Dance: Local artists interpret prisoners’ written choreography as recorded dance performances. Suchi Branfman

When the pandemic hit prisoners’ already limited freedom became even more constricted, but through a unique film initiative, Suchi Branfman has brought the imagined dances of incarcerated individuals to life.

Due to Covid-19 inmates have been isolated in their dorms and lost all access to group programming. Branfman, who previously taught dance inside a Norco state prison, realized that even under these new restrictions incarcerated individuals could still write down dances.

Her project, entitled “Undanced Dances Through Prison Walls During a Pandemic”, features 11 professional artists enacting dances written by prisoners in the California Rehabilitation Center. On April 16 at 6:30 p.m., these performances will be screened over Zoom and narrated by formerly incarcerated individuals in an event hosted by 18th Street Art Center.

“I hope that through hearing stories and the work inspired by incarcerated folks, people will have a transformed understanding of incarcerated individuals and become more educated around what’s happening with mass incarceration,” said Branfman, who works as both an artist and an activist.

Through “Undanced Dances” Branfman strives to create a critical dialogue questioning to whom liberty is denied, how people survive restriction, and why everyone plays a part in the carceral system.

Several years of teaching inside a state prison transformed her understanding of incarceration. Branfman saw how disproportionately people of color are locked up and heard stories of young people who become trapped in the prison system because they had no access to resources in their community.

Furthermore, she learned how people become implicated in the prison industrial complex when they benefit from the underpaid labor of prisoners who produce license plates, furniture and even risk their lives fighting wildfires.

“We hope that we will engage people in moving society in a different direction in terms of incarceration, where we no longer solve problems by policing and locking up huge swaths of folks of color,” said Branfman, who believes government should spend less money on prisons and more on investment in underserved communities.

Each of the talented dancers in the upcoming film had previously worked with Branfman inside the Norco prison. They include Bernard Brown, Jay Carlon, Irvin Gonzalez, Kenji Igus, Bri Mims and Tom Tsai.

During her choreographic residency, Branfman sought to invite choreographers to teach and perform non-Euro centric dance styles. Irvin Gonzalez, for example, recently completed his doctoral thesis in Critical Dance Studies and taught Latin street dances including the quebradita inside the prison.

“Truthfully I did not know that dance until he came into the prison, but there are bunch of the guys in there who knew it and it was so powerful because they were like ‘wow we can’t believe we’re dancing the quebradita here, we usually dance the quebradita at parties’,” said Branfman.

“Undanced Dances” features hip hop, tap, breaking, performance art, quebradita, spoken word, Butoh and contemporary dance forms.

Richie Martinez, one of the authors of a written dance, was released from prison in the summer of 2020. He joins the cast as he narrates and performs in “Richies Disappearing Acts”. The other three film narrators are Marc Antoni Charcas, Ernst Fenelon Jr. and Romarilyn Ralston, who were all previously incarcerated.

The production was funded through Santa Monica Cultural Affairs’ Art of Recovery Program, which puts artists to work implementing projects that strengthen and connect the community. Branfman said those who want to learn more or register to attend Friday’s virtual screening should visit 8thstreet.org/event/undanced-dances/

Clara@smdp.com