Be prudent, my love, my mother does not like you, she says you’re different from us…,” says the Latina woman to her Punjabi betrothed. The words are part of a Spanish ballad to be performed in “Half and Halves,” an ambitious cross-cultural performing arts event to feature bhangra and Latino folklorico dancing and singing, accompanied by violins, guitars, and drums from both cultures.
The name “Half and Halves” is derived from the same term used to describe Punjabi-Mexican individuals, typically offspring of Punjabi fathers and Mexican mothers. In the early 1900s, several hundred Punjabis immigrated as farmers to central California, and came in contact with the communities of Mexican laborers. In addition to the commonality of family values, spicy-hot food, and zesty song and dance, what drew these communities together was that they were uniformly discriminated against by white society. Legislature forbidding Punjabi men from bringing wives from India and anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited whites from marrying brown or black people, seeded familial liaisons between Punjabis and Mexicans. Not understanding what race these individuals belonged to, county clerks would simply write “brown” on marriage certificates for Punjabis and Mexicans, and thus began the integration of these two communites.
“Half and Halves,” presented by 26 dancers and 10 musicians from Duniya Dance & Drum Company and Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco, is in essence a dance-drama that will take us back in time and into the lives of these marginalized people.
“The performance is arranged in vignettes that address different aspects of the lives of the Punjabi-Mexican children (now mostly in their 70s),” says Joti Singh, artistic director of Duniya, who experienced racism while growing up in Atlanta. “The first couple of pieces speak of being an immigrant, from sadness at leaving the homeland, the people left behind, to the unknown that lies ahead. The mood is evoked by the music, the lyrics, and the choreography,” says Singh. “In the second half of the show, there is a piece about the discrimination against the Punjabi-Mexican children, and the mood is evoked by the dance, text, and music.”
Singh wanted to work on the theme in conjunction with a more established choreographer, to make a legitimate bid for Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME), a program offered by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company that calls for choreographers of varying experience levels to work together. Thus was born the partnership with Zenon Barron, artistic director of Ensambles, based in San Francisco for the last 18 years. Interestingly, Barron had visited Punjab when he was a touring professional dancer more than 20 years ago.
“I was astonished to find that Punjab also delineated men’s dances from the ones meant for women, just like in Mexico,” says Barron, noting that bhangra has been traditionally danced by men. Speaking on working with Singh and her team, he says, “Bhangra was demanding for my dancers, we typically do not use the upper body in folklorico dancing.”
For over a year, Singh and Barron explored their unique styles and spent time with the Punjabi-Mexican families in Yuba City, Imperial Valley, and Los Angeles to get a firsthand feel for the throbbing intensity of their everyday lives. Video clips of these interviews and photos will serve as introduction to some of the pieces, providing an arty-reality dimension to the 90-minute performance.
One of the central items to be presented is the title-piece, which is a 12-minute fight between the Punjabi-Mexican kids and other girls at school. Another is by Duniya, which presents the separation of the Punjabi man from his family, from the perspective of a woman in his life. The costumes used here are Indian, with some detailing bringing in the Mexican aesthetic. Ensambles will present a “fusion” piece, choreographed by Norberto Martinez and featuring Frida Kahlo-esque costumes, about two families, one in the U.S. and another in Mexico. The event culminates in a positive finale showing multiethnic groups coming together through art. The costumes underscore the fusion theme, lehenga-inspired skirts paired with Mexican blouses.
Fusion seems to define Singh’s work. Her dance company’s mission is to create dance and music from Punjab and Guinea, West Africa, which is a personal connection—Duniya’s musical director is Singh’s Guinean husband, Alpha Oumar “Bongo” Sidibe. Duniya’s work embodies the name, which means the world, as it explores “the forces that have brought together the members of the company and their dance and drum styles, including, but not limited to, colonization, globalization, immigration, art, dance, music, and love.”
Saturday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 14, 2 p.m. Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. $15 advance, $20 at door. Tickets: www.cityboxoffice.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=1569&c=9&pg=2. www.duniyadance.com.