Lenora Lee dancers get under cancer survivors’ skin

Powerful multimedia premiere at Dance Mission tells personal stories

San Francisco choreographer Lenora Lee gets to the point — many points — in her premiere multimedia production “In the Skin of Her Hands,” which addresses the shock, pain, fear, resilience and love of people living with cancer.

In the evocative performance, which took place throughout Dance Mission Theater over the weekend, whirling, climbing, billowy dancers move to a provocative soundtrack, of people, mostly women, describing their varied experiences following their (mostly breast) cancer diagnoses.

The show begins on the main stage, with performers in flowing red pants moving in front of a wide screen on the back wall, on which videos picture solo dancers in nature — on a beach, surrounded by greenery, or shrouded in water. The floor is covered in white paper; one performer draws on it, with black paint.

The movement contrasts with the powerful audio.

At the outset, an oncologist vividly describes the uncertainty she felt upon learning about her own breast cancer diagnosis. Detailed program notes reveal her to be Dr. Pamela Munster, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, and author of the memoir “Twisting Fate.” Among the interesting observations the Switizerland-born physician shares is how she’s challenged by living with a serious illness in California, where there’s constant pressure to be happy.

In another revealing narration, a woman with Stage 4 breast cancer shares that she’s felt anxiety and sadness, knowing she won’t likely see her four children grow up; she happens to be Karina Lee Howe, sister of “In the Skin’s” creator.

Cristina Prada is yet another of the 32 people whose affecting stories ground the show. Born in Colombia, Prada, who worked for 20 years cleaning hospitals and hotels in the U.S., believes her breast cancer resulted from harmful chemicals in cleansers she used for decades.

Those are just three of the powerful histories in the 70-minute show, which takes the audience, which gets divided into three groups, on a trip around Dance Mission.

In addition to seeing main stage action, viewers witness movement, video and commentary in two of the facility’s studios. In both settings, graceful aerial dancers attached to harnesses fly across the room, or come up against a wall. Sometimes they climb on the bars at the side of the room, or even hang high from beams on the ceiling or window, as beautiful calligraphy on video by Olivia Ting flashes on the wall.

Megan Lowe, left, and Lynn Huang perform in Lenora Lee Dance’s In the Skin of Her Hands.” (Courtesy Robbie Sweeny)

Megan Lowe, left, and Lynn Huang perform in Lenora Lee Dance’s In the Skin of Her Hands.” (Courtesy Robbie Sweeny)

For the finale, the energetic ensemble — Lee, Jory Horn, Lynn Huang, Hien Huynh, SanSan Kwan, Megan Low and Johnny Nguyen — congregates back on the main stage for a lively Chinese ribbon dance (with bright blue fabric, not red) set to a jazzy score by Tatsu Aoki and Francis Wong.

As the show winds down, the commentary becomes more positive — one participant says her illness has given her “the opportunity for exploring another kind of love” — and the faces of the people who shared their journeys flash on screen, leaving the audience with hope and the knowledge that transparency, honesty, cooperation, faith, friendship (and exercise!) can bring meaning to life in the face of dire circumstances.

Following Sunday’s performance, Lee — known for site-specific works with social and political themes, many related to Chinese immigrants — and her collaborators (including her sister and Prada, looking good!) appeared in a panel discussion in which Lee called “In her Skin” her most significant piece to date. (People are invited to learn more about health and women’s justice issues by visiting http://www.lenoraleedance.com/.)

While it’s disappointing that the show isn’t slated to repeated in the near future, due to funding constraints, Lee said, program listings refer to a fundraiser in Herbst Theatre for community-centered Dance Mission as it turns 20 and plans to move from its location at 24th and Mission streets to a new home at 18th and Mission streets.


Adelante! A 20th Anniversary Celebration of Dance Mission Theater

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8

Tickets: $10 to $50

Contact: (415) 826-4441, https://dancemissiontheater.org/

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