Race, Aesthetics, and Working in Community: From "Dancing Around Race" to "LatinXtensions" 

A Conversation between David Herrera, Lead Artist in HMD’s 2019-2020 Community Engagement Residency, and HMD Artistic Director Hope Mohr

(edited and condensed from the original interview in August 2019)

David Herrera was a member of the “Dancing Around Race” artist cohort, led by Gerald Casel, HMD’s 2018-2019 Community Engagement Residency. Herrera is now one of three lead artists in HMD’s 2019-2020 Community Engagement Residency. As part of his current residency, Herrera is developing LatinXtensions, a mentorship program for Latinx choreographers. Hope Mohr is the Artistic Director of HMD’s The Bridge Project, which approaches curating as a form of community organizing. 

Photo from “Resurrection of Everyday People” by David Herrera (2019). Photo by Natalia Perez.

Photo from “Resurrection of Everyday People” by David Herrera (2019). Photo by Natalia Perez.


David Herrera (DH):   One of the biggest things that people have been asking me is, “How are you feeling about being involved with HMD’s Community Engagement Residency when you're not comfortable with white saviors?” I want to pose this question to you, Hope. How do you see yourself in relationship to this work?  I know you've supported multiple artists. What I've enjoyed is that you stay away. And that you are purposely working with artists that either may not be represented as often or people who are not white male, cisgendered or white female, cisgendered.  

Hope Mohr (HM):  It has been a conscious decision on my part to de-center myself in the programming. As someone who is privileged and has access to resources, I see it as my responsibility to provide other artists with resources and opportunities. 

 DH: What instigated that sense of responsibility originally for you?

HM: I've been an activist ever since college, when I was super involved in the domestic violence movement. I was a Latin American studies major and I did all my fieldwork in Central America in the women's movement. After college, I was an AmeriCorps team leader of a Community Gardens team in South Central LA. For most of both experiences, I was the only white person in the situation most of the time. Working in those contexts taught me about the value of de-centering myself--making space for other people.

DH: Being here in the San Francisco dance ecosystem, when was it that you thought, "I want to help change this?"

HM: I grew up here. But I didn't live here from the mid 90s to 2005. I don't like what San Francisco has become. It's, as you know, way more white, much more privileged, richer. It's a less diverse culture in every way. That's everyone's loss. I'm very concerned about the future of San Francisco. Difference fosters creativity. What creates a healthy ecosystem for the arts is opportunity for lots of different kinds of people. So I feel like this work is a matter of life or death for the health of the artistic community here. What's the saying? Nobody's free until everybody's free.

DH: Yes.

HM: I went to law school with the idea that I was going to be a public interest lawyer. For a long time I've been trying to integrate social justice and art making. For awhile,  I tried to make work that was explicitly political, but it wasn't good art. So I switched my approach to pour my politics into curating. I’m interested in redefining curating as a form of community organizing.  

DH: When you say that the curating work is not about you, that feels different than when somebody says, “I’d like to give you $1000,” but then they use my work to secure a much larger grant. It can start to feel like, wait, did I just get used by this organization to get a much bigger grant for themselves? And I’m getting a tiny fraction of that? In the end, an organization claiming to help artists of color ends up helping themselves more than they are helping the people that they're claiming to help. It’s different when an organization is actually interested in pushing somebody upward with little interest in making it about their organization. I'm used to questioning someone's motives when there's money involved.

HM: Sure.

DH: Because there's so much tokenism.

HM: Everyone's in a hurry to program artists of color. People have good intentions. But also, it’s where the funding is. I think a lot of organizations that weren't social justice-oriented pre-Trump are trying to pivot. It's usually obvious how authentic that commitment is. An important issue is the length of the relationship between the artist and the organization. It takes time to build relationships. It doesn't happen from sharing a program on a weekend.  This work continues to be a learning curve for me. For example, the language that curators use is important. When the Community Engagement Residency program began, Julie Tolentino, the first Community Engagement Residency lead artist, wanted to use the language that her residency was for artists who “self-identified as marginalized. “ That worked for her, but it doesn’t work for everyone. I don’t want to reify marginalization. So I don’t use that word anymore in conjunction with this work. Another issue is, how can white-led organizations truly shift access to power? If white-led organizations simply become re-granting organizations—raising money and passing it on to other artists—that doesn’t shift who has direct access to the money. We need to build artist capacity, not just hand out checks.

DH: My idea for LatinXtensions was already being built when you asked me about joining the residency.  I liked that our ideas overlapped because for me, LatinXtensions is also about building a genuine community. We're hoping that the relationships are ongoing even past the 12 month mark of the Community Engagement Residency. I've told the people that are joining LatinXtensions that the work is not about me, it’s about them, and about all of us building relationships. Within that, we've spoken about voice: how do we actually build relationships that thrive?  So it's not just like, "Oh, we’re meeting just for an hour." Part of the project includes going to go into each other's processes and giving feedback, watching shows as a group at least once a month, and writing about it, creating opportunities for other Latinx, POC, and LGBTQUIA artists. The idea is to develop a multi-tiered project, so bringing in a whole new set of people next year, while keeping this year’s class.  It's a pay it forward situation.

DH: I've definitely become close to most of the Dancing Around Race cohort [the 2018-2019 Community Engagement Residency]. We speak on the phone, we see each other at performances, we invite each other to performances. Everyone in that cohort came from very different backgrounds, but it was cool to see the overlaps and also where maybe we didn't understand something about each other. I'm looking forward to that in LatinXtensions as well, because even though they're all Latinx artists, they all have different backgrounds and they all have different ideas of what being Latinx means.

DH: What I find problematic is organizations that present you or invite you to perform, but then nothing carries over after that. We help them out, by diversifying their audience, and then that's it. I like that the Community Engagement Residency is not production or performance- based.  

HM: Being in dialogue with other artists is an essential part of art practice. I'm really curious about how Dancing Around Race, as an ongoing conversation, informed the studio practices of the artists involved.  Can you talk about that?

Final public gathering as part of "the “Dancing Around Race” Community Engagement Residency (2018-2019), led by Gerald Casel.

Final public gathering as part of "the “Dancing Around Race” Community Engagement Residency (2018-2019), led by Gerald Casel.

DH: Being in the Dancing Around Race cohort definitely infiltrated my work.  A lot of times when we are making work, we don't have an intellectual process going on where we're talking or researching or confronting one another with thoughts and theories and ideas about our experiences--who we are as artists.  

HM: Although part of the value of making art is being able to go into the studio saying to myself or in a grant, “This is a dance about equity,” but then allowing the dance to become about something else. There needs to be critical thinking, but there also still has to be room for the unconscious to guide the process.  Also, I can say I want to make a work that has political integrity, but then maybe what I'm making doesn't. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between our theory and our practice. Maybe what I'm doing is not what I say I'm doing. I’m thinking of all the aspects of white supremacy culture: perfectionism, a sense of urgency, a worship of the written word, power hoarding, either/or thinking…. I'm guilty of all of them. For me to have a creative process unmarked by any of the aspects of white supremacy culture requires me to rewire my whole being. That’s overwhelming.

DH: It's scary.

HM: What does it look like in practice? I don't know. What does authorship mean if it's not flowing from white supremacy culture? That's interesting.

DH: I'm going to switch gears a little bit. Can you tell me how you see me and my organization being a part of the Community Engagement Residency?

HM: I felt like Dancing Around Race was just a beginning. What I heard from people was that it only scratched the surface.  

DH: I have to say that's true.  

HM: The project ended, but the work is not over. How can we all build on that work? It made sense to me to extend an invitation to the people who were in Gerald's cohort as a natural next step. So that's why I reached out to all of you and said, "Does anyone want to partner next year?"

DH: That’s similar to what I'm talking about doing with the LatinXtensions program.

HM: You know when you make a dance and then the show's over, and you ask yourself, what should I make next? And there's one thing from that dance that you want to carry forward. The same thing happens in community organizing. Where is the juice? Where's the energy? Let's build on that. That's the beauty of not being beholden to a static institutional agenda. We can say, "What do we want to do now? What makes sense?"

DH: It’s tough when organizations tie you down to pre-existing structures.

HM: An interesting thing is that your residency is a full year, so things can change.  

DH: It's nice to have the ability to be responsive and not think, "Whoa, Hope really wants me to do this, so we have to continue on this route."

HM: Julie Tolentino was the first CER artist and she started out by saying, "I want to work with a cohort of artists." Which she did. And then after about nine months, she was like, "You know what? I need to be in the studio by myself." That's great. Group practice informs solo practice, informs performance, informs conversation.  

DH: I wish other artists, particularly more Latinx artists, had an opportunity to be able to try something out for 12 months without feeling like they have to produce something for somebody else.  

HM: What I hope the year-long residency format offers is the space to ask: what does the work need? What does the group need? What do you need as an artist? How does the community work feed into your art practice? 

DH: What were your considerations when you choose artists for the Community Engagement Residency?

HM: Next year we're going to go to an application process, but so far, because it’s just been the beginning, it's been an organic process of being in conversation with people.  

DH: What influences do you feel the residency program has on the field of dance and performance in the Bay Area?

HM: The program is so new. It's hard to know. I do love the fact that you're still in relationship with the other Dancing Around Race artists. Maybe that is the biggest impact: building allies, relationships, collaborations. Also, I think the discomfort in the room at the last Dancing Around Race event was one measure of the program's success. Discomfort is part of the learning curve. On the other hand, you have to create a safe space. I think it's interesting to balance the need for safe internal space and interfacing with the public.

DH: Dancing Around Race showed me the power of working in a closed door format, where we were able to have no filter before we took the conversation to a more public space. That allowed me to feel like, “okay, I don't have to filter myself, even when we're in a bigger space.” I think that can go either way, from the perspective of a person of color. It made me feel comfortable speaking about race out loud with a much larger intended audience. That's something I've been grappling with for years--this came up over and over--the idea that we are tired of keeping ourselves censored. That we are constantly censoring our voices because we don't want to upset somebody.

HM: Code switching.

DH: Yes, exactly. But to my own detriment. It was nice to finally be like, “I'm just going to say this,” and if somebody's uncomfortable with it, that's okay. Because this is the kind of conversation we actually need to have.

HM: This brings up for me the question that I don't have the answer for: who is this work for? Obviously it's for the artists who are being supported. But if we have a public-facing, community-wide conversation about race, who is that event for? For white people? For artists of color? For everybody? Can it be for everybody? I don't know if that's possible.

DH: Right.

HM: How you answer that question might determine how you structure an event.  I honestly don't know what the impact of Dancing Around Race was. I know a lot of white people who came to the public events were very unsettled.  I think there remains a lot of confusion among white people about do I step up? Do I step back? How do I do that? What does that look like? I've done a lot of questioning. Does stepping back mean that I quit? Because I'm just another white curator. Does stepping back mean I don't apply for a grant so that an artist of color might get the funding? Dismantling racism requires that white people don’t take things personally. But those kind of questions feel personal. They are systemic choices, but also personal choices.

DH: I am letting the LatinXtensions participants know that this is not just about them. It's one of those things that they don't teach us in school, especially if you are an artist working on cultural equity. They don't teach us how to build something that keeps giving. It always felt very focused on the sell.

HM: When you say you're making work about cultural equity, can you articulate how that commitment manifests for you in choreographic form?

DH: That's a really hard question. It's shifted over the years.

HM: How about in your most recent show at Z Space?

DH: That show, Resurrection of Everyday People, started as a political piece and slowly became something else. What I realized was that I can't really tell the dancers to feel something just because I felt it. So the work became more about: have you ever felt this sense of inequity within yourself or within your group or within your family? It became a practice where almost all the choreography came out of them.

HM: How did that manifest in form?

DH: Can you tell me specifically what you mean by form?

HM: I could say aesthetics. How did the subject matter affect your choreographic choices, in terms of shaping the material in time and space? Or did it not? Do you feel like that ideas around equity occupied a separate track in your brain?

Photo of “The Least of Them” (2016) by David Herrera. Photo by Marisa Aragona.

Photo of “The Least of Them” (2016) by David Herrera. Photo by Marisa Aragona.

DH: I feel like politics in that work was more of a separate track. But my previous piece was different (The Least of Them, 2016). It was about the racist thoughts and misunderstandings we have about each other. In that process,  I realized that I had a lot of physical anger embedded in my body. I had the dancers look at their own racist habits, which surprised many.  We talked about what does racism feel like in the body. What does your body actually do? I'm pretty composed as a person, but there was so much anger that if I were to unleash it, I would be a little scared to see what that would look like. As we were creating movement, I allowed myself to let some of that come out. The anger took over the form. It was less about creating choreography. It was more about letting the body release the stuff that we have been holding  inside us. One of the dancers talked about her body having trauma she had not visited in a while. I thought to myself, “this is great because we are going to create stuff out of that,” as opposed to looking for lines or shapes that were taught in a studio or class setting. That piece is one of my most honest because we didn't follow formulas. We allowed the body and the mind and body memory to do what they wanted to do. That was very exciting to me. I remember walking out of every one of those rehearsals thinking, “Whoa!” Eventually, we shaped everything into more of a narrative, something more concrete, as opposed to chaos. 

DH: There were moments in that process when one of the dancers said, “I don't want to do this, I don’t want to fight. I don't feel comfortable saying this and doing this.” This was a reaction to me asking the cast to label the audience “White”, “Black”, “Brown”, and “Other,” according to the race we thought they were. 

DH: As a person of color, I'm so used to wanting to “shhhhh” everything, but it was really exciting to not do that. In this past season, the choreography came about by me allowing the dancers to tell me what they were thinking and feeling and also asking them to move to describe it. Even though the work was less political in nature, it was still rooted in letting the body speak in relationship to political ideas. I couldn't be the authoritative, sole choreographer for the cast. I just molded the evening. I would say about 75%  of the choreography was something that the dancers personally wanted to explore and release from their own bodies.

Being a part of the dialogue and experience of  “Dancing Around Race,” combined with the process of my last production--in which I discovered that our bodies can articulate movement ideas not found in forced or taught “choreography”--has liberated me in ways I didn’t know were possible. 


For more information on the David Herrera Performance Company, visit https://www.dhperformance.org/