Thursday, May 20, 2004
It’s quiet in the dance studio. Marina dance teacher and choreographer Fran Spector Atkins, stands downstage near a row of mirrors, and three dancers wait in the wings. Out of the darkness, the words begin.
“ Éste país es muy hermoso ,” says the voice of a farmworker named Dora. “This country is very beautiful.”
“For me,” Dora continues in Spanish, “the work in the fields is heavenly. I like the countryside a lot. I am very happy. The only thing I don’t like is the way we are treated.”
Barbara Giusti, the first dancer, slowly walks onto stage. She curls into a fetal position on the floor. The two other dancers, Holly Morrow and Denise Thomas, follow. Morrow hooks her knee over Thomas’ elbow, and Thomas lifts Morrow onto her back, carrying her in a slow half-circle before placing her back on the ground.
The dancers’ bodies are lithe and chiseled, and their movements—some modern dance jumps, rolls and hip swivels, and others interpretive of picking grapes, or hiding from La Migra, or writhing in pain, sickened by chemicals—are poetry.
From offstage, voices continue to speak about America and
Mexico, suffering and home—these are taped interviews of
farmworkers themselves, dubbed to CD and played over the sound
system. The three dancers move in and out of the
The dance is a 13-minute piece called Border Crossing, and it blends music, text, visual imagery and movement. At two performances during Monterey Dance Week, Friday and Saturday, May 21 and 22, the text will be translated into English and projected behind the dancers.
At a rehearsal last Friday afternoon, at SOLAD Dance Center—the Walnut Creek studio that’s home to the Moving Arts Dance Company—the three dancers and Spector Atkins integrated the spoken word with the movement and the music for the first time. There was one rehearsal left.
Only four days later, Spector Atkins tells me: “The piece
is going to change so much from what you saw. It’s really
becoming an integrated piece, and what you saw, it was really
just these segments. As I said, it’s the fist step of a work
in progress. But it’s going to go somewhere—it’s a great
I first spoke with Spector Atkins about Border Crossing, her newest work, in early January. It sounded more political than a typical dance performance. Spector Atkins told me the piece was to be about Mexican farmworkers in California. She was still in the research phase, and hadn’t yet begun to choreograph the dance.
“It touches on a lot of topics,” Spector Atkins said, “from the environment, to pesticides to globalization.
Mostly, though, it is about the people, the farmworkers themselves, and their experiences.
“The Mexican people, they come here with a vision,” she said. “Life here is better than the life they had in Mexico. They do the jobs that the American people don’t want to do, and short-term, we’re all buying into it. We want top-quality vegetables that don’t cost a lot. But we’re taking advantage of them.
“Basically, it’s about the dream, the hope for a better life. And progress comes in small steps.”
Spector Atkins says the concept for the piece evolved out of eight years of projects she’s worked on with William Roden, a media specialist who digitally integrates visual images, spoken words and music.
The two collaborated in 2003 for a performance piece called Figures in the Dust, a three-year project also
involving the Moving Arts dancers, which combined historical
images, narrated text from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of
Wrath, and music. The piece was inspired by Steinbeck’s
Pulitzer prize-winning novel, which tells the story
of the Joad family, who leave their
poverty-struck Oklahoma farm during the Great Depression and move to California, where they become little more than slave laborers.
“When I was doing The Grapes of Wrath piece,” Spector Atkins says—that’s what she calls Figures in the Dust —”what interested me were the universal themes. I started looking at the issues facing farmworkers in California today. Why do people come to this country?”
In January, Spector Atkins and Roden became involved with the “research phase” of Border Crossing. With help from the United Farm Workers, the two interviewed five farmworkers in Delano, and asked them questions about crossing the border from Mexico and working in the California produce fields.
“They love this country,” Spector Atkins says. “They love the work. They represent the American Dream. On the other hand, they risk their lives to come here.”
Some parts of the interviews that Spector Atkins and Roden collected for Border Crossings are truly heart-breaking. But all five Mexican laborers remain hopeful for a better life, if not for them, then for their children, and for those who will work in the fields after them.
Dora, a woman in her late 50s, says she has been working in the fields since 1957. Some of her siblings went to school, and went on to become professionals. Dora spent her life picking crops to earn enough money to buy a trailer. “For me,” she says in Spanish, “the work in the fields is heavenly. I like the countryside. I am very happy. The only thing I don’t like is the way we are treated. I want them to see me as a person, and I believe that this is one of my greatest disappointments in my life while being in the fields.”
Rogilio is married, with four kids. He tells the interviewers that he “lives 24 hours a day with anger,” and that he’s “in the process of reaching the American Dream.”
Rogilio’s words are in the performance, at least the initial version I see. But Spector Atkins is still editing the piece, paring some words and movements for maximum impact without overloading the audiences’ senses.
Spector Atkins spoke with Rogilio and the other farmworkers months earlier, with the help of a UFW translator, in Delano.
“He is a very handsome man, and he came to the interview wearing a freshly pressed, very beautiful white shirt,” Spector Atkins says. “He has a lot of passion, and strength, and sensibility. But as a macho man, it is very difficult for him that he couldn’t support his wife, and that she also works in the fields. He was really reduced as a man. He was almost in tears.”
Luis is angry. “My life, since I arrived, I have worked very hard,” he says. “I have worked with many companies and many foremen. There are some that treat you well, but some that treat you as if you were a cockroach that they wanted to stomp on. There should be respect between the foreman and the workers, right? So one can work as God wants you to.”
Luis’ wife, Amilia, says when they crossed the border, “it was dangerous, because we have to walk for three days and our food ran out. We had just a little water to drink.” She says they hid in the mountains while immigration officers hovered above in helicopters.
Now, Amilia says she’s exposed to a lot of chemicals. “Some workers have a very strong allergic reaction. In order for me to be able to go to work—because I have a strong allergic reaction—I have to take a pill.”
Amelia’s studying to earn her GED. She wants to teach kindergarten. She wants her six-year-old daughter to receive an education so that she doesn’t have to work in the fields.
When Amelia speaks her hopeful words in the
soon-to-be-finished piece, the dancers remain still, to let
the impact resonate with the audience. They stand with their
arms down, palms facing the audience, and slowly look
I meet with Spector Atkins for the second time, in March at her Marina studio, after she’s rehearsed six times with the Moving Arts dancers. She worked with some of these same dancers on Figures in the Dust, and she describes them as incredible and beautiful and strong.
“In rehearsal, you can have a moment where something happens and you can be high on that moment for days or weeks. And then you realize it’s such a small moment. The audience may be looking down at their program and miss it.
“This is something that means a great deal to me,” she says. “I’m sure it won’t be finished in May. But I also know I need to have showings along the way. The only way to realize what I have is through performance.”
“Right now, it’s a 13-minute piece,” she continues. “It’s not a statement. It’s a work in progress. At this point, it’s a movement study. It’s almost melancholy.”
The music is sparse—a lone guitar that’s soft and powerful and a little tragic. It’s the only music in the performance, and it runs about nine minutes long.
“In this quiet, little way, people live their lives and suffer quietly,” Spector Atkins says. “It’s not anger. It’s yearning.”
She knows her dance piece doesn’t tell the whole story and it doesn’t pretend to solve any problems.
“What I care about is, can dance have an impact on people? Literature makes an impact on people. I feel dance as an art form has that capacity. I want to go there with my work. I’ve become political in what I want to explore.”
Spector Atkins speaks in a reflective, comforting voice—it’s got a quiet sense of urgency to it. When she says she needs to use her art to explore and to comment on the world around her, she’s serious.
Her credits include a B.S. in occupational therapy from Boston University, an M.F.A. in dance and choreography from Mills College and a certificate from the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in New York City.
She began her professional career in New York, performing with two different companies, and in 1977, she began working as an independent teacher and choreographer. She taught in New York for three years, and in Cleveland for two.
She’s also lived abroad as a guest teacher and choreographer, in Denmark, Egypt, England, Israel, Guam and Taiwan.
In 1996, while teaching at CSUMB, Spector Atkins founded SpectorDance. Six years later, in January 2002, she opened her own studio in Marina.
Recently she received an invitation from Julliard in New York, to attend a week-long seminar on teaching dancers in the 21st century, along with about 15 other teachers from around the world.
Blending dance and media to explore social issues have become a signature of Spector Atkins’ work. Besides Figures in the Dust, Spector Atkins has looked at nature and the environment, with Ocean…Rock…Bird…Sky (1996), a dance/theater piece inspired by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. With Henry Miller Is Not Dead, in 1997, Spector Atkins addressed censorship issues, with music by Laurie Anderson. And, more recently, The Violence Project incorporated dance and recorded interviews, exploring violence among teens in public schools.
Now, she’s on to a similarly complex subject.
“I think what she’s doing is remarkable,” says Ray Gonzales, a former state Assemblyman from Bakersfield, who teaches Chicano history and US foreign policy at CSUMB and who translated the two-plus hours of farmworker interviews from Spanish into English for Spector Atkins.
“Anybody that lives around this area, driving to Salinas, you see all these people in the fields doing hard labor. They become part of the scenery and nobody notices them. They are just there.”
Gonzales, who has a Ph.D. in Latin American studies and Political Science, volunteered as academic consultant to the project. He hasn’t seen the finished product, but he loves the vision and the idea of the piece, and says he becomes “teary-eyed when I even think about what she’s doing.”
He also brings personal experience to the work. “I grew up picking grapes, picking plumbs in the San Joaquin Valley,” he says. “I was involved with César Chávez—he was a constituent of mine when I was in the Assembly.”
At CSUMB, Gonzales heads a tutorial center called the Academic Skills Achievement Program.
“I heard the audio tapes in Spanish,” Gonzales says, “and as a native speaker, I could sense the emotion, the nature of their comments. I’m just overwhelmed by what she’s attempting. It’s an unlikely thing.”
It’s a huge undertaking, and Spector Atkins worries that the audience might expect more than one dance can deliver.
“This is the first step in a bigger piece,” she says. “ The Grapes of Wrath piece took three years. I think
this piece is going to take at least that long to develop.” At
this point in its creation, the 13-minute dance is divided
into six sections. It begins with Dora, one of the
farmworkers, speaking, and the movements that follow are
deliberative and reflective—slow turns, and reaching,
outstretched arms. At one point Morrow—who began dancing
professionally with San Jose Cleveland Ballet in ‘91, and
whose movements reflect her body’s classic training— relevés on one foot, extends a pointed foot behind her
and reaches through the arms of Giusti and Thomas who hold her
back. It looks like she’s stretching to grasp something—a
better life, perhaps?
The American Dream itself? But she’s restrained.
As the piece continues, and farmworkers talk about the difficulties they face in the fields, the movements are modern and abstract, but seem to reflect a burst of anger here and there, and the three dancers wilt and thrash their bodies when the voices mention hunger and allergic reactions to chemicals.
The dance gains momentum in a segment about crossing the border, and becomes increasingly athletic after the voices go away, and leave the dancers and the music to themselves.
It ends with a series of strong poses, with the dancers intertwined, moving with each other as Dora says, “I tell my people, ‘Don’t give in. Don’t give in. We are strong.’”
Back at the penultimate rehearsal, practice winds down. Morrow, who’s also an assistant director with Moving Arts Dance Company, lies on her back. “ Somos fuertes ,” she says, “We are strong.”
The four women talk about costumes—possibly gauze? Maybe earth tones? They don’t want to dress like migrant workers. They agree it would appear trite, and too literal.
“I don’t want to feel like a person,” Morrow says. “I want to feel like an emotion, a struggle. I’m afraid of feeling too literal.”
Spector Atkins says she hopes that a wider audience beyond the usual people who attend dance concerts will come to watch the performance. She’s been in contact with a few groups in the community that work with migrant workers. “People who experience these issues,” she says. “I want them to feel heard.”
She also wants the piece to provoke conversation. She says a dialogue between the audience and the artists will follow the performance. And she’s hoping a grant she recently applied for will allow her and others to keep working on Border Crossing. She needs money to pay consultants, dancers and to continue the media integration.
“I’m not pretending to present the whole issue,” Spector Atkins says. “It’s tiny. I interviewed five farmworkers. It’s going to take a while before it feels like a complete statement. I’m not there yet. But it’s a beautiful first step.”