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Righting a wrong: dance that takes social issues to heart.

DAVID POPALISKY'S Barred from Life is a stark multimedia look at men who were incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. The work ends on a heart-stopping note: A man and woman step forward and read names of those wrongly convicted for murder, parricide, rape, child molestation, with the length of imprisonment. It's a long list. Then from the audience come other voices. You recognize some of them from the video that forms the backbone of Barred. They belong to exonerees.

Dances based on social issues are not new. From Anna Sokolow and Lester Horton to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Joe Goode, choreographers have addressed issues of justice and social responsibility. But these choreographers shaped their perspectives into metaphors and abstractions. Popalisky cuts to the bone. He deals with real men of flesh and blood. Encountering them in person after having seen them on screen hits like a thunder bolt.

"When I saw these men get up, I felt a lump in my throat so big that for a moment I couldn't talk," one spectator commented during the after-performance discussion at The Attic, a tiny loft theater in downtown Santa Cruz where Barred was performed last April.

Barred came about almost serendipitously. Popalisky, director of dance at Santa Clara University, was talking with a colleague from the law school in a parking lot. What Cookie Ridolfi, who also directs the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP), told him resonated deeply. "Like these guys," he says, "I am middle-aged. But I have had the opportunity to build a life, have a career, have a family. They have nothing, and yet this could happen to any of us."

With the help of NCIP and the Center on Wrongful Conviction at Northwestern University, and financial and in-kind support from SCU, Popalisky set to work on what he calls a docu-dance drama. He enlisted students, colleagues, and friends to stage police interrogations, "crimes" in-progress scenes, and dream sequences that, together with the exoneree interviews, form the video. Popalisky, who performs against these visuals, sees his dancing as "the visceral glue" that holds the nightmarish scenario together. As Everyman, he recoils in fear, collapses in despair, lashes out in blind fury, and thrusts his body into an endless loop of pacing--push-ups--sitting--pacing.

Barred received its world premiere at SCU on March 31, 2004. Presented at a meeting of the American Association of Law Schools-Clinical Legal Education conference later that year, the work received a CLEA Creativity Award. With its foldable set and a black box that is table, bed, bench, cell, and coffin, +the work has since traveled to other university and community theaters in the West and Midwest. For campus performances, Popalisky invites students to read the names. Post-performance discussions are emotional because although these exonerees are free, their ordeal is not over. Some have lost families, some have difficulty finding jobs, all of them have lost faith in the criminal justice system.

When Popalisky initially contacted the former prisoners, he offered to pay a small amount for their time, but quickly gained their trust and found them open and forthcoming. "For some, it was an opportunity to finally talk about what had happened to them," he says.

Among the exonerees present in Santa Cruz was John Stoll, accused of child molestation and freed after 20 years because of a lawyer's tip to NCIP. "They were able to find six of the boys who had claimed molestation. Five of them recanted and all said they were so relieved to finally come clear on this," Popalisky explains.

David Pope was wrongfully convicted of rape and freed after 15 years when the DA's office reopened the case after receiving an anonymous tip. "More sophisticated DNA tests proved that David couldn't have done it," Popalisky says, "and they also matched those of somebody already in prison for rape."

Last September, Popalisky performed Barred at the University of San Francisco, which offers the country's only major in Performing Arts

and Social Justice. "These artists want to be involved in the process of shaping our culture," says Kathi Gallagher, professor of visual and performing arts. During their junior and senior year, dance and theater artists collaborate on full-evening productions. This past May, for instance, nine seniors premiered Co[r]rection, a theater, dance, and puppetry show that focused on the effects of neglect and indifference on a child's development. Gallagher says her students were moved by the way Popalisky "channelled raw emotion through dance." Popalisky next performs Barred on October 27, in Mountain View, California.

Rita Felciano is dance critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
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Title Annotation:TEACH-LEARN CONNECTION; David Popalisky
Author:Felciano, Rita
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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