Elisabeth Roskopf spent much of her early life feeling unseen. As an adopted Korean American child growing up in the Midwest, she didn’t fit into the homogenous aesthetic standards she encountered in many spaces, especially in the world of dance, where she was a student. But she carved a career for herself as a dancer, nonetheless. After she became a mother, Roskopf decided to confront her struggle by sharing her story through a dance for film production called Provenance: A Letter To My Daughter. The work was inspired by Roskopf’s experience as a transracial, transnational adoptee, living in the Midwest and navigating struggles of identity and inclusion. Through performing this intimate and personal dance, Roskopf felt more liberated to show up as her whole, authentic self in her work.
The piece received awards and was picked up by several film festivals, including the Milwaukee Film Festival and the Phoenix Film Festival. Roskopf felt emboldened to help usher other dancers and artists towards that same kind of opportunity to focus on and draw inspiration from their own narratives. Today, she is the creative director of Dance For Diversity, a dance and film project presented in partnership with Danceworks. The project has been an opportunity for Dancers of Color, in collaboration with filmmakers, to re-cast themselves, and in Roskopf’s words,“to show up with their full humanity” through intimate performances made for film and based on their lives and cultural and ethnic histories.
Dancers and filmmakers applied and were selected through a juried selection in the spring and have spent the months since then developing their choreography and filming their works with support from Roskopf and Christal Wagner, the Artistic Director of Danceworks. The showcase takes place Dec 8 and 9 at NŌ Studios. The dancers and filmmakers featured are Mansee Singhi, Cuauhtli Ramírez Castro, DeMar Walker, Samer Ghani, Tate Bunker, Yukina Sato, Rachel Malehorn and Amanda Hoover. Each artist received a stipend of $1000, with extra funding for costumes, props and space rental. Additionally, they received free access to rehearsal space, access to Danceworks classes and marketing support.
Beyond working as a professional dancer, Roskopf is a choreographer, performer and an educator. She performs as a company member with Danceworks Performance MKE, Li Chiao-Ping Dance, Wild Space Dance Company, Gina Lorenzi Dance Project and at several dance studios. She is also an MFA student in the school of dance at the Peck School of the Arts and teaches ballet and modern dance at UW-Milwaukee.
Despite her love of and devotion to dance, in her experiences studying dance forms, Roskopf had to battle with feeling invisible, or the sense that she had to change herself to fit in.
“In my experiences, my story and my voice were overpowered,” Roskopf said. “My culture has been very frequently underrepresented and undervalued in the sense that I had to fit the mold and physical demands of white choreographers’ aesthetics. I felt that being myself wasn't good enough, and essentially I had to assimilate again, to the look of how they wanted their dancers to be.”
But she was able to begin peeling back layers of what she described as “racial melancholia and dissociation” through her personal narrative dance, and the reflections and conversations that were sparked from that work. In doing so, she realized that she could share the experience of healing and finding embodiment through storytelling by helping others to do the same.
“Sharing my story is the crux to model my own embodiment as a Korean American woman and dancer. Dance For Diversity is also giving voice to other dancers of color, that being who they are is enough.”
Roskopf’s journey to leading Dance For Diversity has been a trajectory of building trust over time and taking risks to help Danceworks expand upon its diversity and inclusion programming.
“I started out as an intern in 2013 and then became a company member with Danceworks,” said Roskopf. “As one of the very few Asian American dancers in that company, I started to push for more progressive change in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
In order to promote these conversations she made a point to advocate for ways that the company could “recognize each person in the room,” and honor their diversity of experiences.
Then, in 2021, as Danceworks was preparing for a show about labels and how they effects individuals and communities, Artistic Director Christal Wagner invited Roskopf to create a solo work for the show. It was a work that would go on to be developed into her dance for film piece, Provenance: A Letter for My Daughter. It also reinforced the trust that had been built between Roskopf, the company, and her collaborators there.
“I knew that my relationship with Danceworks is really meaningful to me, and that I'm working with the right people there who support the mission of Dance For Diversity.”
Roskopf has high hopes of Dance For Diversity continuing beyond this year’s program. The continuity of a program that centers diverse voices can be a force for good in promoting representation in dance in Milwaukee, and beyond—especially if it is sustained.
“I would really like this to be presented every season,” she said. “Because I've seen concerts where there's space for artists of color to perform in one season, but then it doesn't happen again.”
And she hopes that the project will also have a positive, multiplicative effect by giving the artists themselves more comfort and strength in representing themselves and their identities—which can then enable them to model that for other artists.
“I am hoping that each choreographer and cinematographer will form a sense of community, and they will have a sense of belonging in a way that they may have not felt before,” she said. “These artists who are sharing who they are through their films... they are also inviting other young artists or other individuals to see themselves through their work as they may be living similar experiences.”
Commissioning dance works for film has opened the door to be able to share the works broadly, and to be part of wide-ranging conversations about anti-racism and identity in a multitude of spaces.
“Having dance on screen opens up this global accessibility and breaks these barriers of time and space,” said Roskopf. “Stories on onscreen can travel nationally, internationally through different film festivals, through high schools and universities so that students, for example, who struggle with their own sense of belonging can discover and learn more about their identities. I think that this is also a way for them to see ‘I’m not alone,’” offered Roskopf.
She also hopes that audiences will be receptive and empowered by the stories of diverse artists, and how their identities and experiences are, in part, a function of the extent to which inclusion and representation is offered to them within their communities and society at large.
“It is really important for this project to lift up the experiences of Artists of Color while experiences and also having other audience members, who may not understand the experiences that these artists of color go through on a daily basis, to learn more about their lives in order to create a sense of understanding, awareness, and empathy,” she said.
Roskopf sees significance in the fact that dance, as an art form, is an especially personal, powerful mechanism for delivering this kind of vulnerable storytelling because of the body being at the center of it all.
“It's not all about the technique,” she said. “It's about how these artists express who they are through their movement and why they are dancing the way they are.” she offered.
Roskopf cites her own style of movement as an example of how identity is expressed through the medium of dance, through the body, and how dancers show up in performance spaces.
“Being one of the few Asian American dancers in the spaces where I perform, on stage I perform with this sense of urgency, to compel the audience to see me,” said Roskopf. She continued. ““And I seek to break this traditional colonial gaze of the stereotypes of how people might perceive Asian Americans. I'm trying to push against them by allowing them to see me for who I am and not just what they see on the outside.”
She hopes that extending the kind of invitation for vulnerability that is built in to Dance For Diversity, that dance can be more than a performance of an art form, but also a tribute to and a mechanism for healing and self-exploration, as it has been for her.
Perhaps even more critical than audiences and artists is the role of organizations in facilitating and creating the infrastructure for art that is change-making. Dance for Diversity is described on Danceworks’ website as a “a call to action for diversity, equity, and inclusion within the field of dance and the arts to help dismantle systems that perpetuate discrimination, violence, hate and erasure.” I asked her how arts organizations can best take up this call, and address the lack of representation that might exist in the world of dance and to more thoughtfully center the experiences of BIPOC and ALAANA artists.
“Organizations and companies can offer diverse artists opportunities to let their voices be prominent.” She continued “Let BIPOC voices be the first to be heard, and to integrate their experiences and their ideas,” offered Roskopf. She also sees value in organizations forming deep ties over time with the individuals they work with in order to know them and “really honor and respect their cultural identities.”
Roskopf hopes her own journey and successes can inspire others to take risks in leading or supporting difficult conversations to bring up critical the importance of diversity and inclusion in artistic programming—which she believes will enrich the entire arts and culture sector with more depth, authenticity, and representation—something that can help to heal the racial and cultural divides that exist in our city and our world.
“Ultimately, it’s about bringing our humanity and our true selves to the forefront.”
You can learn more about Dance For Diversity, and purchase tickets to the premiere on Dec 8 and 9, here.