“In many ways, the suffrage movement of the 1900’s dismissed women of color- so focusing on stories that represented Americans that didn’t fit into the original paradigm of the suffrage movement was paramount in our re-contextualization of the suffrage movement for today.” – Sadie Weinberg
“The Suffrage Project: Contextualizing the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment Through Dance,” organized by San Diego-based LITVAKdance Dance Arts Foundation and Mojalet Dance Collective, was an interdisciplinary Arts + Humanities project, supported by a Humanities for All Quick Grant. Through the fusion of dance with historical research, “The Suffrage Project” used the stories of local and national historical figures to expand the idea of suffrage to consider prohibitions associated with not only gender but also race, class, faith, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The project explored how those prohibitions continue to shape our society today, opening a dialogue about what it means to have a democratic society. This Women’s History month we’re catching up with Sadie Weinberg, the Project Director for “The Suffrage Project,” to learn more about the inspiration for the compositions featured in this project. She also shares how she and her collaborators found new ways to connect with audiences when in-person programming was not possible.
1. Tell us about the inspiration behind your project, “The Suffrage Project: Contextualizing the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment Through Dance.”
Many things inspired me to pursue this project. Receiving a commission from the La Jolla Historical Society to perform at the opening of their show, Tangible Memories: Pioneer Women of La Jolla planted the initial seed. The LJHS is housed in the home of Eliza “Jenny” Scripps- the lesser-known half-sister of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps whose impact on San Diego’s landscape is still felt today. As a part of that project, LITVAKdance built a solo based on Eliza, performed on the grounds of her home, and that became the beginning of what turned into “The Suffrage Project.”
I was really inspired by the mission of the Historical Society to contextualize history in the present. Tangible Memories got me thinking about what it was like to be a woman in San Diego pre-19th amendment- when San Diego was in its infancy. So, I began searching for other stories about lesser-known women who were carving out lives for themselves in San Diego.
I was also motivated by the political climate moving into the 2020 presidential election. It felt important to reframe suffrage more inclusively by highlighting the universal right to vote for all American citizens- and recognize that our region is and always has been a very diverse space. In many ways, the suffrage movement of the 1900’s dismissed women of color- so focusing on stories that represented Americans that didn’t fit into the original paradigm of the suffrage movement was paramount in our re-contextualization of the suffrage movement for today.
2. Who were some of the local and national historical figures highlighted in this project? What were some of the surprising things you learned about these women?
LITVAKdance decided to focus on local voices for this project as a way of reframing Southern Californian history. The two stories that surprised me the most were those of America Newton and María Amparo Ruíz de Burton. America Newton was an emancipated Black woman who helped settle Julian, a town on the outskirts of San Diego. She was both a small business and property owner. Before starting this project, I had no idea that Julian was the home of many emancipated slaves who moved west to forge new identities and lives. This shifted my perspective on the stories I was told about San Diego growing up-, and I hope it did the same for the people we shared America’s story with. María Amparo’s story also shifted the way I think about San Diego. Her story highlights the huge impact the Californios (Mexicans living in California before California became part of the U.S.) had on our region. I hope María’s story acts as a reminder that people of Spanish and Mexican descent have as much right to call California their home as people of British/Northern European descent. My hope in telling María’s story is that it will help our community think more inclusively about what it means to be an American.
3. Why were an interdisciplinary Arts + Humanities approach important to reaching the goals of your project?
Part of LITVAKdance’s vision is to root us in our histories while forging new, more inclusive paths in the future through dancemaking. Telling stories based on history and connected to the dancers’ identities has been fulfilling for our company and audiences. It’s important for artists to be inspired to create freely, but it is just as crucial that artists correctly and fairly represent the people and stories we get inspiration from. Working from a fact-based humanities standpoint made our project that much more powerful. Sharing this project with five diverse, high school dance programs empowered students to look into their histories, along with our shared American history, to find stories and build their own solos based on history.
4. This project included the collaboration of a visual artist, dancers, writer, librarian, and historical consultant. How did your team of collaborators draw on the humanities to create this rich project?
I feel fortunate to have had such an incredible team to work with on this project. CSUSM Librarian/historian Torie Quiñonez helped steer LITVAKdance towards historical figures in our region that reshaped the histories we learned in school. Visual artist Wren Polansky provided a more in-depth look into these women by filling her visual art with symbols that gave even more context to the time these women lived in. Finally, the dancers were incredible collaborators on this project-delving into a rich visual display that spoke through movement, landscape, costuming, and writing in each of their solos. When this project moved online because of Covid-19, my role became to synthesize all the work done by our many collaborators and create an interactive experience online for our audiences to dive into that felt cohesive and whole.
“The Suffrage Project: Contextualizing the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment Through Dance” is supported by a Humanities for All Quick Grant. Learn more about the project at https://www.litvakdance.com/suffrage.