Students explore Angel Island detainees' experiences through dance

February 21, 2023

Headshot of Lenora Lee, artistic directorWhen Lenora Lee, an artistic director, dancer and choreographer, debuted Within These Walls in 2017, she had no idea what the impact would be on the audience.

Lenora Lee first debuted Within These Walls in 2017. Now, it’s the 2023 Berkeley Dance Project, presented in conjunction with a Year On Angel Island. (Photo by Hien Huynh)

The immersive work was performed by a cast of 14 dancers on San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island, the site of the historic immigration station that enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The performance reflected the experiences of 170,000 Chinese immigrants who were held on the island, some for months on end, and one person for nearly two years.

Dancers moved through the detention barracks and performed scenes critical to the detainees’ experiences, and the approximately 700 audience members could choose where to walk and which characters to follow.

“I think because the audience was physically in the same space as us, they could feel the experiences the characters were portraying,” said Lee. “Being able to share performance work in this way enables audience members to ask themselves: What is their role? Are they passive viewers? Are they participants? How can they discern what’s right and wrong for themselves? Can they do something about what’s happening? Many people told us that by just stepping into the station, they could feel the weight of history.”

On Feb. 23-26, UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies will present Within These Walls as the 2023 Berkeley Dance Project. It’s also part of the campuswide arts project A Year On Angel Island.

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