Remembering Patricia Bulitt, who danced in creeks and like a bird and held storytelling tea parties for Berkeley women

Patricia Bulitt, 1949-2021

Berkeley dancer, artist, poet, teacher and dance ethnographer Patricia Bulitt passed away on Sunday, June 27. Patricia was a solo artist who performed throughout the Bay Area, Alaska, Canada, France, New Zealand and Japan. 

Born in Trenton, New Jersey to Harold and Miriam Bulitt, Patricia spent her early years in New Jersey before moving with her mother and brother to southern California at age 11. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, did graduate work in dance at UCLA, and later trained at the Laban Institute in England. She took inspiration from her deep connection to nature as well as her interest in cultures different from her own. She was a creative force and an impresario; she could plan and execute a performance or a production down to the tiniest detail. Patricia gave much to her community and demanded much from her collaborators as well. 

Patricia also taught dance and creative arts to children at the Berkeley and Oakland public libraries and public schools. She often included storytelling and art making in her workshops. She danced and led workshops in regional parks, galleries and museums.

The “Mother of Mukluk Seal Mask Dance.” Credit: PatriciaBulitt.com

She was the first non-native dancer to teach in many rural Inuit communities throughout Alaska. From 1977 to 2009 she toured as an “artist in the schools” in native villages that were often only accessible by small airplanes. While she was teaching creative movement to the children in Hooper Bay, Alaska, she noticed that the Yupik elders in the village knew the traditional dances, but that they were not sharing them with the next generations. She began learning and documenting the traditional dances, and in 1981 she brought James Barker, a photographer, to Hooper Bay. The photos Barker took resulted in the exhibition, “Their Eyes Have Seen the Old Dances,”  honoring the elder dancers and drummers, engaging all generations in the community in an accompanying set of programs. The photos remain in the Traditional Council Hall in Hooper Bay.

While in Alaska, Patricia stayed in local homes and developed many lifelong friendships. She was taught traditional dances, which she was given permission to share in Alaska, California and abroad. These experiences led her to create her own original dance, “The Mother of the Mukluk Seal.” She commissioned a mask and a dress and a parka made from seal-gut from local artisans for her costume.

Bulitt’s love of nature drove much of her choreography. She especially identified with birds and created several pieces inspired by close observation of their habits. “Egretfully” was performed repeatedly at the Audubon Canyon Ranch above the Bolinas Lagoon. She also choreographed dances inspired by the birds at Lake Merritt in Oakland and by endangered birds in New Zealand. Another series cast Patricia as a “Creek Dancer” in Berkeley to draw attention to local waterway issues, encourage daylighting the creeks and ensure that they remained safe from pollution. “Culvert Action” was one such dance. “The Cloud Maiden” was performed in Los Angeles and at the Watershed Poetry Festival in Berkeley. These are just a sampling of many dances that she created and performed all over the world.

“Egretfully” was performed repeatedly at the Audubon Canyon Ranch. Credit: PatriciaBulitt.com

Many women and girls remember Patricia Bulitt best for the annual storytelling tea parties she organized and hosted for 14 years in Codornices Park. In addition to performing, she brought in special guest storytellers and encouraged each participant to share a story with their neighbor about a special woman in their lives. She encouraged many local dancers and young girls to take special roles, pouring tea and telling stories. It was another lovely example of an intergenerational community sharing, but one that happened right here in Berkeley.

Patricia was inspired by memories of her own grandmother, Betty Bulitt, to create a paper dress with images of her Nana, her honey cake recipe, and bits of stories that she had told. She embellished the dress with ribbons, buttons, glitter, and lace. This was the first of a series of paper dresses that she exhibited in galleries. She danced with some of them, using the dresses as props. In “Paper Dress of Apology for a Young Iraqi Girl,” she expressed her sadness for the loss of life during the Iraq war. She also led dress-making workshops. At her death, her paper dresses were donated to the Watershed Poetry Festival, where they will be displayed once a year.

Patricia also advocated quietly but persistently for the rights of the Ohlone people, adequate funding for affordable housing, racial justice, arts and culture, youth programs, and services for seniors and persons with disabilities. She called and wrote letters to the mayor and City Council and was pleased when she received replies to her concerns. She also delighted in attending the Ohlone Festival and the Indigenous People’s Day Pow-Wow. 

In March 2015, Patricia was honored by the city of Berkeley.  The citation commemorated her entire body of creative work, citing in particular her storytelling tea parties. 

The cause of Patricia’s death was multiple myeloma, which she had been living with on and off for many years. She approached her illness with grace and creativity, making the most of each day, no matter how difficult.  Deprived of opportunities to continue dancing, she turned to her love of poetry as a great creative outlet.  She was predeceased by her parents, Harold and Miriam Bulitt, and her brother, James Scott Bulitt.

Patricia loved hiking in Tilden Park to visit her “Mother Tree,” swimming in the pool at the YMCA, listening to KPFA, attending Buddhist and Jewish services, eating Saul’s Matzah ball chicken soup, checking out books from the local library, attending music and dance performances, perusing the Farmers Market, and sharing tea and deep conversation with friends. She appreciated her medical team and writers group at the Cancer Center. The medical team fulfilled her wish at the end to not have any visitors in the hospital or hospice facility. Friends held a celebration of her life at Codornices Park.

In March 2015, Patricia was honored by the city of Berkeley. Credit: Friends of Patricia Bulitt