Surviving the Fire: A conversation with a dancer who almost lost everything.
I knew my house was gone. I just never thought it would take the whole town.
The power of dance is immeasurable and universal; it entertains, it passes along stories, it feeds our souls, and it heals. One particularly horrific day led many of us on a journey to finding that healing through dance and community. On the morning of November 8, 2018, our community was forever changed. The deadliest fire in California history, its destruction and devastation certainly cannot be summarized by numbers and percentages. The sounds, smells, and sights of the Camp Fire will forever be ingrained in the memories of us all. Many watched from afar, and all too many watched it unfold on top of them. For those of us down-valley of the fire, we knew it was bad. By the beginning of most everyone’s work day, half of the sky was pitch black, the other half had an eerie orange glow. Stories started to unfold on the news and information began spinning around town as people came down to get out of the fire, or were trying to reach loved ones. As we drove out of town, in more traffic than I have ever seen in the area, we could see the flames coming over the ridge of Paradise, California, into the towns below. It went on for miles.
The day the fire began, we heard that in addition to multiple colleagues, one of my students had lost her home. Talia Rempel is a Musical Theatre major and Dance minor here at Chico State. Talia and her family had gotten out, but their home was gone. I texted her to make sure they had somewhere to go, and to hear for myself that she was okay. They were in fact okay, and they had family nearby to stay with.
Prior to the fire, we were in the finishing rehearsals for our faculty dance concert that was opening just weeks later. Once this fire hit, everything came to a screeching halt, and all that mattered was making sure everyone got to safety. Because of the major collaboration the show had across campus and in the community, I had previously decided to title the concert Unity In Motion. The pieces began rehearsing in August, and many of the themes ironically revolved around healing through dance. I do believe that the universe was also setting us up for how badly we would need this show, and all of the people in it. Dance heals in a powerful way, and this concert proved that to be true.
One of the pieces I choreographed was a story I had waited years to try to do justice. The piece was centered around a tragic event, and was understandably intense. But, as art always does, it allowed us to discuss difficult things that words failed to sufficiently communicate. Talia was a cast member in this piece. We had spent months discussing the event, and everyone in the cast was allowed to collaborate and contribute a part of themselves to the story. When the fire occurred, and I learned of her loss and inevitable unforeseeable future, I did not expect her to continue on with the concert if she didn’t feel that she could or even wanted to. Talia chose to not only finish the semester in all of her classes, but wanted to perform in the piece just weeks after the Camp Fire. The entire department watched in awe as she so beautifully danced in the piece, and so bravely bared her soul on stage.
Continuing to bring arts to the community was more necessary in that moment than ever.
Just after the one-year mark of the fire had passed, I approached her about this article. She graciously agreed to sit down with me and further discuss her experience, and how it has impacted her life. Here is part of the interview I did with Talia on January 6, 2020:
Will you recap what the morning of the Camp Fire was like for you?
I remember that morning I was getting ready for school when we saw the plume of smoke in the distance. I think it was 7 or 7:30 when we noticed it. We very quickly realized that it would be heading in our direction, and began packing up whatever we could as quickly as possible. I remember at about 8:40 my mom yelled at me to grab my cat and leave, and as I ran out the front door, I looked over at my next-door neighbor's house and saw it catching fire. I shouted to my family that the fire was next-door, and drove away in absolute panic. The evacuation itself is a little fuzzy in my memory -- I was stuck in gridlock for two hours in a complete dead zone. I was unable to call my family to see if they had made it out of the house before the fire had gotten to it. The roads were utter chaos, with people running out of their homes, cars coming out of every street, large chunks of ash and burning leaves falling from the sky. It was pitch black. I was finally able to get out of Paradise, [California] after two hours (a drive that normally would've taken 10 minutes), and I got a hold of my mom, who told me my family had gotten out safe, but we hadn't been able to grab two of our cats. It took another two hours to get to Oroville, where we stayed evacuated at my grandfather's house. Parts of the road were on fire, and even once I got out of the burning areas, the sky was still choked out by ash and black smoke. The whole experience seemed so surreal, like I had stepped into some kind of apocalyptic movie.
What do you feel was the biggest thing taken away from you that day?
It's hard to pinpoint one thing, there was so much lost that day. The loss of my house and town was painful, the loss of my cats was heartbreaking... But I think the biggest thing I lost that day was my sense of safety and security. After something so destructive and deadly takes away everything you know, it's hard to feel comfortable or safe. Especially when we found a new place to live, it was a struggle for me to feel comfortable. It was hard to sleep at night, or to leave the house, because it felt as though I should be prepared for another disaster. It was hard to settle down and feel at ease. It still is sometimes.
What drove your decision to perform in Unity In Motion just weeks later?
At first, I genuinely considered dropping out of Unity in Motion. With the context of the piece being so closely tied to what I had experienced, I wasn't sure if I was emotionally ready or strong enough to perform. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this might be exactly what I needed. Performing has always helped me through things in the past, why wouldn't it now. Especially considering I was sharing a stage with some of my dearest friends and peers, I felt it would help me truly process and accept what I had just gone through.
What role had dance and theatre played in your life up to that point?
As a Musical Theatre major, my whole career and future is built around theatre and dance and performing. It's incredibly important to me. I've been dancing for as long as I can remember -- I started when I turned 4. I've been involved in theatre for years. It's my passion and my love, and I've been able to lean on it to help me through difficult moments in time.
How did dance help support you during this time?
Dance is so healing. Performing is so healing. Being able to put your heart on a stage, to share what you're feeling with an audience, is so fulfilling. It's almost other-worldly, the power that performance has. And going through the fire, there weren't a lot of words available to express everything I felt, so it was really a blessing I was able to convey everything I felt through dance. It almost felt as though I was meant to be in that piece, it was there to help me heal.
Moving forward, what will you take away from this experience? What advice would you give other artists suffering from hurt or tragedy?
The arts are truly so important. They give us purpose, they inspire hope. They give us a voice when our own fails. And as artists, it's so important to use this outlet, both for ourselves and for others. It helps us heal by sharing our own experiences, and oftentimes those experiences you share will help others who are listening.
Unity In Motion proved to be so much more than a dance collaboration. We went forward with the performance, knowing that the community was in shambles. But we hoped that it could be an escape for some. If even for two hours, people from all over could come into the theatre, relax, be present, be moved, be entertained. The support of everyone involved in the dance concert was matched and multiplied by the strength and courage of everyone around us. We all felt somewhat healed by this show. Continuing to bring arts to the community was more necessary in that moment than ever. We offered free tickets to whoever needed them, and we dedicated each performance to everyone who fell victim to the fire.
It's almost other-worldly, the power that performance has
For Talia, it helped her find a sense of normalcy in a time when her entire world had changed. Nothing that has been said so far comes close to describing the bravery and resilience of this young woman. Talia has an ever-present positive energy around her, an infectious smile on her face, and a genuine love for life and everyone in it. Through the trauma she experienced, she was one of the lucky ones that not only survived, but was and is able to move on with life. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked her why she thought she was able to move forward so well. She replied, “I think part of it is that I have to keep living. I can’t let something change my whole life, or me.”
Watching our campus and community come together in such a positive way after such a dark time was indescribable. Healing through dance, whether as a participant or patron, is very powerful. I’ve recently witnessed the dance community rally together from all over the world regarding everything from tragedy to making sure we are well represented, and it only reinforces my faith in the arts. Paradise was certainly not lost, however forever changed. May the arts continue to heal us all.
main photo: Unity in Motion @ Jason Halley