Breaking Barriers at the San Diego International Airport through Dance
The Incredible Opportunity
In October 2016, the Arts Program at the San Diego International Airport released the guidelines for an innovative opportunity to be the Performing Arts Group in residency for the entire 2017 year. This would be the second group ever to get this paid residency, the first being the Fern Street Circus.
I immediately knew we had to go for this and I felt confident that we would be the perfect fit. As co-founder of transcenDANCE Youth Arts Project, I delved into writing about why we would be the top choice. Bringing our dancers to the airport would allow travelers to experience another aspect of San Diego that tourists are not necessarily seeing. San Diego’s culturally diverse youth artists (teens and young adults) who have transcended tough circumstances have something dynamic and important to share with the greater public. In line with our mission, our transcenDANCE students and alumni would get a new opportunity to break barriers and build community in a creative way through dance in a shared public space. The airport would be the perfect place to take our work to the next level. We were selected for the residency after a competitive process, and the opportunity has allowed us to have a cross-sector collaboration that is creatively rich and a pathway to create broader social change.
Sharing Original Dance for Airport Travelers and Staff
A lead choreographer, composer/performer, and five core dance performers (transcenDANCE alumni and select teen students) were chosen to co-create monthly performances in both pre- and post-security sites, including baggage claim, pedestrian bridges, escalators, near fountains and waiting gates, curbside, and at popular lunch spots. The approach has been, in part, to create scores (creative structures) that have a lot of improvisational movement so that the performers can adapt to the way people are moving through the physical environment. The dancers have traveled to multiple sites, and are sometimes more stationary, as they move next to, through, and around active pedestrian traffic. We have used contemporary dance, lively hip-hop, and text/spoken word with live accompaniment from a violinist.
Each and every time, we take people by surprise as they encounter the performance happening around them in an unexpected way. “It provides moments for travelers and staff to pause and reflect in a typically fast paced environment,” shared Tonnie Sammartano, lead choreographer of the project.
transcenDANCE alumnus performer Nhu Nguyen added, “The residency exposes a population of folks who are no longer familiar with going to the theatre and seeing live performance. It awakens public interest in ephemeral and live art forms such as dance.”
Social Change through Performance
There are such varied responses from people as they pass by or stop and watch. Some people look confused at first as they try to figure out why these individuals are breaking social norms. They see young people dancing with luggage, dancing as they move up and down the escalator, doing lifts near lunch tables, and moving down a bridge while dancing solos, connecting through partner work, and hanging/falling/suspending from rails, tables, and other edges.
There are those that never look up from their cell phone. I wonder if they are so plugged in that they do not notice, or if they have not given themselves permission to look because it is so unusual. It is fulfilling to see those that stop and gaze though. They are taken out of their mundane waiting time, or they pause from a state of hurriedness or mechanical action, to soak up the beauty. I have witnessed their faces soften, pure presence, children smiling and being in awe, and people having been taken into an alternative world for moments or minutes.
It is dramatically different presenting dance in a public space where people are not expecting it, versus a traditional venue with a stage. The dancers have to be more resilient to the various reactions of people and know when to move into deeper connection with an individual and when to give them more space. It is powerful to see someone allow a performer to come into their personal space and give themselves permission to make eye contact. I have seen people jump into the dance and others be moved to tears.
I sometimes approach people who are watching for a while. I invite them into conversation. I have met people from all over the world, and San Diegans who work at the airport, who are touched for different reasons. I think we are touched for the same reason, ultimately: Experiencing dance in an everyday space is the opportunity to connect to our own sense of humanity. In a world where cell phones and other devices often keep our heads down in a screen, and feeling isolated, it is a gift to be given a sense of connection to other human beings.
Imagine what might be possible if dance were happening in public spaces every day, everywhere! Imagine how it might bring joy, healing, and connection to our human race.