A world of dance in Berkeley, and Denise Perrier sings Nancy Wilson

Before relocating to Berkeley City Ballet next month, Mahea Uchiyama performs one last time Friday at the International Dance Center that she founded in southwest Berkeley 25 years ago. Photo: RJ Muna

Tucked away in an industrial corner of southwest Berkeley, Mahea Uchiyama built a global crossroads where dance traditions from around the world share the same space. When the organization’s landlords who own and run the adjacent Artworks Foundry declined to extend the lease a few months ago it looked like the Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance was facing the fate of so many small Bay Area arts organizations priced out of the region. But Uchiyama not only found a new, albeit smaller, space, she’s keeping the center in Berkeley by leasing the back studios at Berkeley City Ballet  (rooms that have long been used for beginning ballet classes).

“What excited me is that it’s set up to be a dance space with sprung wood floors,” says Uchiyama, a dancer, educator, choreographer, scholar and tireless arts champion who is also co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. “Everyone I’ve been in contact with at Berkeley City Ballet has been very accommodating and sweet. It is a much smaller space than the one we’ve had, and we’re losing a couple of instructors who feel like they need more space, but I’ll find a way to make it work. The advantage is that there are two teaching spaces, so we can hold concurrent classes.”

She marks the end of an era 7p.m. Friday at the Heinz Avenue studio with a Studio Move Fundraiser featuring her resident company, the award-winning hula ensemble Hālau Ka Ua Tuahine (suggested ticket donation of $20 and up). The transition comes at a moment when Uchiyama’s accomplishments have been duly recognized.

Last month, the City of Berkeley proclaimed Jan. 22 Mahea Uchiyama Day. And last September, Uchiyama’s Center for International Dance marked its 25th anniversary with a gala performance at Holy Names University’s Regents Theater featuring many of the companies and teachers long based at the center, including Pandit Chitresh Das disciple Seibi Lee, Miriam Peretz’s Sufi-inspired devotional dance, and the Salimpour Collective’s innovative belly dance.


The institution Uchiyama has built represents Berkeley at its best, embodying a deeply knowledgeable approach to traditional art forms that flows from abiding respect for the cultural sources.

In many ways the institution Uchiyama has built and sustained represents Berkeley at its best, embodying a deeply knowledgeable approach to traditional art forms that flows from abiding respect for the cultural sources.

For Uchiyama, dance provided a vehicle for defining herself in the face of a hostile environment.

Growing up in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s she sought refuge from the raw legacy of Jim Crow in music and movement. Uchiyama credits her mother with expanding her world, “finding the only integrated grade school in D.C., a Catholic elementary school,” she says.

Falling in love with hula, she made her way to Hawaii, where she immersed herself in the traditional culture of the islands. Based in the Bay Area since the early 1980s, she’s been a force spreading knowledge and respect for a global array of traditions.

“Dance was what gave me a sense of self-worth and self-awareness,” Uchiyama says. “It grounded me in a way that nothing else did. I started teaching what I was able to teach, inviting other forms of dance to be taught there. I wanted to have a place that felt welcoming, with a wide range of dance forms. And it did develop into a community space, with young people, middle aged people and elders all working together. A lot of people have been coming back to be in the space one more time.”

Celebrating Denise Perrier celebrating Nancy Wilson

There’s no singer in the Bay Area better equipped to celebrate the legacy and music of Nancy Wilson than Denise Perrier, a gracefully swinging jazz vocalist well versed in the blues. She stars in tonight’s Black Rep Theater production Guess Who I Saw Today? celebrating what would have been Wilson’s 82nd birthday (she died on Dec. 13). Perrier is returning to the stage after open-heart surgery, and she’s joined by an all-star quartet featuring pianist Tammy Hall, saxophonist Howard Wiley, bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Leon Joyce Jr.

Over the years she’s starred in shows celebrating Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington. Adept at turning standards into emotionally taut sojourns, Perrier is a performer who absorbed the essential less-is-more calibration that made Wilson such an effective song stylist.


Born in Louisiana, Perrier moved with her family to the East Bay at the end of World War II and ended up on the Albany side of the creek in Codornices Village (where UC Village now stands). She grew up in a house suffused with music. Her brother, Paul Jackson Jr., is the highly regarded bassist best known as a founding member of Herbie Hancock’s pioneering fusion band Head Hunters, and her sister Joyce Jackson is an accomplished flutist and songwriter.

Before she started working as a singer, Perrier joined teenage dance troupes led by choreographers Zack Thompson and Ruth Beckford. But her big break came with Intervals, a Platter-esque vocal ensemble that performed at Oakland nightspots like Esther’s Orbit Room and Slim Jenkins. When Louis Armstrong heard the group at an NAACP event at the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco in 1959 he took them under his wing and arranged a six-week run in Las Vegas.  It gave Perrier a chance to mingle with jazz greats like Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald.

She spent decades performing around the world, but since the 1990s she’s worked to keep a high profile at home. Wednesday’s Nancy Wilson celebration marks her return to the stage with a rare date in the East Bay.