Amy Cranch: Editor by day, dancer by night

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BERKELEY — Crack editor and writer by day. Dancer — and actor and yogi — by night. Amy Cranch sounds like someone who might like hanging out with Wonder Woman and Superman.

Before arriving at UC Berkeley in 2006, she built a career as a fundraising and communications professional with two child-abuse prevention agencies, the American Cancer Society, the Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum.

All along the way, she has thrown herself body and soul into the performing arts.

“It’s always been that way. It both brings me the greatest joy and the greatest stress in my life,” says Cranch. “How I’ve done it for this long, I don’t know.”

What that means, day to day, is this: When Cranch is in a performance cycle — as she was this fall, leading to two nights on a San Francisco stage in a group performance called “Homing Devices” — she spends her days at her desk in Berkeley’s University Relations office, managing Homecoming communications, finding worthy alumni to showcase on the campus Wall of Fame or writing brochures, proposals, articles and other pieces. Then, as daylight dwindles, she undergoes a transformation. She hops into her car or onto BART to hasten to the Marin County studio where she studies with the legendary dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin, or to a practice space in San Francisco’s Mission District. Dinner waits ‘til she’s back home in Berkeley with her husband and two newly adopted kittens, long after dark.

During a practice session in a grimy Mission District alley, Amy Cranch uses her hands to take inspiration from what — and whom — she finds there. (Joy Cosculluela photo)

That’s almost every day.

What drives Cranch — and unites her life — is one thing: a love of storytelling. As a writer, she uses words to weave tales of Berkeley’s greatness, be it students, faculty, donors or alumni. As a dancer, she uses movement to draw her own truths out of the depths of her being, to tell her own stories.

Cranch can’t remember a time when she wasn’t moving. “I have pictures of myself in sparkly tutus dating back to 4 or 5,” she says, conjuring memories of her Russian ballet teacher’s crackling knees. It was as a University of Kansas student that she first encountered “world dance,” a performance by a Senegalese dance company.

“It just completely blew my world open,” she says. “It had never occurred to me that people in other parts of the world danced — and danced for different reasons than I did. That took me away from the more traditional path.”

Anna Halprin

Anna Halprin

Teacher and inspiration, modern dance pioneer Anna Halprin first performed her work “Parades and Changes” for the opening of BAM/PFA’s new building in 1970. She will lead her final performances of the piece as the museum prepares to leave its home for a new one downtown. Here are a few links to more information:

“Parades and Changes” at BAM/PFA Feb. 15-17

Upcoming Matrix 246 exhibit of work related to the dance

Interview with Halprin on BAM/PFA’s blook blog

Instead of choreographed forms, Cranch was drawn to ethnic dances, improvisational styles, and ones that blend varied forms of expression. That includes Halprin, a pioneer in the use of dance, movement and storytelling to draw out and express the issues of people’s own lives and of the world.

Halprin herself has multiple connections to the campus; her influential work “Parades and Changes” was performed at the opening of the then-new Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA) in 1970, and she will give her final public performances of the piece there next month, as the museum plans its move downtown. (See accompanying box for links to Halprin’s work.)

Halprin’s husband, Lawrence Halprin, also was a well-known name on campus. A San Francisco landscape architect who often collaborated with his Berkeley peers, Halprin designed Sproul Plaza, among other well-known public spaces.

“I sought Anna out when I moved here,” says Cranch. In 2006, she started taking classes on Halprin’s deck/dance space, surrounded by redwoods in Kentfield.

Horrified reaction to Uganda’s proposed execution of gays inspired one piece for class. “It affected me so deeply that I created a dance about it,” Cranch says. She wrote a dirge/protest song based on the idea that “it doesn’t matter who you love,” added gestures that could be repeated and mixed in various ways, and performed it in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood on Harvey Milk Day.

“That’s the kind of work Anna does,” Cranch says. “She gives you the opportunity to explore through dance and song the issues that matter to you.”

Cranch has studied with Halprin ever since. This fall’s performance brought together seven women, five of them Halprin students, to create a largely improvised work around concepts of ancestry, migration and home. Work started in August for the November shows. The group called itself the Wayfinders Performance Group, and they appeared before sold-out audiences at Shotwell Studios in the Mission.

Amy Cranch rehearses

In rehearsal for “Homing Devices.” (Joy Cosculluela photo)

Building the work was a process of individual and group explorations that eventually coalesced into a series of vignettes. As late as dress rehearsal, they were ripping the show down and rebuilding, an emotionally exhausting but ultimately rewarding process.

Cranch originally thought she would explore issues raised by her move from Chicago, but it became clear throughout the rehearsal process that her current life was more relevant. She and her husband had just adopted two sickly kittens, Nova and Juba, who came from lives of abuse and abandonment. Her solo evolved to focus on what it means to create a home based on safety, nurturance and love.

“When Juba is crying and literally climbing the walls because he remembers how it feels to starve, I say, ‘I am going to feed you, I am going to take care of you. I will never abandon you.’ That’s at the heart of what home is to me right now,” says Cranch. She used her body to express that, and to evoke the universality of the feeling. At the shows, she says, “There were a lot of tears.”

A potentially difficult moment along the way turned out to be serendipitous — and, as Cranch tells the story, reveals the power of the work.

Amy Cranch helps young dancer with makeup

At Cal Performances’ annual Ailey Camp for young local dancers last summer, Amy Cranch served as a volunteer and helped with makeup on performance day. (Pete DaSilva photo)

One Saturday, the group arrived at their rehearsal space in the Mission and found it in use. Undaunted, they moved to the stinking alley outside and started doing simple movement exercises based on what was going on around them — sirens, murals, a generator’s roar and a woman, homeless or otherwise troubled, who was crouching on the street, hunched over her hands and absorbed in tiny, fidgety movements.

“Joy (the director) looked at me and said, ‘Take this in, let it affect you,’ ” remembers Cranch. “And I did.”

“The sense I got was that everything I have that is important to me is in the palm of my hand,” she says. As they were leaving, the dancers thanked the woman for sharing her space. She responded by saying, “No, thank you. You tipped the scales for a moment.”

“I think she felt we respected her,” Cranch says. And the troupe had a new theme to add to the mix: homelessness.

Weeks later, it was showtime. And then, come Monday, Cranch was back at her University Relations desk, seeking out accomplished alums to put up on the Wall of Fame — Pema Chodron, the influential Buddhist nun, one week, Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador who sheltered six Americans during the Iran hostage crisis, as depicted in Ben Affleck’s movie Argo, another. Today, she is taking part in San Francisco activities for One Billion Rising, author and playwright Eve Ensler’s global dance initiative to end violence against women and sexual oppression.

As always, she has more stories to tell.

Read Amy Cranch’s first-person piece on volunteering with young local dancers at Cal Performances annual Ailey Camp last summer. 


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