Alum Carl Irons, Former San Quentin Inmate, Performs with Lenora Lee's Dance Company

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

KQED ARTS (SAN FRANCISCO) -- Years ago, Lee had developed a back injury and, more recently, experimented with swimming as a form of rehab. Lessons at the Chinatown YMCA pool sparked a curiosity about water as a medium for her art, in which she has moored dance, music, spoken word and video to sites that have historic, architectural or civic meaning.

Around that time, she was creating a piece about Chinese immigration, set on Angel Island. One of the performers she brought into that piece was Carl Irons, a writer, poet and Political Science graduate of San Francisco State University who runs a nonprofit and who advocates for term-to-life prisoners. Irons himself had served 24 years, mostly at San Quentin, and after being paroled in 2009 made his way through City College of San Francisco and enrolled at SFSU.

As Lee’s resolve to make an underwater dance grew, so did her friendship with Irons. “It felt like the right time to ask him about his experiences,” she said. Irons, who had participated in a performance project while at San Quentin, told me that his roles in two of Lee’s works (he also had a brief turn as a dishonest cop in a piece set in Cameron House) were “great fun.”

But he was astonished to find out that his own story had provided creative fuel for Lee’s new work. Anchoring the soundtrack to lines from an interview that she taped with Irons, Lee gave the words to dancer Hien Huynh to record, roped in longtime collaborator Tatsu Aoki to craft a score, got the Chinatown YMCA to lend her their pool, and threw her dancers into the deep end.