another year. It really depends on how I feel, and I’ve been pretty lucky that way. Sometimes I think it’s over and I don’t want to perform anymore. Other times I get out there and it feeds me. Dance is still informing me enough that I want to do it.

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What do you perceive is your legacy?

I think it’s still coming. I was a trendsetter with female politics in Dance Brigade and Contraband. I developed from all those experiences and became my own thing. I’m addicted to places, people and cultures, and that feeds my art. I also think my knack for bringing different communities together through art has had great impact on the places and people around me.

San Francisco Trolley Dances has become my big event. If that’s something I’m known for, fabulous. But I don’t just want to be the trolley lady because it’s only one thing I do all year. It’s so easy to become labeled.

How much longer do you think you’ll keep dancing?

I guess it comes back to the “why.” I don’t want to get up there and not be doing it as fully as I can. How do I know when to quit? I don’t have the same craving as I used to. I was frothing at the mouth. I was hungry for it. I still get that now, but it’s different.

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What advice would you give to a younger generation of dancers?

There’s so much more knowledge in young dancers now. Their investigation is broader than it was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. There’s more openness to exploration of different forms. As a choreographer, I look for a well-rounded person. I like someone who has a lot of training but also someone who is not afraid to speak, sing and improvise. I am interested in the performer and how they interpret the material we are working with and what their imagination conjures. That excites me.

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Kim Epifano is a choreographer, director, performer, vocalist, educator and collaborator. She founded Epiphany Productions Sonic Dance Theater in 1997. Kim directs and produces San Francisco Trolley Dances, as well as co-directs The Mudd Butt Mystery Theater Troupe. She received her MFA in choreography from UC Davis, where she currently serves an as adjunct professor. She also teaches at UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and ODC Dance.

This interview is from the book “Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond.” Click here to learn more about the book, or click here to order your own limited edition copy!

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