By Anne Brice, Berkeley News
When Lenora Lee, an artistic director, dancer and choreographer, debuted Within These Walls in 2017, she had no idea what the impact would be on the audience.
The immersive work was performed by a cast of 14 dancers on San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island, the site of the historic immigration station that enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The performance reflected the experiences of 170,000 Chinese immigrants who were held on the island, some for months on end, and one person for nearly two years.
Dancers moved through the detention barracks and performed scenes critical to the detainees’ experiences, and the approximately 700 audience members could choose where to walk and which characters to follow.
“I think because the audience was physically in the same space as us, they could feel the experiences the characters were portraying,” said Lee. “Being able to share performance work in this way enables audience members to ask themselves: What is their role? Are they passive viewers? Are they participants? How can they discern what’s right and wrong for themselves? Can they do something about what’s happening? Many people told us that by just stepping into the station, they could feel the weight of history.”
On Feb. 23-26, UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies will present Within These Walls as the 2023 Berkeley Dance Project. It’s also part of the campuswide arts project A Year On Angel Island.
The Berkeley performance is the first time the entire work of Within These Walls will be performed on a theatrical stage, and it’s the first full-length project Lee has staged with university students.
“Their own creativity is unrestricted, and there’s a level of presence and openness that is so refreshing to see as they pursue their growth as artists,” she said.