Krissy Keefer photo portrait


Krissy Keefer

Krissy Keefer explores the intersection between art and social issues with fierce inventiveness and a deft comic touch.

Coming out of the legendary Wallflower Order (founded in 1975) Ms Keefer has honed her craft over the last 40 years by creating her content driven choreographies that are a high-energy blend of ballet, modern dance, jazz, song, text, sign language and explosive Taiko drumming. Krissy Keefer has a long history of collaborating with a wide array of artists, companies and non-arts community groups. In the highly successful productions of Women Against War at the Herbst Theater, she brought together prominent feminist activists, veteran feminist musicians, both established and emerging dance companies, and Grrrl Brigade.


KK:  What do you want to know?

JJ:  Hi, Krissy. First your basic bio, like where were you born and where did you go to school?

KK:  I was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. My parents met at the University of Vermont and my mother got pregnant and had to leave school. My parents subsequently got married and moved to Florida. I was raised in the South between Florida, South Carolina and Cincinnati. I went to Indian Hill High School, which is the number one public high school in the United States. It's in the richest neighborhood and since I lived next to that neighborhood, I got to go to that school. Then I went to the University of Oregon where I started the Eugene Dance Collective and formed The Wallflower Order in 1975.

      I am the oldest of five children and I lived in South Carolina during apartheid, where everything was completely and utterly segregated: the water fountains you could use; where you could go swimming; where you went to school; how you interacted with black people specifically. And the dominant question was always, “Are you a Yankee or a rebel?” Literally, we were still asking that question to each other all through grade school, and I, being from Rhode Island, would say I was from Florida because Floridians stayed out of the conflict, so I didn't have to take a stand.

      My parents were not liberals. They were Republicans, but they were educated and they were slightly separated from the dominant narrative of white supremacy. So, I didn't take the constant racism home with me the way my friends did. But I lived it. I lived and internalized white supremacy because it was in your face every single day. I think growing up in South Carolina had a huge impact on me. Then we moved to Cincinnati where I went to High School. From the 9th grade onwards I very much identified as a hippie. I read Life Magazine and smoked a ton of marijuana from the 10th grade onwards. From about 16 to 22, I think I was stoned every single day. I was in love with Janis Joplin. I was in love with Grace Slick. I was in love with their music, and I wanted to be like them. I knew someday I would go to California and live in San Francisco.

      I graduated in 71. I was a terrible student. I ended up getting into the University of Oregon because my partner in Wallflower Order--Nina Fichter--had a mother who made it her life's journey to get people into college. So she got me into the University of Oregon where I majored in dance.

JJ:  When did you start dancing?

KK: My mother was a dancer, when she lived in New York, and she and her sister both danced because my grandfather thought it was really important that they do something. They lived in Larchmont NJ, so he sent them to New York City every Saturday. My cousins ran a big dancing school in Rye NY, and my mother used to teach dance to all the neighboring children when we were living in Florida.

      I started dancing ballet when I was 6 and took it very seriously until I was 13 and then got into boys and drugs and had a hard time going to class. I didn't really have the right body type for ballet: Balanchine's aesthetic type was very tall and very thin and I didn't get enough feedback to stick with it. But I never stopped dancing. I danced in the living room. And then I went to the University of Oregon as a dance major.

B&A: Who's Nina?

KK:  Nina Fichter and I became friends when I was in fifth or sixth grade. We met each other at ballet school. She went to Bard College and then she dropped out; she came to Oregon and ended up joining Wallflower Order. Later, she and I directed the Dance Brigade until 1998, when she e moved back to Ohio and died of bladder cancer in 2004.

JJ:  So you and Nina started working on Wallflower in Oregon?

KK:  Yes. I was a member of the Eugene Dance Collective, but that broke up for the summer and so Laurel Near, me and two others, Alex Dunnette and Linda Rose started the Wallflower Order. Then Lyn Neely joined and then Nina joined 2 years later when Alex left. Eugene OR was the Wild West of the women's movement in the 1970s.  There were all these women’s collectives: Jackrabbit Press, Gertrude's Café, Mother College Bookstore, Star Flower (a lesbian trucking company that trucked food all over the place), a collective bicycle shop, you name it.

      The women’s collectives were embedded in every part of Eugene’s economic structure; that spirit was actually the give-and-take that created the style of Wallflower Order. Huge groups of women, primarily lesbians, would come to our concerts and applaud madly and also give us very direct feedback on what part of our material was working and what was offensive.

      After Laurel's sister Holly Near came and saw Wallflower perform, she paid Road Work to book our first national tour in 1977. And I would say that the lesbian movement of that era really dominated the politics and the feel and the look and the community. Eugene is very flat, so everybody rode their bikes everywhere.

Dance photoJJ:  So when you started Wallflower, did you perceive what you were doing as performance art?

KK: I didn't see what we were doing as performance art. But when Anne Bogart from the Saratoga International Theater Institute came to see Wallflower in New York in 1981, she said, “Oh, this is like performance art.”

      But since we were from Eugene Oregon, we didn’t know what to call what we were creating; we never followed trends. The feedback we're getting is from the West Coast: Holly Near took us on tour to help defeat the Briggs Initiative in 1978, which had it passed, would have outlawed any LGBTQ to be employed in California’s public schools.  We were trying to make our material accessible to women and to reflect the concerns of women's lives. If we had to sing or dance, or recite poetry, or make skits that were funny, we would do that.

      I don't think we were thinking of our art form as much as about creating something that was highly relatable, highly politically charged, and something that impacted our audiences deeply. There was no question as to what our narrative was like: our work kind of tapped us into Russian social realism, or like the famous Chinese ballets red detachment of women almost like we were two fisted women.

      I would say honestly, that Sarah Shelton Mann's work with Contraband, which came out in the 1980s, was more performance art than we were. What we were doing was telling a story that we wanted the audience to understand: “to be women like us, you have to change, then we'll all be great together.” I'm not really here to debate whether that was a good thing or a bad thing; I just know the people who showed up at our shows appreciated what we were doing. And of course, we had our detractors, too; “oh my God, there’s so much narrative!”

B&A: Well, more than Anna Halperin?

KK: She was in Marin and I don't think she approved of us: she referred to us as “the angry ones.”

JJ:  So, the performance art thing had a very heavy visual component to it that was very abstract and at first it seemed very academic to me. But that's why when I saw what you were doing, I thought it was very different.

KK: The political landscape in the 1980s shifted dramatically: the 1970s was all about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate, creating community, collective actions and Chairman Mao. And in 1980s artists were trying to find a new path now that Ronald Reagan had taken over.

      All the women and lesbians I knew, suddenly wanted a piece of the pie, even Ferron and Holly Near. Jackson Browne took over the solidarity movement. Crossing over seemed like the goal. Melissa Etheridge or Bonnie Raitt took what we were doing and made it accessible to a more mainstream audience. We wondered why not us?

JJ: Thinking back on the 1970s, I remember living in Austin where everything was very community-focused and it was all right there in front of you; all day long, from the minute you got up, you knew what community you belonged to. The culture seemed more like Eugene than San Francisco’s.

      When I came to San Francisco in 1979, I noticed that instead of going to a different one of my friend's houses every other night for dinner where everyone got stoned and plotted against the reactionary City Council that ruled Austin’s politics, instead I found myself in public spaces as opposed to in people's houses. Here it seemed like every night I was at a political event of some sort, which was usually followed by a bar-visit; at both, alcohol was omni-present.

      But what I really want to know about the most is when Wallflower arrived in San Francisco, did you see what you were doing as feminist art?

Dance photoKK:  When Wallflower moved from Eugene, Oregon to Boston in 1981, we had been touring all over the United States, in Europe and Latin America and our work occupied the intersection where lesbian feminism meets solidarity work, exemplified by Chile’s Pinochet and many other US-propped up dictators across the globe.  Lesbians were at the center of most solidarity groups supporting the liberation of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Our work married these two struggles on stage and there was an audience for it wherever we went. 

      Originally, we had moved to Boston so we could be a part of the university scene there and tour more easily. But we hated Boston. Even though our shows attracted a thousand women at Berklee School of Music, we didn't like being there. So, we moved to Berkeley. Then I moved here to San Francisco and I wondered whether we should locate the Dance Brigade in Berkeley or San Francisco. Suddenly, Oakland announced it was now funding the arts, so we went there. 

      We did a lot of work in Oakland but once that money evaporated, we moved the Company to San Francisco and I started to like it, especially when the Cultural Equity Grants Program specifically named women as a targeted community for funding.

JJ:  I remember that when I went to your early shows there would be several hundred people: every other modern dance company I went to see usually had about 50 people in the audience, most of them the friends, family and relatives of the dancers. Your concerts had political content and in the mind-numbing Reagan era, you had an audience.

KK:  Yeah, we were popular.  And it's interesting because we got reviewed in The Village Voice, we got reviewed in the New York Times, we got reviewed in the Kansas City Star where they said “The Wallflower Order is a national treasure.” However, when we moved to the Bay Area we were really not sophisticated enough for the left here.

      The Company’s dancers were involved in a variety of political organizations. I was involved in the Uhuru House movement. Another Wallflower Dancer was in the Line of March; somebody else was doing El Salvador solidarity work. And another was with Workers World, (CPUSA). Politically, none of us agreed and we imploded.

      We fought over the name, sued each other, and went to court. It was horrible and very public. There was no money in the bank: we were fighting over the name because the name was our only real asset. We tried to negotiate a settlement and we settled on dividing into two groups with the tag, “a new group from Wallflower Order.” But the other faction’s dance group broke up within six months. And here I am today--almost 40 years later--with an awful, horrible name: Dance Brigade, a new group from Wallflower Order.

      So anyway, that was a fucking trauma and everybody knew all about it. And at the time, you told Marie Acosta that I was the one who would continue working in the arts because the others didn't have the choreography chops.  And really, they didn’t have it. You can't take away my ability to create dances!

Dance photoJJ:  I think some of these earlier pieces and events you were producing resonated. What about Furious Feet?

B&A: Yes, please tell us the genesis.

KK:  The Dance Brigade missed the NEA’s Dance deadline so we decided to apply to the presenting and commissioning program. I, with Ellen Gavin’s assistance, made up the title:  Furious Feet: A Dance Festival for Social Change. We wrote the grant but didn’t get funded for an obvious reason: President Reagan was not a fan of social change. But we started the festival anyway.

      Our main question following the Wallflower break-up was, do we integrate the company or do we do solidarity work.  Ultimately, we decided to present artists of color instead of trying to integrate them into our group. So Furious Feet presented artists of color such as Zulu Dance Theater, a South African Ethnic Dance Company. We produced the San Jose Taiko Group, Priscilla Regalado, a Chicana artist, and Contraband.  I think that was the very first Furious Feet that we did. Our goal was to make our resources available for people of color to show themselves in their best light, in their own cultural manifestation.

      We also did the very first public piece on artists supporting AIDS at the second Furious Feet Festival in 1986, which we dedicated to those who were confronting AIDS: people with AIDS, caregivers, family members, advocates, activists etc. No one in the arts world, outside the Queer community, would touch that issue in that time period. We weren't dealing with the awfulness of what it was internally. I mean, we were all dealing with it as a community, but no one in our company had the stigma of having AIDS.

JJ: But let’s return for a minute to the break-up of Wallflower.  How long did this trauma go on?

KK:  About a year and a half. It was horrible. In some ways, I would never recover.

JJ:  Once that was out of the way, you found yourself in Oakland?

KK:  Yeah. So, then that's where we first did Furious Feet and created the Nutcracker. But I think what you're trying to understand is what was the work that went on between 1975 and 1983, and there was a lot of work out there. When we toured nationally, there was a women's production company in every city across the country and we were able to tap into that. At that time there were four main women’s touring groups: the Wallflower Order, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Ferron and Holly Near. We were out there between 1975 and 1985, and then the touring thing kind of eroded financially. I think we went into a financial crisis; people stopped their production companies and also the funds started drying up at the universities. It was the same kind of experience the Mime Troupe was having at the same time.

JJ:  Yeah, in the early years of the NEA and the CA Arts Council, touring was actually funded.  But since the 1990s, it hasn’t been supported at all and that’s really made a big difference between whether you consider yourself nationally significant or whether you were just parochial.

KK: Well, Sean Dorsey's out there a lot.

JJ: I mean, there's a few people who have succeeded.

KK: And Bandaloop are out there, Axis Dance Company is out there. If you have an audience for your thing, you can get in on that network.

JJ:  But other than that, what I was interested in was the difference between the gay art world such as the Gay Men’s Chorus and Theater Rhinoceros and the Women’s Building, the Dance Brigade, Brava for Women in the Arts, Redwood Cultural Work and the Women's Philharmonic, organizations that were actually run by lesbians in the eighties but called themselves women’s arts groups. All of these groups had heavy lesbian representation, the Women's Philharmonic especially.

KK: But don't you think that being a lesbian outside of the lesbian ghetto was pretty stigmatized? I mean, you couldn't just be out in the same way that you could once it became more mainstream, like in the last 10 years or so. I just feel like now anybody can be a lesbian and everybody's queer. But before, if you were running the Philharmonic, you didn't center its narrative around the fact that the Director was a lesbian.

JJ: But nevertheless, I would go to these concerts that had 800 ticket buyers and 80% were dykes but the language was not there. The woman I was married to in Austin, who started one of the nation’s oldest feminist arts groups, did the same thing: she avoided the word Lesbian and named it ‘Women And Their Work.’

      In 1979, when I first went to the meetings of the Harvey Milk Club or the Alice B Toklas Club, I noticed there were very few women. At one meeting I asked a woman why there were so few women, she said to me “Look, my history has been with women's consciousness groups and I come to these political meetings and I get to sit here and listen to men arguing with each other, hour after hour. And I just really don’t feel like this has anything for me.”

      I soon noticed how Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were perceived by the Harvey Milk Club as moderate assimilationists; now that I'm older, I see that these two women created LGBTQ history for 40 or 50 years. They founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first Lesbian political group I know of, in mid-1950s.  When Glide Church and others formed The Council on Religion and the Homosexual, Del and Phyllis were there. They were among the founding members of Alice B Toklas, the oldest LGBTQ Political Organization that is now over 50 years old. 

      I first heard of Del Martin in Austin, when a group of women started a battered women's shelter. Del Martin had written a book called Battered Wives and all the women I knew were reading it. So, I originally thought that Del Martin must be really super militant. But once I arrived in the Bay Area, according to many gay men, she was an assimilationist.

KK: But let's go back to San Francisco. The largest lesbian community in the United States is in Oakland. San Francisco real estate is too fucking expensive. So after the 1970s when on Valencia Street, you had Amelia’s, the Bearded Lady, the Artemis Café, Osento, the Lesbian bathhouse, the Old Wives Tale Bookstore, the Paper Tiger Print Shop, the Women’s Building and Good Vibrations. By the early 1990s, this strip on Valencia Street had completely evaporated because the majority of lesbians had moved to Oakland. And I think the ones that stayed were doctors and lawyers and professional people who could afford to own real estate.

      Then the narrative changes. I think that the narrative of “Queer,” kind of erased lesbian culture in a way, or at least participated in the erasure of lesbian culture. It assumed that kind of equalization around everybody's oppression. So, what was particular about being a lesbian in the seventies was that The Women’s movement was influenced by class politics. It wasn't heavily butch femme. We all wore wear jeans and a work shirt and vests at least in Oregon. And this went on for a while I mean, I'm not really being super deep about it, but I'm saying something that I believe happened. There are women who have written about the erasure of women and lesbians in the last 10 years.

JJ: Well, I did see this in the beginning of the nineties, that's when I saw these very young lesbians moving into the Valencia Corridor: Tribe 8, early Michelle Tea, Sini Anderson etc.                

KK: But when you talked to them about being lesbians, they're like, “no, we're not lesbians.” Like it was cool to be anything but a lesbian. There was something about being a lesbian that was really not cool enough. So who are we talking about? Help me out, because I don't really know the answer.

JJ: I'm not part of the lesbian community. I just happen to know a whole lot of lesbians who have frequently challenged my assumptions and observations.

KK: Anne Bleuthenthal and I started the Lesbian/Gay Dance festival in 1997 and it was really great for a while. But there weren't that many women who identified as lesbian who were choreographers, and we hit a wall around that. We would do our shows and I felt like there was something missing. There's no edge to this. And then I realized that we weren't working with the whole scene on Valencia Street around Michelle Tea and Sini Anderson and that whole Sister Spit crowd. I felt like we were kind of boring.  Then you came along with the National Queer Arts Festival and opened up a whole other chapter in the story. 

JJ: There were at least ten years between the Furious Feet and the Lesbian/ Gay Dance Festivals.  The 1980s were a mess because we were just inventing how to understand the Non-profit arts world. From the 1990s onward, we did very well.  Now there are organizations and people who can deal with whatever your organizational, technical of emotional problem is.

KK: But during the AIDS epidemic, the people's collectives broke up. Reaganomics made a huge cultural shift in this country and kind of destroyed everything that we had tried to create in the 1970s.

JJ: Well, maybe we just got older. In the 1990s a lot of things started happening, maybe because the AIDS epidemic started receding. But from 1983 until about 1992, there were almost no new Queer arts groups during that period.

      The groups that existed before AIDS were still around, like the Gay Men's Chorus, the Theater Rhinoceros, the Women's Philharmonic, John Simms Center, etc. But the only new gay groups that formed during those ten years was Joe Goode, and the 848 Community Space that Keith Hennessy, Med-O Whitson and Todd Eugene started on Divisadero Street.

B&A: That was a great venue.

JJ: That's where Queer Arts started coming back in the 1990s. But most of the time before 1990, people were not creating great art. People were dying. Allen Estes the founder of Theater Rhino died. The founder of the Gay Men’s Chorus and the Marching Band Jon Simms died. Chuck Solomon died: he was with the Mime Troupe and Theater Rhinoceros. Choreographer Ed Mock died. Then Ken Dixon, who was the director of Rhino died of AIDS in the early nineties. It was just very hard then.  Most of the gay men who built the early Queer arts community had died by that time.

      I remember noticing that the John Simms Center, the place where the LGBTQ community arts groups were housed, was suddenly being directed by Lauren Hewitt. So, it all re-started again, I would say, with Keith Hennessy and Joe Goode. They had a lot to do with the reemergence of the gay arts community.

B&A: Jeff, I think you had a lot to do with the queer San Francisco art scene, obviously. I would like to know from Krissy, when did you meet Jeff?

JJ: 83? Somewhere in there.

KK: I don't know who introduced us.

JJ: Nobody introduced us. You just showed up at my door.

KK: No, I didn't just show up. I was invited. We had a date. You invited me over to talk about the Wallflower Order. Then when I showed up, you put some snacks on the table, and I ate every single one of them. That's all I can remember.

JJ: I remember asking myself after you left: Who the fuck was that?

KK: And he started writing our grants—always in long hand--and he worked with Kayla Kirsh. We all got funded for individual artist grants from the NEA. I got the first one, then Nina and Pam. We got $5,000 each, which was an enormous sum in 1983. Then I don't know if it was because we broke up or they stopped funding people for a while, or if there was a collapse in the NEA? I can't remember. They almost didn’t give enough money to make it worthwhile.

JJ: Well, they ended up eliminating all individual artists fellowships, soon after the Mapplethorpe controversy. They decided they're not funding any individual artists at all except for writers.

      But during the early 1980s, when Theater Rhinoceros was already funded by the NEA, the Reagan NEA decided to send a reviewer to go and check it out. And they sent Marie Acosta; I don’t think they suspected that she knew Allen Estes. And we didn't really understand how politics intersected with funding.

      Artists started learning this lesson in 1983, when the Federal Government passed the Emergency Jobs Act. In San Francisco the City got a ton of Community Development funding to hand out. The decision-making process started with the Citizens Advisory Committee, appointed by Mayor Dianne Feinstein. This committee was eventually chaired by Greg Day. I created a consortium of 5 of my arts clients and we applied. After the Committee, the next step in the process was the Board of Supervisors, where Supervisor Carole Ruth Silver moved to award us $135,000.

B&A: A million dollars now.

JJ: Yeah. It was a lot of money and I understood that the only reason we secured these funds was because I had worked on her campaign, and I asked her to support the Consortium’s proposal. She moved to give the Consortium $135,000 to pay the performing fees of Un-employed and under-employed artists.  The next year, Greg Day (See attached Interview) became the Chair of the Citizens Committee and the Consortium received almost $500,000 over the next few years. This experience taught all of us involved in this effort that securing funding was a political process.

      But about 15 years after that event, Dance Mission became the poster child for what was going wrong here during the mid-1990s boom. Could you talk about how that period impacted the Dance Brigade?

KK: I was running the Brady Street Dance Center and I ended up having a falling out with the landlord. We had created this kind of miraculous situation where Brady Street became a very high-profile venue over the two years that we were there with Joey Williams. So, I moved to 24th and Mission Streets where I opened Dance Mission. I built the theater space there. When the individual who had leased the entire space didn’t pay the  rent, they tried to shut us down.

      It became a very public battle; I told the landlord we would have people demonstrating around the building all the time. I organized a demonstration where people came down and danced in front of City Hall that got a lot of press. Then we went inside and talked to the Board of Supervisors. I remember just spouting off to Ammiano, “if the City is going to go in this direction, you need to find some legislation to pay for all the rent increases.” So Ammiano found $1,000,000 in the city budget and gave it to Alma Robinson (the Director of California Lawyers for the Arts) to hand out. 

      While rents at arts venues were doubling overnight, suddenly the Crash of the dot.coms took place and everything soon went back to normal. Literally, my rent went from $6000 a month to $12000 and then within a year back down to $6000 because the whole economy imploded.

      I worked with Keith Hennessey, and there were other organizations that banded together and held demonstrations around the City and at City Hall. We got a lot of attention around space and equity.

JJ: Well, I think you should think about that particular period when you're talking about the doom and gloom of today. Every ten years the City’s economy is impacted by events outside of its control and it veers off in an entirely new direction: we saw this with the hippies in the sixties, with AIDS in the early 1980s, the 1989 earthquake, the boom and bust, the advent of the bio-medical industry, COVID, the near-death of downtown and the arrival of the Artificial Intelligence industry. The City always seems to come back from these events.

B&A: Our organization, EARTH Lab SF creates queer and nontraditional environmental art outside the box. Can you say anything about how you've engaged with environmental justice?

KK: What's interesting is that in 1975, people already knew about what was happening with the environment. We were all lit up around it and it was in all of our work, even 40 years ago. I've been talking about the polar ice caps melting in my work since 1998, saying that we don't have a future, and people didn't hear it. And they still don’t hear it now. 

      We just did a whole show called The Butterfly Effect, which tried to tie all of these environmental justice issues together and to understand the consciousness that we have right now about how environmental catastrophes are coming at us like a steamroller and we just can't move--we're frozen in time.

      The thing that's so shocking to me is how many of the victories won in the 1970s have been lost: abortion rights, the environment, black people are still being killed by the police. The unions have all but disappeared. We’re still fighting very basic things around social justice. And now the massacre in Gaza. Really, its 2024 and we are solving a problem by slaughtering women and children of color and hoping nobody notices. Who are we?

      I'm just kind of overwhelmed by it all. I feel like I don't really want to make work anymore.  Is it really worth using up all these resources to make all these dance pieces? Is this really where we should be putting our energy? I don't know. I feel like we should be stockpiling food and weapons and guns because the censorship is real and takeover can feel immanent.

JJ: Really. You may be right.

KK: Yeah. I feel like we've had that eco-feminist perspective at the core of our work.

JJ: So, before we leave that item, I want to go back to the late 1970s, early 1980s. Did you see Wallflower Order as a feminist group or as a social justice group? Or was feminism part of the larger movement for social justice?

KK: We were a feminist dance company. When you opened our brochure, the first review identified us as a lesbian organization. We didn't call ourselves a lesbian feminist organization. I think our tagline was, “Five Women from Eugene, Oregon.” Then we had reviews that talked about the power of women being together. When I talked to Lisa Vogel from the Michigan Women's Music Festival, she said “your company had the most explicit and demonstrative work that talked about relationships between women.”

We were fearless in a certain kind of way. But we also got a lot of positive reinforcement.  Unlike the Women’s music community, where almost all the musicians at a certain point I knew wanted to crossover to the mainstream, dancers don't get famous, so we never thought about crossing over. Our only goal was to get more money for our work. We were never going to be Baryshnikov. Nobody was going to take our work and put it on their dancers or imitate us. People who came to our workshops and took classes from us, and saw us, they imitated us. But hardly anybody was paying us.

JJ: Two weeks ago I read this thing about Tee Corrine, the Lesbian artist who published the Cunt Coloring Book. And she said, “I'm the same age as Robert Rauschenberg, but there's no place in the art world for me to go.” Rauschenberg did indeed just walk right into the visual arts community and become a millionaire painter; Jack Kerouac had a similar experience in the literary world. Tee Corrine had to invent a place for herself.

KK: Look at Yayoi Kusama. She took herself to the Venice Biennale and started showing her artwork on the sidewalk. They kicked her out and she went crazy and went home. But she's famous now and she's 90. She went into a mental institution in Japan in order to hide from her mother so she could work. But she had a nervous breakdown after trying to make it on her own in the 1960s; now she’s treated like a living goddess. People think she's the genius of installation art. So yeah, I think you see a lot of women artists having a Renaissance right now. Judy Chicago's work is all over the place. A lot of women in their eighties and nineties are having real careers after not having gotten their due.

B&A: Have you worked in academia? I'm sure people wanted you to be a professor.

KK: No, I dropped out. I went to the University of Oregon for two years and was wasting my mother's money, so I just quit. But you didn't have to have a degree to teach at the university. You could teach if you had enough chops. You could just slide into a department. Now, they don't let that kind of thing happen.

B&A: Well, you are a legend. Is there satisfaction in being a legend, even if it wasn't mainstream.

KK: I don't really feel like I am anything. The Isadora Duncan Dance Awards has a Sustained Achievement Award. I haven't even gotten that. I have been at this for 50 years. My entire adult life. 

B&A: That’s crazy! You’ve done so much for so long. WTF?

JJ: But maybe that's your own lack of self-worth, which is hard to believe, but it's surprising.

KK:  What I lack is not self-worth, it’s money. I don’t clamor for it, but every day I look at the bank account. I really feel like coming out of the collective mentality and structure but seeking individual fame is a cheap shot. I spread the accolades around as much as possible.

Beth: We were just talking to artist Linda Montano. She hasn't had the big awards yet either. And she's so important to many different groups of people. The art world can be so cruel. The way that it makes people compete against each other, and it breaks up friendships. Success seems always somewhat arbitrary.

Annie: I was a sex worker artist, and I found the art world surprisingly welcoming.

Beth: But it was different if you called yourself a lesbian. In the early days, in and around the 1980s, if you called yourself a lesbian, it was the kiss of death within the art world.

KK: You could be a lesbian, but you couldn't define yourself that way. Never, ever. There's a whole story about how Holly Near was the first lesbian to publicly come out in the women's music scene. She was the first lesbian to come out in People Magazine; it was a really big deal.

JJ: What I'm struck by when I think about Holly Near is how young she was when she was doing all that. She started Redwood at 23.

KK: She was 22 when she toured with Jane Fonda. I was 22 when we started Wallflower Order. Edna St Vincent Millay was 19 when she wrote her best poem. And Ferron was 19 when she was traveling all over the country.  Joni Mitchell wrote Both Sides Now at 19.

B&A: How do you feel about the art world in San Francisco these days? I always tell people that artists are very supportive of each other here. It doesn’t feel competitive. How do you find it now?

Dance photoKK: I feel like in dance everybody works with everybody. All the dancers move through many different choreographers because nobody can afford to pay a company except for the ballet, Michael Smuin, Alonzo King and Sean Dorsey. But most dancers move back and forth.

I have 11 dancers in the show that I'm working on right now, and they all have a million other jobs. You can barely get them all to rehearse. It's very community oriented and it's very family. And everybody knows everybody and everybody goes and sees each other's work. We go to see each other's work but we don't exactly like each other's work.

The big grants are so competitive. So there is competition, and there's also this phenomenon: the white choreographers are now being pole-vaulted over for equity reasons. The only reason I'm being funded is because I present and produce so many other artists. It’s not for my own work. I don't get any money to create my own work. But I do enough work through Dance Mission that I save up money to produce myself.

JJ: You found your source of income. I mean, not many artists have been able to actually figure out how to turn their life into something that's supported by a nonprofit arts organization.

B&A: You have over 1,000 people coming through Dance Mission every week. That's incredible. That's a lot of bodies.

KK: People come to Dance Mission to take dance classes, to participate in GRRRl Brigade, the Youth Program, and to see the dancers who perform at our venue and the audiences who attend events there. The pandemic slowed down our attendance figures but we're building them back up.

B&A: You know, the performances I've seen of yours just blew me away and profoundly inspired me and I think they're incredible.

JJ: The ones that I remember the most are from the 1980s and 1990s. I remember The Nutcracker Sweetie in Oakland. What was the name of that venue?

KK: Well, we started at Laney College but we eventually moved it to the Scottish Rite.

JJ: Scottish Rite. That's it.

KK: It was majestic there.

JJ: How many times did you perform that piece?

KK: We did that for ten years. Once it got really going, probably 5000 people annually saw that piece over a ten-year period.

B&A: What are your greatest professional achievements? Have you achieved some dreams? Have you accomplished something unique?

Dance Brigade photoKK: I think definitely The Wallflower Order. Creating that collective was the beginning. I think creating the GRRRl Brigade too. Besides that, I think starting the Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival and the first Festival presenting sky dancers– “Women who Fly through the Air.”

      I think the interesting thing about the Lesbian/Gay Dance Festival was that it was the first in the country. Also, Dance Mission is really phenomenal: what we've done there, I don't take credit for it by myself, but I was definitely leading it. I'm its mother. I think that's a great achievement.

B&A: Does your archive have a home yet?

KK: My archives are all over the place. Parts of them are in the costume storage. Some of them are above the bathroom in Dance Mission. There's some stuff in my home’s closet.

You know, one significant thing that I left out is the complaint I filed with the City’s Human Rights Commission against the San Francisco Ballet. My daughter--Fredricka Keefer—was denied acceptance to the Ballet school because she was not tall and thin. This episode drew an enormous amount of international press coverage. Many people in the United States were debating whether I was a terrible mother or that I was bringing something up that should have been dealt with years ago. Anyway, this controversy was covered in the New York Times and in the Wall Street Journal; we were also on The View.

B&A: Yes, I remember that. Huge amount of news coverage everywhere. Good for you!

KK: But I also infuriated Warren Hellman, who decided he was going to ruin my career for my complaint against the Ballet. So he talked to the Chronicle, which did not review my work until David Wiegand and Alan Ulrich and Warren Hellman all died. San Francisco can be very punitive.

JJ: Warren Hellman was the husband of the President of the Ballet’s Board of Directors; he also built the Parking Garages in Golden Gate Park.

KK: Warren Hellman started the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. So, he had big, big, big bucks. So I would talk to Alan Ullrich, who was the Chronicle’s dance reviewer, and when I asked Alan why he wasn’t reviewing my work, he confessed that his editor “doesn't like you.” So, from 1998 until The Butterfly Effect in 2020, I did not get any reviews in The Chronicle because of my dispute with the Ballet.

JJ: Both of us got blacklisted because we didn’t play ball with the in-crowd.

Dance Brigade photoKK: You got demonized super bad. I remember when someone came to meet with me—she had just been assigned by the NEA to be Dance Brigade’s Advancement Consultant. They told me “You gotta stop working with Jeff.”  I didn't understand what was going on.  But I do remember looking at a finished grant that just sat on the floor of the closet because you had written it. It was that you were calling Kary Schulman’s Agency (Grants for the Arts) racist and they were all coming after you.

JJ: I lost all of my clients.

KK: And me too.  I didn’t understand what was going on. We were still in Oakland at the time, so I didn't even know what they were talking about.

      But then I do have to say in Jeff's complete and utter defense and glorification, that the Cultural Equity Program is the singularly most important program that happened in San Francisco in terms of funding. It changed everyone's life. It changed my life completely. To get those individual artists commissions and then get those Project Grants and then keep moving up and getting the bigger Cultural Equity Initiative Grant.  I created lots of work off those individual artist commissions. There weren't that many artists that were doing political work in San Francisco that could navigate the work that the grants went to.

      I think that where I related to what Jeff was doing was through Redwood Records and the women's music community. You know, Jeff took Redwood from being a profit organization to a nonprofit. He created that format for them, which allowed them to apply for grants and really changed how they were working and how they were perceived and how they became much bigger and produced the Redwood Festival and all of that. So that's one of the bonds that we had really. Because I didn't actually have a lot of bonds. I didn't really know who your other clients were at the time Jeff.

JJ: Redwood, La Pena, the Mime Troupe, the SF Ethnic Dance Festival, Dimensions Dance Theater, the Jewish Film Festival, the Arab Film Festival. Theater Rhinoceros, and about 5 Oakland-based Ethnic Dance Companies.

KK: Did you guys get enough? Thank you for taking the time to do this.   If you need to get back to me about anything you want to know more about, just call me.

B&A: You've been amazing. It’s not easy being ahead of your time for such a long time. You’re a great bad ass.


Posted in Interviews.