Rethinking Inclusion and Performance

An Interview with Eric Kupers

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT

Eric Kupers is a multidisciplinary artist in the Bay Area, the cofounder of Dandelion Dancetheater, a faculty member of the Department of Theatre and Dance at Cal State East Bay, and the initiator of the Inclusive Performance Festival. Planned collectively by a council of Queer, BIPOC, Autistic, Disabled, Jewish, Neurodivergent, Fat, Young, Elder, Outsider, and uncategorizable artists, the Inclusive Performance Festival has been presenting virtual, in-person, and hybrid dance, music, theater, drag, ritual, educational events, participatory performances, discussions, workshops, ceremonies, and more this April/May 2021. Here, Eric, discusses the impetus for the festival, how “inclusion” is an ever-expanding term, and why new ways of thinking about performance are more needed than ever.

To learn more, visit www.dandeliondancetheater.org/inclusive-performance-festival.

Note: Throughout April, Stance on Dance has been featuring interviews with some of the organizers of the inaugural Inclusive Performance Festival, a wildly diverse group of artists, activists, free-thinkers, and creative rabble-rousers. Emmaly Wiederholt, editor of Stance on Dance and author of this interview, is one such rabble-rouser, and has enjoyed the opportunity to profile some of the other folks involved.

Eric Kupers giving notes

Pictured: Eric Kupers, Photo by Max Sovine

Image description: Eric is sitting in a rocking chair on pavement lit overhead at night. Random pieces of metal are in the foreground. He appears to be reading pieces of paper and giving notes.

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Can you briefly share a little of your performance history?

I started dancing when I was 12 doing international folk dance in Los Angeles. It made me feel alive. I had been very shy and quiet and, when I found dance, I blossomed. There was something about the connection with other people and the aliveness of it. It launched me on a passionate pursuit through training in ballet, jazz, and modern dance, and then dancing professionally in modern dance companies. All the while I was creating my own performance work. It’s been an evolution of wanting to learn something new about dance and performance and then wanting to take that to the next level. For a long time, that process was a traditional progression of improving technique. But dance easily became competitive and goal-oriented, as well as rigid aesthetically. I wanted dance to be the site of healing and effervescent joy. To get to that place, I’ve been using dance to cross over into other artistic genres through my desire to connect dance and art to spiritual practice and activism.

For the past couple decades, that has meant looking at inclusive performance. That started with including bodies of all shapes and sizes, and expanded to including people with and without disabilities. At every level of inclusion, there are new questions that arise, areas to investigate, and skills to develop. It feels like a deepening and complexifying journey.

As part of that journey, Kimiko Guthrie and I started making work together in college at UC Santa Cruz, and we continued to make work after we graduated and moved to the Bay Area. We wanted to create choreographic work that was based on whatever we were wrestling with in our lives. Whatever was the biggest issue, we brought that into our art. Even if people didn’t have the same issues, we sensed that if we could connect authentically to our truths, the work could be a portal for others to connect to their truths. The work has looked very differently over the years, but we formed a company, Dandelion Dancetheater, which is still going. I think it has stayed true to its core mission of making work on a personal level that seeks to connect to some more universal aspects of experience and healing through that connecting.

Eric Kupers conducting

Pictured: Eric Kupers, Photo by Justin Kernes

Image description: Eric is pictured from the waist up against a black background wearing a white coat. He is holding a baton in his right hand and is conducting.

What was the impetus behind the Inclusive Performance Festival?

This has been something that’s been brewing for a long time. It’s an extension of when I started teaching at Cal State East Bay fulltime on a tenure track position in 2006. My mission was to create a program I was then calling Dance for All Bodies and Abilities. I had gotten really interested in physically integrated dance and was connecting with AXIS Dance Company. I was also interested in size diverse dance and connected with Big Moves. I brought together a bunch of people interested in that kind of inclusion as an advisory council to move toward creating a university program in what has evolved into inclusive performance. A lot of dancers who have a disability who I know through AXIS couldn’t major in dance. We wanted to create a place for people to get a degree in inclusive dance, both people with disabilities and those who wanted to work in diverse and inclusive environments. The form of the program has evolved a lot since then. We now have a concentration in our department called Dance and Inclusive Performance, plus a minor in Inclusive and Social Justice Performance. I also run the Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble. It’s a class that people sign up for, but it also overlaps with Dandelion Dancetheater, community members, and alumni. It’s an ensemble that is ongoing beyond the class and some people have been part of for 15 years.

I feel like we’ve become this great resource that I want to share more widely. It’s not just that I want people to see my work, though I do want that, but we have some good insights and skills we’ve developed that could be useful for all fields. I believe there are other people working in similar ways in other fields on our campus and beyond that we can learn from and support as well.

With the pandemic and the convergence of troubles this past year, my intuition of what is called for now is more inclusive performance. It doesn’t have to be performance in the usual way, but I feel we need more collaboration, more including everybody, and more letting dance and theater transform. There’s been a huge transformation with everything shutting down and having to rethink how we do almost everything. I want to harness this moment. Inclusive performance artists have been doing this all along and we have skills that are really needed now. The Inclusive Performance Festival is intended to be this hub of connection.

What were some of your guiding principles as you went about organizing the Inclusive Performance Festival?

Inclusion is a word that people use in different ways. For me, inclusion is infinite. It might start with, “I want to include people with different bodies,” but quickly expands to different artforms, different points of view, and different ways of seeing the universe. There’s something powerful about working with someone who has a vastly different perspective on life.

Over the past year, I’ve become interested in ancestral healing and what could be called “animist” ways of seeing life, which can be defined as ways of viewing humans as not the only people. Many cultures have ways of recognizing the animal people, tree people, stone people, elements, spirits, and ancestors that are people not in a human body. For me, it’s about viewing the web of creation inclusively. One of my teachers is Daniel Foor, who runs a program called Ancestral Medicine. One of the things that’s been profound to me is how he views the work as cultural healing. Most of us are part of cultures that have lost direct connections to the world of spirits, ancestors, and interdependence. We can reclaim the ability to connect with those beings, and this is in fact a social justice issue. To not include the dead in our way of thinking is an injustice when so much of the world has a living connection to those who have died. When our world view doesn’t include that, we do a disservice to a whole group of people. Not everyone will relate to this way of thinking, and that’s fine.

Once the pandemic started, I had to merge the Inclusive Interdisciplinary Ensemble and Dandelion Dancetheater because there were not as many people continuing with each, and I wanted to maximize our time and energy. The result is the Wandering Ensemble. It’s a project of Dandelion Dancetheater and Cal State East Bay Theatre and Dance. As I started to get into ancestral healing work, I became particularly interested in working with trees. Once we pay attention to trees, the way we relate to trees is a good model for how to relate to humans; we just appreciate the “imperfections” as beautiful. We don’t say, “That tree is too fat or has a weird bump.” Can we relate to humans the same way and see the beauty in our differences?

Eric Kupers in regalia

Pictured: Eric Kupers, Photo courtesy the artist

Image description: Eric is pictured from the waist up with his arms at his sides draped in gauzy fabric around his head and torso. A yellow light permeates the scene. He is wearing eye makeup and staring off into the distance.

Roughly how many folks are involved in planning the festival? How has the planning gone from your perspective?

I’d say there are about 20 active planners. The vision for the festival is that the product is no more important than the process. The festival has already started. I don’t see it as switching to the actual festival once it opens to the public. I see it more as opening the windows and letting more people experience it.

As performance is revisited in this new era, I’m drawn toward process. When the shelter in place started, we had a musical theatre performance that was in dress rehearsal and was supposed to be performed at Cal State East Bay that week. People were so upset they didn’t get to do the production they had worked so hard on. I thought: I don’t want to work like this, so that when something changes, we’re disappointed. How can we create in a new way where the piece is always complete and growing? That’s how I wanted to do this festival.

In many festivals, artists come together because they want a place to present their work. They show up and leave. The festival does the production part. It’s very transactional and a more capitalistic way of looking at performance. I wanted us to do it all together. I’ve taken the lead, but we all create it together step by step. As things change, we adapt. Last February 2020, I would never have thought this past year would go this way. What are the changes that are about to happen that we have no idea are coming? I want to get into this way of working where we’re expecting change and ready for it.

How is it been going in terms of working in this new format?

It’s a work in progress. It’s partly me learning how to be a better leader. I tend to take on a lot of work, I want to support people, and I want it to go well. I’m trying to challenge that in myself because it doesn’t allow for other people to step up sometimes. It’s this constant balance. I’d like it to be a template that gets more refined each year, so it gets more collaborative and less hierarchical.

Can you summarize the nitty gritty of how the festival is organized? What kinds of events will there be, and how can people participate?

Throughout April leading into May, there will be more than 25 events: workshops, discussions, performances, showcases, both online and in person, and all free. Each event has its own way of RSVPing on the website. That’s the easiest way people can participate. If people want to help beyond that, we’re happy to involve them in our weekly planning council meetings.

In the arts world, there are so many complex dynamics. One dynamic I come across a lot is that artists should be paid for their work. Yes, I would like to be paid and would like other people to be paid. And sometimes that’s not possible and I’d rather the work get out there than not happen. I have some criticisms of art as commodity. There’s value in getting paid, and there’s also value in art being outside capitalism. I realize though that I can say that from a privileged position where I have health insurance and a steady job. It’s complicated. I’m wrestling with these issues as we move into new realities with presentation, production, and funding. it seems to be a time ripe for experimentation.

The way this relates to the festival is there’s no budget. The Cal State East Bay Theatre and Dance Department and Dandelion Dancetheater help with publicity, which is a resource. But we’re unable to pay folks for their involvement, so it’s a labor of love. I love this idea of DIY performance, really looking at what’s here rather and working with that, rather than just lamenting what’s not here.

What do you hope participants take away from the festival overall, both those on the planning council and those who come to one or two events?

A sense of being part of the art and community. A sense of empowerment. That you can just go out and make art. You don’t need a big audience or lots of funders or training. You can just start. I want people to feel like it is accessible to be an artist and to create and share art.

Any other thoughts?

We’re in a time of paradigm shift. Andrew Simonet wrote, it’s “back together, not back to normal.” Who knows what normal even was? The pre-pandemic reality is done. Whatever comes after is informed by this big shift. I want to honor the pain and suffering that has happened. But in terms of creativity, it’s wide open how the arts will grow at this moment. I’m excited by this growth and hope the Inclusive Performance Festival will be a catalyst for this new way of thinking.

Eric Kupers playing a banjo

Pictured: Eric Kupers, Photo by Faye Chao

Image description: Eric is pictured from the chest up playing a banjo that is just out of frame. He is shirtless with the straps across his collarbones. He is lit dramatically from the front and his mouth and eyes are wide.

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To learn more, visit www.dandeliondancetheater.org/inclusive-performance-festival.

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