Fog Beast’s ‘The Big Reveal’: A Conversation About Identity, Immigration, & Corporate Influence

Fog Beast is a San Francisco based company determined to “illuminate the modern trappings of the human animal.”  Co-founders Andrew Ward and Melecio Estrella share a long history of performing together with celebrated SF Bay Area companies, like Joe Goode Performance Group and Bandaloop, from which Fog Beast gratefully inherits some of its style—lush athleticism paired with clever theatricality.  Their current project, The Big Reveal, will foreground Fog Beast’s uniquely imaginative blend of original songs, storytelling, and contemporary movement.

The Big Reveal digs into identity, immigration, and corporate influence on personal and social behavior.  In the first iteration of this work, called He’s One of Us (2017), the company coaxed audiences to reevaluate what it means to be citizens, participants in a fiercely corporate culture.  First they swept in and out of the risers as schoomzy motivational speakers, rallying the audience for the occasion. Coiling around one another, they crooned about the gluttonous nature of market-driven America.  Sometimes arced, sometimes outstretched, they spoke about their immigrant and slave ancestors. Later, audience members in rolling chairs were whirled onto the stage and invited to join a rhythmic gesture sequence.  In a sensual exploration of his joints and his mother’s first language, Tagalog, Estrella mourned the loss of tradition that sometimes follows the gain of citizenship.

Supported by Dancers’ Group and funded by the Gerbode Dance Composition Award, Fog Beast will present The Big Reveal at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, July 18-21.  The soul of the work echoes that of He’s One of Us, but there will be revised sections and an expanded cast.  Because it is essential to Fog Beast to relate to a given performance space, they are also now contending with the physical and conceptual information in the museum as fodder for new choreography.  

{ DIYdancer } contributor, Sarah Chenoweth, sat down with Ward and Estrella to talk about the company’s character and current process.

{ DIYdancer } Sarah Chenoweth: You created Fog Beast in 2010.  How did it begin, and how has it evolved?

Andrew Ward: Well, we started making improvised duets – dance and song.  And it’s evolved more recently into something even more theatrical, moving even further beyond just a dance show and into a performance event that might have equal weight between theater, music, and dance.

Melecio Estrella:  Both Andrew and I come from very musical families, so that’s how we locate ourselves.  For many companies, people wonder, ‘Are you a dance company? A theater company?’ And with Fog Beast it’s even like, ‘Are you a band?!’ And I love that.  I want it to be that we could be a band in a nightclub.

But, as an artist, the practices of dance and singing, coming in the room and doing something together…finding harmonies… are in themselves what draw me, separate from making a product that is presented to the world.

SC:  Your work often comments on cultural habits.  Do you intentionally make sociopolitical work?

ME: I would never want to make a work that is isolated from the context that it grows out of.  I feel like all the politics, what’s going on, all the conversations I’m having with my friends and family, what I’m seeing on the news, comes with me into rehearsal.  For instance, when we did “He’s One of Us” in 2017, we were in this moment where Houston just had the hurricane, DACA was being rescinded, the Vegas shooting… we were all in shell-shock mode.  We’d been through a year of the new presidency and everyone was just like ‘uuughhhh…’ So we made up this kind of farce about it being hard to show up these days, so ‘thanks everyone for coming out…this is what citizenship is all about: we all came together.  This is how we come together and talk.’ Because it’s the familiar social, it always will include the political.

SC: So, are those the ideas and curiosities that are driving the current project, The Big Reveal?

ME: We made the piece originally in 2017, two years ago, at Yerba Buena.  We were prompted with “Why Citizenship?” What came out through our process was my own family’s journey into citizenship in the United States, which is very rich as far as the Filipino American experience in San Francisco… My Grandfather was brought here by the US Army to be Commanding Officer of all the forts on the northern tip of Marin County. Conversely, my father was born in central valley to working class parents.  His father was one of the head janitors at SF city hall, and his mother was a waitress – career server.

There are many questions, always, that the work is addressing, but one of them, is this idea of personal growth towards capital gain.  Some of our past work has been pretty blatant about addressing overloading ourselves with work or life, and the overwhelm and stress that are literally killing us.  I think a big question that we’re looking at is if corporate productivity is one of the fertilizers or drivers of this way of life. What does it mean when a company values their bottom line or capital gain over the human lives that are running that company?

AW: We were thinking about Apple product launches like the reveal of the new iPhone.  But also, I think for us it’s about revealing something that’s already there. Not necessarily new, but uncovering something in ourselves or in the Bay Area that’s already there.

SC: Is The Big Reveal a direct evolution of the 2017 Yerba Buena show?

ME: If the Yerba Buena piece was the keynote address, what would be the bigger conference surrounding that?  We are thinking that it will be a three-hour daytime event that will include the welcome and reception area, cycles of breakout sessions, and a final plenary keynote address.

AW: Now that it’s going to be at the Asian Art Museum, I am really curious.  That’s a rich subject to explore—art on the walls in the museum, how people are looking at that art, where it came from, how it’s categorized, who is going there to see it.  And then… I’m curious about looking at the [dancing] bodies as live Asian American art… and how it relates to the still art.

ME: We always like to speak to the role of the audience.  What are the assumptions that we have about audience “choreography”?  We like to take familiar social settings and convenings and occupy them and queer them up, in the sense of bending and changing… break them apart, turn them upside down, really play with the unspoken agreements about social choreography and presentational style.

AW: I’m excited to feel what it’s like to go into the museum, to see what an audience might feel coming into it, expecting to see a dance show, or their expectations of what happens in the space… I like to think about the audience’s experience from entering the space through the end of the show.

SC: And mess with their expectations?

AW: Yeah.  But, to first build a common understanding and then be able to mess with it so that we can bring them along on a journey.

SC: Can you paint a picture of what rehearsals have looked like?

ME: Two nights ago, in rehearsal, we were talking about load-management, how much we take on, and personal capacity-building…some ideas about what a motivational speaker would say about these things.  So Ben [Juodvalkis] said, ‘Ok, just talk about how you create load management, and I’ll take dictation. And then, stop. Now, I want you to do the same thing but only speak in metaphors.’ What came out was something about the cities that are built in my shoulders, or an all-night flower that needs sleep.

We’ve produced one song that comes from the story of my grandfather finding his wife, my grandmother, murdered by the Japanese in the war.  So, that was heavy and feels really tender. And if intergenerational trauma in my body does exist, that is scratching right at it.

That’s another thing with Fog Beast… this material is super reverent and tender and sacred to my family’s story.  And at the same time, in the next room in the Fog Beast “house”, we’re throwing around playdoh and pots and pans in a totally different form of play.  That those two things exist in our work, I think speaks to the values that Andrew and I have and who we are.

AW: We often don’t know what we’re going to do in rehearsal, we just kind of find out… Maybe separately we will write some sort of keynote address.  And then maybe we’ll say ‘oh that’s a boring address.’ But, if Melecio does it in the middle of this movement… we like that.

Today we all created something that had a certain rhythm to it and it started to look like a social dance, so we went with that and created a social dance.  We don’t know what we’re going to get all the time.

SC: That is telling about your process.

AW: Yeah, it’s kind of instinctual.  Or just ‘go with your feelings’.

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