The Back Room

Sara Shelton Mann

Upping the Frequency: Sara Shelton Mann in Conversation with Keith Hennessy

Sara Shelton Mann
Keith Hennessy

Sara Shelton Mann is a dancer, researcher, and choreographer, both legendary and under-recognized. She is also a seeker, healer, writer, improviser, and dowser. A forever student who is always teaching.

In addition to annual teaching/performing gigs across the United States and in Europe, Sara has rehearsed and taught in various studios in the groundbreaking Project Artaud building, or within a mile of her San Francisco Mission home, for more than half of her life. If she were a tree, she might be more aware of how deeply rooted and entangled she is within a complex ecology of place, kinship, and interdependence. How she has become one of the elder trees, one of the grandparents, a constant source of nourishment and stability. Instead she is ambivalent about home, always hoping for unattainable refuge somewhere else. Her paradoxical settled rootlessness — a very USAmerican phenomenon intensified by nomadic Bay Area tendencies — is tightly woven in the stories of her work and life.

I’ve known Sara since 1985 as a co-conspirator and friend; from 1985 to 1994 I was a member of her pioneering ensemble Contraband, a collective of dance, music, and visual artists dedicated to evolving new visions of visceral live performance. I was rarely her student in any organized way, but I’ve been learning from her the entire time. She’s one of the biggest influences on my work and for countless other artists working around the world. Despite knowing Sara for decades, traveling together like family through many intimate creative projects and life passages, this interview revealed to me new stories from her early childhood, her current hopes and fears, the ways she understands her dancing, and the ways she sees and feels the worlds around her.

Although widely recognized as someone who has helped to define and undefine what local dance is and can be, Sara barely recognizes herself as local. Histories of Bay Area and California artistic, political, and psycho-spiritual practices are clearly traceable in her work, visible in her idiosyncratic and interdisciplinary merging of dance, somatics, mysticism, environmentalism, healing, and energy work — but when I ask her about her relationship to San Francisco she responds with stories of Tennessee and New York City, of disidentifying with laid-back California, never belonging anywhere and always looking for home.

She’s a dynamic female warrior who seized the mantle of a male-dominated lineage but never identified as a feminist. She barely identifies — as a woman, as a dancer, as white and Southern, as a survivor (despite a history of violence and harm), as an activist, as a San Franciscan — because her attention is focused on intangibles and the unseen. She’s often said that as a child she felt closer to animals than people, as if people are a mystery yet to be solved. She speaks in poetic images that can inspire without being fully understood. Her attention is drawn to shifting forms and flows of energy rather than to people, things, or political categories. Sara loves a big sky, an expansive view. She seeks the essence, not of things or people, but of consciousness, the metaphysics of the heart and spirit… presences constrained when identified or held too closely. In and out of the dance studio, she is in pursuit of, in support of, what shines.  – KH

Sara Shelton Mann in her future live-work loft home at Project Artaud, secured through a community fundraiser and under renovation by Keith Hennessy. Photo: Keith Hennessy.

Keith Hennessy: It’s December 8th, 2022, and it’s a grey, cloudy day in San Francisco. We’re meeting in the little studio in Project Artaud where you’ve lived for forty years. How has living in this massive artists’ co-op affected your work?

Sara Shelton Mann: In a very practical way. It’s a community, so I can travel and someone will pick up my mail, water the plants, drive my car. We’re a non-profit collective, and our mission is really to support artists. Also, to support artists who have the skills to run the building — which I didn’t think about when I moved in. But it takes a lot to run a building. This is a whole city block and three stories. It gave me the opportunity, really, to work, to practice, and not think about rent.

KH: And not think about rent.

SSM: Never think about rent. Everything is included — well, parking costs seventy bucks a month, but all the utilities are included within the rent, and the rent is very inexpensive. I’ve watched the city grow and the rents increase continuously for forty years. So it’s like, suspended in time. 

KH: For most of your career in San Francisco, you have also done your rehearsing here. Originally Mariposa Studio, and in recent years, using the Joe Goode Annex and Studio 124. 

SSM: And also outside, the Gartland Pit and Eddy Street. Mariposa Studio was a little gem. I moved to San Francisco in 1979, and I remember teaching in Mariposa Studio, and the room would be filled with musicians. We had to bow down to the musicians at the end of the class. Contraband made all of our work in that little studio, and we transferred it to the industrial theater upstairs, which is mind-boggling, what we did. We worked on the streets and we practiced outdoors and indoors. I was able to pay people to clean the sidewalks, to clean the theater, to clean the bathrooms, the hallways, to make money, and then we would perform. It was just really awe-inspiring. But the theater — then it was called Theater Artaud — it was a monster. It was really a monster.

Sara Shelton Mann, Keith Hennessy, and Brenda Munnell in a 1986 Contraband performance of Religare, Gartland Pit at Valencia and 16th Streets in San Francisco. Photo: Marion Gray.

KH: And when you say a monster, you mean a beautiful monster, or — ?

SSM: An incredible, beautiful monster where you could try anything but there were dead spots with sound, there were live spots, there were balconies. You could rig anything in there. You know, it was just a big, big arena. So we learned to go from a tiny little practice studio to an enormous industrial theater. That’s a good teacher.

KH: I do remember when you and I used to clean the bathrooms, first in the theater and then also in the building, on a small hourly wage. So yeah, we’re in the Mission, we’re in this Project Artaud building, which is the former American Can factory, and we’re on the unceded lands of the Ramaytush Ohlone. We’re in San Francisco, a settler colonial city with a particular history for artists and seekers. And we’re at the westernmost edge of a migration, the European movement going further and further west and getting to this coast. So how did you get here? What forces of movement got you from the East Coast to the West Coast? And secondly, after living in several other places, why did you stay here?

SSM: The call — I’m going to answer the last thing first — the call never came. I work by invitation and I never got invited to take another job. I’ve heard the story that people do their practice here and then they go to New York, or they go to Europe, or they go to Canada. Well, I was born in the South, in Nashville, Tennessee, and my mentor was Franziska Boas, and she told me to go to New York City and study with Alwin Nikolais, and I did. And from New York, honestly, I got bored. I felt that I’d hit the peak with Nikolais and if I stayed I would just make Nikolais work. I wanted to see what I would do in isolation, or somewhere else. To start all over. I had been going to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to teach in the summers, and so the Halifax Dance Co-op promised me a bunch of money to go there and create a company and teach people to dance, to perform, to tour. At the Co-op there was jazz and there was ballet and there was Sara. [laughs] So I did that. I spent a lot of time going back and forth to New York, because my employers didn’t go through the correct government channels. I had to go to court where I was granted immigrant status and a gorgeous blue seal, based on what I had brought to the culture already. I was accepted in Canada. In Halifax I fell in love with contact improvisation. I was trying to figure out something a little bit like that myself, using touch to direct movement. Andrew Harwood came to town and this woman, Helen Clarke, was just effortlessly rolling around his shoulders. I had never seen anything like it. Then I saw a picture in Dance Magazine of Mangrove, an all-male improvisation collective from San Francisco. So I went to Victoria for a workshop called “the cutting edge of the form.” Mangrove was there. They pulled up in a station wagon from New York, and they invited me to come and perform and teach with them.

Sara Shelton Mann in a publicity still from Evol, Contraband’s first piece. Photo: Bonnie Kamin.

KH: They pulled up in a station wagon from New York?

SSM: Yeah, they did. And I said, “yes.” I was lonely. It was simple: I wanted to dance and I was lonely.

KH: So you came to San Francisco because you were invited by Mangrove. And you stayed here because you never got the call to leave.

SSM: That’s right.

KH: Amazing. Your dancing, your choreography, has helped to inspire and even shape multiple generations of San Francisco and Bay Area dancers. Do you see your work as San Franciscan or Californian? How do you understand your work in relation to this place, this land, this history?

SSM: I never even thought about being claimed by the dance field, honestly. The act of creating is creation, and that’s what I love. The work gets made by the people in the room and by asking questions. 

Sara Shelton Mann and Jess Curtis in a 1987 Contraband performance of The Invisible War. Photo: Marty Sohl.

KH: I’m just digging at this question of place and lineage. When I think of you, and who came after you, many of them claim you as a teacher or as inspiration. They see themselves in some kind of history of San Francisco. But there’s ways where you don’t; like, you’re just here because you’re here.

SSM: That’s it!

KH: At the same time, I see ways where you are really from here. You became from here. The land came through you, the political histories came through you. But somehow that wasn’t at the forefront of your attention, where you are.

SSM: No, no. Never. Never-ever. There’s one thing that I learned about San Francisco the first time I came here in 1967: it’s very easy to get distracted. And to prefer to go to the beach rather than rehearsal. Or to just do the easiest thing. 

KH: You were here in 1967?

SSM: Yes. Franziska told me to come out here to study with Anna Halprin. I went to see her work at the space on Divisadero Street. The room was small, Anna had a long fight with the lighting designer before it began, and the dancers flapped their arms like birds. I said, I will never live here.

When I actually moved here I learned more about San Francisco: the ground is unstable and there is a tremendous amount of space. I mean, to me, being on the East Coast, there’s so much structure already that it was difficult for me to conceive — I almost don’t know how to explain it — but to conceive of something different. And so what I chose to do with people is to just practice, practice until structure started to appear. 

KH: The more you talk, the more I see you responding to this exact place. Even if that’s not how you’re seeing it. Because the idea that New York has more history and structure — that’s part of the mythology of the Bay Area, right, that we don’t have a history. We just showed up here, and there’s nothing beyond here. This is the frontier. And then also this notion of the West Coast being about space, that we’re at the edge of the continent, but also it’s a less crowded, less urban environment than New York. The indoor-outdoor nature-culture is just much more pronounced here.

SSM: It’s stunning. It’s absolutely beautiful.

KH: Yeah. Your early career was inspired, of course, a lot by your teachers and different choreographers you worked with on the East Coast, particularly New York City. Did you have any individuals or communities from the Bay Area who inspired you or kept you in this place? I mean, obviously Mangrove was one of them. But were there other artists, or other communities, or other Bay Area things that kept you going or inspired you?

SSM:  I wasn’t drawn to the dance scene here. In Halifax I had been around writers, filmmakers, improvisers, and experimental performance artists. I saw a couple of modern dance concerts and thought I was in the wrong place. But there were so many teachers of metaphysics and alternative healing modalities whose work I wanted to bring into my art. I had already studied with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen but when I got to the West Coast a whole new world opened up. I studied with Hameed Ali. Hameed’s work, the study of human essence, gave me a different perspective for teaching and creating work. 

A drawing by Sara Shelton Mann in one of her journals, probably from the 1990s.

KH: What about Wallflower Order, who became The Dance Brigade? They moved here after you, from Eugene, Oregon, but I recall some early collaborations.

SSM: Contraband and Dance Brigade, we shared programs. We did — what do you call those things, fundraisers? [laughs] It was a way to show half an hour of work. We even had split posters, flyers. Talk about fun, it was really fun. But it was also the beginning of a sense of community, finally with other dancers, and relationships that have continued to this day.

KH: Do you remember your first experience of performing or dancing for an audience?

SSM: I used to sneak out of my bedroom window as a kid and go dancing to live bands. I must have been thirteen, fourteen? Two step. And where you do the under-the-legs and up and the barrel roll over and —

KH: Sara is physically demonstrating partner dancing. Some kind of Lindy hop or jitterbug kind of dance.

SSM: Dah-dah-dah, ya-dah-dah. [laughs] Yeah, so that was social dancing. Otherwise, there was the piano. The piano was my friend. Funny, I didn’t mind performing piano but I didn’t continue. I remember getting on the basketball team and being called to go out on the court and play and I ran out of the room. Being in public was a really scary, difficult thing for me. Because I grew up without other kids; even in grammar school, I had no idea what was going on. The little girls had cliques, and the boys had cliques, and I just felt strange. And being inside in a square room in chairs, looking in one direction? I couldn’t relate to it at all. I would rather face a bull crossing a field, which I did many times, rather than sit in a room with chairs. 

Sara Shelton Mann teaching in New York City, circa the late 1960s.

KH: Do you remember your first professional dance gig? A first time being paid for teaching or performing, the first time you went, “I’m a dancer getting paid to dance?”

SSM: Just to sit by Nikolais and hold his stopwatch. I was a paid understudy, I actually was in his company before I ever saw his work. I went to New York to dance with him, and I’d never seen his work. I had no idea what professional dancing was, why do it? But Franziska said, “Go to New York City. You can be a great dancer, and you want to study with Alwin Nikolais. That’s what you want to do.” Because he had a philosophy, and he had the Henry Street Playhouse, and we had two hours of technique every day on stage, two hours of improvisation, composition three days a week. On the weekends we learned lights, we learned drumming, we taught kids, and we had the run of the studio, so we could make work on each other and show it. It was a philosophy that attracted me, it was a school with a philosophy, and that’s something I’ve never forgotten.

KH: Beautiful. Did you ever want to quit dancing or quit performing?

SSM: Every year. Well, the sad thing is, I trained so hard. I used to stand in front of the mirror and watch my muscles work, and then take whatever the technique was and perfect it and then improvise with it until I had just exhausted everything I could think of. And I never let myself dance. Not really. I became a choreographer. 

KH: I’ve seen you dance, Sara.

SSM: I was pretty good.

KH: No, but that means you’ve danced!

Sara Shelton Mann performing a clearing solo by Remy Charlip in the second of three works in The Mira Cycles, a performance epic by Contraband based on the life of the sixteenth century Indian poet, politician, and saint Mirabai. Project Artaud, circa 1993.

SSM: I did one solo, called Beloved. It’s the only thing that is videoed that was really about Sara dancing. That work holds the three parts of me: after I danced I had a conversation with death, and then I got out my dowsing rod and asked people to lie down on the floor, and I’d do a healing. But I remember some moves that you and I did. Remember? Duh-duh-duh. Roll over from Oracle? Those crazy dresses? [laughs]

KH: Right, but I’m just saying, you danced in the Invisible War [1988]. You danced in Oracle [1987], you ended up dancing in Evol [1985].

SSM: Yeah, but I focused on the mind of the choreographer as opposed to the dancer. Do you know what I mean? 

KH: Interesting. Well, talk to me about the urge to quit.

SSM: Every year. You’ve heard me say this. “I’m not doing anything real with my life, not anything important.” Dancing, what does that have to do with anything? I should be in politics or training dogs or, you know…

KH: And then you don’t quit. So what’s that about? What is it that you come back to, or what is it that you re-dedicate your will to?

A beginning sketch for a piece. Date unknown.

SSM: I like to make things. I like the invisible. I like the act of imagining and the activity of play, of construction, of how the mind is put to work through the imagination as opposed to its constant repetition, its loops that it runs. Because I have plenty of those. And I like being a reporter, I like going deep into feelings and into how the body works. I like the experience of having an audience, having witnesses, or upping the frequency, the heightened awareness of working with everyone in the same room. When I used to tease myself, I would say, “OK, it’s time to leave the studio. No, it’s time that you stay here.” When you leave the studio is when you need to stay. And as long as I had Mariposa Studio as a home base, I would do that. It was just wonderful to have a place where you can laugh and cry and scream and sing and stomp and doodle around, and then do nothing. That’s a big part of the process.

KH: Yeah. It’s also an interesting way to think about a story of San Francisco — you know, we both used to have studios, in a sense, that were ours, where we could spend a lot of nothing time. And the way that gentrification happens, the way that real estate has tightened, we don’t have that kind of studio. And so it’ll be interesting at your age now to move into a new home in a couple of months, where it’s not a full-on dance studio but you’re going to have a different kind of space than you’ve ever had, right in your home, with a sprung dance floor.

SSM: We’re going to have salons. We’re going to do readings, we’re going to tell stories. And a place where I can do rehab. Because you know, I need rehab now.

KH: Yeah. This is also part of the aging dancer project, right? Half your time has to go to sustaining, nurturing, and healing the body.

SSM: It’s a full-time —

KH: Yeah, maybe it’s not half-time, maybe it’s a full-time job.

SSM: It’s beyond a full-time job.

A childhood portrait of Sara Shelton Mann, circa 1948-49.

KH: So your early life, your early family life, was complicated by your mother’s death when you were only three months old, and by your adoption into extended family. Do you have a sense of your work in a lineage of your family or ancestors? Maybe another way of asking is, can you read your family’s stories or the impact of your family, within your dancing or dance-making?

SSM: I’ve wondered about that. I made a home in the dance studio and on stage, and I made a family. Because in my childhood, I was always looking for a family. I was checking out a father and a daughter without a wife, or a woman with a bunch of kids and no father. Or a very intellectual family, or a very rough family. My physical reality was that I couldn’t find comfort. I never had a room of my own; the room I lived in was a front room that you passed through, and it was really cold. And so I never found what I would call safety or comfort in physical reality, I only found it onstage. In the company of a family of artists in the act of creating. That’s where I felt community and family and safety. Unfortunately, I’ve acted out this process of family destruction and creation in my work and life, of always having to start over. Because I felt like I started from nothing. You know, that I was just kind of plopped on the planet and I didn’t — I wasn’t given my job. I couldn’t go with my mother because she was dying, she was dead. And I couldn’t go with my father because I wanted to kill him. And he left. And then I was just dropped in a world where what people said, and what they were thinking, were two different things. I could never reconcile that, and it hurt. And so again, I didn’t want to be inside. I would stay outside as long as I could because I was terrified to go inside.

Sara Shelton Mann’s first use of props, in the side yard of a house in Nashville, Tennessee, surrounded by farmland.

KH: How did your work respond to this contradiction between what people think and what people say? 

SSM: I’m always trying to get inside somebody. [laughs] You know what I mean? To what is it that makes them tick — what’s hiding in there? What brilliance is hiding in there? Whereas, I couldn’t do that as a kid. But it’s a very interesting question you pose, because I probably did want to get inside their heads. Why are you thinking this and saying that? But you know, I was a child and I wasn’t allowed to ask questions, or they had no interest in my having an education. And they didn’t even talk to each other.

KH: When I met you in the early eighties, you tended to identify your artistic role as a director rather than a choreographer. Tell me how you understand these roles differently, and how you might describe your work today.

SSM: I think that actually comes from something that Nikolais said, and I just tagged it on. I’m sure if I talk a little bit, it’ll make sense. Nikolais said, “To dance is ecstatic, but to choreograph is sublime.” But I saw him as a director, you know?

KH: What’s the difference?

SSM: Because he directed the whole thing. I mean, he was in charge of the whole thing: he had his own lighting system, he did all the slides, he did all the sound scores. But he was not the choreographer; we were the choreographers, we had to figure out how to get from A to B in a certain configuration with plinky-plank electronic sound scores. So we had to choreograph, simultaneously. We would sit there for an hour and then all of a sudden, you have to get from here to there to there, and you have to do it all together, or you two go first — and so we, the dancers, we’d just figure it out. I still do that, come to think of it! [claps hands]

Sara Shelton Mann performing in Erasing Time, 2015 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

KH: Well this is interesting, though, because this is you saying that choreography is about the specific detail of crafting series of movements, and directing is the producing of the show and the putting all the different things together. And you know, when I met you, you were definitely working already with text and objects and things that weren’t dance, as we recognize dance. But you did choreograph on every piece, that is you made phrases of movement that we learned and you choreographed into complex patterns. You didn’t do that for the entire work. You just did that for sections within a work.

SSM: Well, I was trying it out. I realize, I call myself something before I get there, to make myself work to get there. I need to do that now. Let’s think of something. [laughs]

KH: When I met you, you were already deeply involved in spiritual and philosophical practices. Research into human consciousness and behavior. And over time, we who were in your company in the eighties, we witnessed you study many forms and practices of healing. When did you start to understand your artistic work in relation to healing, or as healing?

SSM: Again, I didn’t think about it in that way. I just thought about it as sharing, as curiosity. I started working with energy fields and the different systems of the body and translating that to what I would call energetic lay lines in space. More transparency, more nuance, more liveness, more readability. At some point I really got focused on the frequency in the room, how to change the frequency in the room, as opposed to telling people a long story. And so, the pieces started getting shorter and shorter. What was one-hour-and-fifty minutes now became a half an hour. Oops!

Jesse Hewit and Sara Shelton Mann performing in peter, from the Eye of Leo series exploring archetypes of the soul; the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco, 2013. Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

KH: I like that, how to change the frequency in a room. That’s definitely something that you do, and it’s what you’re doing in the making process. I think that’s something that good artists do, right? Working with how the energy can shift in a room or a group through movement and performance. Is choreography a healing art? Is performance healing? 

SSM: I think so, yeah. And again, it makes me think of something that Franziska Boas said. She was a dance therapist. She said, “Dance is a therapeutic form.” The body holds all the information, even of our ancestors, and so we get to work with that. There’s only one Keith, there’s only one Sara. And you hold everything in your history. And in your future, you know, right now. If we say all time is now, then anything is possible. I like shearing the past and the future through the system.

KH: What do you mean by “shearing”?

SSM:  Slicing. If you take time frames and — like, put on a timeline, and you go zzz-zzz-zzz — oh, that lights up. What could that be? Or you go forward in the future, zzz-zzz-zzz — oh, that lights up. What could that be? And you shear them this way, then you’ve got a cross-section of everything that you are or could be.

KH: When Sara says “shearing,” she’s starting with her hands held in front of her, wider than her body, and then pressing them past each other until her arms cross across her torso. So it looks like an intersection of, or a fusing of, two different time periods. Like splicing film. Is that an accurate representation?

SSM: [laughs, sounds of something thumping] That’s really it!

KH: There are now at least three generations of dancers and artists who claim you as an important teacher or influence. Do you see it like that? And what does it mean for you that people claim you as a teacher, that you’re now in peoples’ history or archive of lineage? Like, the way you say “Nikolais,” people say “Sara.” How does that feel?

SSM: It feels really great. As long as they’ve really studied with me. I mean, really studied. You know, people tell me that people are scared to come to my class because it’s so difficult. I don’t think it’s difficult at all. I say exactly what I mean and you just focus exactly on what I said. It may take a little while to understand the language, but you’re researching the language to create vocabulary of your own that is flexible, articulate, strong, your own voice. And yet they’re simple skills, simple tools involved. It’s not any kind of woo-woo. It’s like, how to use your arms and legs. You know? How to stand up, how to fall. How to use your imagination, how to write a story from watching somebody move. 

KH: How has your perspective on something like dance lineage shifted as you’ve aged, as you’ve become an elder in the field?

SSM: You know, we all do what it is that we do, what it is that we like to do. Hameed Ali said, “If you are a Shakti person, you will study Shakti. If you’re an intellectual, you will do Gurdjieff. Everyone goes to what is familiar, and what they excel at.” He had a brilliance for talking about and cutting through people’s personalities. I took his form and applied it to making art. I tried to teach the imagination, to teach space, to teach geometry, to teach articulation of the limbs and legs, to teach contact. To teach energy work, to do journey work, to give people as big a palette for their own work and their own artistry as possible. 

KH: In recent years, you have taught and collaborated with a larger number of dancers who are not white, who are Black, who are Filipino, who are Mexican… How has your work or dance-making changed in relation to these dancers? Or has it?

SSM: There’s something about these dancers that makes me feel home. And in a way, it’s awkward home. There’s one person who I spent a lot of time with as a child, and her name was Ella, and she was Black. She was the cook and she washed clothes on a washboard, and I got to hang out with her. She didn’t sit at the table with us, she ate in the pantry, and so I refused to eat. If she couldn’t sit at the table and eat with us, I would not eat. And I was not allowed to sit in the pantry with her and eat. So that started my identifying more with Black people than I did with white people, and I felt a lot of guilt, a lot of anger, a lot of shame. Because of Franziska I spent time in freedom houses, and I had a lover who was in SNCC who could have got himself killed just coming to visit me in the South. I wouldn’t go out with a white guy. I said, no way.

KH: And that was in the sixties into the seventies?

SSM: Yeah. I felt so bad, I wanted to make it up to every Black person I knew for what I saw happening. I actually saw a man get tarred and feathered. This was in Atlanta. I think I was more in shock than anything else. I don’t think I really understood — even when I was a child, the Black and white issue was so volatile. I couldn’t have a relationship with Black people, and yet the only love I knew was from a Black person. And then I moved to New York City and there was a lot more communion, communication, particularly in the dance field. My dance partner in New York City was Raymond Johnson, a most exquisite Black dancer, incredible. And we directed — we actually had our pictures together on the front of the Art page in the New York Times, in the… sixties? Then I moved to Canada, and the communities were separate. And then come to San Francisco, and communities are still separate.

Sara Shelton Mann improvising with Raymond Johnson; New York City, circa 1967.

KH: I was once giving a talk about Contraband in New York City, and one of the questions was: Why was that company so white for so long? I can’t really answer the question. The dance scene in San Francisco was segregated by dance forms. Ed Mock’s jazz-based class was probably the most integrated space in the studios where modern or postmodern dance was happening. Most of the teachers and studios were overwhelmingly white, with the one or two people of color just somehow fitting in, or not fitting in, but not changing the reality. What I’m seeing today is a very active community of queer, Black, Indigenous, people of color, non-white dancers, who are part of the very vibrant now that we’re living in. And your work Sara in the last few years has had much more of a tendency to have a mixed-race cast, so therefore regardless of what the formal project of the dancing is, we’re also seeing a different community onstage. 

SSM: I’m more curious than anything else. I have the skills that I teach and I want to share those.

KH: Well, and your work tends to really work with, like you say, the precise people in the room. It’s not an abstract project — it’s not about these people and what their group is, it’s about these precise individuals.

SSM: And everything comes from them. You know, I like to just notice what’s going on in the room, and when somebody’s really, really engaged in what they’re doing — I mean, really engaged — they will turn your eye. “Oh, something is really happening over here.”

Keith Hennessy and cast members performing in Erasing Time, 2015, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo: Robbie Sweeny.

KH: What’s interesting to you right now? For dance or healing or life or politics? Like, where is your attention? Sara’s just making a series of funny faces.

SSM: Ahhhhhh.

KH: Maybe, what questions are you asking? Or what ideas are you exploring or not exploring?

SSM: OK, that part I can relate to. In terms of making, I’m working very minimally now. I seem to go from spectacle in group to very, very small. But I’m feeling like, “OK, this is a strange planet that we’re on at the moment.” We’ve been through the pandemic, but we’re not through it yet, and there’s still an awkwardness; things are not like they used to be and things aren’t settled yet how they’re gonna be. We’re in this transitional complexity that’s kind of suspended. Well, welcome to the void. Here we are. So now what? And I think of the void now as the planet. We have everything! We’ve got it all! We’ve got likes and dislikes, we have ice cream, we have fish, we have robots, we have aliens, we have miniskirts, we have people with blue eyes, we have people that don’t like the way we think and don’t want to have anything to do with us. We have terrible opposition, we have right-wrong and power over victim. It’s just rampant. And it makes no sense.

KH: Welcome to the void.

SSM: Yeah, well, welcome to the void. So now what? So it’s really a question of how to create a new form. Is that form more painting or more minimal? Is it more suspended? Has it more to do with light and dark or color or presence or silence? How can I shift to something that I find interesting now and not fail? You know? That’s not quite the right way to put it, but — I always have this feeling when I’m onto something, there’s a fear of failure. Are people going to like it? Are we going to fail? And I don’t know what to write now, what to write about. 

You know, I feel like I’ve kind of hit the end of my scramble technique, a collage of physical and energetic techniques that I use to prepare the artist for the research of the day. I want to do more healing. I was in a training for shamanic medical qi-qong, which is an adaptation of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I also do dowsing as one of my healing modalities, but I’ve only had one long term client. And the practice is still a teacher to me, still revealing things to me. It still works. It’s been scary because I’m what I call a blind dowser, I go into the unknown and I have no idea who I’m going to find. This is what I do with my artistic work.

KH: OK, you want to do more healing. What do you want people to know about you and your work right now? Or how you’re seeing the world now?

SSM: I want to be a good friend. I want friends who will tell me the truth, and share who they really are, what they care about, and accept me for who I am. Yeah, yeah.

KH: Thank you. Alright, I’m going to call that a wrap. Amazing! I want you to create a piece called Blind Dowser Looking for a Friend. 

Lead image: Sara Shelton Mann directing a rehearsal. Photo: Robbie Sweeny. Video: An excerpt of Sara Shelton Mann’s 2018 work ECHO/the voice of stones at the Joe Goode Annex in San Francisco, featuring Jesse Zaritt and Pamela Z. Visual design by Amy Trachtenberg.

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