Author Archive | Rita Felciano

Jo Kreiter: Artistic Activist/Activist Artist

If you are like me, you want artists who have an individual voice and the expertise to articulate it cogently. Some develop gradually; in others a special spark asks for attention from the minute you encounter it. Jo Kreiter is one of them. Maybe you first noticed her as a member of Zaccho Dance Theatre as a moving speck sitting on the numeral nine of the Ferry Building’s Clock Tower. It happened in Joanna Haigood’s 1995 Noon, which had the performers also rappel some two hundred vertigo-inducing feet to the ground. Two years later, Kreiter’s own dancers were hanging off windowsills and fire escapes in Sparrow Alley to live music by Pamela Z. They surprised both passers-by and residents.

A Political Science Major at Duke University, Kreiter came to San Francisco without any dance training. It was the city’s long activist tradition that attracted her. She stayed, and it became a good decision for her and the local dance community. By now Kreiter has some twenty-three choreographies to her credit, the vast majority of them are what she calls “aerial” or “apparatus-based” dance. Her budgets have grown; her accolades and grants are numerous.  

Still, she has had a few setbacks. Some odder than others.

For her 20th anniversary concert in 2016, she created Grace and Delia Are Gone about violence against women. The music was based on murder ballads, many of them from 19th century folk traditions. The National Endowment for the Arts denied the grant proposal because as the panelists apparently said that these women should have gone to local shelters.  

Right now Kreiter is hard at work on her largest site-specific project yet. Tender (n.) A Person Who Takes Charge (June 7-16) will be performed outside the Cadillac Hotel at 388 Eddy Street in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods.

Yet Kreiter is restless.

woman in cream-colored dress with red hair dancing on a fire escape

She easily acknowledges that her site-specific works have allowed her to engage in her two passions: social activism from a feminist perspective and dance. She is also aware that her outdoor installations greatly limit their touring potential. “I would like not to be known as a regional artist,” she muses in her kitchen in the Portola District before a meeting with long-time set designer Sean Riley.  She would like Flyaway Productions to really take flight. “For instance,” she says, “it would be so nice if somebody, let’s say in Tennessee, had heard about what we do and called to explain that they had a certain situation, and would we like to come.”

Yet she already has come a long way. In 1990, still performing with Zaccho, she became a member of ODC’s first Pilot Project that encourages young choreographers to develop their potential. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she recalls but she does remember the supportive environment and that she wanted to make a “piece about wildness and that it was OK to be wild.”

Early on she also received much support by what she calls San Francisco’s “Senior Women Artists”: Haigood, Margaret Jenkins and Brenda Way. “I remember one day Brenda called me up and said she had heard about me; let’s have lunch.” And they did. “I wouldn’t be here without them,” Kreiter modestly acknowledges.

Her trapeze work with Terry Sendgraff and performing with Haigood had given her a framework of what she might do. She likes objects, any object, small, huge, round, pointed, fixed, floating. Kreiter embraces them because she sees possibilities. “My creativity is very naked without an object, “she admits. The simple act of walking vertically up a pole, for instance, exhilarated her. The gravitational pull became horizontal, and the vertical became the place on being grounded.

In addition to choreographing for her own group, for the last twelve years Kreiter has given summer workshops, “GIRLFLY” for underserved teenage girls. “They are body-focused,” she explains, “we address the body has a site of disempowerment and how they can change that.” She might not quite use that language, but the girls already have lots of stories to share about what it means to be male or female.

Looking for performers, Kreiter soon learned that traditional women’s dance training left them woefully shortchanged in upper body strength. That offended her feminist sensibility. To this day Flyaway is an all woman company. Her choreography is risk-based and demands upper-body strength, it is also dance-based, and many dancers already have acrobatic tendencies. Current company member Sonsherée Giles, for instance, is one of them. Experience has taught Kreiter that training dancers in her discipline is easier than training aerialists for dance. Laura Elaine Ellis, a “mature” dancer as she calls herself, wanted to broaden her skill set even as she was, as she says “attracted to the stories [Jo] she seeks to tell through her aerial dancing and apparatus.” As for her Flyaway training? “I am still working on strengthening and developing my aerial skills.”

3 women dancing on fire escapes outside of a hotelWhat about someone with fear of heights?

“Not for me,” Kreiter laughs.


As she has moved her creative energy to the Tenderloin, the subject matter has become increasingly dire.” For Tender she is working with immigrant Vietnamese people, the Tenderloin Museum and local Vietnamese community leaders. She will also include an employment component for local residents.

None of her works offer easy answers much as we would like them. But at the very least the stories about homelessness, about being ignored as women, about being exploited in the work force makes you (almost) believe that art and politics can have a symbiotic relationship. To see these dancers embrace the moment, and the sheer effort of their work instills hope even in a relatively straightforward work such as the 2003 How to be a Citizen. She had researched the decades old history of social protests along Market Street. She built a ramp on the lower part of the street on which the dancers struggled, climbed, slid and fell. But the ramp bent upwards as the women reached the end. A simple image perhaps, but potent and even hopeful.

Kreiter opts to work in the Tenderloin because “this is ground zero for income inequality in this City and this country. We don’t take care of the neediest people in our society, and they are there on the streets everyday.”

Not that it’s always easy. For example, rehearsing for the 2015 Needles to Thread meant working in an alley that functions as a public latrine. Yet even difficult can yield moments of beauty. A conversation with a resident about the work gave Kreiter feedback: “this is me.”

On a very hectic recent day as garbage was thrown around and a refrigerator kicked down the street, the neighborhood appeared to be a cauldron of fighting and screaming. Then dancers, in costumes for Tender, made their way to a photo shoot on a fire escape. All of a sudden, Kreiter remembers, “there was this moment of incredible calm and beauty even among all the chaos and pervasive trauma of an invasive street culture.”

Over the years Kreiter has developed a clear structural approach to each work. A year before the premiere, she starts collecting oral histories. For Tender, which looks at the experience of Vietnamese immigrants, she is working with seven dancers, drag artist Honey Maloney, the Asian Art and the Tenderloin museums, community and health organizations.

These stories will provide the work’s conceptual frame work. The material then gets divided into sections—four of them in the current piece. Then comes the music. For Tender the choreographer works for the first time with Emmy-winning composer Vân-Ánh Võ who also plays the zither, which functions prominently in Vietnamese culture.

If she knows and already is comfortable with a composer, the music’s creation can be very smooth. Pamela Z, who has worked with Kreiter since the 1996 Sparrows Alley, appreciates how very early in the process “Kreiter knows how the sections of the piece will be divided – with very precise durations, particular moods, tempi, and subject matter.” So Z often composes the score on her own. She finds it fascinating that somehow the different elements smoothly fit together.

The dance making comes at the very end of the process because the performers cannot command the site-specific space for long enough to realize the choreography. “My ideal,” Kreiter says somewhat dreamily, “is to create a work a hundred percent on location because the piece would have more longevity and, hopefully, engage the local residents more extensively.

Looking into the future, she repeats that, “I would really like to be invited rather than imposing myself.” To help the process along, she is designing a self-sustaining circular set for next year’s premiere that can be taken on the road.

Kreiter currently is a Rauschenberg Artist as Activist (2017-2019).  This fellowship allows her to create—unusually—a very personal work. Waiting Room examines the love of women living with an incarcerated loved one. She knows whereof she is talking. “I am one of them,” she says. “My husband was incarcerated for six years.”

Stepping Out of Your Niche

One of the lures of San Francisco in the 70’s for me was its robust number of world dance practitioners. Contemporary choreographers were entering a significantly pluralistic era. San Francisco boasted the widest range and most enthusiastic population of world dance participants and enthusiasts. With the advent of the Ethnic Dance Festival, their productions bec­ame hugely more polished and ambitious. They seemed to triple in number but that’s what happens when a door is opened. The festival was that door. I think this festival is a treasure; it stands as a beacon of value for our region, our wholehearted embrace of a broad and deeply imaginative world of traditions beyond our borders. We are not only a sanctuary city but also a celebratory city. —Brenda Way, Artistic Director/Founder of ODC/Dance

Next year is the big one. But moving into the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House now (July 8-9 and 15-16), as an overture to its 40th anniversary next summer was not such a bad, in fact courageous, decision for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (SFEDF).

Male dancer leaps with hat and cape

Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza / photo by RJ Muna

Was it serendipity that brought dances born in village plazas into this new venue, one of the temples of “high art?” Perhaps, but it’s good to remember that before they thrived in salons and court theaters, both opera and ballet had put down roots in popular culture. For the SFEDF, or as the dancers call it, “the Ethnic,” the new venue this theater offers a welcome opportunity to stretch its reach and claim its place as one of the Bay Area’s preeminent cultural institutions. After all, it was in this Beaux-Arts palace that countries from around the globe gathered in 1945 to found the United Nations. Also, if new museums, just by their very existence, dramatically increase their visitor count, there is no reason why SFEDF should not become more alluring to a wider audience and practitioners of other dance genres.

Yet this change of venue came only after several years of uncertainty and struggle for World Arts West (WAW), which produces the SFEDF. Executive Director Julie Mushet, always positive and who might be considered an SFEDF lifer—especially as she gets excited looking at the latest programs submitted by this year’s participants—recalls her frantic search for an appropriate SF theater. WAW had had high hopes to be considered as one of the developers for a revamped Palace of Fine Arts, their home for the last 23 years. “They didn’t even consider our proposal,” she explained, “because we didn’t have twenty millions in cash. Are there any non-profits who even have that kind of money?”

As it turned out the two potential hotel developers for the Palace of Fine Arts dropped out, as did the third candidate—for a museum. Then Mushet found out that even after the parking lots at the Palace of Fine Arts would be re-opened, the theater would no longer be available to them. So Mushet hit the phone, and finally called the Opera who not only invited them in, but also confirmed that they would be welcome for the festival’s 40th anniversary celebration (July 14-15 and 21-22, 2018).

Did the Opera give SFEDF a break on the cost to rent the theater? “No,” Mushet smiled, “we pay full price.” The rental fee will be around $250,000, compared to the Palace’s $103,306. During the last six years, because of limited or nonexistent parking at the Palace, WAW lost close to $500,000 in ticket income. Considering the way the funding situation is these days, one has to admire the guts and willingness to move forward by Mushet and her board of directors. “We understand that the Opera House is a bigger venue with a moderately larger fixed cost than was incurred at the Palace of Fine Arts. However, with its much more convenient location and the cachet associated with the Opera House we are anticipating a larger audience. Fingers crossed that this comes to pass!”explains SFEDF Treasurer Sydney Firestone.

seated and standing women play traditional instruments

Zena Carlota + Mahealani Uchiyama / photo by RJ Muna

A few years ago, SFEDF practically dominated the month of June with its four weekends of performances. Now their overall budget has shrunk by 20 percent, and many funders—both corporate and foundations—have disappeared. Mushet remembers a recent conversation with one potential donor who told her that SFEDF was behind the times and that they should turn it into a competition, in which the audience would determine the winner. “Does everything we do,” Mushet lamented, “have to be a competition? Isn’t there room for getting together and enjoying something beautiful?”

Over the last decade or so, SFEDF’s artistic quality has consistently risen. The dancers perform with expertise and commitment. The staging has become more proficient. The shows flow more smoothly. SFEDF presents dances to live music, “whenever possible,” Mushet clarifies. It is also be worth remembering that this summer might be a first for the Opera House: performers on stage who only dance for the love of it. No dancers get paid. SFEDF pays the companies a small honorarium according to their size. Maybe this is one reason that in 2012 an East Coast, post-modern choreographer, acquaintance of mine asked herself what she had carried away from a program she had just seen. Her answer, “They performed with such joy.”

Woman dancer lunges while swinging orange skirt

Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza / photo by RJ Muna

Directors of Bay Area world dance ensembles often return to the sources of their artist inspiration to deepen their knowledge and performance practice. Mushet recalls that in 2007 SFEDF received a small grant to send LIKHA Pilipino Folk Ensemble’s Artistic Director, Rudi Soriano to Palawan, Philippines to study with his Batak mentor. The following year the village chief participated in SFEDF and videotaped San Francisco’s artists. Upon returning to the Philippines, he discovered that his previously lackluster students began to develop a new appreciation for their own culture.

Choreographer and San Francisco Ballet Character Dancer Val Caniparoli has “attended the SF Ethnic Dance Festival for years and still is in awe of the diversity and the many ethnic organizations that thrive in the Bay Area.” In 1994, when he was working on his SF Ballet commission Lambarena: Bach to Africa, he sought out Diamano Coura West African Dance Company’s founder/directors Zakariya Diouf and Naomi Gedo Diouf. Still full of admiration, he recalls them as “amazing mentors and collaborators. They have affected how I choreograph—with a newly found sense of freedom.“ (on July 8, Naomi Gedo Diouf will receive this year’s SFEDF’s Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award)

three dancers, one drumming

BITEZO BIA KONGO / photo by RJ Muna

For the last 12 years the two Co-Artistic SFEDF Directors, Carlos Carvajal and CK Ladzekpo, have planned the programs with artists chosen from the pool of those qualified from the auditions. Carvajal, folk dancer in his teens before Ballet and choreography claimed him, explains; “I have European and some Asian experiences; CK knows all about dance and music of Africa and the African Diaspora.” Through their work curating the festival they have grown so close that they call each other “brother.”

dancer in blue crouches by upright dancer in red traditional Japanese costume

San Francisco Awakko Ren / photo by RJ Muna

Guiding the dancers through the process of trying to reach the Opera House’s 3,200 potential audience members—the Palace seated 966—did provide some challenges. Carvajal, who has performed in the Opera House many times during his time with SF Ballet, thinks the deeper stage will work beautifully though. Production values, however, had to be improved. Dancers will need to project more. Because of the theater’s size, some intimate dance forms could not be accommodated. Current programming had to be reduced to two weekends of two programs with two performances each. For the first time, some artists were invited without having to audition since the Festival considers them important to widen its audience appeal. 24 acts are scheduled, some of them in pre-performance settings.

SFEDF at the Opera House sounds good but that’s not the end. What the organizers really dream about is an International Festival of World Music and Dance—in the Opera House, and the rest of the City. As Caniparoli said, “I believe the sky is the limit on how this Festival can unite and affect all in the Arts community.” And its audiences.

Artistry, Engagement and Advocacy with AXIS Dance Company

Younger dancer pushes towards dancer in wheelchair

Judith Smith and Sonsheree Giles / photo by Trib LaPrad

“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” – Dalai Lama

True enough, but you also have to know that the farther out you throw the stone, the bigger its circular patterns will be. When in 1987 founding Artistic Director Thais Mazur of the Oakland-based AXIS Dance Company invited a group of disabled and able-bodied dancers to create a work, she probably didn’t think that this pebble would still make ripples 30 years later.

One of the women Mazur asked to participate was Judith Smith, who had to forgo a career as an equestrienne after a car accident left her in a wheelchair. The two had met at Hand to Hand Kajukenbo, a women’s martial arts/self defense program in Oakland, where Smith helped organize a class for disabled women. Smith remembers that having been introduced to improvising by a personal care giver, she had become passionate about studying contact improvisation and martial arts/self defense training. “I became so much stronger and more independent. It completely changed my attitude towards my body and my disability. Yet when Mazur asked her she had doubts because she had no dance training. “I started out with four left wheels,” she smiled. Previously unknown worlds opened as she went to every dance performance she could get to, ushering at places like Theater Artaud and Cal Performances.

From the beginning AXIS included dancers with and without disabilities; the disability movement was in its infancy but the eld of dance was changing by becoming less easily definable. AXIS quickly drew attention with its participation in the Dance Brigade’s 1988 “Furious Feet Festival for Social Change” and in 1989 for its role in the Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie. Terry Sendgraff offered them her studio for rehearsal and invited the company to set a piece for her Motivity presentations. “Both the disability community and the dance community became excited,” Smith says.

Six dancers, four jump and lean on two in wheelchairs

Uli Schmitz, Megan Schirle, Judith Smith, Stephanie McGlynn, Nicole Richter, Bonnie Lewkowicz / photo by Marty Sohl

The works were collaboratively created and, remembers Smith, often dealt with disability. When he was still with the Walker Center in Minneapolis in the early nineties, John Killacky, now Executive Director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont invited AXIS to perform. “I was interested in what they were doing,” he said recently, “because while there was a burgeoning disability movement, there were not a lot of mixed abilities companies of quality out there. Most of them were built on a therapeutic model when people of various disabilities came together.”

In Minneapolis, in Killacky’s words, “[AXIS] received a terrible review from the local dance critic who talked about how he wanted this company to take itself more seriously in terms of choreography.” Killacky had long conversations with Smith who admitted that they sometimes got “sympathy” reviews (“look how special these people are”).

Smith knew choreographers she loved and admired like Joe Goode, Sonya Delwaide, Joanna Haigood and Bill T. Jones. She came to realize that AXIS needed to widen its reach. It needed to train disabled dancers and invite outside choreographers. This awareness brought about a painful in-house rupture. Nina Haft, who had joined AXIS in its second year and was a Teaching Associate at the time, also remembers underlying tensions because “we weren’t very experienced in talking about disability issues. Disability was right under the surface of everything that we did.” She thinks AXIS was lucky that Smith decided to stay on because “she was disabled but also a very gifted arts administrator.”

Haft learned basic choreographic skills from AXIS. “We would bring in clear questions and then investigate them on our own bodies. Cohesion came from people embracing and leveraging their own unique artistic abilities. This was not how I had been taught.” It is still the way Haft works today. “I wouldn’t be the choreographer I am without AXIS,” she acknowledged.

Since the dancers didn’t have access to training, they mainly worked with each other. When Smith took over in 1997 she decided that everyone in the company should learn to teach. It allowed the company to grow its outreach work. They also developed an education program in the schools for kids with a variety of challenges.

Two years after the breakup, in 2000 AXIS premiered Delwaide’s Chuchotements (Whisperings), Goode’s Jane Eyre, Haigood’s Descending Cord and Bill T. Jones’ Fantasy in C Major. These works got enviable local attention but Smith recalls “it was ‘Bill T. Jones’ Fantasy in C Major that put us on the map.” She is still amazed at her own naivete and recklessness about reaching so high. She also recalls that “Bill was incredibly patient with us because we were pretty green. We had three weeks instead of the more customary six weeks of rehearsal so we hired Sonya [Delwaide] as our rehearsal director. That piece kicked our butts.”

Nobody got paid for either rehearsals or performances, and everybody had outside jobs. “This company was built on sweat equity, and I am forever grateful to everyone,” Smith acknowledges. Today AXIS has a full-time staff of five and two part-time associates; the dancers receive a salary and health insurance. When Smith took over AXIS’ budget was $60,000; today it is $950,000.

Smith has commissioned over 40 pieces from inside the company, local choreographers but also national ones such as David Dorfman, Steven Petronio, Victoria Marks, Kate Weare, and Anne Carlson. To find the right match, Smith looks at a lot of work and tries to see something that might be responsive to the dancers. The relationships often start with workshops in which choreographer and dancers get to know each other—not in terms of the “equipment” used but in terms of the people involved.

Yet finding the right dancers is an ongoing challenge, and not only for dancers with disabilities. She wants everyone to be adventurous, curious, and brave. These days AXIS tours extensively which has helped to spread the word about integrated dance. Killacky thinks that AXIS is still the best in the country and soon will be considered just another modern dance company.

While Smith is gratified by the successes so far, she doesn’t think enough progress has been in terms of training dancers with disabilities and offering them performance opportunities. The quality she sees is not good enough, and even AXIS can get stronger.

The Australia-raised Marc Brew, AXIS Artistic Director since January, who was a dancer before becoming disabled, is an excellent choreographer, and an experienced director and teacher with an international career. According to Smith she found the right person to take AXIS to where it needs to go now. After another world premiere in London the other day, Brew who has worked with the company off and on since 2011, emailed some information on where he wants the company to go. All is based on AXIS’ three pillars of Artistry, Education, and Advocacy. Brew has already hired a full-time rehearsal director, increased the size of the company to six dancers plus an apprentice, and instigated regular company classes. He wants to enhance the artistic quality by bringing in first-rate artists and teachers and assembling a cohesive artistic team. Through participation in national and international festivals, he hopes AXIS will gain a more international profile even as it expands its local school programs and becomes more embedded in Oakland’s identity.

As for Smith, she will shift from Artistic Director to a more focused advocacy role. She will spend the majority of her energy on fundraising and raising the bar for integrated dance. Last year, she organized a national convening and six regional meetings: The Future Of Physically Integrated Dance in the USA which brought together over 300 dancers, administrators, educators, presenters and funders to exchange ideas, plan strategies and connect with each other. As Smith told In Dance last December: “After 30 years of trying to make a place in dance for AXIS and others like us. I feel it’s finally happening. . . I no longer have to convince the eld that this is important, vital and frankly the right thing to do. The momentum is palpable and the time is right.”

Take it for granted. In the next part of her career, Smith will not make ripples. She’ll create waves.

Krissy Keefer Charges Forward on the Cusp of a Fifth Decade: A New Space for Dance Mission Theater and Dance Brigade

Dance Brigade. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Dance Brigade. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

“A collective response of intelligence and resistance together with compassion.” — Krissy Keefer, November 2016

Mission street between 15th and 16th does not get a lot of foot traffic. That stretch can be so oddly quiet that you might even find a parking spot in the middle of the day. Its regulars are local residents, amidst people living on the street finding temporary refuge at the Navigation Center (that, rumor has it, may be replaced by a stack of apartments). Hopefully, the apartments might welcome at least a small percentage of low-income residents. One of these days, several floors of apartments at what is called “market rates” may top it. Yet this sad forgotten part of the beloved Mission has at least one spot of hope.

Above the headquarters of the UFCW648—United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 648—on the West side of the Street, dozes a long-abandoned meeting room. It may have been the place where the workers’ union once developed common strategies, or paid their dues, or perhaps made a credit union deposit at the now boarded up bank-like cashiers windows. The narrow wooden folding chairs are meticulously lined up, facing a dais with a speaker’s podium and big chairs, no doubt once used by officials. The linoleum may be worn, the air just a mite bit stale; yet I can still sense the spirit of what was a vital community resource years ago.

Not Dance Mission Theater Artistic Director Krissy Keefer, who is my tour guide on this late November morning. Her mind is on the future. “It came in just in time for Thanksgiving, ” she had emailed me from Cincinnati where she spent the holiday.

The “It” is the Letter of Intent for a ninety-nine year lease, which makes a real possibility of Dance Mission Theater/ Dance Brigade leasing the floor above the UFSW648’s ground floor office. They will add two additional floors, perhaps even three, and turn the location into an 18,000 sq. ft. venue. Keefer beams at the idea that she might have more space than she needs. Looking around, she sees that “all of this will have to be torn out, except the load-bearing pillars; I don’t quite know how it will work—that will be the architect’s job.” She already has one in mind.

One thing is certain: Dance Mission Theater will finally become wheel chair accessible. An elevator is definite. Planned are several studios—the ceilings are high, the windows large—and, perhaps a 350-seat theater. What will not change is the model of Dance Mission housing all of its activities under one roof; the classes, the residences, the workshops, the public performances, the home of Dance Brigade and Grrrl Brigade. Keeping prices affordable to audiences, students, artists and dance companies remains essential.

In its current location, Dance Mission has become known for its performances (42 weeks a year), children’s program (350 students enrolled), teenage Grrrl Brigade (85 girls total), and over 550 adults stepping into classes each week — from Hip Hop to Samba, West African to Modern, House Method to Taiko Drumming. With five full-time and three part-time employees, the organization’s budget is close to one million dollars, 75% of which is earned income.

The name ‘Dance Mission’ indicates both a location and a commitment to the neighborhood, but it also affirms an organization for dance that has a mission. Keefer has proven that socially conscious dance theater and aesthetics don’t have to be in conflict. Making “good” political-change art can also be good art. This is certainly one reason why the Dance Brigade has survived, celebrating its 40th anniversary on January 13th and 14th at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Kary Schulman, director of the Grants for the Arts program of the SF Hotel Tax Fund, put it succinctly when she described Dance Brigade “as a unique arts creator— demonstrating the powerful combination of performance and social activism of which Krissy was a pioneer and still one of the most respected practitioners.”

The January celebration will offer the world premiere of Gracias a la Vida (Life in a Bitter Time) for which Keefer had to switch gears halfway through. “Like everybody, I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win,” she remarks, “and now we have a president who is a climate change denier.” But the thrust of what she calls “an artistic response to the collective crisis that the country is in,” has not been derailed. The cast includes ten women, three men and two male musicians.

Gracias, she explains, “examines human connections when the truth does not feel that good.” Love places a central role, but not the goody-goody, sentimental variety. Unlike previous endeavors with long-time collaborators, for this production Keefer chose a cast with whom she has not worked extensively. Men and women. She even auditioned some of the performers—a first for her. She is again working with long-time friend, singer Holly Near. They are reaching back to folk and protest songs from the 1960s and earlier that still resonate today. Think Woodie Guthrie’s Deportee and Neil Young’s Southern Man.

Keefer cut her theatrical/dance teeth with the Wallflower Collective in Eugene Oregon, a radical feminist group that outgrew its home base and, after an unhappy move to Boston, relocated to San Francisco because its members wanted to be in an urban (West Coast) environment. As it turned out, it was not exactly a happy decision: the move destroyed Wallflower. Keefer recalls San Francisco’s volatile political environment of the 1970’s where you were expected to decide on whether to support the Workers World Party, non-intervention in Chile, Cuba’s revolution or the Palestinians. “We were not prepared for how vicious those discussions could get,” she remembers. “We were like milkmaids from Oregon.”

Dance Brigade. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Dance Brigade. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

So, forty years ago, Keefer (together with deceased friend and colleague Nina Fichter) founded Dance Brigade. The troupe has admirably succeeded in creating Dance Theater that powerfully speaks to the heart and the mind, the individual and the collective. Keefer is an excellent writer and actor. She always weaves a sense of humor and a glimmer of hope into even the most desperate scenarios. A cursory glance at some of what has been accomplished gives an idea of the vitality and breadth of these fearless warriors:

  • The Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie (1987). Probably the most inclusive dance theater works at the time. It still thrives in a Grrrl Brigade version.
  • Sleepwalker (1990), exploring women and alcoholism.
  • Pandora’s Box (1991), a not so modest history of womankind
  • Cinderella – a tale about domestic abuse and resistance
  • Ballet of the Banshees. . . (1995) ends with a healing ritual for women and breast cancer.
  • Queen of Sheba (1999), Keefer’s solo on the power of the female body and its prophetic voice
  • Dry/Ice (2005), a work about global warming with a bathtub and plastic bottles.
  • Iphigenia at Aulis (2006), Dance Brigade as a Greek Chorus in Euripides’ play
  • The Great Liberation Upon Hearing (2009), accompanied Lena Gatchalian through the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The only place on stage you’ll ever encounter a real pig’s head.
  • Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair (2014), looking at displacement caused by rapacious real estate developers.

Starting a fifth decade in shaping Bay Area dance, Keefer could reasonably think about retirement. She has considered it, but it is not in the cards. For one thing, she has been buoyed by the many non-profits and governmental agencies that have been so positive about Dance Mission taking on a 99-year lease. This includes a looming capital campaign ($6,000,000) for which they’ll have to hire a Capital Development Manager (a Dance Mission first). Among others, Keefer credits MEDA (Mission Economic Development Agency) for assistance in the complex lease negotiations. Lex Leifheit Nonprofit Business Development Manager of the Office of Economic & Workforce Development explains the City’s support: “Dance Mission’s core values of inclusiveness, fairness and justice reflect San Francisco’s values and the spirit of advocacy embodied by many nonprofits here.” Schulman elaborates her evaluation for “a group that has an enviable record of earned income and sound management. DB/DM is an irreplaceable community asset!”

Keefer estimates that the remodeling will take about three years. In the meantime, she has plans for Dance Brigade. “I may want to change directions,” she laughs, volunteering that she has been reading a lot about Diaghilev. Apparently, it has helped her rediscover her love for ballet. She is working with a group of beautifully trained Cuban dancers in their twenties, who would like to have more opportunities creating and performing.

Both a passionate idealist and a realist, Keefer believes that “the rise of Misty Copeland has changed the aesthetics of ballet. It has moved away from the emaciated 19-year old, 110-pound dancer.” Ballet in the future, she projects, “can have breasts and hips, and women can show muscles. For too long it has been androgynous with [female dancers] muted in their energy field. So it’s exciting for me to participate in what has been shut to me all these years. Misty has saved ballet because it is going to be more interesting. It will no longer be based on a singular aesthetic.”

The artist-led model of dance companies, she also believes, is no longer sustainable. So she is looking back to Diaghilev where ballerinas not only looked like her, but where ballet, in addition to visual and musical collaborators, engaged a variety of choreographers. She already has in mind several local artists whom she would like to commission. “I am going to be the next Diaghilev,” Keefer gleefully asserts. She just might be right.

CubaCaribe Festival Embraces Change

In a March 15, 2015 essay, “Growing Pains in Cuban Dance,” The New Yorker magazine’s critic Joan Acocella raised a timely question. “What effect,” she asked, “will Obama’s easing of trade and travel between the United States and Cuba have on the island’s most important artistic export, music and dance?”

Though Acocella appeared primarily concerned about the fate of the heavily government-supported Ballet Nacional de Cuba and the still small but budding modern dance companies, she realized that “with the reduction in foreign subsidies and the increase in actual trade, Cuban dance is going to become something else.”

dancers turn and stand with red umbrellas

Alayo Dance Company, photo by Tom Ehrlich

How does Ramon Ramos Alayo, Artistic Director of Alayo Dance Company and the CubaCaribe Festival, that celebrates its 12th anniversary this year, see the future of dance in Cuba? Ramos is an optimist. “Through all the changes that we have undergone—under the influence of the United States, during the Bautista regime and under communism—” he says, “we never lost our identity.” In fact, he believes that “we became more of who we are.”

Ramos is the product of an arts developing approach that he deeply believes in. It is well known that in Cuba the government reaches out to children who show potential for the arts. Ramos was one of them. He started to study dance in Santiago de Cuba at eleven, even though at first he didn’t want to for all the reasons that some boys are reluctant. After training in folklore, ballet and modern, he was admitted to Havana’s elite National School of Art, where he earned a MA in contemporary and traditional dance. He sees the lower level schools with their superb teachers, of which there are many in the country, as the repository and wellspring of Cuban dance. “We have these schools, and they instill the culture. As long as they keep those schools free, we are not going to lose our culture,” he says.

One of the pleasures he derives from his annual trips to Cuba—his dancers in tow for Cuba Camp—is to see how the system still works. Though he was the only person in his family to become an artist, now two of his nephews are dancers, and, he says,“it’s so great to see that the kids watching ballet are all black.” Being a dancer, he notes with some pride, “is a profession in Cuba. You can make a living at it.”

Does he think the arts—which are so integral to Cuban culture—can break barriers between people? The answer, of course, considering how jammed his salsa classes at Dance Mission are, is unequivocal. “When you dance,” he believes, “it’s the only place where you can be who you are.” What about audiences? Will they take away more than an evening of entertainment? He illustrates his point with a recent experience.

“No too long ago I performed three dances in an elementary school in Oakland. It’s a private school, most of the kids were white,” he recalled. “Using texts by each of the subjects, one of them was about Martin Luther King Jr., one about Malcolm X, the other about President Obama. The principal afterwards told me that she had never seen her students so quiet and so attentive.”

For the first few years, CubaCaribe hosted bands as well as dance companies. But since 2009 the Festival has focused on the otherwise invisible threads that connect Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean music and dance and its Diaspora. Today CubaCaribe is an ethnic dance festival of its own.

Though showcasing many of the same companies, Ramos shifts the focus each year. In 2013 it was “Tribute to Our Teachers”; in 2014 “Helping Tradition Thrive and Evolve”; and in 2015 “In Search of Soul.” In order to draw attention on the centrality of Cuba in that part of the world, this time around he asked company directors about the influence of Cuba on their artistic practices. This year’s festival goes under the name of “Cuba on My Mind.”

He mentioned that before the embargo, the connection between Cuban and North American culture was strong. It would have been unthinkable to have popular dancing “without the Rumba, the Cha Cha and the mambo—which came by way of Mexico,” he points out. Furthermore, Ramos notes, “Cuba may have been isolated from the United States, but not from the rest of the world.” (In fact it had relationships with 160 countries, including many in Latin America and Africa.)

In this year’s line-up of fifteen companies who will perform at the Festival’s home base, Dance Mission Theater, Laney College Theater and (new this year) Brava Theater, many names will sound familiar, but Ramos also is increasingly broadening this reach.

For his own Alayo Dance Company he is choreographing a contemporary sextet with, at first glance, fierce women popping up from push up positions and men with rocking shoulders and uttering hands. He also again commissioned former colleague from Havana Nelson Reyes because “I like the way he uses movement and the way he works with the dancers.”

The third piece on Alayo’s company will come from Krissy Keefer, Artistic Director of Dance Brigade. She remembers raising money for El Salvador and Nicaragua in the early 1980’s, her (still) deep feelings for the Cuban Revolution and the music of that era, the Nueva Cancion-the folk-inspired socially conscious music. She has been listening and choreographing a sextet.

We may associate Los Lupeños de San Jose with swooping skirts and zapateo, but, points out Tony Ferrigno (manager of the company’s parent non-profit, Cashion Cultural Legacy) , “Yucatan and Vera Cruz are influenced by Caribbean music and dance. We still have Afro-Mexicans in various parts of the country.” He will close the selection of dances from those areas with the Danzon, a direct “gift” from Cuba where, however, it has disappeared.

Mind over Matter is a Hip Hop company. So is Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment Project. She was drawn to the invitation to be part of the festival in part because of her friendship with and admiration of Ramos as a man and as a dancer. By press time, she hadn’t decided on which way to go. But she was thinking along the lines of House Dance—seeing in its openness to difference and individuality strike a resonance with Ramos and Cuban dance.

dancer jumps in front of drum ensemble

Duniya Dance and Drum Company, photo by Tom Ehrlich

For Duniya Dance and Drum Company, the connection and influence of Cuba on its work is perhaps subcutaneous but nonetheless real. While its repertoire also dances from the Punjab, its African dancers are from Guinea. Post-Colonial Guinea and Cuba once had close cultural relations, with the African dancers traveling to Cuba. No doubt they brought back what they learned into their own practices. The program will include Liberate, created for the country’s Independence celebration.

Tika Morgan trained in the Silvestra Dance Technique, a modern Brazilian dance form. She creates fusion dance. Writing from Cuba, she affirmed “the African Diaspora through the Caribbean and the Americas is my greatest love, so dancing in Cuba is both imperative and amazing.” For Tika Morgan Dance company’s first appearance at CubaCaribe, she is planning a work for nine dancers.

Also making their debuts this year will be Cuicacalli Dance Company and Gafiera Brasil. Haitian master drummer Daviel Brevil will give a lecture/demonstration on April 14th at the Museum of the African Diaspora. George Ibar Veranes from Santiago/Cuba will offer Salsa/Timba workshops.

Book Review: Like A Bomb Going Off

Photographer Vladimir Zenzinov photo courtesy of Yale University PressSome performances you never forget. One took place in January 1995 when the Kirov-trained Nikita Dolgushin brought a small group of dancers from St. Petersburg, Russia to the Palace of Fine Arts in a program of classic and contemporary choreography. It was an event both dispiriting and puzzling. Though beautifully trained, many of these dancers were quickly approaching the end of their performance careers. In his fifties, the long-limbed Dolgushin still bore the marks of the danseur noble he once had been. But he should no longer have attempted the challenges of the Sleeping Beauty Pas de Deux. And what on earth made him don fishnet stockings for some god-awful contemporary work? What I most remember, however, is the appalling condition of the women’s point shoes. Dirty, worn and mended over and over, they spoke volumes about the conditions in which these artists had to work.

But most of us—not that there were many at the San Francisco performance—hadn’t come to see remade Petipa but were drawn by the promise of seeing works by Leonid Yakobson. The renegade Soviet choreographer who had spent his whole career in Russia, continuously being harassed and pressured to adapt his work— when it was not outright banned—to what the cultural authorities considered appropriately reflective of the state of the nation.

Born in 1904, Yakobson died in 1975, having lived through the Bolshevik revolution, the opening of the cultural promises during the 1920s, the Stalinist repressions of the 1930’s, the Second World War and the gradual thawing of restrictions in the post-Khrushchev era. He was accused of being “formalist”, “cosmopolitan”, “bourgeois” and anti-socialist.

In 1990 San Francisco Ballet had performed Yakobson’s Rodin—coached by his widow Irina Yakobson, then on the staff of SFB. He had taken inspiration from five Auguste Rodin sculptures with the dancers initially seen in the sculptor’s poses. In choreography that was lushly fluid yet muscular, the lovers became alive before being re-incased into the marble. Throughout, I kept wondering why on earth anybody would make something akin to tableaux vivants out of Rodin lovers? Wasn’t everything that could be said already contained within the way Rodin had worked the stone?

So five years later, the second half of Dolgushin’s program offered a welcome opportunity to see more of Yakobson’s work. The selections from his Choreographic Miniatures, perhaps a dozen of them, consisted of short, chiseled portraits of a wide variety of characters and incidents. Some were satiric, many humorous but all had an appealing charm to them. In the fast-paced ‘Troika’ a male sled driver flirted with a trio of giddy girls in tow. The ‘Gossips’ presented five vividly gesturing babushkas sharing the latest news. ‘Viennese Waltz’ gave us the back and forth between two elegantly dressed would-be lovers. The choreography for these very different vignettes was succinct, clear and a little innocuous. But they did not offer an inkling of why this choreographer should have had such a difficult time making work and surviving inside the Soviet Union. What could have been so objectionable in these humorous and somewhat witty glances at life?

It was left to Janice Ross’ Like A Bomb Going Off (Yale University Press, 2015), her ambitious and fascinating biography and study of Yakobson’s life and career, to offer answers. This admirably researched and well-written book throws a sharply focused light on a truly extraordinary artist and courageous human being. It also convincingly provides the reader insights into what it means to be subject to the arbitrariness of a political system that uses art to cement ideology. While Like A Bomb remains focused on Yakobson, it offers just enough of a broader perspective of what other artists—Dmitri Shostakovich, Fyodor Lopukhov—had to live through. Many, of course, left Russia, Yakobson didn’t.

Yakobson’s becoming a dancer—he is four days younger than Balanchine who graduated from the Leningrad State Choreographic Institute Imperial Ballet School one year ahead of him—was almost serendipitous. As a child, Yakobson and his two younger brothers became part of the Petrograd Children’s Colony, an officially sanctioned program, which in 1918 moved several hundred children and their teachers to Siberia in the hope of sparing them from some of the ravages of the time. It’s where his interest in performing started. What should have been a summer of good food, fresh air and theatrical entertainments turned into a three-year odyssey taking the children around the globe. San Francisco and New York were two of the stopovers.

Back in Petrograd (now Leningrad), the young man happened to walk by a ballet studio and insisted on enrolling even though he was seventeen and had never seen a ballet. He was taken under the wings of ballet pedagogue Alexander Chekigrin, also a well- esteemed character dancer, and a good mentor for the aspiring choreographer. Yakobson had talent, determination and utter confidence in his abilities—qualities he drew on for the rest of his life. As the Ross indicates, he also had an explosive temperament.

Early in his choreographic career, the critic Yuriy Brodersen accused him of wanting “to replace ballet with pantomime”. But, Ross argues, Yakobson always believed in the power of Ballet and worked throughout his career to liberate it from its ossified traditions by developing a “classically based yet eclectic movement vocabulary” which might include pantomime, athletic and acrobatic movements, comedy and satire.

When Yakobson used sandals and bare-foot dancers, turned in and parallel positions, floor work and the broken ballet line, Ross writes, he enlarged Ballet’s expressive potential. In many ways, it seems that Yakobson, who worked in a dramatic and narrative vein, was not that far removed from the “drambalet,” the officially sanctioned Soviet-style genre that pushed socialist goals and emphasized the revolution’s achievements. What was unacceptable to the regime was Yakobson’s insistence on artistic autonomy and on narratives and characters with psychological truth to them. Though never overtly political, he threatened a system that was determined to use the arts for ideological purposes. He wanted characters on stage, not mouthpieces.

Ross sees Yakobson as an artist of resistance on two levels. Though committed to Ballet, he rethought it as a contemporary language; as a Jew he refused to reject his identity. He had great moral integrity that sustained him as a man and an artist who could not be silenced. Most remarkably, his passion for making dances never left him. Throughout the ups and downs of his career, Ross writes, Yakobson maintained “a deep focus on aesthetic objectives over political ones.” That’s what made him the artist he became.

No matter the obstacles thrown at him, Yakobson would not give up. He fought the cultural authorities with subterfuge—Ross calls it “hiding in plain sight”—and open defiance. When he didn’t have professional dancers, he worked with students. When he had no dancers, he wrote librettos for new ballets. When he was sent to the provinces he worked with what he found there.

One of his best known and popular works, the full-evening Shurale, he created in Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan in 1941. Delayed, in part because of the outbreak of World War II, it was performed, after many fought-over alterations in 1950, winning Yakobson the prestigious Stalin Prize. Yet a few weeks after being so honored, he found himself “relegated from celebrity to pariah.” He had been anonymously denounced as a “cosmopolitan”, a code work, Ross points out, that stood for being “Jewish.”

Since Yakobson was persona non grata for much of his career, many of his dances—over 130, primarily miniatures—lacked documentation in the form of photographs, films, and/or contemporary evaluations. The paucity of such information might have been a serious handicap for a scholar of less perspicacity.

But Ross proved an indefatigable researcher, unearthing little known official documents, tracking down contemporaries, finding relevant memoirs, letters and talking with dancers in Russia, Israel and the United States. These latter conversations proved to have urgency since many of these dancers are getting on in years.

A major contributor to this study proved to be the choreographer’s widow, Irina Yakobson, who made her private archives available to Ross. A former dancer herself, Ms. Yakobson’s own voice weaves in and out through Ross’ narrative. Now living in Israel, she is a fierce defender of her husband’s work and scathing in her indictment and contempt of the old Soviet system.

Drawing on contemporary theory and history, Ross pulled her voluminous research together into a coherent yet prismatic perspective of Yakobson’s work. She also has a fine eye, perhaps developed as the dance critic she once was, to pull information from scanty details—a blurry photograph, fragmentary memories, partial video—to evoke a dance as it was, or as she says, “might have been.” Her analysis of extant works, such as Jewish Wedding, Shurale and Spartacus is vivid and convincing.

Some of the governmental documentation Ross unearthed is fascinating. One of them is a prescription of what the new Soviet Ballet must include: a revolutionary theme, reality based stories, spectacle based on mass movements, it had to be full-evening length and accessible to ordinary people. Another enumerates the specific changes that the authorities tried to impose on Shurale. Some of them he skirted around, others he agreed to. These documents have a sense of unreality about them yet they make for chilling reading because of the power these bureaucrats wielded.

It’s one of the great ironies of Yakobson’s career that whenever he could show a work—often only once before the authorities shut him down—audiences were with him. They understood what he did as an offering for a “hope to those who dreamed of a better future.” When, for instance, he couldn’t get permission to show his Jewish Wedding in Leningrad for four years in a row, it being judged as “too ideological because of the Jewish question”, supporters arranged performances in Siberia where over 3,300 factory workers jammed into a local sports arena to see the work.

Ross’ account of Yakobson’s Spartacus, created and pushed through despite governmental disapproval, raised some questions in my mind. Highly popular with Moscow audiences, the Bolshoi brought it to New York in 1962 as part of a US-USSR cultural exchange. It was panned as an extravaganza reminiscent of silent movie spectacles. Ross goes into great detail on how Cold War animosities sabotaged Spartacus. I am sure that had something to do with it. But isn’t it also possible that American audiences, in thrall with Balanchine’s refined formalism, could not relate to ballet that so overtly embraced theatricality? Maurice Bejart, Roland Petit, and even some of John Cranko and John Neumeier’s works have received similarly dismissive evaluations.

Like A Bomb offers rich and valuable insights into the forces that shaped Yakobson’s artistry. Yet ultimately the works have to survive in the theater. With her exhaustive study, Ross has certainly opened the door to that possibility.

Like A Bomb Going Off is being published by Yale University Press

Double Visions

This past June I attended two professional events that offered their shares of stimulation and stupefaction. This year’s Dance Critics Association conference, which I have attended for many years , left me mostly depressed about the future of the field and the direction of the organization. Late in the month, the Dance/USA conference  kept me wondering about how representative this organization is of American dance for which it purports to speak. Perhaps because earlier in the year I had participated in a focus group that tried to address some of these concerns, I had high expectations going into the conference.

The Dance Critics Association Conference, hosted by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company in its beautiful headquarters on Ninth Avenue in New York City, should have been an occasion for re-charging batteries. Instead, too often I felt my attention draining away by presentations that were too long and unfocused, and audiences that were too small and too disengaged. For me this was symptomatic of a field that is changing, perhaps even disappearing. If it had not been for a few scholarship students and the presenters themselves, the hall might have been even emptier than it was. It was simply depressing to see so many empty chairs.

Maybe it is a sign of the times that the attendance was so poor. There is one professional full-time dance critic left in the country (at the New York Times). Overstressed freelancers and part-time critics simply may not feel they could invest in a trip to New York. This despite the fact that the conferences are held there every second year because of the opportunity to see many (press-ticketed) performances. (I myself decided to attend at the last minute, on frequent flyer miles and with a friend’s hospitality.) Still, the organization has close to two hundred members, and it seemed that even fewer attended than in previous years.

The conference’s organizing theme, 21st Century Dance Writing: Multimedia, Multiarts, Multitasking, should have opened—and I guess it did in a way—a conversation about the nature of today’s and tomorrow’s dance coverage. It primarily pointed out the chasm between “print” and “web” writers. They seemed to have very little to say to each other even though, of course, there is a lot of overlap.

What I missed from the web writers on the panels was a commitment to dance as an artifact that exists independently of its creators. Web writers who strongly focus on dance itself exist; they should have been better represented. For the panelists working in web-based writing, the work itself seems to be but one aspect of their interest in the field as a complex network of social and personal interactions. It was encouraging to see the energy and skill that so many of these dance “entrepreneurs” bring to their endeavors. And some—the gods be praised—even are beginning to make some money. The session, “Digital Dance and the 21st Century Dance Writer,” was particularly informative that way.

It was also informative to see how much more free-spirited—and younger—the web writers were. Mixing types of writing, being involved in the “community”, little attention to traditional standards stood in marked contrast to those who felt beholden to an established framework, provided by long-held critical practices and, of course, editors: the ultimate determiners of what goes into print.

“Snark and Praise: Exploring Why We Write and for Whom,” a continuation of a discussion held earlier in the year in New York, was the conference’s low point. At times crude and condescending, it became snarky itself. At one point, one of the critics present was personally attacked. I didn’t catch that reference but at the end of this conversation, among a group of self-important yakkers, I felt sick to my stomach. The one sane voice on the panel must have felt—and actually sounded—like a voice in the wilderness.

The conference started on an ironically informative note. Two of the participants in “Dance Coverage in a Culturally Changing World” got bogged downed in discussing the difficulty of articulating their companies’ racial identity. While this may not have been all that helpful to the dance writer/critics present, it certainly highlighted the fact that we live in a “culturally changing world.” The panel “Dance/Talk” was handicapped by two of the panelists being only represented by videos and the other two using the opportunity to “sell” their own repertoire.

Two other presentations gave valuable, straightforward information. On the superbly run “So You Think You Can Ignore Dance on TV,” a modern, a ballroom and a ballet dancer gave personal accounts of their experiences on television. Perhaps not surprisingly, they agreed that these fiercely scripted shows aim at one thing only: ratings.

On “Don’t Throw that Away! Preserving your Legacy as a Dance Critic,” librarians shed light on the complications of donating written records to libraries. Understaffed, underfunded, these institutions are already drowning in paper; the only chance for a potential archive is to come with a maintenance budget. I had to chuckle to hear implied what newspaper people have always known: Yesterday’s paper is fish wrap. Though I don’t know whether even the Brits still use it for their fish and chips.

At the members meeting, the suggestion was offered to change the name of the organization from Dance Critics to Dance Writers. It would certainly reflect more accurately the way the field seems to be moving; and yet I would regret the loss of criticism as a serious practice. Dance and dance audiences would be ill served.

Less than a week later, Dance/USA opened its four-day, excellently organized 30th anniversary conference at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and at the ODC campus. Keynote speaker Simon Sinek inspired with the simplicity of his message—“always ask yourself why you are doing something.” No doubt Sinek earned his standing ovation in part due to the audience’s recognition of him as a performer. I am a dance observer and not a dance-maker, so mine definitely is an outsider’s perspective of this conference. The program looked rich and varied, and I was most encouraged when I heard in the opening remarks that “diversity is DanceUSA’s greatest strength.” I was soon to have my eyes opened to a different reality.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment came with “Losing Your Fear: Why is Presenting Non-Western Dance Perceived To Be So Hard?” About twenty people showed up, a good 95% of them were artists. Wasn’t this a discussion designed for presenters? The only presenter I saw was Ken Foster, and he was a panelist.

I could only attend parts of “Urban Folk Dance” which looked a like superior and serious discussion of Hip Hop and its role in various communities. When I showed up there, I counted a dozen attendees.

In the two major Council Sessions, one for managers, the other for artistic directors, only one of them was designed for companies with budgets below $749,000. I wondered what local artistic directors, many of whom had been given scholarships to attend the conference, were going to do with that kind of set-up? One can only hope that other programs I was unable to attend opened avenues for them, such as on how to apply to the National Endowment for the Arts, integrating social media into marketing efforts, and “Dance and Community.”

Two Breakout Sessions I found helpful. Both of them showed a kind of can-do spirit that drives any creative endeavor. The participants of “The Blogosphere: Writing About and For Dance” proved themselves adept at finding a niche for what they wanted to do and ways of financing it. I thought them inspiring not so much for what they did but for the energy and perseverance that they brought to their endeavors. It seems, however, a pity that so much of their work seems to address readers already interested and committed to dance.

In “Let’s Get Together: On Forming a Consortium of Choreographers” the six, very different choreographers of the local Werk Collective, talked about the process which was taking them from a performance space for emerging artists (the Garage) to a mainstream venue (ODC’s B’Way Theater). Their willingness to cooperate and their determination was infectious, I would have like to see that panel after the fact to get a sense of their perspective on the experience.

The closing session, “20/20 Vision a Community Forum and Closing Remarks” was something of a lead balloon. It presented videos from a number of choreographers, perhaps illustrating that diversity exists in dance—as if we didn’t already know that. For their verbal presentation, it seems, these artistic directors had been told to use it as a marketing opportunity. Ouch!

So what made attending these conferences most worthwhile? Performances. In New York, a breathtaking ABT season premiere: Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, surely this choreographer’s unsurpassed masterpiece of wit, imagination and a deep sense of humanity. An evening at 95-year old Mary Anthony’s rabbit warren of a studio, where acolytes paid obeisance and middle-aged dancers performed works by Charles Weidman and Anthony. In the slippery Beginning of the End of the. . ., David Gordon and his formidable performers, with considerable help from Pirandello, nimbly stepped in and out of their roles in a scintillating meditation on art, life and aging.

In San Francisco, not enough can be said about the first-rate potpourri of Bay Area dance that the local host committee put together for conference performances. One big-time funder approached me to express surprise at the quality of these presentations. They were no surprise to me. I was tempted to comment. I didn’t. There is room in this world for silence.

i June 22-24, Joan Weil Center for Dance, NYC
ii  June 27-30, YBCA and ODC, SF

Winter-Spring Preview: Experience Something New, Jan 2009

Watching Bay Area dance is rewarding because the offerings are so varied and rich. Watching Bay Area dance is frustrating because the offerings are so varied and rich. Both statements are true.

In Dance readers, in all probability, are primarily dance professionals, varied and rich in experience and interest. In all likelihood they also are dance lovers with limited time and even more limited disposable income. So what to take in during the upcoming spring season?

One suggestion would be to step outside your comfort zone. While it’s important to support your colleagues—as they do you—and attend their concerts, it’s equally essential to stretch your own imagination. Think about the Izzies (usually last Monday in April). One of the reasons that this annual celebration of local dance is such a buoyant event is that for that one time a year dance becomes Dance. Is there anyone you have seen at those festivities whose work you thought you actually would like to go and see sometime?

If you are a committed Bharata Natyam dancer, why not take a chance on seeing someone’s highly experimental work or a different type of classicism? Find out how they use space, time, music and their bodies. Or if you think you learned enough about Paul Taylor or Alvin Ailey in college—and on tape—you might be surprised at watching “the real thing.” Or if you think to much dance is all about technique—hip hop, ballet—take another look at how dancers transcend the rigors of their training. If you value structure above all, you might want to invest in an evening of work in which control and freedom hold each other at bay. Is the term “theatrical” in connection with dance negative or positive? Why not have your perspective challenged by an artist you are pretty sure is of little interest to your own development? You never know, at the very least you’ll walk away with a better understanding of yourself.

The following bouquet—from the rich plethora of dance offerings this spring—might be of interest because of either the sheer mastery of the work and /or at least the promise of worthwhile investigations of dance parameters (At printing time not all of the exact dates had been nailed down).

A trio of electric pop artists groups, traveling under the collective title of Japan Dance Now (Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Jan. 29-31), and Pappa Taruhamara’s mythic “Ship in a View” (same location, Feb. 19-21) will certainly shake up simple-minded perceptions of what’s happenin’ in Japan.

STREB Extreme Action (Lively Arts, Stanford University, Jan 24). Elizabeth Streb’s questions are fascinating. How far can the body physicality be pushed? And what, if any, is the expressive purpose of such experimentation? Is there an element of voyeurism inthese shows? For this performance Streb’s own dare devil dancers are supplemented by Stanford alums and student gymnasts.

Bellydance Superstars (Marin Center, San Rafael, Feb 15). Though a little overly slick in its production values, last year’s show was an eye opener of gorgeous witty female dancing, flavored with native touches from its international artists. For pure fun, they can’t be beat.

Deep Waters Dance Theater (CounterPulse, San Francisco, Mar 5-7). She may have earned her spurs with Urban Bush Women but at her concert at Laney College last October, Amara Tabor Smith proved that she is her own person: a powerful dancer and an intriguing choreographer. So what will she do during this residency?

San Francisco Ballet (War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, Mar 12-25). It’s a very conservative season with Helgi Tomasson reprising what he considers the most viable of last year’s 75th Anniversary commissions. But the highlight will be Antony Tudor’s “Le Jardin aux Lilas.” Restraint, passion, immaculate structure. It’s never been topped but where did that come from in 1936?

Jess Curtis/Gravity (CounterPulse, San Francisco, Mar 19-29). “The Symmetry Project” was physical and abstract, boundarypushing and lyrical, literal and imagistic. This is an extended version of asking fundamental questions about the body as a cultural construct.

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange (Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, April 18-19). “Small Dances about Big Ideas” is Lerman’s latest attempt to translate social issues into dance using inter-generational performers. Based on input from theaudience, the piece investigates Holocaust memories.

Paul Taylor Dance Company (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Apr 29-May 3). Just because they are back, and he is a genius. The company is bringing old and newer repertoire; the most recent “Beloved Renegade” is inspired by Walt Whitman.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard (Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, April 10-11). At their Bay Area debut last year these sleek, slickly performers didn’t match Chouinard’s reputation as the bad girl of Canadian dance. Maybe we’ll find out now. “Afternoon of a Faun” is the 1987 solo that propelled Chouinard into controversy. This being Diaghilev’s centenary, “Afternoon” is paired with the 1993 “The Rite of Spring.”

ODC/Theater’s presenting abilities are somewhat curtailed because financial reasons have sent them home, to ODC’s Dance Commons. But tentative plans for May include a double bill for Seattle’s SaltHorse, and Katie Faulkner’s fresh-voiced little seismic dance company, and Jacintha Vlach’s full-company take on “Animal Farm.”

The 2009 San Francisco Arts Festival (multiple venues, May 20-June 7) is back with an impressive line-up. (Anybody listening at City Hall?) If nothing else the programming, which includes Sasha Waltz, the Ballet Nacional de Peru, the Akhe Group, and Cho-In Theatre from South Korea will put up an international mirror to local dance makers.

Think what you want of Mark Morris Dance Group (Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, May 29-31). His “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” is a master piece. Now twenty years old, Morris has never topped himself in his ability to shape large-scale forces and imprint a great piece of music with his own stamp. For “Allegro” reading the libretto is worthwhile.

Seeing Dance, Talking Dance in Washington, DC

With its flag-bedecked entrances, huge lobbies and wings that you get lost in, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC speaks of an era now gone, an America self-confident and imperialistic. It’s not a welcoming place but Edward Durrell Stone’s late modernist architecture does impress with its grandeur of vision and, one has to admit, a certain elegance, ostentatious as it is.

When the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, it had been thirteen years in the making and was intended as a marker for Washington as the Nation’s cultural and not just political capital. Art and not deal-making would be the lingua franca in its corridors. As such the place has functioned fairly well though its resident orchestra, opera and ballet are by no means of world-class stature. But the Kennedy Center has become a focal point for featuring—this is Washington after all—the high and mighty of visiting companies. This seems to be particularly true of ballet. The next season, for instance, includes, in addition to the DC’s Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the San Francisco, Kirov, ABT, Joffrey, New York City, Bolshoi and the Royal ballet companies.

So the Kennedy Center’s “Arts Across America” Initiative signaled a welcome departure from the status quo. From June 10-15, 2008 nine ballet ensembles from across the country performed one work each, attracting full houses and filling the lobbies with the kind of buzz that I don’t remember having heard on previous visits. For many of these companies this was not just a prestigious engagement but also a rare opportunity to see each other’s works.

The Dance Critics’ Association held its annual meeting at the same time. It was one of the more felicitous occasions for dancers and critics not just to watch but also talk with each other.

The dance programming was conservative but nicely representative of the 20th and the first decade of this century. It offered one lovely surprise and a couple of lesser ones. Works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Todd Bolender, Antony Tudor and Twyla Tharp balanced pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, Stanton Welch, Jorma Elo and Nacho Duato.

This was the line-up:

Program One:
Ballet West “Serenade”
Pennsylvania Ballet “In the Night”
Houston Ballet “Velocity”

Program Two:
Pacific Northwest Ballet “Jardi Tancat”
Kansas City Ballet “The Still Point”
The Washington Ballet “Nine Sinatra Songs”

Program Three:
Boston Ballet “Break the Eyes”
The Joffrey Ballet “Lilac Garden’
Oregon Ballet Theatre “RUSH”

Judging from the two programs I saw, the quality of dancing across the country is very high. Even when the choreography did them a disservice, these were beautifully trained, expressive dancers who threw out the window any pejorative connotation that the label “regional” still implies. Instead it recalled the dictum by a man who had the ideas right but didn’t implement them, Mao’s “Let there a thousand flowers bloom.”

Bolender’s “The Still Point” was the surprise. Choreographed in 1955 by the NYCB dancer and longtime Artistic Director of Kansas City Ballet, “Still” was set to three movements of the Debussy String Quartet. I had never seen any of his work, and while the wistfulness in this tad of a story about a young woman’s rejection by her peers and finding true love oozed of the 1950’s, Bolender handled the material delicately and with a touch of drama. I later learned that he had originally set the piece on modern dancers and put it on point when it entered New York City Ballet. That’s probably why I thought I saw traces of Graham in this lovely piece.

Less welcome a surprise was Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Jardi Tancat” to Maria del Mar Bonet’s Catalan songs. This is a problematic work, becoming more so with every viewing. PNB’s dancers worked hard to get into Duato stark groundedness and its sense of choking confinement but it was rough going. The Washington Ballet’s performance of “Nine Sinatra Songs” missed some of Tharp’s essence. The choreography may be based on “pop” music and dance, but it is rigorous and nuanced. There is no need to sell it; it speaks well enough through movement.

From a more chauvinist perspective, in a field where it still seems that if you were a male New York City Ballet dancer you can walk into the directorship of just about any ballet company in the country, I couldn’t help but notice that three of the nine artistic directors had come from SFB: Ashley Wheater (The Joffrey Ballet), Mikko Nissinen (Boston Ballet) and Christopher Stowell (Oregon Ballet Theatre).

Granted that these nine companies perform in metropolitan centers and can count on a knowledgeable audience (and the financial support that comes with it), these performances nonetheless made me wonder what else is out there in the heartland. What could a continuation of this Kennedy Center Initiative unveil? Shouldn’t there be room for modern, world dance, dance-theater companies to also show themselves in this prestigious venue? And not, inconsequentially, give the dancers the opportunity to see each other’s works.

If the performances left me most encouraged about the state of dance in America, the DCA’s conference left me much less sanguine about the future of dance criticism or even its more modest cousin, dance reviewing. It’s not that critics, for the most part a passionate, committed lot, don’t always complain about diminishing space and editors who don’t know tiddly squat about dance. They do, it comes with the territory. But something akin to a kind of torpor, a sense that we were part of a dying species like some odd ground squirrel who is losing its habitat to urbanization, hung over parts of the conference like a heavy blanket of fog.

How can we encourage fresh voices to enter the field, when there are no jobs, the questions went. None of the major West Coast dailies, for instance, have a dance critic on staff. They make do with freelancers who, however, have no voice in setting editorial policy. Dance criticism in daily journalism is disappearing–even though with Rachel Howard at the Chron, dance gets more and better coverage in the Bay Area than it has in years. From talking with colleagues, it’s clear that she is very much the exception to the rule.

A panel on Internet writing, not surprisingly, held out hope for reaching broader audiences. Suggestions included the use of video clips or tying a specific performance into a larger context. Questions about length of reviews, and styles of writing on the Net and the legality surrounding YouTube were discussed from many angles. More controversial ideas included turning critics’ into “content providers”—writing program notes or website information, blogging for and about a festival or a company. Fundamental questions about the role of the critic as a disinterested observer or committed advocate of the art were aired.

Another panel addressed nuts and bolts issues. How much description should you include? How do you deal with mixed reaction in very few words? Decide on whom you write for. Realize that all you can give is one viewer’s perspective. Pick what is relevant and write about that.

Topics on touring and the nature of American ballet had critics and artistic directors sit around the same table exchanging ideas that probably were useful to both. But two live performances trumped all the talking. Delphina Parenti performed a reconstructed 1938 solo by Jane Dudley, “Harmonica Breakdown.” Miyako Nitadori danced Michio Ito’s 1914 “Ave Maria.” Rising from the past, these wonderful pieces served as reminders of why we do what we do. No matter what.

Laugh and the World Smiles: c(h)ord premieres at YBCA

Humor is perhaps is the most unrecognized aspect in Shinichi Iova-Koga’s existential explorations of human oddities. “Ame to Ame”s immaculately timed encounters between Iova-Koga and long-time partner Yuko Kaseki—and three pieces of furniture—could have come out of silent film comedy. There may be an element of Kafka in “Cockroach” but the antics of the three “witches” certainly have something funny about them. In “Onion,” the mad scientist drops pieces of non-sequitur information from the top, while trap doors spit out mechanical monkeys and singers from the bottom. In the meantime two interlocked performers cavort and fight in the best clown tradition. Yet we don’t laugh. Or at least not very much. Why not? Are we not sure whether what we are watching is animal, vegetable or mineral? Maybe what might have looked absurd at one time, no longer does? Or does Iova-Koga so intricately mingle the dark with the light that we don’t know what’s what?

The California native who works in the Bay Area—and as of late California’s Lost Coast—and Berlin, is aware of differences in the way audiences react to his work. Talking during a break from rehearsing “c(H)ord,” which premieres at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, April 24-26, he says that “in Berlin people laugh more than they do here.” Questioned about a possible reason, he ventures a tentative explanation. “It’s possible that they are more experienced in seeing experimental work, so it’s not so exotic to them. So they can relax in it and laugh.”

Non-traditional work for small and mid-sized companies, he comments, still gets more support in Germany despite the inevitable belt-tightening that is going on there. It has created substantial audiences open to what he does, not just in Berlin—but “in small pockets” around Germany.

There are other distinctions. “I get less critical feedback in this country. In Berlin people almost take pride in giving their honest opinion. If they hated it, they’ll tell you and give you the reason why. Here if they hated it, they just go away, and I never hear from them. The people here who love it will say something nice to me but it’s also hard to get true feedback.”

Not that he is complaining. At a recent fundraiser, he noticed with gratitude that it was the Bay Area artists who came out to support him and his inkBoat company. And YBCA has been generous. “They gave us commissioning money and rehearsal time.” Pointing to the tape on the floor of YBCA’s Forum marking the performing space, he acknowledges the luxury of creating a piece where it will be actually performed. Artists much more commonly have to contend themselves with some small studio. In March he had a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, which offered him rehearsal facilities, plus “room and board for four people.” That’s not a negligible contribution to a company as international as Iova-Koga’s.

Looking at the performers on this rainy February afternoon, you can’t help but be impressed by the individual strengths that these artists bring to Iova-Koga’s newest project. Even a cursory glance shows the wisdom of his decision that “these days when I choose somebody to work with, they are very good at what they are doing.”

Local audiences may be familiar with repeat collaborators Dohee Lee, Sten Rudstrom and particularly the Berlin-based Kaseki Yuko. New to the company are Bay Area dancer Sherwood Chen and Dana Iova-Koga, the choreographer’s wife and former dancer with Min Tanaka. Also from Berlin, where parts of “c(H)ord” were developed last September, come the extraordinary Heini Nukari and Ishide Takuya, a former student of Butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata.

For Nukari, a baby-faced, compact Finnish performer, this is her first American engagement. In the rehearsal this afternoon, she is standing behind Rudstrom who towers over her. His eyes are covered, his mouth is open. Nukari’s arms reach from behind to knead his limbs and squeeze out of this stiff body the most awesome deep-throated wails. Think of Noh theater. It takes a while before you realize that this torrent off sound is coming out of Nukari’s little body. (In a Q&A session a few days later, Nukari explains that she trained at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam which takes an integrated approach to dance/theater/music training.)

In this “c(H)ord” rehearsal, the company’s oldest member, the 50-year old Takuya, performs with the febrile fractiousness of the first-generation of Butoh artists that is Iova-Koga’s direct line to Butoh. It is a connection that he came by almost accidentally when he encountered it as a student in film and theater at San Francisco State University and had enrolled in Tadashi Suzuki’s method of training for actors. “That’s when I thought for the first time that I would like to do something based on my Japanese ancestry.” (Iova-Koga’s mother is Caucasian, his father is Japanese.) It was at State that he also met and became a student of Ashiko Akeno’s and then of Hiroko Tamano’s, the two women whom he claims as having shaped him most as an artist. Both of them are Hijikata-trained.

In his solo works, particularly “Tasting an Ocean,” based on his father’s memory survival of the bombing of Nagasaki, and to a lesser extent the more recent “Milk Traces,” in which he looked closely at his new-born daughter, Iova-Koga draws most closely on his Butoh training. Yet though he is a mesmerizing dancer, he doesn’t have Takuya or Kaseki’s nuanced brilliance as a Butoh performer. More important to his ability to create work which his website describes as a “hybrid of traditional and experimental dance and theater forms weaved with Physical Theater and Butoh Dance” is Iova-Koga involvement with Butoh as an intellectual discipline.

“Basic theater,” he says, “was hard for me to perform. I had difficulties speaking text that felt very genuine to me, and the Tadashi Suzuki method also felt a little too regimented for me. I had a lot of strong concepts but then, when I made the piece, the concepts had flattened out everything. It was just the result of a guy thinking, but for me the body experience has so much story, so much depth. When I began with Butoh I was very much involved with the image and how the image changes the body. But then I became interested in another line of investigation, in paying attention to my body. In Butoh I could get away from my ideas. In some ways, I was trying to take meaning out of something rather than put in the meaning.”

For “c(H)ord,” as he does almost always, Iova-Koga works collaboratively. “I am interested in this particular group because of their very different strengths and backgrounds. But, of course, I have to give them frames, I have to give them structures. I knew I wanted to mix the music and the dance in each person. Everyone has a musical role though they are not primarily musicians, but I want to develop that sensibility with them.”

Prominently displayed during rehearsals are the names of seven tentative sections. Among them are ‘Grind the Sky,’ ‘Rattle Vertrebrae,’ and ‘Now Is Missing.’ None of the material developed so far is guaranteed to make it into the final piece. Iova-Koga compares the process to the strips of film that hang in the lab after a day’s shooting. They’ll be cut, edited and reassembled. Dancers in two feel out each other’s space; Rudstrom creeps lizard-like along a pyramidal structure; Lee’s soft chants sound like hiccups; Takuya tears through the room like a rabbit being pursued by a coyote. Frankly, he looks hilarious. Two people chuckled; I didn’t.

Even though the material looks quite disjointed at this point, Iova-Koga is clear about the work’s original impetus. “I have been interested in the DNA inside our bodies that goes far back in our history before we became human,” he explains. “Our pre-human existence is contained in our DNA. So I am thinking that we were much more similar to each other at one time. Now that we have become these kinds of humans, we identify ourselves so differently from each other. A kind of isolation comes with this. At the same time we have such a wish to join with others. And yet there is also this is awe that we are so different, and that becomes an attraction point as well. “

“c(H)ord” sounds like it might become a very old-fashioned story. “The old-fashioned stories sometimes are the best,” Iova-Koga smiles.

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