Alyssa Mitchel's Here. Now. Gives Movement to Meditation


October 27, 2021—San Francisco choreographer Alyssa Mitchel's previous work The Classroom celebrated her ties to education. As a math tutor, she has an avid interest in knowledge. Her newest work Here. Now. explores the knowing that comes from meditation. Comprised of six sections, each expressing an aspect of meditation, her newest piece will be performed next to the Buckyball sculpture at the Exploratorium on Pier 15. The Exploratorium's Buckyball is a 25-foot illuminated sculpture of two nested geodesic spheres animated by computer software. The shape was discovered by scientists in a polyhedron carbon molecule. The scientists thought it resembled the famous architect Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, hence the molecule was named "Buckminsterfullerene," or "Buckyball."'s Michael Phelan asked Alyssa Mitchel how she ties this all together in dance. 

Alyssa Mitchel. Photo by Michael Phelan
Alyssa Mitchel. Photo by Michael Phelan

Michael: Here. Now. is about meditation, which implies quiet, solitude, and tranquility. How do you portray that with active dance?

Alyssa: Ha Ha. Meditation is something I've been doing for the past four and a half, almost five years. It's helped me a lot, particularly during the past year with a lot of isolation. What's been really fun is working with a cast of ten dancers. They're all super different. Some of the choreography is very fast, and some is slow, depending on the section. There are six total dances and sections in this piece. The final one is called Body Scan. That has eight dancers in it, and it has moments of slowness and moments of fast shuffling. I collaborated with two shufflers, which is a style of street dance and hip hop dance. It was really fun for my contemporary ballet dancers to learn that. I taught everyone different phrases. That takes the audience from their feet all the way up to the head, a complete body scan. But other sections, like the first section Loving Kindness, are more calm and tranquil. And that is kind of a meta-meditation on thinking of different people in your life. Maybe one person represents a friend, another represents a person you kind of see passing by but don't know, and someone else might be someone you have tension with. Treating them all equally and wishing them happiness and peace. There are six different sections, and some are more upbeat and faster in pace, and some are slower depending on what it's about.

Michael: The second section is Tonglen. What is Tonglen?

Alyssa: Tonglen is a Tibetan meditation for those who are in pain or suffering. It has to do with giving yourself good energy. In my research, I learned that your breaths are cool and dark, and you're breathing in the pain that you feel. By the end of the meditation when you start to think about other people who are in pain or suffering, you give out your energy to the rest of the world, and you relieve suffering for the whole world when you think about people who are suffering.

Photo © Michael Phelan
Photo © Michael Phelan

Michael: After Tonglen is Noting. What's that?

Alyssa: That was the first piece I created. That's a solo. Noting is about the mind drifting off during meditation and learning how to come back to your focus and back to your breath. And Noting is about realizing when you've been distracted while meditating, like when you're daydreaming. It's a nine-and-a-half-minute solo. It's very cardio. It's a lot of stamina. I have one of my dancers, Fabiano Santiago, who's dancing in that section as well as two others. That was the very first section I created for this piece.

Michael: How did you get started working on this piece?

Alyssa: I created in it November 2019 and performed it on February 4th, 2020. In March I performed it one more time, and then a week later everything shut down because of the pandemic. And then I took some time off. In the summer of 2020, I got really into running, and I was running by the Embarcadero, and a lot of my mentors, my family, were saying 'Alyssa, you need to keep creating your piece.' And I realized, who knows when this lockdown is going to end. I saw the Exploratorium, and at the time no one was there. I looked up at the Buckyball, this beautiful, globe-like figure with hexagons and pentagons right in front of the Exploratorium. It lights up with different colors. And the plaza is really beautiful. So, you know, as a math tutor I love all the shapes and patterns. I thought this would be an amazing place to create my new piece. From there I did Loving Kindness and continued creating pieces at the Exploratorium. And this past May they (the Exploratorium) reached out to me, and we developed a partnership.

Photo © Michael Phelan
Photo © Michael Phelan

Michael: You did a video with the Buckyball in it?

Alyssa: Right. That was Loving Kindness, which we filmed in October 2020. I passed on the video to the Exploratorium, and they put an excerpt of it on their social media. In January 2021 I started Body Scan with my dancers. At sixteen and a half minutes, it's the longest one. So after we completed that, I wrote to them (the Exploratorium), and in May they said, 'We would love you to work with us and form this partnership, and give performances for the public.' It was a process. Two years ago I had no idea that a small solo would develop into a bunch of outdoor performances.

Michael: As well as a relationship with the Exploratorium. How cool is that?

Alyssa: That's so cool! As a math and writing tutor, I love that. It's such an educational place to be, and lots of kids. We want to make this show accessible to everyone.

Photo © Michael Phelan
Photo © Michael Phelan

Michael: The next section is The Four Noble Truths.

Alyssa: The Four Noble Truths is from Buddhist philosophy. The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. The first dancer goes through suffering in a solo. The Second Noble Truth is that we suffer because we hold onto attachments, whether devices, or social media, or whatever. So I have another dancer who is like bouncing a basketball, continuing to hold onto something, repetition to show the struggle of breaking from that. The third dancer's solo is about the Third Noble Truth, which is to let go of suffering we have to let go of these attachments. The final Noble Truth involves all three of the dancers. To totally eliminate suffering, we follow the Eightfold Path. That's the next section, which is a duet. The Eightfold Path is like the Ten Commandments of Buddhism.

Michael: And Body Scan?

Alyssa: Body Scan is the last section. It takes the audience through a body scan, starting from the feet going all the way up to the head. In all of these sections, I collaborated with a composer, Julian Drucker. He created all the music, except for Noting, where I used my own music. He integrated some really cool EDM beats and shuffling, electronic beats mixed with traditional meditation music. Body Scan has hip hop and shuffling moves in it. But it also integrates all of the dancers' styles. Two of the dancers come from street dance backgrounds; the others are ballet and contemporary. Throughout this section I had the dancers create a foot phrase, and they all taught each other their foot phrase. During the back section, all of the dancers are sitting down and moving their backs, while some are doing improv, while others are doing a duet. In the end, I drove everyone crazy by having them do a really hard head phrase all in a line, really, really, really fast at the same time, (she demonstrates) going here, going here, going here. In the end, everyone's doing a different body part. I wanted to end with that. It's the longest, the most energetic. It has a very diverse range of dancers from different backgrounds. But it also connects meditation to movement. I want the audience to experience what they feel in their bodies as the dancers are doing it. They can pay attention to, 'how do my feet feel? how do my arms feel?' It starts with the feet and goes to the ankles, the calves, all the way up to the head, and then the final meditation. It's a very collaborative piece.

Photo © Michael Phelan
Photo © Michael Phelan

Michael: I'm trying to wrap my head around the connection between meditation and the Buckyball.

Alyssa: For me, the Buckyball is what brings everyone's focus back. It's like everyone's breath. For example, at the end of Body Scan when everyone's going crazy, everyone's focus is on the Buckyball. It almost reminds me of the brain. Like coming back to your focus. Also Loving Kindness, like seeing this person, different people spreading kindness to you, whether you're a really close friend or someone I'm kind of in an argument with. In the end, we're all equal. We're all sentient beings on this earth. It's kind of coming back to the core. Meditation takes practice, and it's something where you need a reminder to come back to whatever that is. Come back to your home. Those are some ideas of what it means to me and how it connects to meditation.

Michael: Are you working on or thinking about a piece after this?

Alyssa: Yes, I am! I'm going to be doing a project with the SoundBox at San Francisco Symphony. One of the cellists from the San Francisco Symphony reached out to me. His wife was a dancer with San Francisco Ballet years ago. She actually danced with my mom in their School. She recommended me, and we've been talking about working together after this is over. It will most likely be in March 2022.

Photo © Michael Phelan
Photo © Michael Phelan

Michae: Do you have a name for that piece yet?

Alyssa: I do not. He's still figuring out the music because that will help me. That will probably have four to five dancers. I really enjoy collaborating with musicians, especially for this. Did I tell you about the Isolation Project?

Michael: I don't think so.

Alyssa: That's how I met my composer. When I created Loving Kindness last summer, I joined the Isolation Project, which is a Facebook group run by Cold Companion, a choreographer on the East Coast, and Mahlon Berv, a composer in Southern California. They match a choreographer with a composer. That's how I met my composer Julian Drucker. He's been absolutely amazing! We meet on Zoom, where we discuss every single piece. Our ideas really click. I tell him what I want the music to be like, what I'm trying to express with the movement. He's done such a cool job. The music is unique and original. I hope people enjoy the music as much as I do and my cast does.

Here. Now. will be performed on Saturday, November 6 and 13 at noon, and on Sunday, November 7 and 14 at 1:00 and 3:30 p.m. at the Pier 15 Plaza. All performances are free. For more information, see the Exploratorium site. 

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