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Choreographer Honors Ancestral Memory with Retrospective Ritual Performance

Family, friends, and supporters gathered at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater on April 27 and 28 at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to witness behind the house is the garden, an experimental performance work conceived and directed by choreographer, ritualist, and activist SAMMAY Peñaflor Dizon.

behind the house is the garden has been in the works for years, even before Dizon’s acceptance into the Master of Fine Arts in Choreographic Inquiry program at the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. The retrospective ritual performance honors the life of Dizon’s late paternal grandmother Nanay Carling and her journey with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I have known that I was going to make this work for a long time,” Dizon said. “The more I honed in on ancestral reverence within my process, I knew I had to make a work for my Nanay because she’s my primary spiritual guide. My number one. We have a relationship beyond our earth years.”

Dizon, who proudly recognizes their Bikol, Kapampangan, and Ilokano ancestry, hails from the City of Carson in Los Angeles County. As a descendant of immigrants, they saw firsthand how their parents balanced the demands of work, and Nanay Carling cared for her grandchildren at home, all while building a new life in America.

“Growing up, I had witnessed my grandmother acting out her repressed memories while she had Alzheimer’s, and those memories were really painful. She didn’t have an opportunity to heal in the way myself and our generation and our future generations have the opportunity to,” Dizon said.

Dizon wants to challenge the narrative that diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia are natural occurrences for humans. The contemporary dancemaker emphasizes the importance of holistic practices for medicine and sustainable ways of living.

“Dance is ritual, and that movement is medicine,” Dizon said. “We all need to move our bodies. We all need to release that stagnant energy and confront those narratives that keep us in a downward spiral. We need to embody ourselves in the ways we know are possible, to sustain a healthy and healing community.”

The performance featured undergraduate students Simon (szmuel) Chernow, Mikayla Knestrick, Aryeal Lands, Bianca Yen, and Lingfeng Yi, who spent the last academic year under Dizon’s tutelage. Cat Calica was the costume designer, while Camille Ramirez and JoJo Ramirez provided live music production.

“I don’t feel like my role is telling them what to do. I really feel my role is to help them see a future version of themselves,” Dizon said. “It was so beautiful, life-affirming, and tender to witness each dancer and student come outside of themselves in a regenerative way and committed to growing in the process.”

behind the house is the garden also encapsulates Dizon’s homecoming to Los Angeles and how they are making a mark in the Los Angeles dance community.

“In so many ways, I am living a reality I didn’t believe was possible,” Dizon said. “I look forward to the ways in which the seeds we have planted through this work will continue to blossom.”

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