Home in a changing world: An interview with Sarah Bush and Sue Li Jue

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What is home in a country wrecked by natural disasters, political turmoil and personal uncertainty? Is it a place, things or people? These are the questions Sarah Bush is toying with.

For its 10th anniversary, the Sarah Bush Dance Project is putting on a piece called “Homeward” focusing on intergenerational relationships and how we define home. The Daily Californian sat down with choreographer and artistic director Bush and dancer and UC Berkeley faculty member Sue Li Jue to discover their own relationships and what home means to them.

This show is based in part from Bush’s first feature-length work, called “Home.” But instead of simply redoing the old show, Bush said she changed the show to reflect the growth 10 years can bring, using the original as a seed.

Bush and Li Jue, while both fixtures of the Bay Area dance community, have not worked together directly before this project. They danced in the same all-female troupe, Dance Brigade, at different times, an experience that made them familiar with each other and partially influenced the piece they now rehearse together.

“It was a very intergenerational company,” Bush said. “I had this amazing experience of dancing with a company that had this long lineage of amazing strong women.”

“Homeward” features an all-female cast as well, with dancers varying in ages from their 20s to 60s. Such age diversity was important for Bush — in most productions the dancers are exclusively young.

“(The original show) was sort of watching 20-year-olds pretend to be in their 60s and 70s,” Bush said. “But it just felt like there are too many amazing dancers in their 60s and 70s that should play those parts.”

One such dancer is Li Jue, the director of the Physical Education Program at UC Berkeley. Along with being an artistic director and choreographer, she is now a dancer once again. While she hasn’t danced in her own work in eight years — and in someone else’s in decades — Li Jue is performing in this one because “it feels very right –– right place, right people, at the right time.”

Much of what makes the piece feel so right to its creator and cast is the venue it is being performed at, the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center. Both Bush and Li Jue taught at the staple Bay Area dance school as they pursued their professional careers, and they still substitute-teach. “Doing a piece about home in a dance studio I call home — we rehearse in Hearst Gym, in Shawl Anderson — these are my home bases so i’m just sort of trying to process it all,” Li Jue said of rehearsals.

“Homeward” is a continuation of what Bush started out doing, the evolved version of what the piece was 10 years ago. This piece strays from the original even in title, as “Home” has become “Homeward.” In making this piece, she integrated the DNA of the Bay Area into the venue itself, with individual rooms reflecting the recent Northern California fires, floods and the homelessness around her — this creative choice suggests the transience of home.

“I liked the title of ‘Homeward’ in that it’s a direction, so it implies it’s not something that’s fixed,” said Bush. “We’re always maybe in theory longing to move homeward, towards home, whether that’s a home in ourselves, feeling at home in our identities and our bodies … feeling at home in a family, feeling at home in a city or a place or a country or a culture.”

Bush also contemplates the artists’ abilities to create “when there’s a lot of destruction in the world, with this idea that we’re building something … in the service of compassion and empathy and expression and hopefully bringing some joy.”

At its core, while “Homeward” intends to make its audience consider what they call home and what it means to them, the piece is made to inspire, not depress. While the piece deals with the struggles within the family unit as well as the happiness, the creator and cast want the audience to experience the human condition in all its highs and lows and hopefully relate and find joy in the unity of it all.

“The piece is really heavily about how people are with each other,” Li Jue said. “Those relationships are what really count in the world.”

As Li Jue is retiring from her 30-year tenure at Berkeley and Bush reflects on her company’s 10th year, the passage of time in relation to the piece is on both of their minds.

“It’s really interesting to be doing a work about home while I’m sort of leaving this home (at UC Berkeley),” Li Jue said. “I don’t know what it all means.”

Bush replied, “Home changes. You’ve had Cal, and then there will be a shift, and some new place will be home.”

“Homeward” runs Dec. 9, 10, 16 and 17 at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.

Contact Sydney Rodosevich at [email protected].