Author Archive | Mary Ellen Hunt

Teacher, Priestess, Dancer: Paying Tribute To Blanche Brown

“I’VE TRIED TO RETIRE FOUR TIMES,” says Blanche Brown with an infectious laugh, “And I always come back. I just have to dance. I have to listen to those drums.”

Blanche Brown and friend smile together

Picture (L to R): Linda Faye Johnson and Blanche Brown. Photo by CSQWest: L. Malonga

At 79, the gracious and engaging Brown remains a vibrant force in the world of dance. And when the San Francisco International Arts Festival presents Congo SQ West Kinship Society on May 28 at the Cowell Theater, she will be the guest of honor in a tribute program featuring Linda Faye Johnson, Marcus Gordon, Roger Dillahunty and next generation artist, Elizabeth Soberanes.

Though she says she didn’t really study dance as a child, Brown says she remembers growing up with music and dance around home.

“I had an aunt who loved to dance—this was in the 1940s,” she relates. “She was good at jitterbug contests and she would always come back and show me the steps she did. So I’ve always had this love for movement and music, but it was definitely about social dance in my family. We always danced when we got together for holidays like Thanksgiving.”

In 1958, then Blanche Vitero, she married a young lawyer named Willie Brown. With his political career on the ascent and three young children, she says that dance was far away from her mind. But as the children grew older, her husband encouraged her to return to school for a college degree and she decided to enroll at San Francisco State University at the age of 35. Initially her focus was a business degree, but she discovered the dance program and was immediately hooked.

“I was the oldest person there!” she exclaims, “Everybody else was really young. But it was really a whole new world opening up for me. Once I started taking the dance classes that was it. I changed my major and graduated with a degree—in P.E., because in those days they didn’t have a dance degree, only a dance emphasis.”

Brown took her first classes with Nontsizi Cayou, a dance educator and cultural activist who was instrumental in the founding of the dance department as well as the Center for African and African American Art and Culture at SF State.

“She was the director of the dance company,” Brown recalls, “I learned so much from her, she really was a mentor. Her vision of what dance was has stuck with me my whole life because it solidified what I felt about dancing. She used to say you dance from inside out—it’s not just movement for movement’s sake. I repeat that phrase all the time to my students.”

When she first went to college, she says, she took modern and jazz classes, but when she had the chance to study with Haitian teacher and choreographer Jean-Leon Destine?, “I knew it was something totally different.”

“The sound of the drums! I had never danced to drums,” she says. While in school, Brown danced with the Wajumbe Performance Ensemble and after graduating, she also taught classes, but she describes a certain restlessness.

“When I first started we did Afro-Haitian,” she recalls, “but it was not really traditional Haitian. It was African movement to drum rhythms. I knew there was something more. Our company traveled to Africa, and there was something more about the dance that was more spiritual and internal and I wanted to learn what that was about.”

Brown began to study in New York taking classes from Haitians and also going to Haitian ceremonies—“in the middle of Manhattan!” she laughs.

“There was dance and drum all night long. The sun would come up and they would still be dancing and drumming,” she says. “I thought ‘This is what this is all about.’ It has a whole different meaning that was very spiritual—you felt that in the people who were singing and dancing. So I would go back every year and study with a woman who became a good friend of mine, Mona Amira, and I would try to learn as much as I could about how the dance and drum worked together.”

“It really showed me how culturally African dance began, what it was for,” she explains. “In that community, they were dancing for spirits. It could have been a celebration of a spirit, it could have been for somebody who needed to have that spirit come down and talk to them. But it was for something.”

Dance also brought Brown to the Yoruba tradition and in the early 80s, she was initi- ated as a priestess of Oshun.

“I was invited to a ceremony of the Yoruba tradition and there was such similarity between what they were doing and what I saw in New York, between the dance, the drum and the community, how they brought spirits down and how it was more than just dance,” she says. “It took me to that place where I felt like if I really wanted to become part of this I would have to delve in and become initiated. When I first ?started, I had a wonderful godfather who showed me that this religion, as old as it was, really belonged in a modern world, that you could still worship the old way, deal in ancient ways, but still live in the world in which we live.”

young Blanche Brown holds shaker and sings

Photo courtesy of Congo SQ West Kinship Society

In 1988, Brown founded her own company, called Roots of Haiti and then later Group Petit La Croix.

“It grew out of my love of being in Wanjumbe,” she says. “I always wanted to have a company of my own, because I loved doing choreography and I loved telling stories. We called it Petit La Croix, because I lived with a Haitian family once and the spirit came down and said, you are my children and the spirit was Baron La Croix, so we became Petit La Croix.”

“I do feel that spirits help me do what I’m supposed to do,” she continues, “and definitely at my age, the fact that I can still dance means that it has to be something more than just physical. When you see me walk, you’d never think that I’d be able to get out on the dance floor, but it’s just something that takes over. It’s so cleansing.”

Having seen the evolution of African dance and Haitian dance over decades, she observes that all art forms have to evolve.

“What I always loved about Haitian dance is the subtlety, the movement through the back and out through the arms,” she says. “Now movement is more dynamic. But I think all dance has changed. It’s more athletic and certain softer movements have just kind of disappeared. Look at So You Think You Can Dance. It’s how many turns you can do and how high you can jump, if you can somersault. I don’t see a lot of the lyrical things anymore, because a lot of what everybody did came out of that subtlety, whether it was in ballet, or jazz or African dance. Maybe one of these days it will go back.”

Still, it’s the future of dance, the students, that lure Brown back into the studio again and again.

“I love when the light comes on in my students, that moment when they get something,” she says. Of the many threads of her dance careers—student, performer, choreographer and teacher, is her teaching that she loves best.

“I don’t think I’m that great of a dancer,” she says with that same infectious laugh. “I’m short and in my mind I think I’m tall, and when I see myself dance, I think, oh my God. But I love to see dance in other people. What brings me back into the studio is the students and that energy in class. As long as I can move I will probably be teaching.”

The interview over, Brown is busy getting ready for the tribute evening. But she calls back with another thought.

“If you have this passion you should never give it up, you should find a way to do it,” she says. “When I started dancing at 35, who knew that I was going to have this long career, and it started out just because I loved to dance—it was a passion. I was able to make it into a lifelong ambition.”

Finding Inspiration: ODC Forges New Partnerships

1. A point is that which has no part.
2. A line is breadthless length.
3. The ends of a line are points.
4. A straight line is a line which lies evenly with the points on itself.

So begins Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, the 4th century B.C. volume of mathematics, which has been called one of the most influential texts ever written. A treatise on the definitions of space and dimension, Euclid’s methods for describing shape and form are so embedded in our everyday thinking that we scarcely even notice them. It’s the perfect springboard for ODC’s latest work, Triangulating Euclid—one of three premieres to be featured when ODC/Dance opens their 42nd spring season at Yerba Buena Center’s Lam Research Theater this month.

Pictured: ODC/Dance Photo by RJ Muna

Pictured: ODC/Dance
Photo by RJ Muna

In a departure from the usual, Triangulating Euclid will be a collaborative effort from Brenda Way, KT Nelson and New-York-based choreographer Kate Weare.

“I was at a place where I just wanted to change how I work,” Nelson explains. “So I said to Brenda, do you want to collaborate? We’ve done projects together like Toe-to-Toe before, but usually somebody’s in charge and the other person facilitates.”

Way agreed, and proposed an idea based on a paper titled “Triangulating Euclid,” written by conservator Karen Zucker about three perspectives on a rare volume of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. As a third member of the team, Way suggested Weare, well known to both from her seasons presenting work at ODC.

“We had actually been discussing broadly a way to venture into [the] studio together and this came up,” Weare remembers. “The opportunity to work with other choreographers is extremely rare. In general, we’re solo birds, and this is a chance to work with women that I really admire.”

Central to the inspiration for the piece is Erhardt Ratdolt’s landmark 1482 edition of Euclid—perhaps the first scientific book to be printed on a press and a gem among incunabula. Its production heralded a new era in which the knowledge contained in books could become accessible to anyone, enabling a scientific revolution and renaissance.

As she scrolls through a few photos of pages from the book, Way enthuses over the remarkably delicate illustrations of point, line and shape that contrast with florid illuminated letters and gothic text.

“The emotionality of it is interesting, you know?” Way says. “I mean, it’s a book about numbers—how emotional can you get? But I honestly think it has a richness in the history, the mathematical purity, the Renaissance innovation, and the material obsession. I think the Gutenberg Bible and this—they’re comparable to Steve Jobs and the internet. This shows us a moment when the world turned, and that’s so exciting.”

“Brenda actually saw the book,” Nelson notes, recounting that when she went to Zukor’s shop she wasn’t able to see it, but rather interviewed the conservator, absorbing her enthusiasm and love for the book. “What I came away with is that we have these beautiful ideas, Euclidean ideas, but it’s her, or whoever’s, obsession with it that brings it life. The human being’s relationship to art is what makes it come alive.”

If Way saw the austere beauty of the ideas and Nelson was intrigued by the relationships of people to the book, for her part, Weare says her interest in Euclid lies in the ways in which his ideas about math and geometry have resonated through centuries of art-making and the fundamental transformations the book engendered.

“I was brought up in that world, so I’m interested in how visual artists create space and accuracy in pictorial space,” she explains. “It speaks to me as a dance maker about the ongoing conversation about where meaning comes from in the work and form itself. How much comes from form? How much form can evoke and pull meaning to the surface from visual reality of the eye. To put it more bluntly, how emotional can abstraction be?”

Bay Area native Weare has her own seven-year old company now in New York, but says she has been a fan of ODC from a young age.

“I grew up watching KT Nelson and idolizing her. She was an extraordinary mover and I adored her as a teenager,” she recalls. “We are at very different stages in our careers and development. Brenda and KT have been naturally mentoring me—they’ve been able to advise me on the challenges of having a kid, how you go about being a serious choreographer and running a company while maintaining a family connection. I’m looking to them for wisdom and guidance about maintaining a choreographic voice.”

But if she is intimidated by the task at hand, Weare doesn’t show it. Earlier in January, Way and Nelson arrived in New York with a few dancers to attend the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ 2013 conference and had a few hours in the studio with Weare, who says that she’s excited to see what will emerge from their three-way conversation.

“I come from the Bay Area, but I’ve been in New York soaking up the artistic values and priorities of this scene,” she notes. “I think that I’ve been in my own artistic bubble for a long time working intensely with dancers I have a lot of history with. There are many things I take for granted and my particular voice is full of very distinct details, so this will be a different approach.”

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” declares Way, who adds that the process is intentionally shaking up their working styles to see what happens. “But I think when you’ve been in the field for a long time, you really become more brazen about what you’re willing to try.”

“As with any new work I think you hope to put yourself in a position where you don’t have your predictable response—I think you want to keep being fresh and finding out new things,” says Way, who will premiere another new work, Lifesaving Maneuvers, during the Dancing Downtown season. “It’s a new experiment—we are trying to set up a different circumstance to respond to. And it may fail like any scientific experiment fails. But I think it will for us succeed insofar as the attempt to communicate in different ways is going to bring out something interesting.”

Okada premiere

ODC Associate Choreographer Kimi Okada will also be trying out something a little new with her new duet, Two if by Sea, for ODC company members Jeremy Smith and Vanessa Thiessen. Okada observes that larger group pieces have been her métier, but she had a hankering to create a smaller work for the company.

“It’s a chance to work with two great, inventive dancers who have rhythmic capacity, fast feet and deeply physical bodies. I chose Jeremy and Vanessa because they are tap dancers,” says Okada, “not that it’s a tap dance, but because the concept of the piece is exploring secret language that a couple develops through the intimacy of being with each other for a long time. There are these secret signals you have with a partner, a secret language that other people don’t understand.”

Okada, who says that she also used to be a tap dancer, elaborates that she was interested in setting those ideas against the context of coding in a larger sense.

“I’ve always been fascinated by symbols. I love solving messages and codes, trying to figure out things,” she says, “I’m a huge baseball fan, and one of my favorite things is watching the third base coach signaling the runner what to do—it’s an amazing gestural dance.”

As she’s creating the duet, Okada says she’s been struck by the myriad ways of creating understanding without words –everything from the tapping of Morse code to the beat of talking drums to semaphore.

“There are all kinds of physical and audible code systems and lexicons that are meant to convey secret language,” she notes. “I’m interested in looking at how you physicalize that.”

Transit transitions

Nelson has also been fine-tuning Transit, which the company premiered last year and which will be on the program when ODC performs in the Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco’s City Hall on March 1. The dancers will still ride the sculptural bicycles by Max Chen in the restive choreography of modern urban life, set to Nico Mulhy’s score, but when Transit: Next Stop hits the Yerba Buena Center stage, it will also boast hand-drawn, animated video backdrops by Barry Steele.

“That’s how I originally wanted it,” Nelson notes, “It’s all hand-painted because I wanted the idea of low technology mixed with high, of showing the human side inside our urban lives.”

If the new film component offers a contextual change for the Yerba Buena season, the Rotunda series show offers a situational shift for the ballet. True to its title, this is a piece that has always been in transit—from performances outside the San Francisco Main Library to impromptu rehearsing on BART trains to the City Hall show, and each iteration has revealed fresh stories and necessitated new approaches to the choreography.

“That is the life of Transit –finding ourselves in different public spaces or settings, and allowing it to be transformed,” Nelson observes. “You take the dance language or vocabulary we developed for the piece, and put it in a different context, and just the dancer feeling that different context changes how they approach the movement. I hope that the spirit of Transit is to show that private life can be in public space. That our public spaces are really for people, not just to show that we have a cityscape that beautiful, but that it’s for people to use and be in and collect in.

“So what will happen in the Rotunda?” she continues, “I don’t know. But it will change their experience of the piece, the phrasing of it, the attitude behind it. From the very beginning I think the setup with which I built Transit was to constantly let the city change it.”

ODC/Dance Downtown 2013, Thu-Sun, Mar 14-24, Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF, for program information visit www.odcdance.org

Since going to press, ODC has announced that Kimi Okada’s piece “Two if By Sea” will not debut during the 2013 ODC/Dance Downtown season.

Jack Carpenter: a Master of Illumination

The estimable dance and theater lighting designer Thomas Skelton once remarked, “There are many barriers between the dancer and good lighting, but each can be hurdled with enough imagination, common sense, and perseverance.”

If illuminating the world of dance takes equal measures of creativity and gumption, then Jack Carpenter’s brand of resourceful ingenuity is indispensible.

The veteran lighting designer of scores of productions, Carpenter has lit productions for companies from San Francisco Ballet to the Eureka Theater to the Kronos Quartet. The recipient of multiple accolades from the Bay Area Critics Circle Awards and the Isadora Duncan Awards, he was the technical director for Theater Artaud from 1989 to 1995 and he designed numerous productions for Diablo Ballet between 1995 and 2008. Since the late 80s he’s worked closely on the design of productions for the Joe Goode Performance Group and for the last nine years he’s also served as production manager for World Arts West.

A graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, the affable and unpretentious Carpenter is known for his creative practicality, but underlying his mild-mannered demeanor, he reveals a thoughtful, analytical approach to the art of theater.

Pictured: Jack Carpenter Photo Courtesy of Jack Carpenter

Pictured: Jack Carpenter
Photo Courtesy of Jack Carpenter

Mary Ellen Hunt: How did you get your start in lighting design?
Jack Carpenter: I fell into theater and dance at Grinnell College. I originally was going to be pre-law and my advisor said take some non-reading class to balance out my load. So I signed up for a theater class in stagecraft. I got to do a little bit of everything.

When I graduated I was thinking more along the lines of scenic design or directing, and ended up just falling into lighting. Some of it was just practical. I was starting a family, and theater was such a huge commitment in terms of time. So I gravitated towards lighting, since it seemed to fit in with my life.

Also, I worked at a lighting company called Holtzmueller Productions—they do large industrial shows, provide rental equipment to the ballet and the opera throughout the Bay Area. I really cut my teeth on the logistic side of lighting while I worked there. Everything from walking into a vacant lot with a generator and putting up a full system, to a church group that wanted a fog machine for a miracle play.

MEH: And how was it that you became known for working with dance?
JC: I worked at Theater Artaud for a number of years during what was probably the heyday of modern dance in the Bay Area, when Margaret Jenkins and ODC and Joe Goode and LINES were all on the rise. They were moving into bigger spaces and Artaud gave them the option to play in a big format without a relatively huge investment.

All of those things helped me to meet so many people, that’s really where I started to work more with dance. I think it was the happenstance of meeting people and the field being on the rise.

MEH: You’ve done so much work with theater and opera– what are the differences between lighting those forms and lighting dance?
JC: In traditional dance, the emphasis is on the body and space, whereas in theater it’s all about the face. Simply put, how it translates into lighting is that you need more front light for theater and you need more side and back light for dance.

And then a dance plot usually tends to be larger, just because dance requires more space generally—you have more openness and more reliance on lighting. Especially nowadays, the genres tend to blend a lot more, so you could have a piece with the Women’s Philharmonic and Chanticleer with Lily Cai dancing. In that case, your emphasis might be more on the musicians, with a little bit on the dance. In Joe Goode’s work, there’s always live music and spoken word, and yet it’s not a play, it’s not something that’s stationary and dialogue-heavy. You have to be able to pull the face out when there’s dialogue, or when there’s emphasis on the person. And then when  the company comes in, or the person starts to integrate with the company, you have to open it out and round it out a little more.

Because the reliance on lighting seems to be heavier in dance, for me at least, lighting creates the focus. Rather than just looking at a big open wide space, lighting helps to train the eye—it defines what you’re looking at and what you’re not looking at.

MEH: The work of Jean Rosenthal and Thomas Skelton has been so influential on dance lighting. Do you think things have evolved since Rosenthal’s Magic of Light and Skelton’s Handbook for Dance Stagecraft?
JC: I do. I think there’s a lot of basics that they helped set up. They were the early pioneers of how the eye works and how lighting can highlight and bring to life what’s on the stage. But I think the craft has gone in many different directions now.

Take the work of someone like Jennifer Tipton, who’s from Yale School. I can look at a light plot and tell if sombody’s been through Yale. The major tipoff is that there’s little to no color. And the color that is there is usually very cool. The warm light that you see usually has no color and most of the cool color is what is called a color correction, so it’s what you might use in film to simulate daylight or nighttime rather than theatrical colors. So, you wouldn’t see a midnight blue, you wouldn’t see any amber, or reds unless it was really called for.

I think that aesthetic has been adopted by a lot of companies. ODC for instance, is very influenced by that. I’ve done a lot of work with KT Nelson and I know that for her pieces I can never use red, because her tastes tend toward a cooler palette. But this is what’s so interesting—working with someone, figuring out what their aesthetic is and figuring out how to fit what you want to do into that.

When I worked with Margaret Jenkins on Light Moves, it was heavily influenced by the projections and scenery. In that collaboration it felt like my place was to make sure that the dancers were pulled out and not lost. It was less about trying to make my own statement than to make sure that the dancers were part of the visual balance.

MEH: Tell me a little bit about collaborating on Traveling Light at the Mint with Joe Goode.
JC: I’ve worked with Joe a long time and I know a lot of what he’s interested in. From the beginning he wanted to do something that was more of an installation and less of a straight up dance piece. Originally we were talking about doing it in the Forum (at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) and dividing the room in half—it being essentially two worlds, a natural world and a constructed world. But we had done that before with Maverick Strain and he wanted it to be something that was more free-flowing.

Pictured: Joe Goode Performance Group Photo by RJ Muna

Pictured: Joe Goode Performance Group
Photo by RJ Muna

So he was moving away from doing it in a theater and I said that I wanted to work with natural light if at all possible. Kary Schulman at Grants for the Arts knew we were looking for a space and she said, “take a look at the Old Mint.”

Once we decide we would work there, we started to chart out the whole thing and Traveling Light became a really complex piece. He wanted people to move from room to room, so then you ask, “Does it have a single score? Would you hear the same thing or different pieces of the score in different rooms?” We had to look at the possible structures it could be.

MEH: How do you set something like that up from a technical perspective?
JC: When we walked in, there was virtually nothing there—there was power in the building and that was it. So it was basically about making a priority list in each scene. The first priority was that you got a sense of the room and what was unique about that room, that you saw as the primary focus the thing that was in that room. We worked on how best to pull that out and give each room its own character. For instance, in the duet, the long shaft of light coming in the room was the focus.

The place itself really defined a lot of things. Joe’s intial idea of a controlled space versus a wild space completely changed. The core theme of Traveling Light weight still rode through it, but was translated into something much more dictated by the space.

MEH: What are some of the things choreographers should bring to the table when talking about lighting design?
JC: It’s always good if they know what they like. Sometimes they can be very accomplished and yet not know what they like. But that’s a good start. Even just talking about their process is really helpful I just worked with Randee Paufve on a concert. For me to find out that she’s more Merce Cunningham-derived than Mark Morris—so she is somebody for whom the music and dance don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. As she said, the dancers aren’t dancing to the music. So I won’t be looking for things in the music necessarily as motivators but more as a guidepost, because they won’t be in the same place at the same time. Somebody like Mark Morris has strong musicality, so you know you can take things off of the movement or the music and either way it’s going to be in sync.

I just worked with Robert Dekkers and Post:Ballet and he had very strong color ideas. He wanted things to be very white light and very little color and it was good to find that out right away. So, as I’m looking at something and thinking about variations between things, that I’d use other things besides color as the major variants, and that color will play within a tight palette. It essentially sets out the world that you’re trying to collaborate with them on creating.
And you don’t just have to have ideas about lighting. Even if it’s just something that they really like, a movie they saw. Frequently people will talk about another production they’ve seen or a movie, or a story they’ve read, or they’ll say I know you can’t do this onstage, but this is what sparked me to create this piece. Those things all give you a launching pad. And since dance more than theater is so abstract it gives you a way to enter the dialogue.

MEH: What are some of the pitfalls you see in lighting nowadays?
JC: I’m very influenced by dynamics, more so than color. Color is usually not the first thing I think of although it depends on what the piece is. I also notice if it feels like somebody is ignoring it. Sometimes you can play against the dynamic. You can have something that’s happening very fast and you can have a long shift against that. Or you can be following the music, which is playing against the dance.

I also notice if I’m looking at the wrong thing, if there’s something that’s drawing my eye over here, but this really seems to be the focus of the piece or what’s more interesting.

And sometimes I think you have to play towards what is appealing to the eye. I did a piece with Nancy Karp called Kristallnacht where there was a lot of activity and then one character went very still. She had been the center of a very dramatic scene and it felt like the aftermath of her coming out of that was more important than the activity that was still going on, so I put an overly bright light on her as a way of following that through. I don’t know if that was Nancy’s intent, but she was fine with that.

Pictured: Bandaloop in "Bound(less)" Photo by SloMo Photos

Pictured: Bandaloop in “Bound(less)”
Photo by SloMo Photos

MEH: What are the challenges of the World Arts West Festival?
JC: Patty Ann Farrell does the lighting for the festival and that was a conscious choice on my part because she had a long history with the festival, and for me the challenges felt bigger than the lighting. Getting locked down into rehearsal where I had to be concentrating on lighting levels and listening to the call if it’s being called in the right place and as well as trying to manage the whole thing would be too much. I do think the festival is an excellent example of dynamics. When it works well, it flows when there’s a piece that segues into another piece that builds or recedes. Sometimes the artistic directors will say that they need something culturally, they want to see the interplay of these two different kinds of footwork. Or these two cultures together, so we try to fit that into how does the whole thing ebb and flow.

MEH: What projects do you see in your future?
JC: Traveling Light opened a lot of doors for me. Working in layers is something I’m really interested in. I’ve been doing a lot of work with Bandaloop recently and we had a good run in Oakland last year. I want to continue working with them and seeing what other kinds of things we can come up with. I really do like the site-specific work, the challenge of it. It feels like nothing is taken for granted, the audience performer relationship is up for grabs.

Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance

Ballet bookshelves are crammed with countless biographies and novelizations of the life of Rudolf Nureyev attesting to a long-standing public fascination with the iconic ballet star, even some 20 years after his death. To tell the truth, I’ve avoided most of them. However, Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, an expansive exhibition of Nureyev’s costumes and photographs at the de Young Museum, not only promised a glimpse into a glamorous career, but also sparked a memory of a young rat pulling at his cuffs.

Costume by: Nicholas Giorgiadis Photo by:  Pascal François/CNCS

Costume by: Nicholas Giorgiadis
Photo by: Pascal François/CNCS

In 1980, Nureyev’s production of the Nutcracker for the Berlin Ballet was—unaccountably—scheduled for July at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I was lucky enough to be among the small army of local children the company had chosen to use for the usual variety of roles—from party guests to the soldiers and mice. Although I was disappointed at not being selected to be one of the girls who got to wear pretty bows and makeup in the party scene, that ignominy was assuaged by the revelation that since Nureyev would play the Drosselmeyer role, we small rats would actually get to interact with him briefly.

To a child, the idea of being on the Metropolitan Opera House stage with Rudolf Nureyev was the equivalent of living out Clara’s magical Nutcracker dream. Nureyev’s history was already fabled by that time. His sensational defection in the airport in Paris in 1961, his remarkable partnership with Dame Margot Fonteyn, the rise to international fame, were already part of the legend of Rudi. It was a few years before Nureyev would take over as director of the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, and this production for the Berlin Ballet marked one of his increasingly rare guest appearances.

“Now don’t all rush at him,” the ballet mistress, Gudrun Leben, told us sternly. She was an austere German woman with short red hair who drilled the rats incessantly in our paces, so we already knew by heart what to do when Nureyev finally appeared for one brief rehearsal with the children before the actual performances. When at last we got to meet him, we were spellbound by this seeming demigod. Nureyev was, even at that latter stage of his dancing career, impossibly handsome and charismatic as he loomed over us wrapped in dark clothes with heavy heeled boots, but he was also, as I recall, remarkably kind to the kids, staying after rehearsal and signing autographs for everyone.

Ultimately, his Nutcracker—the Berlin version was decidedly a far cry from the more opulent version he later staged for the Paris Opera Ballet—was not kindly received by the New York critics who found it glum and overbearing. The “color spectrum as perceived by a dog” was how one writer described the decor and costumes, which bore little evidence of the sophisticated and luxurious tastes that would mark his later productions.

Of course, for us rats, elegance was not the byword anyway. We were enormous, portly rodents—like grey Teletubbies with giant papier-mache masks. But hidden inside each padded belly was a small treat.  The children who had performed in those roles in Berlin had written notes to future rats and pinned them inside the costumes along with their addresses. The result was that for several years I had a young penpal named Martina in Germany.

Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev Photo by:  © Francette Levieux

Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev Photo by:
© Francette Levieux

In retrospect, there is something delightful about the idea of young dancers connecting through the costumes we shared. The rat outfit was hideously ugly, but we took a certain pride in it. No longer was it just a bulky assemblage of fabric with a painted mask, but rather something that had a life of its own—a connector that travelled the world and carried with it the excitement of sharing a stage with a legendary dancer. In the performances, I was elated to be able to put mousey-grey gloved hands onto Nureyev’s arms and drag him offstage with all the zeal that a small rat could muster. Now I wonder how many other small rats clawed at him in exactly that same costume.

The allure of costume is that each has a life of its own—not just an outward character, but a history told in the careful construction, the decoration, the sweat, the mending and of course the dancers who have worn it. When you look at Nureyev’s tunics, it’s impossible not to imagine the body that went into it. Cut perfectly to his size, they reveal broad shoulders tapering to narrow hips, and they are embellished in many cases with incredibly lavish detail that seem perfectly matched to the palatine presence of the man.

“What the costumes reveal of him is his attention to detail and his love for sumptuous ornamentation,” says Jill D’Alessandro, Curator of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Nureyev was a textile collector and he loved the exotic, so you see his Tartar roots in these costumes. They’re relics of his past, like talismans that have a memory in them.”

There are more than 70 costumes either worn by Nureyev or worn in his ballets in the exhibition, which runs through February 17 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This will be the only U.S. stop for the collection, which was jointly organized by the de Young with the Centre national du costume de scène in Moulins, France.

Arranged according to the ballets they belong with, the exhibition at the de Young is designed to allow you to feel as if you are among the dancers, with elements of the set designs that give context to the costumes. And of course, you can examine the painstaking embroidery, the elaborate braiding on the jacket for his Raymonda, the luxurious decorations on his tunic from Swan Lake and the carefully darned and repaired sleeves of the shirt he wore in Glen Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire.

“In this exhibition, you get this opportunity to have an intimate experience with these costumes that, for so many of us, we only see for a fleeting moment from the orchestra or balcony,” D’Alessandro remarks, noting the intriguing dichotomy between the fantasy of the designs and the palpable presence of the dancer’s workaday mending.

Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev, Photo by: André Chino. Courtesy CNCS.

Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev
Photo by: André Chino. Courtesy CNCS.

“Coming from a costume and textile background, what is remarkable to me are the types of materials and the details—the real pashmina shawls that have been repurposed for these costumes, the paste jewels and pearls and gold thread,” she observes. “One always thinks—especially because when you’re looking at a dancer from far away—that they would be wearing fabrics like Lycra or synthetic materials and these aren’t that– they’re the most beautiful silks and gold thread.”

Alongside the costumes and photographs that comprise the main exhibition organized by the Centre national du costume de scène, D’Alessandro notes that the show also includes a textile education gallery as well as a small collection of memorabilia, newspaper clippings, programs, and photos that chronicle Nureyev’s many San Francisco connections, including one of the berets he was so fond of wearing, loaned by Tosca Cafe’s Jeannette Etheredge.

There are no grey-bellied rat costumes in the exhibition, but for this former rat the allure of the Nureyev mystique still runs deeper than the threads.

Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance: October 6, 2012–February 17, 2013, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. For more information: (415) 750-3600 or famsf.org.

Abadá Capoeira: the Spirit of Brazil

By Mary Ellen Hunt

“I want the pieces to flow like water from one to the next,” says Márcia Treidler, evoking a serpentine image of a river of music, dance and theater at Abadá-Capoeira’s Spirit of Brazil 2012 show, which runs October 18-21 at the ODC Theater. “I want the audience to feel the nonstop energy and never get bored or tired.”

“Mar de Tradiçönes,” or the Sea of Traditions, is the theme of this year’s show, the sixth to be presented by Abadá-Capoeira, and Treidler has planned an impressive lineup of international guests of musicians, singers, dancers, capoeiristas and choreographers.

The Spirit of Brazil has always highlighted Brazilian culture and traditions, she notes, but the program this year will view the world of capoeira through a historical lens.

“I want to leave people with the feeling they just visited Brazil,” she says energetically, having just returned from her own journey to Brazil where she’s been teaching.

Given its enormous popularity now, it’s almost hard to believe that capoeira was once considered a crime. Capoeira traces its roots back to the quilombos, or settlements founded in the 17th and 18th century by runaway slaves in Brazil. Born of a cultural melange of dances, rituals and traditions blended together by slaves of widely varied backgrounds and ethnicities, the nimble, fast-paced capoeira became a common language as well as a martial art that could be used to defend one’s self. By the late 19th century it was widely practiced throughout Brazil, and yet its association with black culture ultimately led to the prohibition and repression of the art.  Even today, capoeiristas take on aliases, or apelidos—names that they’ll be known by in the wider community—a nod to the days when capoeristas hid their identities to avoid being arrested and exiled.

Fortunately, capoeira enjoys better days now, and it has become a primary conduit of Brazilian culture. The international Abadá-Capoeira, or Brazilian Association for the Support and Development of the Art of  Capoeira, based in Rio de Janeiro, boasts some 41,000 members spread throughout 30 counties. Treidler, known in capoeira circles as “Mestranda Cigarra,” founded the San Francisco organization for Abadá-Capoeira, and is one of only ten mestrandos—master teachers charged with maintaining and governing the art, philosophy and techniques of capoeira—in the world.
Treidler herself is modest about her own achievements in capoeira, which have been considerable. Born in Rio de Janeiro, she began her studies under Mestre Camisa in the early 1980s and became the first of his female students to attain the rank of mestranda, a feat in the then male-dominated world of capoeira.

Treidler recalls that she was a teenager of 17 when she first began studying capoeira after seeing a performance in Rio de Janeiro.

Pictured: Abadá-Capoeira’s Spirit of Brazil Photo by: RJ Muna

Pictured: Abadá-Capoeira’s Spirit of Brazil
Photo by: RJ Muna

“There were people of all different sizes and shapes, all coming together and performing together,” she says. “And there was so much music and energy. I saw in an instant I wanted to do this.”
She remarks that she wishes now she had started at a younger age, but even so it took a year for her to convince her mother to allow her to take capoeira classes.

At the time, there were some women involved in capoeira, Treidler says, but when she began studying, there were very few competing at the highest levels and very few women teachers. She doesn’t recall even many women students in the classes with her.

“Now I see a lot of women developing good work in Brazil and in Europe,” she says, “but then the culture of capoeira was male dominated. In classes, it was the men who they developed, and the teachers were often more supportive of the men than the women. If you had a man and a woman in your class, they would just give feedback to the man.”

In Mestre Camisa however, Treidler found a guide and a mentor. “I didn’t want him to make it easy on me or treat me differently,” she says emphatically. “He helped me to become what I am today. And now I want to be a good example to other women because they need someone to look up to.”

After teaching for several years in Brazil, Treidler moved to California and founded Abadá-Capoeira SF in 1997, along with the ACSF Brazilian Arts Center, where she continues to teach.

And she returns to her roots in Brazil a couple of times a year, she says, “to see what’s developing, and see other teachers. It’s important that we are on the same page, so I’ll go back and teach classes, but I’ll also observe and see what everyone is developing, see their goals. It definitely enriches your knowledge. You see that every teacher follows the same style, but each has a different personality and that really comes through in their work.”

As a teacher, Treidler feels that the much of her job is to pass on the importance of the culture that comes with capoeira.

“You need to develop your knowledge of the music, develop a connection with Brazil, be a martial artist, be a dancer, know the history,” she declares. “It’s required that you be as complete as possible in your education, that you try to learn as much as you can, because you need to be able to pass that on to others. Otherwise we will lose the tradition.”

For the Spirit of Brazil, Treidler has called on some familiar faces, as well as new talents who will all appear onstage at ODC with ACSF performers. Featured this year will be the Brazlian born “Professor Mobília,” or Anderson Freire de Barros, joined by “Professor Goma,” or Ezequiel Alves dos Reis, who hails from Goiania, Brazil, but now works in Geneva, Switzerland. “Goma and Mobília are both engaging and captivating,”
Treidler remarks. “They are both talented, amazing performers, but they also have that ability to really connect with people and bring them into the show. Mobília is a dancer, he’s theatrical, he’s an amazing percussionist—the complete artist, I would say.”

And women capoeiristas will be well represented by the Brazilian Yara Camargo Cordeiro, also known as “Professora Yara,” who currently works in Washington, DC.

Then, too, the Spirit of Brazil will encompass more than just capoeira. Local Samba teacher and founder of SAMBAXÉ Dance Company, Raffaella Falchi will also perform, as will the drum ensemble Quimbanda Grupo Carnavalesco, led by the master percussionist Gamo da Paz. And featured along with capoeira will be the Afro-Brazilian style of maculelê, a traditional form often performed with sticks or machetes.

In the past 20 years  Treidler says, interest in capoeira has exploded.

“There’s been a huge growth, not just in numbers,” she observes, “but also knowledge and understanding of capoeira. People know of it, even if they haven’t done it. Musicians and dancers want to learn capoeira and incoporate it into their own styles. And so many people want to know the history of it. We Brazilians really know and appreciate that this is an art form that came from struggle. Now it’s becoming known in Europe and America.”

“The Spirit of Brazil is going to give people this great experience of the rich culture of the music, the martial arts, the artistry,” she continues. “I want everyone to feel they have had a taste of Brazil.”

Homecoming for the Ohlone: Honoring Tribal Recognition

If you walk into the cool quiet of Mission San Francisco de Asis, better known these days as Mission Dolores, there’s a curious, multi-tiered hut constructed out of reeds in the cemetery. That, along with a small columnar monument, are among the few hints that you can find in San Francisco of the Ohlone people who populated the Bay Area long before the Spanish settled here.

Now scattered in the mainly southern parts of California, the Ohlone–you may be surprised to learn–are not extinct as many people assume–indeed the U.S. federal government designates them “terminated.” Nine Ohlone tribes, hailing from San Jose to Pomona have applied for tribal recognition, which is granted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. To date, none of them have received recognition, although one, the Muwekma Ohlone of San Jose, was once recognized, but then later declared extinct in 1931.

When you talk about his family’s background with Tony Cerda–the chairman of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe, who will be honored with this year’s Malonga Casquelourde Lifetime Achievement Award on June 3 at San Francisco’s City Hall as part of their appearances at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival–he can rattle off a detailed history of each of his forebears, starting with ancestors baptized in the Mission in 1811. He’ll tell you who they were, what they did for a living and where their lives took them, and you slowly come to realize that the recitation is partly a savoring of family threads that he can trace back two hundred years, but it’s also partly a testament constructed out of necessity. One of the criteria for attaining tribal recognition is that groups must prove a continuous lineage as a community stretching back through historical times.

A Culture Disrupted
Cerda’s ancestors were among the many thousands of Ohlone at Mission Dolores whose culture was abruptly fractured by the arrival of Spanish missionaries in California. A hunter-gatherer society with a population that many estimate in the tens of thousands, the Ohlone lifestyle dramatically shifted to an agricultural base as more and more of the members of the tribe were converted to Christianity. By the early part of the 19th century, there were hundreds of Ohlone living inside the mission walls they themselves had helped to construct.

Life in the mission, as history records, was not kind to the Ohlone. Strict rules kept the men working in the fields and confined young unmarried women to monjerias, and if a convert decided that they wanted to leave, they would often be treated as runaways–chased down and returned to the mission where they faced punishment. As with many other native populations, the Ohlone were exposed to diseases previously unknown to them, and in the close living quarters of the mission, epidemics of such diseases as the measles would run rampant, decimating the population.

It was during such an epidemic that Cerda recounts one of his ancestors leaving for Monterey. It was the start of a pattern of migration that would lead members of Cerda’s family from Carmel to Pasadena, searching for work and for a place to live where, as Cerda delicately puts it, the political climate would be better.

Though identification with native heritage is now more often than not a point of pride, it was, in the not too distant past, often ill-advised, even dangerous to claim Ohlone lineage. From the time of the missions through the Gold Rush, Ohlone were targets for violence and retribution.

Fighting for recognition
Neil MacLean, the administrator of the Ohlone Profiles website, notes that the obstacles to achieving federal recognition are so vast that few tribes can mount a petition successfully.

“It takes an enormous amount of money to gather the documentation that’s required,” he explains, “and there are just no resources for that. So do you pay to mount a legal assault, or do you try to focus on preserving your culture?” Cerda is also philosophical about the idea of gaining tribal recognition.

“Not having federal recognition doesn’t mean they don’t know we’re here,” he says. “It’s an agreement made between one government and another.”

He cites Rosemary Cambra’s struggle for recognition as a kind of cautionary tale for tribes attempting to file a petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Cambra led a decades long effort to gain recognition for the Muwekma Ohlone tribe in San Jose, the tribe which was acknowledged by the U.S. until 1927. Stripped of their status by a bureaucratic loophole that declared the tribe “landless” and therefore ineligible for recognition with the BIA the Muwekma tribe has spent years attempting to get reaffirmation of their recognition. After filing petitions to be reinstated that were delayed throughout the 1990s, the tribe brought a lawsuit against the BIA, requiring a decision about their status. In 2002, the decision was finally returned, and although it was agreed that they had proven that members were descended from a historically recognized tribe and that the previous tribal recognition was not terminated legally, their status as federally acknowledged would not be confirmed. “Ask her how much she’s spent,” says Cerda, “Millions? Only to be turned down! It takes a lot of money, and people who would help us with that money would only be interested if we were building casinos. But we’re not interested in casinos, we’re only interested in the health and education of our members.”

Even without formal recognition of the tribe, Cerda notes that over 500 members of the Costanoan Rumsen are certified individually as Indians and that ironically, they have a tribal operations number with the BIA.

“Doesn’t that tell you that we’re recognized in a form?” he says. “But our right of indigenous occupancy was never honored. And they still dishonor it.”

But for now he concentrates on preserving the culture and educating the public about their history. Cerda explains that his tribe continues many of the Ohlone traditions, ceremonies, sweat lodges, even language.

“Language is what the Spaniards first took away from us,” he says a little defiantly, “Slowly we’re bringing it back.”

Healing at the Big Time
In a celebratory, yet also poignant moment of this year’s San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, on Saturday June 18, Cerda’s Costanoan Rumsen tribe will host a California Big Time Indian Gathering in the Yerba Buena Gardens. Tribes from all over the state will meet for a day honoring the Ohlone that will include healing ceremonies as well as performances from the Elem Indian Colony Tribe, the Pit River Maidu Tribe, the Winnemum Wintu Tribe, the Shingle Springs Miwok Tribe, the Stewarts Point Kashaya Band of Pomo, and the Manchester Pomo Tribe–all open to the public for free. In addition, a Native Contemporary Arts Festival will feature arts and crafts.

“It helps us to let people know that we’re still here,” Cerda says of the festival.

Right now it’s about having a cultural survival strategy,” says MacLean, “We are looking for an ongoing cultural presence in San Francisco.”

What shape that might take is debatable. Cerda and the Costanoan Rumsen have made a concerted effort to keep the tribe in the public eye and they feel that a strong presence in San Francisco is important for historical reasons, but also for spiritual connection that they have to the land. In the past ten years, Cerda has made the journey from Southern California with members of the tribe to conduct healing ceremonies on Crissy Field–where ancient shell mounds mark the sites where the Ohlone buried their dead–and at Mission Dolores. “There’s over 6,000 of our people buried there under the blacktop of the parking lot of Mission Dolores,” says Cerda matter-of-factly, “So that’s why we did our ceremony there.”

An Ongoing Ohlone Presence
Although the Ohlone have conducted events in the Bay Area frequently, MacLean suggests that establishing something that’s a more solid brick-and-mortar would be the next step.

“One need of the community is a genealogical research library,” he observes, noting that it was a great opportunity for Cerda when Mission Dolores granted him access to their archives and he discovered the record of the baptism of one of his ancestors. “It would help members clarify so many things.”

A museum or cultural center, he says, where records and artifacts could be gathered and which could house a performing space would be an enormous boon to the Ohlone.

“If we think about a cultural revival and recovery,” MacLean goes on, “dance and music forms are one of the primary modalities as a way of preserving culture.”

During the Ethnic Dance Festival’s last weekend the Costanoan Rumsen group will also perform onstage at the Novellus theater in Yerba Buena. Bringing the tribal members back to San Francisco, says Cerda, is expensive, but “as long as we can afford to come, we’re going to come, because that’s what it takes,” he says. “We’re bear people, bear medicine people, and it’s important to us to do these ceremonies to heal the land and heal the spirits of the land. That’s our culture and heritage and our religion.”

In fact, in the Yerba Buena Gardens Big Time, in addition to sweat lodges and talking circle ceremonies, the tribe will be performing healing ceremonies, which he says are very much open to the public to see and take part in.

“It’s important that we do these things, ” Cerda declares. “People in the city need healing too, not just people in the woods and in the mountains.”

Embracing the Past and Guiding Tomorrow

Halau o Keikiali’i performs Friday, March 4, at 12 noon in San Francisco’s City Hall Rotunda as part of the free Rotunda Dance Series, presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West. More information at dancersgroup.org

“What is tradition really?” asks Kawika Alfiche earnestly. “I’m doing what my teacher has done, and what his teacher has done. So I focus on the old and relate it to today. There’s so much in that alone, that I can spend a few lifetimes just focusing on hula traditions and it’s still not enough time.”

The charismatic and energetic Alfiche is the kumu or teacher and leader of the halau that bears his name, Halau o Keikiali’i, which performs March 4 in a free noontime concert under the San Francisco City Hall’s Rotunda. Now in its 17th year, the group was started by one of Alfiche’s teachers, Aunty Harriet Keahilihau-Spalding, who gave the troupe its original name, Hula Halau Aloha Pumehana ‘o Polynesia.

“She’s the one who had me start teaching, although I was really young at the time, “he recalls, noting that Aunty Harriet was only his second teacher, after Tiare Maka Olanolan-Clifford. “In 1992, I was 19 years old. But she mentored me for the first four years that the halau was together and gave the name to it in 1994.”

Alfiche, who grew up in the Bay Area, but traveled back and forth to Hawaii throughout much of his childhood, notes that in the early 90s, many halaus combined different styles–from Tahitian to Hawaiian–but after he became the kumu or master teacher of the halau, the name changed to Halau o Keikiali’i. “Keikiali’i is my name, so basically it means the school of Keikiali’i” he explains, “It also means prince, or child of the chief.”

The process of becoming a master or kumu is not always a formalized one, Alfiche says, reiterating that he was quite young to take on such an important role and in many ways still thinks of himself as a learner. How one earns the title of master can be vastly different from one group to another, he continues.

“It really depends on who you’re talking to and where they come from. Some people just open up a school and call themselves a teacher, which is fine, anybody can teach,” he says matter-of-factly. “Every lineage has a different way of doing it. In my case, my teacher, Aunty Harriet basically said here’s the name of your halau and take over, this is yours. And that’s how you become a kumu when it comes down to it, to become a kumu hula, your kumu has to say, ‘Okay, you’re the kumu.’

“That’s one process, and another is that you fall under your kumu and for many, many years you learn certain things,” he goes on, “I also went under this process of what we call uniki, which is the right to become a kumu hula. After I became kumu, Aunty Harriet sent me to learn from Kumu Hula Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca–who was a student of Uncle George Lanakilakeikiahiali`i Na’ope, a very well known hula master in Hawaii–for about eleven years. And so I became again formally a kumu hula, this time recognized under Kumu Rae.”

This, says Alfiche, is the way of the hula culture, though. Learning is something that continues throughout your life and even the oldest and wisest of masters never considers him or herself the final authority.

“You can be a lei-maker your whole entire life and you can go up to an Aunty who’s been making leis all her life,” he offers, “And you can say how long have you been learning and are you an expert? And she’ll say I’ve been making leis for 80 years and I’m still a beginner. There’s still always something else to learn, you’re never an expert.”

For Alfiche, as with many other kumus, the approach to hula involves a wholistic view of Hawaiian culture–singing, dancing, chanting, making lei, a sense of connection with the ocean and the land–much of which he’s absorbed on many trips back to the islands. At home, he says, everyone dances and is part of a luau in one way or another, so the yen to be back home is part of the attraction of having a halau here in the Bay Area.

“I usually try to look at the bright side,” he says philosophically. “You can whine and complain that you’ll never be able to do this or that because we’re not in Hawaii, but what’s really important is that we keep our connection. And then, here we have beaches, we have mountains, we have forests, we have all the things that we would need to be hula people here. There are challenges, but at the same time, it can be a good thing, because when we go back to Hawaii, we don’t take anything for granted. Not that people back home do, but when I bring my students there, there is just so much appreciation when they see that particular mountain that they dance about. So I look at it like it’s an opportunity, and as a good thing–we maintain our connection back home all the time.”

Keeping that thread to Hawaii going–whether physical, cultural or spiritual–seems to be such an integral part of hula itself. “Because we didn’t have a written language,” he says with a passionate emphasis, “We needed hula and because of hula, we know about things that happened in the 1700s, 1600s, 1500s, 1400s, because it’s all documented in songs. To me, without hula we would know nothing about our past.”

Which brings us back to the question of tradition and how one keeps traditions so tied to a homeland alive in a new country.

“If you were to ask around in the community, I think I’d be looked at as a traditional kumu,” says Alfiche. “But there are kumus here like Patrick Makuakane. He’s known for modern fusion–he’s coined the term hula mua, but what it boils down to is that he’s being very traditional. He’s a Hawaiian growing up here in San Francisco, and he loves dance music and DJ music. But that’s very Hawaiian to fuse those together. In other people’s minds they’re saying, “Oh, that’s not traditional!”–but to me he’s being really traditional. It really depends on who you talk to.

“I focus on the old and relate it to today,” he continues, “And we try to present all these old songs and dances but without having to wear grass skirts and do cartwheels onstage. It’s all about how you explain what’s happening and catching the audience’s eye without having to do the hapa haole hulus and stuff like that.”

And for the audiences that come to see Halau o Keikiali’i in the City Hall Rotunda–what does Alfiche hope that they take from the performance?

“Always my hope is that they see that times are changing,” he says, explaining, “In San Francisco, we, as well as the other halaus, have done a lot of work these past seventeen years to show that hula is not just that one thing that everyone thinks hula is, that thing from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. That was fine, I think it was great, my dad grew up in that era–it’s not my expertise, but it is what it is. But the moment that you start playing a drum and chanting, people are like what is that? I’m hoping that at this performance, people will identify what we do as hula too. It is all hula, and when it’s identifiable to everybody, then we can all move forward.”

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.

CD Release Party
Kawika Alfiche doesn’t just perform hula dance. Announced last month, his latest album, “Kale’a,” is a compilation of Hawaiian mele (songs), that evoke an array of emotions from joy and happiness to wistful longing. “Kale’a” features several original compositions written by Alfiche. To hear a Alfiche’s music, come to his upcoming concert and CD release party.

Sunday, March 20, 4-6pm
101 Brentwood Dr., So. San Francisco

With the release of “Nalei” (2005), and now “Kale’a,” Alfiche continues the traditional sounds of Hawaiian music. It is within the stories told in the mele that have been passed down for generations, with its morals and values, that people can truly be enriched in their personal lives. Everyone can benefit from the lessons taught and Alfiche hopes to reach people far and wide, touching those that may not be familiar with Hawaiian culture and share with them the spirit of aloha.

A portion of the proceeds from this showcase directly benefit the Kaululehua Hawaiian Cultural Center. Alfiche and his halau (dance troupe) have toured nationally and internationally; they are currently preparing for a month long (March-April) east coast tour of New York, Vermont, Boston, and Connecticut.

Check out the music downloads, performances and tour dates at kawikaalfiche.com. For more info call 650-588-1091 or email info@apop.net.

ODC’s Kaleidoscope of Outreach

When I sat down to talk about outreach with ODC artistic director KT Nelson, school director Kimi Okada, and outreach coordinator Annie Jupiter-Jones on a sunny morning at ODC’s Shotwell St. studios, I was all set to draw a neat diagram and map out the organization’s various community programs. As they began rattling off programs, describing them in kaleidoscopic detail, it quickly became clear that mere paper could not contain their dizzying array of educational efforts.

Keeping track of so many varied programs, they all agree, is a challenge. Both the teenaged Dance Jam company, as well as Buddies for Bunnies bring thousands of public school kids to see ODC’s beloved “Velveteen Rabbit” holiday show. There’s also the in-depth “Four Part Program” which engages kids directly in the process of dance-making, plus a myriad of special projects like: the Rites of Passage event that ODC created at Everett Middle School with San Francisco Mime Troupe and the San Francisco Writers’ Union, not to mention their work with at-risk youth of Edgewood Center for Children and Families. With tendrils that reach out to children, adults, families, dancers, non-dancers, students and audience, ODC’s community programs have evolved organically and are less systematic than systemic. And the founders don’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to box them into convenient hierarchies and flowcharts.

“One of the really great things is that each of the programs is really custom-built,” says Jupiter-Jones, who coordinates with a wide range of public and private schools for everything from a one-day afternoon hip hop class to a yearlong course integrated with the school’s curriculum. “We’re not trying to force a model onto them. There’s fluidity to create a program that will be the most successful for that school.”

The company of highly trained professional dancers and creative staff can do just that, creating successfully specific programs for each school. The ODC school faculty is equipped to offer expertise in an enormous variety of dance styles, to a wide range of ability-levels, and as an organization, is particularly primed to be able to serve any age group of kids, any occasion, just about any population in the larger community. All that said, their particular interest lies in forging partnerships.

“We actually prefer to send our teachers into the core curriculum of a school during the day,” explains Okada, “because for one thing, there’s a commitment, we know the kids are going to be there, and there’s a relationship we can build with the teacher, who can help us respond to their curriculum. One of the great relationships we have is with the Nueva School. This is our seventh year going in there. Our teachers meet with them prior to the school year and talk about the overall integrated curriculum. If Pre-K kids are learning about spineless animals, maybe we’ll do slug dances. Now of course, it’s a luxury, to be able to plan like that—that’s not always possible, of course. Basically we try to accommodate where there’s a need and put in the right kind of class. Each school is looked at for what they need and the right teacher to go in.”

“Everything is custom,” says Nelson, who notes that for many years, the essential details and structure of their outreach programs were largely stored in their heads. “That’s why everything is complex. But we made that decision philosophically back in the early 80s when we realized that your effectiveness is only to the degree that you can relate to your constituency. We didn’t want to go in and do a shtick for 800 people but have no lasting effect. We want to really connect.”

“That’s why we prefer to teach courses,” interjects Okada, “because you have a better experience than just a one-off master class for an hour. We want them to have something where they see a sequence, a progression, and results and see how it fits into a bigger picture.”

Jupiter-Jones also explains that where possible, they like to bring the kids into the ODC studios as well.

“The June Jordan School is a wonderful example,” nods Okada, “Their math teacher called me and said we just lost our PE program, we have no art, no physical education, is there any way they can come to take dance classes? So we figured out how they could take six classes in different styles—African, hip hop, bhangra—and they get to see the world of dance in such a different way than if we went to them.”

As the conversation with this inspired threesome continued, words and ideas tumbled out, each woman adding and commenting to each others’ recollections. I can’t help but feel that this must have been the way ODC’s outreach efforts—indeed most of their programs—came into existence, through brainstorming and a fluid and ongoing exchange of ideas.

“And,” adds Nelson, “It fits with one of our core philosophies, which is you come to our home, we go to yours. We find that a powerful recipe for exchange.”

“Back in the early collective days, one of the things we always wanted was the creation of community,” says Okada, “It’s one of the deep beliefs that has taken us through over forty years of existence. We need to have relationships with people—that’s the way we communicate through art, and that’s the way we have meaningful lives.”

Nelson adds, “I also think community is context, which is probably the most powerful educating tool there is. If you throw somebody in a rich context, they will grow and transform and choose their evolution. They’ll pick up something here, they’ll learn from that teacher.”

Although in its early days the company had engaged in numerous outreach events, their efforts really took off with the creation of Nelson’s perennial favorite, “The Velveteen Rabbit.” Nelson conceived of a Children’s Chorus of ten kids, whom they recruit wherever “Rabbit” is being performed, even while on tour. The kids spend 8-10 weeks in rehearsal with the company, and perform onstage being partnered by the professional dancers. “I think it is a transforming experience,” she says thoughtfully, “But it’s not about learning about how to dance, it’s about all of us coming together to make something happen.”

This led into another undertaking, which they’ve dubbed “Four Part Outreach,” a brainchild of artistic director Brenda Way, now a full program developed by Nelson.

“It came from the insight about trading homes,” says Nelson, “We go to you, you come to us and I think Brenda understood that that was an important way to break barriers.”

For the first part of the four steps, Nelson goes into second, third and fourth grade classrooms, offering the kids an interactive presentation about the collaborative process that went into making “The Velveteen Rabbit.” Then the kids come to the ODC studios to work with the dancers, a technique class, or create compositions around “rabbit” ideas, all before attending a free performance of the show. Finally, Nelson returns to their classrooms for a debriefing of the experience and to take a closer, more critical look at the whole process.

“I talk about what it means to be transformed, what is magic,” Nelson says, “ I try to get at the core values of the concept. My whole point when I do this is, I am an artist, I made these choices when I made this piece—what choices might you make? What kind of music would you use, what would you pick?”

“That’s really our goal in outreach,” chimes in Okada, “especially for young people, is to offer an open window to the immense possibility and transformative powers of art in general. That this could be meaningful and significant to your life, you could do it.”

The fact that teachers and creative staff that participate in these outreach efforts are themselves working artists adds a subtle dimension as well.

“Art is a journey of exploring yourself, the world and ideas,” Nelson declares, “My class will change, my outreach will change according to what is interesting to me now. It’s alive for them to respond to. It’s the same when they’re dancing with the ODC dancers in the studio and being lifted and pulled, they are feeling a kind of expertise, phrasing, commitment to movement, ideas. They might not know that that’s happening, but they’re right up against it.”

In fact, for the artists of ODC, part of the very point is what they gain as professionals while working with audiences and kids.

“Effective outreach is when the mentor is equally as affected as the mentee. We are both moved and changed by the activity,” says Nelson emphatically. “All of this doesn’t come from a place of trying to ‘do good’—that’s not why we do this. We do ‘do good,’ but it is through the art that we believe that we have some way for you all to participate, to experience yourself, experience the world, share ideas with us and with each other. That actually feeds me artistically, I know it will feed my dancers, and I know it will make a more interesting conversation for all of us.”

See this year’s performance of The Velveteen Rabbit at YBCA, Nov 27-Dec 13. For more information on this event and others visit odcdance.org.

Cut Back and Move Forward: San Francisco International Arts Festival 2009

It’s been a tough few months for the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF). Always an invaluable contributor to the landscape of Bay Area arts, the SFIAF has presented the likes of Akram Khan, Tere O’Connor and the AKHE Group, along with local mainstays such as Robert Moses’ Kin, AXIS Dance Company, Joe Goode, Circo Zero and Janice Garrett and Dancers. But this year, the SFIAF’s $100,000 funding from the city of San Francisco wound up a casualty of budget cutbacks in February. And yet, a conversation with executive director Andrew Wood gives the sense only of forward momentum. Retaining two weeks (May 20-31) out of its original three-week schedule, the SFIAF is operating on a bare bones budget.

As bad as the cutbacks have been, many pieces will still go on. One of the most exciting is the revival of Sasha Waltz and Guests’ 1993 work “Travelogue I: Twenty to eight,” a surrealistic journey through the domestic travails of five roommates played out dazzlingly in a kitchen—a tango on a table, a fight for a loaf of bread. The SFIAF performances represent Waltz’s only appearances in the United States this year, a grim reminder that in the era of belt-tightening, the possibilities for international artistic sojourns may begin to look like a luxury. “One of the things I like about what we do is that we often present people in the U.S. for the first time,” says Wood. “These are collaborators, or people who might not have U.S. agents or the resources to help deal with the visas.”

It’s a problem choreographer Scott Wells faced when he learned about the budget cuts. Ultimately it meant he was unable to bring a German collaborator to the Festival to work with Scott Wells and Dancers on “What Men Want,” an evening of four pieces that features the humorous and beefy “Wrestling with Affection.” Also included is an expanded version of his joint effort with author Michelle Tea, which he showed at LitQuake last October, but this time with the readings performed by Dublin-born dancer Niamh Condron. “I think the International Arts Festival is awesome,” declares Wells, “and there should be even more support for it. To be able to bring all of these people to San Francisco—the artistic community here is so hungry for it.”

Among the artists who have spent time abroad seeking out just the kind of inspiration that the SFIAF brings home is Jess Curtis, who, with his co-collaborator Maria Scaroni, will present “Transmission” the next installment in their ongoing series, “The Symmetry Project.” Those who have followed the project may recognize the same movement ideas that Curtis and Scaroni expressed in “re: Presentation” when they performed it in March at CounterPULSE. But this latest episode is on a grander scale involving scores of performers in the wide, open space of Union Square. “The Transmission project is less about the contact improvisation stuff that we do,” he says, explaining that he and Scaroni will be working with any and all interested participants who come to the workshops they’ve scheduled throughout April. Curtis elaborates: “The score is very simple—whatever you do on the left side of your body, you mirror on the right side of your body, but what will be interesting is to see what people do with it, how they figure that out for themselves. We’re trying to get people to drop into a kind of physical awareness—to pay attention to their bodies on a different level. What we’re really interested in is how people, being in an active process of problem-solving, feel in their bodies—where do my physical impulses and sensations take me if I can’t walk in a normal way, how do I move across space, or do I even want to cross space?”

Curtis describes “Transmission” as an examination of how physical ideas and information pass through communities and culture, and because it will happen in Union Square at lunch time—and not necessarily on the stage—it may take on a “found art” aspect to it as well. “We did a version of this in Berlin, in a large open square,” he says, “and all these people joined in, so we’re hoping it will become something like that—a big public installation event.” Curtis compares the serendipitous aspect of “Transmission” to the performance art event “Frozen Grand Central,” engineered by Improv Everywhere, in which a flash mob of 207 people inexplicably froze in place for five minutes at New York’s Grand Central Station before continuing on as if nothing had happened. “All of a sudden a bunch of people who were just part of a crowd morph into this alternate physical reality,” he continues, “and sometimes people, bystanders just join in. They get what’s going on and they join in. So I think we’re really just curious to see what happens.”

“I just love the idea that you could wander in and happen upon the dance,” says Gretchen Garnett, who along with the Riley Dance Project and Shah and Blah Productions will also present her work during the noontime concerts in Union Square as part of SFIAF’s MASH program for emerging artists. “Union Square is so expansive and with five dancers, it’s a little overwhelming to think about how to use that whole space, but it’s a great opportunity to break down the boundaries of the stage—to suddenly see dance in a different way.”

And bringing one of many perspectives to international dance is Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s “Serasi,” an Indonesian word translating roughly as “harmony” or a feeling of unity. A suite of pieces evoking a wide variety of Balinese folk and ritual dances, the whole evening is based around themes of interdependence and balance. In fact, harmony is one of the overarching themes of many of the works that this 60-member Oakland-based ensemble produces. “It evokes the idea of unity, and our art is devoted to unity, to looking past the individual,” says director Wayne Vitale. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the troupe continues to investigate the core philosophy of these Balinese arts: balance and harmony.

In the Balinese tradition, music and dance are inseparable. Though the group will feature three gamelan ensembles—a gamelan gong kebyar with 25 musicians, a ceremonial gamelan angklung, and a gender wayang quartet—alongside nearly a dozen dancers, including master artist-in-residence Emiko Saraswati Susilo and I Made Moja, the main story features the theme of serasi, of a group cohesiveness. Some of the hundreds of performers who have collaborated with the ensemble over the years will be onstage, including original ensemble member I Nyoman Wenten, a Balinese dancer and professor at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, along with his wife, the Javanese dancer, choreographer and teacher Nanik Wenten.

“Dance is performed in lots of different settings,” Vitale notes, “but its home is in the temple, and this piece has the feeling of what goes on when gamelan is performed in the temple.” But lest we get the notion that “Serasi” will be a performance of somber ritual, Vitale, who has spent years traveling to Indonesia to research and document the music and arts, adds, “Temples in Bali are festive, the dances are fun-filled and exuberant.” “Serasi,” he is quick to note, is not intended to be an East-meets-West fusion, but rather a more traditional take, a refashioning and rejuvenating of the traditions, which even now are changing and evolving. Dancer, musician and composer I Dewa Putu Berata assembled existing traditional material, composed new sections and stitched them all together into a new suite. “It feels like things are converging,” observes Vitale, “which is why we settled on this theme of togetherness, of tradition and balance.”

Sadly, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the cutbacks of the festival’s 2009 season threw the SFIAF’s plans out of balance—most of the festival’s events represent commitments initiated years ago. It’s more than just a cancellation when artists have to pull out as Mark Foehringer was forced to do. Foehringer had planned to present “MUSE,” a politically-charged collaboration with the Ballet Nacional del Peru and it represents the loss of several years’ worth of organizing and coordinating with the artists. Given the chilly state of the economic climate, this won’t be the last year of struggles for the many arts groups with whom Wood works. Although most of the artists generate the funding for their projects independent of the SFIAF, as Wood puts, “the city funding of SFIAF is the glue that holds everything together.”

But as fluid and unpredictable as the present is, Wood’s mind is already turning to the future and a conversation with him might flit back and forth from Sasha Waltz’s appearance at the festival, to a possible work with Shinichi Iova-Koga, to “how can we get [Balinese puppeteer] Larry Reed to China?” For the SFIAF, struggles with funding and visas aside, the drive to find and develop new work is a continual process that starts three years in the past, so at the moment Wood is not just thinking about 2010, he’s got 2011 on his mind. And the “MUSE” has not been abandoned just yet.

“We won’t just let it [the festival] go,” Wood says thoughtfully, “We have to find a way.”

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