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Spirituality, ancestral roots flourish in ‘behind the house is the garden’

SAMMAY Peñaflor Dizon, a fine arts graduate student in the department’s choreographic inquiry program, stands alongside the cast of “behind the house is the garden.” The retrospective visual and movement-based piece created by Dizon seeks to honor the memory of their grandmother, Nanay Carling. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

“behind the house is the garden”

SAMMAY Peñaflor Dizon

UCLA Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater

April 27 and 28

8 p.m.

By Maya Rego

April 27, 2023 2:26 p.m.

This post was updated April 27 at 8:56 p.m.

SAMMAY Peñaflor Dizon is taking spectators on a journey back to their roots.

Dizon’s ritualistic piece “behind the house is the garden” will be showcased by UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance this Thursday and Friday in the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater. The spiritual, retrospective performance was created, directed and choreographed by SAMMAY Peñaflor Dizon, a graduate student in fine arts in the department’s choreographic inquiry program. With overarching themes of diaspora, ancestry, and building bridges, the dance reflects Dizon’s coming-of-age in Southern California and pays homage to their late grandmother Nanay Carling, they said.

“My work is so much a reflection of my experience growing up in Carson, (California), growing up in America, and being of the Filipino diaspora. … My spirit belongs to multiple homes,” Dizon said.

[Related: Student-led showcase ‘Metamorphosis’ explores transformation, interpretation]

The performance’s title refers to the garden behind Dizon’s childhood home, tended to by their grandfather. The garden served as a sanctuary for her grandfather while dealing with the hardships of Dizon’s grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, she said. The title, Dizon said, honors the beauty their grandfather cultivated by creating a lush green space for the family during this difficult period.

“There’s a way in which focusing on ancestral memory can also often lead to a really intense and intent focus on intergenerational trauma, which my work absolutely looks at and centers, … but there was also this really beautiful foliage in the background,” Dizon said.

The choreography mirrors Dizon’s own multifarious background as a dancer, they said. Primarily specializing in Orisha dance – a style originating from the Yoruba traditions in West Africa – and street and modern dance, she said her experience includes work in numerous movement-based cultural practices. Dizon said working with various dance styles helped them find the parallels among seemingly disparate populations.

Parts of the choreography drew from the dancers’ improvisational work, first-year dance student Leo Yi said. Yi is one of the dance students performing in the piece, alongside second-year Simon Chernow, first-year Mikayla Knestrick, third-year Aryeal Lands and second-year Bianca Yen. They will be accompanied by musician sister-duo Camille and JoJo Ramirez. The experience of working with Dizon and the emphasis on improvisation, Yi said, deeply bolstered his confidence and broadened his vision as a choreographer and a dancer.

“She (Dizon) would take some elements in the movements of our freestyle or improvisation and just make it the piece. … That’s very special because the movements are actually coming from ourselves,” Yi said. “It’s authentic.”

Instilling trust among the team was vital to their success, Dizon said. Yi said Dizon asked the dancers to share a bit about their relationships with their grandparents on the first day of rehearsals. Coming from a cultural background where openly discussing one’s emotions toward relatives was forbidden, Yi said it took a great deal of building connections within that space before he was comfortable sharing. Dizon said they strived to create a space that embodied care, a characteristic they said is often not synonymous with the world of academia.

“My role as a director of course is to be an eagle’s eye. … But there (are) ways in which the holding, the vulnerability, the closeness, the assuredness comes from the entire collective,” Dizon said. “It can’t just be me.”

This body of work and all of their catalog, Dizon said, strives to transcend notions of cultural appropriation and appreciation. She said the piece centers on the ways people can honor ancestral traditions while understanding that different cultures are always in conversation with each other. What they love about working with the dancers in this piece, who come from various movement and ancestral lineages, has been finding shared commonalities, Dizon said.

David Roussève, Dizon’s mentor since her first quarter in the MFA program and distinguished professor of choreography in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, said there are no requirements to enter into the world that “behind the house is the garden” builds. One of the successes of the piece, Roussève said, is that it tackles larger complexities of life. Viewers are challenged to be vulnerable in order to fully experience the performance, he said.

Joy needs agony and tension needs freedom,” Roussève said. “I hope that people will take away that life is sometimes a conflicting bombardment of elements, but there we can find our way through.”

[Related: Student Sey Yang captures Asian American queer identity through camera lens]

For Dizon, they hope audiences leave the performance understanding the transformative power of vulnerability and sharing personal stories. As a child, she said her grandmother would repeatedly ask her if she had eaten and offer her food, even if she said she had eaten. They said sharing their story allowed them to understand that all her actions, including the frequent question of their food intake, came from a place of limitless affection.

“Even in that hard time in her own health, in life as a mother, as a grandmother, she was still offering. She was still in service, she was still doing her best to give us what she could,” Dizon said. “That means so many things about unconditional love and the ways we are able to show it.”

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