The Festival before the Festival

By Isabel Fine

January 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Classical Cambodian dance, Croatian folk dance, Middle Eastern fusion, Afro-Cuban folkloric, Russian character dance, ancient Hawai’ian dance, tango… emerging artists and veteran masters, one performing right after the other, every ten minutes for four days straight! Where does this expansive and diverse array of dance come together on the same stage? Here’s a hint: it’s not just a performance, it’s a gathering of dance ethnologists and experts, a snapshot of Bay Area demographics, a low door cost community event, and, some would say, a competition—though it feels more like a party.

In the biggest series of Bay Area auditions (next to, perhaps, American Idol), thousands of artists from about 100 companies, performing traditional, classical, popular, religious and folkloric dance and music, cross the stage with at least one goal in common: to gain entry into the annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The auditions last nearly forty hours, during which time a panel of specialists, master choreographers, teachers, directors, dance ethnologists, and consultants watch and discuss, evaluate according to specific criteria, and recommend groups to the Festival’s Directors for the coveted 22-25 slots in the final June production.

I have seen the auditions from several angles—as an audience member, as a staff member, and in the Hot Seat as Festival Artistic Director. By far the most complex view comes from the panel room. The criteria for selection into the Festival are ever present in the panelists’ discussions. However, while “technical execution” and “choreography” may seem straightforward, in this array of disciplines these criteria carry a diverse spectrum of importance and meaning. Technical precision of subtle finger placement and extension, for example, weighs more heavily in evaluating a classical Cambodian court dance than individual virtuosity in an indigenous village dance from the Andes, where group dynamics and exuberance come across as the essential elements. “Choreography” may mean something different in Chinese Theatrical Dance than in Freestyle hip hop, or a traditional devotional piece created in India centuries ago. Traditions are alive and evolving, and the auditions inspire fascinating discussions – is folkloric dance really “traditional” if entire genres were created in the 1950s as staged nationalistic representations? If hip hop is welcomed, recognized as arising from a particular cultural environment, can’t this reasoning then be applied to Ballet? Steeped in classical European aesthetics just as South Indian bharatanatyam is in that of India, why shouldn’t they be presented side by side?

The reason seems to be that in this festival there is a deep commitment to honoring, presenting and defining the many individual disciplines that too often get lumped together as “Other.” Looking at recent California demographics, it’s obvious that the tables of “mainstream” are turning, but while the media and the money catch up, the Festival embraces a responsibility to support the larger spectrum of Bay Area dance and cultural expression. These auditions provide the biggest window into this spectrum—on stage, backstage, in the panel room, and in the audience. In fact, the competitive aspects of the auditions are mitigated by the fact that this event serves artists and the community beyond the scope of the Festival. For example, World Arts West’s Arts education program, People Like Me, draws mostly from auditioning groups to employ five companies for an entire month of performances annually. Also, many local and international presenters, agents, and funders use the auditions as an unofficial booking showcase, resulting in increased visibility and wider performance opportunities.

Companies come from as far away as Sacramento, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, in buses full of props, scenery, costumes, and excited dancers. For some artists, this IS their Festival, and participation in this process signifies a victory and an emergence. Many groups participate year after year, and value the experience greatly – they see what other artists are doing, try out new work, get a videotape of their performance, receive feedback from respected panelists, and perform for a large audience in a major venue.

This event also fills another important need – as an accessible grass roots community event, a winter tradition for audiences and artists alike. While tens of thousands of dollars are spent on marketing the June Festival each year, the popular open auditions are barely advertised at all, but somehow the seats are almost always full with a loyal and wildly enthusiastic crowd. Artists’ friends and family can cheer them on for only $7 admission (up from $5 this year, but kids are still free), and then stay for the whole day of dance.

All traditions evolve, however, and 2007 brings some important changes. This year the auditions have moved, after 15 years, to the Palace of Fine Arts, the very stage where the Festival takes place in June. And rather than two weekends, the auditions will run for four solid days, through the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend, January 12-15. What hasn’t changed is that an array of extraordinarily diverse performances will take place, and thousands of us will be there to witness and celebrate the diversity of Bay Area dance.

This article appeared in the January 2007 issue of In Dance.