Interview with Cera Byer

[I first met Cera at a dance showcase a few years ago in Los Angeles. She performed a solo choreography fusing Middle Eastern dance vocabulary with other genres, or perhaps with her own idiom. Her dance was bold and inimitable, with layered body isolations spiraling into polyrhythms, and unusual punctuation and phrasing of movement.

[When I heard she was choreographing a larger work, I was excited to interview her. But it was more challenging than I thought. Dance is temporal, visual, spatial, kinetic… and as my teacher Judy would say, it’s spirit followed by body. Without having seen Cera’s current work, and only drawing from impressions of a past unrelated work, how do I begin to ask questions that are really relevant to her now?

[In spite of my slacker last-minute email ping-pong (done in the eleventh hour), Cera was very gracious. An edited version of this interview was posted in Mission Loc@l on July 9, 2010. Below is the full interview.]


San Francisco native and choreographer Cera Byer is the founder and artistic director of Damage Control Dance Theater. “Looking Glass” is DCDT’s first full-length production, premiering July 9th and 10th at Victoria Theatre.

Tonight is opening night! What Wonderland character do you feel like?

Right now, honestly, a little Mad Hatter. If this thing goes down in flames, I’m gonna end up running my own private caucus race on a tiny patch of sand somewhere south of the border. Follow the trail of rum bottles and mercury vapors. Ok, seriously, it’s crazy putting together a production like this with no grants, and no budget to speak of, and promises and hope and love and elbow grease. However! I constantly give myself the following very good advice: I know it’s the most important thing in the world, but it’s just dance. And also: This is just rock n’ roll. No one dies.

What inspired you to create “Looking Glass”?

I knew that taking on an evening-length work was the next step for me as a choreographer, director and artist. I’d been presenting shorter works in showcases and festivals for several years, and had set concerts and musicals for others, but never of my own stuff. It was the goal I set for myself for 2010.

How is your show related to Lewis Carroll’s children’s tale?

I didn’t know it was going to be Wonderland-themed. I started just making stuff that I liked. One day I ran across this quote: “When you set out to tell a story, you can either tell Romeo & Juliet, or David & Goliath.”

Stories are really simple, there are only a few. More than love story or underdog story, this was a hero’s journey — but more inward than outward. That started me thinking about Wonderland. A clear narrative emerged. I started looking into all of the lore around Alice in Wonderland — tons of math stuff, Lewis Carroll, sci-fi renditions, “The Matrix”, and all the different ways Alice has been used in pop culture. And it gave me tons of rich material to source from.

Some of your own personal history is woven into “Looking Glass”. Can you tell us a bit about that?

When I started making this show, I started looking through the diaries I kept from the ages of 18-22. That was a really crucial and tumultuous time for me in my identity development; it was when I was most enmeshed in a lot of the personal struggles “Looking Glass” touches on. Throughout rehearsals, I talked with each key player about issues that affected them, and I chose cast members for roles based upon their personal relationship to the subject matter.

A lot of these bits touch on issues of idealized femininity (in all its many complex forms, and how trying to reach that ideal can make you a little batshit), conformity, essentially who to live your life for, and how. That’s something I think everyone struggles with, and when you have a group of performers who are really willing to get raw and transparent with the material, you end up with work that is really relatable. It’s not a complex story, it’s meant to be a mirror. (Heheh, get it?)

“Looking Glass” features an eclectic cast and crew. What’s it been like to work together?

Amazing and rewarding and challenging. There have been some bumps along the road, but overall I’m really impressed with what we’ve been able to put together. I think one of my biggest talents — more then choreographing or dancing or anything else — is putting together a good team. It’s about picking people who are really cool to work with; who are professionals and deliver a solid product. You frequently find people who have one of those qualities; finding a whole team with both is tricky! And when everyone’s onboard with the vision, it’s easy to guide the project forward.

Your show is being presented in the historic Victoria Theatre. I imagine it feels like a time warp.

I chose the venue very carefully, because so much of the show highlights San Francisco throughout history, in its visuals. The sets are a mishmash of time periods and aesthetics layered on top of each other. I really wanted to present in a beautiful venue with a lot of history and character. I wanted the show to be set ‘outside of time’, in sort of a steampunk way. Advanced ideas, 100 year-old technology.

Working in a 100 year-old house comes with its own set of crazy challenges (if you’ve never used 100 year-old rigging systems, it’s an experience), and you need a really skilled crew to make things work. I’ve been really lucky with the team I’ve managed to pull together to make this house come alive, so that we can do our work of transporting the audience into a bygone (or maybe completely fantasy) era of live entertainment.

Martha Graham said, “The body never lies.” What is “Looking Glass” reflecting back to you?

Wow. Okay. In no particular order: My entire life of issues, development of aesthetic, and clarity of purpose. The culmination of (in some cases) up to 15 years of local friendship and collaboration and building art in the Bay. What can really be done if you set your sights on a goal, and stay completely focused on the finish line no matter what hurdles come your way. The talent of my peers. The selflessness of a few key friends and collaborators. The ingenuity and creativity and beauty of my city. The depth of feeling that can be shown through space, force, and time. All of my training in visual art, music, theater, dance, and people-wrangling. The past 5 years of ideas and work with DCDT. In short, this is pretty much as close as I can get to shooting a projector straight from my brain to the stage and dreaming out loud for you. I hope you come, and I hope you love it.

Cera Byer and Damage Control Dance Theater present
Friday & Saturday, June 9 & 10, 2010
8pm show (no late admission); doors open at 7pm
Victoria Theatre 2961 16th Street (between Mission & Capp)
Tickets $35 at door / $28 advance

An evening of world fusion contemporary dance theater
With special guests bellydancer Kami Liddle and musician JD Limelight
Costumes by Medina Maitreya, Najla Turczyn, and Dusty Paik
Artwork by Raven Ebner

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