San Francisco choreographer Marika Brussel has a clear goal with her world-premiere “From Shadows,” a full-length piece about homelessness.
“My hope is that when people leave the ballet they feel a little differently about the people they see on the way out. I hope they see homeless people as people,” says Brussel, who opens the 50-minute work (her longest yet) this week at ODC Theater.
The contemporary ballet has some basis in her own experience: Her father, a watercolor painter and heroin addict, was homeless on the streets of New York for a time when she was a child. (On drugs until he was 60, he was clean when he died, says Brussel.)
Still, her first inspiration for the work was a 1954 novel she loved, “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, about a boy who escapes from slave traders and goes into the wild, where he encounters strange spirits.
Not wanting to appropriate a different culture’s story, she modified her approach, instead focusing her dance on people she comes across on the street every day: “It’s almost like walking through a forest, seeing them as ghosts,” she says, adding that she later realized the dance was “really about” her father.
When the “fantastic” freelance dancers in her group found out about that personal connection, Brussel says, “It made a huge difference.”
While “From Shadows” isn’t literally about what happened to her and is set in a nameless city, it has a youngster playing a 10-year-old girl representing her. The remaining 10 dancers, Brussel says, became very invested in the characters they portrayed.
The work became a particularly provocative experience, she says, for the performer, who lives in Pacific Heights, who’s playing the father. Rehearsing at SAFEhouse arts, a space in the Tenderloin at Grove and Market streets where homeless people congregate, also provided food for thought.
Brussel’s collaborators include contemporary classical composer Mary Ellen Childs (tracks from the album “Dream House”), costume designer Susan Roemer and Street Sheet, the Coalition on Homeless’ publication, which is creating the program.
For Brussel, who studied at Joffrey Ballet School in New York, became professional 16, but quit dancing at about 20 for nearly a decade, the process of creating a dance is similar to her other primary avocation, writing, which she pursued in graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
“I’ve always liked stories,” she says, adding that her choreography is, in a way, her fiction writing “in a different form.” (She previously has made dances based on topics as far-ranging as myths and Alzheimer’s disease.)
She points out that a pivotal part of “From Shadows” was performed to positive reaction in January on the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral during the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival: “That really opened up possibilities for me,” she says.
IF YOU GO
Presented by Marika Brussel
Where: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 12-13
Tickets: $25 to $30