A dance performance developed in a California prison speaks volumes about spiritual liberation

By Christina Campodonico

Suchi Branfman (in black) and one of her students lead a dance workshop for men incarcerated at the California Rehabilitation Center
Photo by Cooper Bates

As an arts reporter and dance critic, I’ve seen a number of shows in unconventional spaces — an abandoned movie theater, a one-bedroom apartment and multiple ballets on a skyscraper’s 32nd floor. Among the most memorable, however, was one that took place at the California Rehabilitation Center, a state prison in Norco, Calif.

It’s been nearly a year since I followed Suchi Branfman, a Scripps College dance professor and Santa Monica resident, and a handful of her students there.

Going back to that April day, we’re zipping uphill in a golf cart, leaving a dusty prison yard behind, bordered by barbed wire fencing. Ahead of us is the outside world — and the oppressive heat of a spring day in Riverside County. But after a few hours in the company of CRC’s inmates, I’ve come to understand how soaking up that untempered sunshine is a precious gift.

The feeling of freedom is hard to come by at the CRC, a Level II correctional facility housing more than 2,000 inmates. But for a few hours each week, a group of incarcerated men there have the chance to move freely thanks to Branfman’s weekly movement workshop and course.

During my visit, I watched as Branfman and her students skipped, jumped and improvised with a little over a dozen men, then presented a dance they had choreographed based on movements the men had generated with them during their sessions in the prison’s gym.

It was a moving experience for the men, who watched their gestures come together into a completed dance work, called “SUSTAIN,” which would be presented at Scripps College later that night. Five women, all dressed in white, moved to words and sentiments shared by the men.

“It was a blessing to see that,” said Raynell Burney, one of the inmates.

“It took me back to the outside world,” added Tieja Johnson, who had practiced Tahitian and Samoan dance before his incarceration.

The public can get a glimpse of what these men and I witnessed this weekend when Highways Performance Space presents “INSIDE OUTSIDE,” which includes “SUSTAIN” and additional works by USC dance professor d. Sabela grimes, b-boy Tom Tsai, L.A. choreographer Jay Carlon, activist-artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo and others, who have worked with the prisoners in Branfman’s dance class since then.

“I was inspired to continue the work by the incarcerated men,” said Branfman earlier this week over the phone. “They wanted to continue dancing. It was a place of liberation for them. … I could see how dance offers a complete antithesis to confinement.”

Or as inmate Cornelius Stewart told me last year, “When you come in here, it ain’t like you’re in jail anymore.”

The two-day performance event, beginning each night with an 8 p.m. deejay set, benefits prison abolition group Critical Resistance and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. It may also just change your mind on what it means to be free.

Doors open for “INSIDE OUTSIDE” at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (March 16 and 17) at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 to $25 at highwaysperformance.org

“Sustain” at California Rehabilitation Center from Suchi Branfman on Vimeo.