A Fine Time on the F Line

By Michael Wade Simpson

October 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Why should kids sit still when they watch dance? Instead of “trapping“ hundreds of local school children in a theatre, Kim Epifano has arranged for kids from five different schools (fourth grade through college) to attend the Friday dress rehearsal of this year’s Trolley Dances, October 20-21. The school groups will not only travel around to the various performance sites on vintage Muni streetcars, just like the “real” audiences will during the weekend, they will also attend workshops at their own schools lead by Epifano herself, and they’ll have a chance to talk with the artists at each site.

“I really wanted to start educational programs this year,” says Epifano, who has been producing the event for the last four years. “At the school workshops, we‘ll ask the question, how does an artist approach the ‘outside’? I’ll take the kids outside with me and we’ll talk about architecture, landscape, history, environment, motion, sound, and abstraction. Then we’ll do some physical investigating and improvisations. We’ll talk about the themes they’ll be seeing at each site, and they’ll have a chance to talk to the choreographers. Hopefully, they’ll come away inspired about art, and maybe a little interested in dance, or aerial work. They’ll learn about the history of the street cars, and see their city in a different way.”

Based on a now trademarked concept started by Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater, which Epifano participated in, the San Francisco version, with three performance sites and the addition of some traveling side show acts this year, sends audiences out on the Muni system’s antique F-line streetcars and N Judah (don’t call them trolleys, says Epifano), in groups lead by “tour guides.” While the San Diego trolley system is spread out and less traveled, San Francisco offers logistical challenges as audiences find themselves sharing streetcars already crowded with tourists and weekend shoppers. In San Diego, the sites may be isolated from pedestrian traffic, but in San Francisco, thousands of passersby have the chance to attend the performances accidentally, as Epifano deliberately places things in the heart of the urban action.

This year audiences will take off from the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Library on 16th Street near Market in the Castro. Jo Kreiter’s Flyaway Productions will perform an aerial piece using a mural painted on the side of a restaurant at the corner of Noe and 16th. Next, the tour heads downtown to the UN Plaza fountain, where Paco Gomes and Dancers will present a piece called The Bell’s Fountain for 10 dancers and a handful of drummers. Gomes, originally from Salvador, Brazil, combines traditional Afro-Brazilian dance forms with contemporary movement, and his piece will also be a fusion. “It’s my vision of San Francisco, with so many different people from different countries,” he says. He will feature characters representing Japanese, Mexican and African-Americans, employ Butoh and capoeira, and touch on the issue of homelessness. “I love the vortex of energies at this site,” says Epifano, “the hustle and bustle. It goes to the heart of the urban scene.”

Finally, at an existing labyrinth in Duboce Park, Epifano will join with didgeridoo artist Stephen Kent, choreographer/dancer Robert Henry Johnson and UC Berkeley’s Bay Area Repertory Dance Ensemble (BARD) to present another big group piece inspired by that location, a somewhat calmer environment where children play on swing sets and locals let their dogs run free.

Along the way, Epifano has arranged for bonus acts, which she calls “sideshows.” Dudley Brooks and his ballerina puppets will perform at an unannounced location, while Rosie and the Radiators, tap dancers extraordinaire, (holders of the world record for long distance group tap dancing), will show up at some surprise spot along the way.

If the public nature of this event makes for an artistic atmosphere that is a little less than serious, that makes it all the better for kids, for the general audiences who wouldn’t be caught dead at a modern dance performance, and for dance audiences who will be exhilarated by the opportunity to get outside and see the city. For Epifano, the event is a huge feat of organization, involving working with Muni, the city and the police, getting permits and insurance, and keeping everybody safe. “It feels like we’ve all been on a huge marathon together this year. It’s such a collaborative project, and it’s amazing to see people from all over the community working to make it happen. Bringing in the schools has only furthered that sense of unifying the city. Truly, this is a project by San Franciscans, for San Franciscans.”

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

Michael Wade Simpson is editor of culturevulture.net and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He holds an MFA in dance from Smith College, founded “Small City Dance Project” in Massachusetts, and was an NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival, in 2004.