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Regional Interests

Whose Stories? At City Hall, ‘SPACES: Oakland’ Hands Over the Mic

What makes a city? Is it the space it inhabits, or the people who inhabit its space? Is it the architecture and infrastructure of today, or the histories of the past culminating in the now? When you encounter the stories of a city, whose voices get to be heard?

All these questions are in my mind while attending SPACES: Oakland on Saturday, July 10, in and outside of Oakland’s City Hall.

An imposing Beaux Arts granite “wedding cake” festooned with decorative details—bunches of figs and grapes, a pair of imposing eagles—City Hall becomes decidedly less impressive when I enter its scuffed side doors to see low ceilings, roped-off staircases, and dim corners. But the pre-show energy this weekend is crackling, expectant. This is the first indoors performance I’ve attended since March 2020, and it’s difficult to not feel a certain kind of way about it.

Almost immediately, the single line into the entrance becomes a loosely-determined quartet of groups, each assigned a different color and (eventually) a different guide. My group, with black yarn tied around our wrists, stands below the iridescent shimmer of textile artist Patricia Ravarra’s “Vermillion Bird” while we wait for the show to begin. Music by Oakland artists drifts in from another part of the building while we wait: snatches of Digital Underground and ’60s soul from resident DJ Dion Decibels. Finally we’re whisked up to the third floor and seated along the top of the grand staircase. The green group sits across from us, with red and white down below. The music suddenly ceases, the silence jarring. And then the drumbeats begin.

Sarah Crowell leading a group of audience members to their next destination in ‘SPACES: Oakland.’ (Lauren Stevenson)

Because there are four different seating arrangements, I can’t say for sure what occurs in view of each. But from my vantage point the first dancer I see is Sarah Crowell, floating in from the south elevator like a fog-edged cloud, dressed in flowing whites and soft grey. Moving with purpose behind the green group and down the grand staircase to inhabit its center, her arms are raised as if in prayer or in welcome, while her clothing blends in with the marble of the stairs and her movements match each thoughtful drumbeat with precision and élan. As she dances down towards the audience seated on the main level, another dancer—Macio Payomo, dressed in green—begins to ascend, leaping up the stairs exuberantly to take Crowell’s place in the center. In all, four dancers join the ritual, and before they split off into four directions to be our guides, they meet in the middle of the staircase and dance reflections of each other’s joy as the percussion and vocals—provided by Christelle Durandy and Mena Ramos—swell into every corner of the space.

Our guide is Rashidi Omari, the current director of Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company (co-founded by Crowell in 1988). Tall, lithe, dressed in black with brick-colored accents, Omari guides us through gestures and hip-hop dance moves to the first of three storytellers we will meet that evening. He is Miguel Binion, a resident of 32nd Street in West Oakland, who sits comfortable in an office chair and folds his clothes right in front of the door to the Mayor’s office. It’s appropriate, he tells us with a smile, that he’s been assigned this spot to sit, because his story is going to be about a friend he calls “the Mayor of Ghost Town.” He has an easy, animated way of conveying his story: both the lighter moments and the culminating grief of it. He owns his story completely, gently. A loving reflection of a friendship. A loving reflection of his small corner in a vast city of stories.

Rashidi Omari in the opening dance number of ‘SPACES: Oakland.’ (Lauren Stevenson)

In performance, as in writing, there is an almost ubiquitous drive to “tell the stories” that need to be told, presumably on behalf of those who might not have the tools (that is to say the access) to reach as broad or varied an audience. But within that dynamic is a tricky navigation. At the heart of lifting up the stories of others, creatives must constantly negotiate what it means to share vs. explain. To champion vs. exploit.

Kaimera Productions—a French and American hybrid founded in 2016—takes a different approach. First by empowering a quartet of fierce local dancers to fully occupy the 100+ year-old architecture of City Hall itself (via choreography by Lauren Cox), from the grand sweep of the marble staircases to the quotidian frames of security gates and hearing room doorways. And secondly by bringing in a cohort of local voices to tell their uniquely personal stories on a rotating schedule, creating a mosaic of what it means to be in and of Oakland, without trying to compress it into a single narrative that strips away the individuality. A project underwritten in part by a years-long artistic conversation between Oakland and Saint-Denis, Kaimera Productions will launch SPACES: Saint-Denis in September, and hope to expand out into other cities by 2022.

Rashidi Omari performs an interstitial dance behind the windowpane of a room located in Oakland’s City Hall. (Lauren Stevenson)

At its core, SPACES: Oakland is a journey that each participant—performer and audience member—takes on their own, while still held in community. Because of the variety of featured storytellers, the different configurations of spaces and guides, and the multifarious audience members, no one experience can be said to be definitive. In this way above all, SPACES: Oakland feels to me like genuine engagement rather than a blandly envisioned diversity experiment. It’s intensely personal, heartbreakingly sincere, and ecstatically joyous all at once.

And at the end of the event, watching the death-defying aerials of BANDALOOP swooping weightless against the imposing exterior walls—led by Rose Huey, as Crowell, Payomo, and Omari dance below—it feels not like an homage to an Oakland of the imagination but a celebration of an Oakland very much of the present. If you’re ready to take the leap back into indoor performance, SPACES: Oakland can make your heart soar.

Sarah Crowell (centerstage) and BANDALOOP (aerialists) perform in the finale of ‘SPACES: Oakland,’ with Kaimera Productions. (Binh Huynh)

‘SPACES: Oakland’ runs through July 18. Details here.

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