04 | Gabriela Miller & Elizabeth Mangulabnan, Ascension Performing Arts
Ayyyy! Thank you all for the encouragement and support since I launched this blog a few days ago. 😊 Looking at all the interviews scheduled for even just next two weeks – it’s crazy. There are some hella talented people lined up for this blog, and I cannot wait to share more blog posts with all of you! Like yo this blog thing is actually thing-ing.
Last week I got to meet up at the throwback joint Java N Mug to chat with Gabriela “Gabby” Miller and Elizabeth “EZB” Mangulabnan. I met both of them through the collegiate community when they were in Kapwa Modern, but today many dancers in the community know them best for the work they've done through Ascension Performing Arts (APA). Aside from their own dance performance group, Ascension boasts a live music ensemble, as well as a squad of dope visual art and spoken word artists. Those art forms don’t live in isolation though – APA continually seeks to combine different art forms to create new expressions. Like dancing with a live music ensemble. Or creating visual art with paint-covered bodies dancing across cardboard. Or interpreting the spoken stories of others through interpretive movement.
Yet for APA members, all of those mediums serve one simple and clean (oh ho Kingdom Hearts reference) goal: to bring faith to the center of art. If you ask Gabby, that mission wasn’t always that crystal clear. Every year since its inception, Ascension has undergone experimentation, change, and reflection to refine and define who they are today.
2018 is no different. There are big changes as Gabby is stepping down this year as Ascension’s executive director, with EZB taking up the role in her place. I had a blast with this interview. Lots of laughing and cringing about old college days and struggles with adulting, but it was also inspiring listening to them talk about finding purpose in movement, creating strength from imperfection, and juggling all the responsibilities of running a non-profit. Not to mention for Gabby – motherhood. (Baby number two is on the way!) 😮 Like how do you do that. That parenting thing. While also adulting. Because I’m still struggling just to take care of myself sometimes. 😅
Kapwa Modern Days and COIS!
John: So we met through the collegiate dance scene, but did you both start dancing when you joined Kapwa Modern, or did you have dance experiences before college?
Gabby: Oh lord I haven't thought about this in sooooo long. I moved to Chicago from Northwest Indiana and started dancing in middle school doing typical dance team stuff. I was really shy and dance was the thing that got me out of my shell.
When I came to Chicago I joined Loyola University's dance team, and quickly I found that it just wasn't fulfilling for me anymore just regurgitating choreography for the sake of just doing moves. I wanted to do something with a little bit more purpose. So that's when I found Kapwa Modern. 😂 When I joined, Kapwa Modern really wasn't in Chicago dance community yet. So my second year in Kapwa, me and Vanessa de Leon - we started immersing ourselves more in the Chicago communities, so that was kind of our start.
John: It's interesting to hear you say that Kapwa wasn’t really immersed in the community at that time. For PhiNix, we were similar since we hadn’t gained much exposure to the dance scene outside of the University of Chicago. We didn’t really start getting out into the community more until we started actually starting hanging out with Kapwa Modern. Mostly at parties and stuff like that. 😂 I remember when we invited you to our Revival Showcase, and we saw you all perform for the first time. We were like “oh my God they are so good wtf."
Gabby: Oh my gosh. Reminiscing is fun!
John: Like Facebook does the whole “five years ago this happened” and occasionally it'll be a dance video and I’m like uhgaweuhasidufhasdnooooooooooo.
EZB: 😂 Cringy…sometimes I'm like “ahhh I don't want to talk about it ahaha!” Okay…so my first exposure to dance was when I took like a class over a summer with Hip Hop ConnXion. And I met Suavé (founder of Hip Hop ConnXion) through that class, and thought he was really inspiring as a leader and dancer.
For some reason I took that class but stopped dancing for a long time. But as I was just getting into college, I saw Kapwa Modern perform at a Christmas church event. And I was like ‘oh that’s so cool!” It’s funny because just starting college I was like “I’m going to study my butt off and I’m going to get into dental school and I’m not going to dance anymore and I did all that through high school and I’m done now.” But then I saw Kapwa Modern dance on that stage, and it just looked fun, you know?
Anyway a few months later, one of my friends Mary Vo – who would later play a huge role in starting APA – we were hanging out and she said she was going to a Kapwa Modern audition just for fun. So I tagged along. It was so fun. So when I got in, I was like…I guess I’m dancing still!
John: And you fell into the black hole of dance! You tease yourself like like "oh this will be a side thing and it won't take a lot of time." But then it becomes your life haha.
EZB: Haha yeah! I guess it became a huge part of my life because that's where I met Gab. And through that, I got involved with APA. It was a cool full circle moment, because I remember APA performing at MasterPiece, and Suavé was there! Back when I first took his class, I never expected to meet him again, but he came up to us and let us know how inspiring our performance was, which really meant a lot.
the seeds of Ascension
John: For you Gabby, you joined Kapwa because you were looking for more intention behind movement. It feels like finding intention in movement was a common thread in guiding you toward the next step in dance – did you have similar feelings when you starting thinking about creating Ascension?
Gabby: Yeah, that's interesting. In APA we say a lot that everything happens for a reason. Not necessarily destiny, but there's a purpose for everything and an intention for everything. So in Kapwa Modern Mary Vo joined for just a season but I truly believe that their was a purpose in me being able to meet her - she already knew EZB but I met Mary through Kapwa and we started talking about how the community didn't have an opportunity to bring faith and dance together. We seriously just started conceptualizing for months in her church basement on what this could look like. And that was kind of like the baby seed of Ascension.
John: Was the desire to fuse faith and the arts always there in college? It sounds like faith was already a significant part of your life by that point – did you grow up with that foundation in faith?
Gabby: Individually it's always been a huge part of my life growing up. I was raised non-denominational Christian. It's just really kept me going through everything and...it's hard to put faith into words sometimes.
EZB: Yeah, it's hard. I guess for me it was it was more like a cultural thing growing up until I was exposed to a non-denominational church, and now I realize that faith is something that drives me in everything that I do. It was difficult for me reconciling my faith with dance at first, you know? Haha - Kapwa sets were a lot of ratchet and parting and fun and I loved being a part of the team and I needed that growing up, learning dance in that setting. But I when I transitioned into APA and danced in that environment it was a complete 180 where it felt like more natural to me.
Gabby: Dude I just remembered something: a big component about the start of Ascension. OK so Vanessa and I started what was called COIs. They stood for Circle Of Information.
💡 *sound of lightbulb going off in John’s head*
John: Okay. Whoa so yo. I remember hanging out with Kapwa peeps from time to time and they would always bring this up COIs. They would be like yo - remember COI last night? I was like what. What is COI. Is that like a person or a whatttt.
Gabby: So Kapwa Modern grew from 10 people to like 40 really fast. So, we started COIs to get to each know other better. We would sit in a circle and do the standard “what's your favorite food or your favorite color…all that jazz.” We go on a circle and tell each other. Then it developed into “I'm having a horrible day. Let's talk about it.” So we come in and sometimes not even dance. Haha, like it was the night before one of the Prelude Competitions and we were supposed to have a dress rehearsal like most companies…and instead we sat down in a circle and instead just talked all night and cried about...
EZB: Our lives haha (sobcri).
Gabby: ...all the things we were going through....and we have to dance in three hours. What is life. So anyways that was actually a really good start in seeing how dance can be a lot more for people. And then in Kapwa Modern faith was a big aspect and we always prayed together. It brought us closer. And so again that was like a little bit of a seed of Ascension. John
John: And I see that even on Dream Team we have a circle before each performance. Or with Reversion Crew. To the point where I thought all teams did it…or like in FIAPWA. 😂
Gabby: Ah FIAPWA!
John: So APA feels like a natural next step, with dance already being a large part of you, and faith also being a large part of you.
Gabby: Yeah. When you're working in this faith and spirituality realm, God is always calling you to something else. The next big step. The next big challenge next way to make a difference in somebody's life. I feel like APA was that next step. Kapwa Modern was also that step. We had fun and great parties but then it was friendship at the center of everything. And then from there how can we call you to take that even deeper. With more intention.
John: When I first encountered Ascension on Facebook and it was getting started, it was really something I had never seen before. I guess from my background I didn’t have a lot of dance exposure in high school – I actually did not want to join dance at all during high school. I was totally into the emo MySpace Music page phase instead. 😅 (*Which is totally deleted now so don’t try to look for it lolol). But my family comes from a traditionally Catholic background – Filipino haha – so very ingrained even in the culture sometimes.
Whenever I saw people involved with their faith dance was a medium that wasn’t used very often in my experience. Sometimes it was live music and singing, or like a retreat weekend or something like that. But I think Ascension was the first time where I saw arts and faith really being fused together.
Like now, APA is immersed in music and visual arts and spoken word and all these art forms, but when you just started was it just dance first?
Gabby: Yeah - we didn't even comprehend at all the concept that we would have a music ensemble when we first started.
EZB: We always try to think of what we could do that's innovative. What's something new that APA hasn’t tried? So we wanted to do something with live music.
So Christian formed his little APA band, which is what we called it at first. The APA band. Eventually, that grew into the music ensemble.
Gabby: Yeah pretty much - in the very beginning when we did dance we strived really hard to do things that were socially conscious. There was one project that we absolutely loved. We went out and talked to people on the streets who were considered homeless and wrote down their stories. And then we performed them. We performed their story and interpreted it through dance, and then had spoken word artists. Adrian Azarias or Allen Tusic Tu would communicate the stories through spoken word while we moved to it.
EZB: Nicole Silva with her music too!
John: Oh wow. I know Adrian Azarias and Allen were also involved in the collegiate dance community. Were they already a part of APA at that point, or did you reach out them first?
Gabby: We reached out to them. And it’s awesome because through that experience they were exposed to APA and they eventually performed at our Benefit and then Adrian became part of our music ensemble. He did some original work for us! Wrote some bars. 😎
EZB: We had so many ideas. I mean we started out with just dance and then we asked, “what do we do if we get like people of different age groups?” What if we have like a senior that's interested? Or my little brother. He was eight at the time and he came to like one of our first workshops and Gab taught him a dance sequence. So we we're just dabbling in a bunch of things.
Gabby: We did a lot. I feel like we take each season and we listen to where God wants us to be and the way that we listen to God is listening to our members and by listening to the community and by hearing all those voices together about what they want and what the community needs. That's how it we respond.
One season we were primarily performance focused, but another season we were primarily focused on community outreach. So we created our own community outreach branch – Liz Galván was in charge of directing and organizing those events. We did like volunteer outing and each member had like their own outing that they organized had their own like ownership of.
We added our arts collective tier so you know we now have a fine arts tier that does not just fine arts but like a collective of different crafts and therapeutic - you know, I use that term loosely. Everything is therapeutic in terms of art. We have those three tiers of dance, music, and now the art collective. And our focus is collaborative always between those tiers.
John: Like the painting across the floor!
EZB: Yeah painting with our bodies. Gab laid out like this huge floor of cardboard boxes and then made - like handmade - paint. We had the music ensemble sing and had instrumentals while we people danced on the floor. And we made this thing that was beautiful.
The evolving mission of APA
Gabby: Do you guys wanna hear something fun? Our very first ever mission statement will give you a good idea of how we started and then what our mission statement is now. Bear with me. It's a really long three sentences, okay? 😂
Our founding mission statement: Ascension Performing Arts is a ministry dedicated to aspiring youth to become passionate individuals expressing themselves without limitations and actively engaged in spiritual growth. Performances are focused on community outreach in order to advocate on behalf of societal issues. Above all ascensions strives to produce artists to create with purpose in an environment of compassion love and acceptance.
The end. 🙏
Here is what that statement has morphed into: Our mission is to bring faith to the center of art.
Short and sweet. Because all of that is essentially what faith is.
John: Didn’t Ascension pursue non-profit status as well? What were the reasons for doing that?
Gabby: Haha what year is it? 2018. So....2016 we were a legal nonprofit, because we thought that non-profit status would help us to achieve our goals better. You can do a lot of things when you have that legal status. It's more trustworthy when we're working with the community. You can have tax deductions for all the things that we do. But at the same time, becoming a nonprofit means that you have so much extra paperwork and requirements by the government and legalities that you've got to live up to. And we felt that it really distracted us from our programming and our members.
So then 2017 we dissolved – which meant that we stepped back and we were not a legal non-profit for all of 2017.
EZB: At the time we dissolved, we had a shift in leadership, and with then with Gab as the executive director I felt like it was just it was like too much: on top of her executive duties and all the paperwork it was too much, and we wanted to make sure that we take care of our members and make sure that they get the training that they needed first and foremost. But with all the growth we've seen and especially with the benefit we realize we need to pursue non-profit status in 2018! 😄
Gabby: Oh my gosh yeah! One of the reasons we are pursuing non-profit status again is because with the Ascension Benefit we happily exceeded the legal amount of money we can make as not a non-profit, or not a business. So… 😂
EZB: So I guess we spilled the beans!
John: Yoooo! I remember when the 2017 Ascension Benefit was announced everyone was super excited. Especially since the last one was in 2015, which feels like forever ago. But Ascension sold all the tickets and I remember people posting things like “We’re sold out of tickets! So if you have tickets and you’re not coming anymore let us know because there’s a bunch of people who still want a ticket!”
EZB: Yeah we sold out in pre-sale! Oh wow there was so much work, and Gab did so much for the Benefit. Oh my gosh the rest of the directors focused on running rehearsals - Gab did that too because she had a piece in the benefit – and we split up some of the planning, with Mark doing tech rehearsals, Trina doing all the deserts, and Holly doing the ticketing and a lot of the tech stuff! But Gab did a lot of the behind the scenes stuff like the marketing, pricing venues, negotiating, annoying things like printing, getting all the decorations. And there's like a long list.
Gabby: It never ends. But it couldn't be done without all of the company members. Seriously - literally the day of the event I couldn't walk because I was just so exhausted and all of the members and directors were just so willing to help out.
Like. “Julia I can't walk.” I told Julia Yang, I couldn’t walk. I was on the floor a hot mess. I'm like “I need you to start the show.” And Julia’s like “Okay I got it!” and she was so good at it. I just love how the members and directors of Ascension are so loving with each other and willing to help out.
But yes, I believe we’ve really found who we are. Now we feel confident in moving forward especially with this new leadership! We have more man power – or rather, woman power - to make that transition smooth!
John: Yes! How are you feeling about that?
EZB: I'm so excited. Well I guess when I Gab announced that she was going to step away from her position all of us artistic directors were like, “okay what do we do what do we do.” 😨
Gabby: Yeah, I told the directors and then I later told APA as a whole - I felt it was my time to step away from the executive director position.
EZB: Yeah - I mean it APA means so so much to me, and I knew how much it meant to our members, too. I felt like I owed it to the company to keep it going, and take over those responsibilities that Gab had. So I was praying about it a lot. I didn’t know if I had the endurance and the talents and the patience and the time to step up into Gab’s role.
I just felt it in my heart that I should just talk to Gab about it. So we went to one of our friend’s baptisms. I actually wasn't planning on talking about it that night, but at the end of the night we were walking to her car, and I was like "Gab I have to talk to you!" I told her about it stepping into the role and I was just sitting in her car for 40 minutes just like talking and crying, so now...here we are!
Looking back: Lessons from Ascension
John: It goes without saying that APA has been really influential on a lot of people's lives. The members included and that's super apparent from the way you guys talk about it. I know you have been giving so much to and through APA. Let’s switch up the tables. How much do you think APA has influenced and changed you?
EZB: Oh my gosh.
John: Hahah I know that’s a huge bomb of a question!
Gabby: Oh my goodness. In what way has it not changed me is truly the question. Ascension has taught me and changed me 100 percent. It's taught me so many life lessons. Taught me how to be patient. How to be kinder. How to be more loving.
Before even Kapwa Modern, I was part of this crazy psychotic - it's called Universal Dance Association - UDA. I was an instructor for that and I would travel to all the universities and the national competitions and then teach dance at all these camps and whatnot. It was just very robotic and very - you have to do it this way, have to teach this way. You have to wear that size extra small uniform. You have to look like the perfect hair-done, makeup-done person.
I went from that to Ascension teaching me that it's not about being perfect. It's about the relationships that you build. If our routine is not 100% clean. That's okay. If a note is off or if our art is off a little bit on stage. Oh my God we're always having technical difficulties…but it's always about the experience that our members have and the relationships that we build. It taught me what my insecurities are and how I can rely on my friends to get me to get me through that.
EZB: Oh. My. Gosh. I think the biggest thing that I thank APA for is keeping my grounded in my faith. I think that I've been involved with APA through so many different stages of life. Through insecurities and breakups and difficulties in school - and I think it's easy to lose yourself in that. But APA has helped me remember who I am and at the end of the day, APA has helped me overcome those difficulties and rely on my faith. To rely on God to really drive me and keep me going. I think Ascension also helped me see what it really means to be like human and accept my humanness.
I think that even when I was exposed to a church. I thought that God and faith was black and white. This is right or this is wrong. That's what I thought my faith was, so it was really hard for me to reconcile different parts of my life. Through APA I was able to see that there's like gray areas, and it isn't so black and white. There's inclusiveness and everybody has a different story. People are the way that they are because of what they’ve been through.
I love being able to see a group of people every week and watch them grow artistically and as a person. I love reading through feedback forms at the end of each season and learning about how APA has changed their our members’ lives and it teaches me so much.
Oh my gosh even just becoming a leader. I directed like a dance team in high school, but it was nothing like what I see Gabby do and what I've learned to do as a leader. I've already had so many insecurities… like I am I doing things right, am I leading...it's such a huge weight. But at the end of the day it's beautiful. I’m not just teaching others, I'm constantly learning from everybody. Learning so much about faith.
John: And I think part of being a really effective leader like you said is learning what it means to be human. Everyone's a work in progress. Everyone is helping each other. A lot of time like we like to be perfectionists. Especially when we are in positions of responsibility and leadership.
EZB: Oh my god with Asian Parents hahaha.
John: Oh. 👏 For. 👏 Sure. 👏
EZB: The pressure is there.
John: I was just talking about this with my brother. We like to wear masks, right? So when you're in a leadership position you feel a lot of pressure. And a lot of that is self-imposed because you don't like you don't want to let people down. You don't want to let yourself down. You want to believe you can do it on your own. So you go to all these lengths to try to do everything yourself. But I think part of developing into a real effective leader is when you learn that you can’t do it all on your own, and let other people - allow their strengths to help you through your weaknesses.
Gabby: It's hard to do. It's hard to do.
EZB: Haha, yeah it’s so hard to do. People sometimes think “oh those Christians they pray and they think that God gonna make it happen for them,” but it’s so difficult. It’s so difficult to have that faith..
Gabby: And it's very human to not have that faith 100% of the time. People get scared to come into APA because they think that you have to be 100 percent all in. But what's so beautiful about Ascension is that people walk through the doors from everywhere. Maybe they’ve been involved in Christianity or some form Christianity in their life. We’ve had a Muslims and Buddhists walk through our doors. People who are agnostic and all of us just find this commonality in coming together.
John: Yeah, there's been this trend – not only in politics, but especially there. People are being pushed to one extreme or the other. But it's OK to be in the gray and not to have your mind made up all the time. Often there's more than two perspectives. There's all the grey in the middle. There's all this of upstairs space and downstairs space.
It’s nice that like there are people willing to acknowledge that they don’t always have the answer. But that won’t stop them from trying to find it.
APA in 2018!
John: So what’s next for APA?
EZB: Ooh - well we're kicking-off our next season in February. Gab is going to be spearhading our nonprofit status. We're going to try to develop or dance, our music ensemble and art collective, just lots of projects. We are hoping to do more community outreach, more workshops. We’ll start planning the next Benefit, of course. We are excited to partner with Puzzle Box, which just opened!
John: Okay - I guess one last question that I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed so far, since I think it’s been really insightful and interesting to hear people’s thoughts:
Looking back, what advice would you give to dancers who might be just starting, or wondering what the next step might be for them? Like what advice would you have for a 2010 Gabby, or a 2010 EZB?
EZB: I hate the concept of regret. I'm thinking like if I ever had a child. I would always want to encourage them to do their research. Really. Dabble in a million different things. Figure out who you are. Explore anything and everything that you're passionate about. I feel like my whole life, I was told what is right and what is wrong. I followed what was expected of me. But I feel like I could have done so much more if I wasn't so worried what my parents thought, or what my pastor, or admissions, or my professors thought of me.
Gabby: I feel very similar to EZB and like a lot of words you took right out of my mouth.
EZB: That's why were friends, haha! 😊
Gabby: I don't believe in regret. For example, I hated that I went to Loyola University because for me it was such a financial strain that is affecting me now. But on the flip side, I believe that everything has a purpose. If I didn't go to Loyola University I would have never joined Kapwa Modern, so who knows if Ascension would have ever been created? So out of my struggle also comes beauty.
I would definitely tell my past self and still my current self to stop being so hard on myself. I have such high expectations for myself. I am my own worst critic and I put myself in this dark tunnel vision, right? It can really put you in a downward spiral. But we need to ease up on ourselves. We give everyone else so much mercy but we never give ourselves mercy. ⭐