(From left) Fabiana Santiago, Alice Wells, Brandon Graham, Juan Magacho, Jess DeFranco and Claire Fisher perform Alyssa Mitchel's "Regard." (Photo/Eric Raeber)
(From left) Fabiana Santiago, Alice Wells, Brandon Graham, Juan Magacho, Jess DeFranco and Claire Fisher perform Alyssa Mitchel's "Regard." (Photo/Eric Raeber)

Inspired by Buber, this choreographer is transforming a CJM gallery with a dance experiment

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Alyssa Mitchel is the rare choreographer who has found direct inspiration in the philosophy of Martin Buber, who mapped the metaphorical dance between individuals as they meet and interact with each other.

Alyssa Mitchel (Photo/FMNavas Photographic Services)
Alyssa Mitchel (Photo/FMNavas Photographic Services)

A rising talent in the Bay Area dance scene, the 30-year-old San Francisco native will present the world premiere of her work “Regard” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum over the first two weekends in August. The six-part multimedia project explores the deep, soulful connections that Buber called “I/Thou,” as well as the less authentic interactions that the Vienna-born Jewish philosopher described as “I/It.”

“My mom, a psychiatrist, introduced me to Buber and his book ‘I and Thou,’” Mitchel said in an interview. “I found it so interesting, how all of life we have meetings that can be I/Thou, and missed meetings, I/It, where we don’t see each other fully.”

The hourlong piece for six dancers features a score performed live by cellist David Goldblatt and guitarist Steven Lin, with props by Oakland muralist Liv Losee-Unger, who works as ORLUarts.

“Regard” is a site-specific work. Mitchel designed it for the CJM’s Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery, using the light-filled space as an interactive character for the dancers rather than a neutral setting.

Dancer Fabiana Santiago in the CJM's Yud Gallery. (Photo/Eric Raeber)
Dancer Fabiana Santiago in the CJM’s Yud Gallery. (Photo/Eric Raeber)

“They have 36 diamond-shaped windows that reflect patches of light on the ground,” Mitchel said. “With the high ceilings and the layout of the floor, I can use the architecture, the windows and walls as elements in the transitions between the six sections.”

Gravity Goldberg, CJM’s director of public programs and visitor experience, said the show is creating a new way to activate the gallery.

“Once I saw how Alyssa is using the space I was blown away,” she said. Over the past decade, Goldberg has seen many music performances in the Yud, which was designed as an acoustic gallery.

“We’ve done exhibitions with live music and independent live performances,” she said. “But dance is more complicated. It is a gallery space, and we need things that have a temporal existence, so this is a departure, an experiment that we’re excited to be part of.”

“Regard” will be performed Aug. 4-6 and Aug. 11-13. Following the Friday and Saturday performances each weekend, Mitchel will be joined for Q&A sessions by Goldblatt, Lin and several of the dancers.

Alyssa Mitchel leads her dancers during rehearsal at the Dance Training Center on July 9, 2023. (Photo/Eric Raeber)
Alyssa Mitchel leads her dancers during rehearsal at the Dance Training Center on July 9, 2023. (Photo/Eric Raeber)

Mitchel’s most ambitious and elaborate work to date, “Regard” reflects the way her interests have evolved since the pandemic shifted her goals, she said. “I started to think outside the box, like, not everything has to be inside a black box theater. I wanted to take my works to other parts of the city.”

In fall 2021, she partnered with the Exploratorium in creating “Here. Now.” to explore meditation and mindfulness, presenting it on the Pier 15 plaza outside the museum. After that, she started looking for an indoor venue and eventually approached the CJM about the possibility of renting space to perform a new piece. In a development that caught her by surprise, the CJM decided to work with Mitchel and produce “Regard.”

“The Exploratorium was big for me,” Mitchel said. “I had 10 dancers and a composer. But this is my biggest production so far because it’s indoors and there are a lot of small details I’ve had to figure out. I’ve never worked with a visual artist before, and I’m still working out how to use these panels she’s creating. These are big props!”

Mitchel grew up attending Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Reconstructionist congregation in San Francisco. She trained at Marin Dance Theater, where she nurtured her passion for contemporary dance and choreography. One of the few Jews at Dominican University in San Rafael, she graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in liberal studies/teacher preparation and a minor in mathematics. Rather than look for a classroom job, she launched her career in the dance world and developed a practice as a math tutor.

A busy freelance dancer in the years before the pandemic, Mitchel cites veteran San Francisco choreographer Janice Garrett as one of her primary sources of inspiration. She danced in several Garrett + Moulton Productions and still takes a modern dance class with Garrett.

Brandon Graham (left) and Juan Magacho use the museum architecture in “Regard.” (Photo/Eric Raeber)
Brandon Graham (left) and Juan Magacho use the museum architecture in “Regard.” (Photo/Eric Raeber)

“I’ve learned so much from her in terms of the process,” she added. “I used to write down every step of a piece. Now I create several different phrases and give the dancers their own creative prompts. Janice inspired me in terms of her style, but more when it comes to my process and collaborating.”

Mitchel hasn’t been alone in finding inspiration for art in Buber’s writing. The philosopher has influenced the work of numerous painters, including R.B. Kitaj.

While researching Buber last year, Mitchel happened upon Kitaj’s painting “I and Thou,” which “fascinated me because it reminded me of a young Martin Buber, studying under the direction of his grandfather Salomon Buber,” the Galician scholar known for his editions of Midrash.

Kitaj, who is Jewish, was widely hailed for his art until a barrage of scathing reviews in 1994 led him to accuse critics of antisemitism in what was known as the “Tate War.” After reading about the contretemps, Mitchel was inspired to create the “Regard” section called “Inner Critic,” a piece she developed as an artist in residence in summer 2022 at Berkeley Ballet Theater.

“For me,” Mitchel said, “that episode provoked questions concerning the relationship between artists and critics and how we’re often our own fiercest critic” — yet another version of “I/Thou.”

“Alyssa Mitchel Presents: Regard”

1 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, Aug. 4-6 and Aug. 11-13 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Free with museum admission ($16 for adults, $14 for students and seniors). Admission to the museum is free on Aug. 4.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.