Dance In San Francisco; Observations and Attitudes

By Keith Hennessy

October 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

The following article was published in Movement Research Journal #31, Summer 2007, New York City.

San Francisco, the left coast, the endpoint of western expansion and escape. Being a port town means we get more than our share, fortunately, of faggots and whores, hippies and entrepreneurs, con artists and gold diggers. San Francisco is home to two of dance history’s giants, the iconoclast freethinkers Isadora Duncan and Anna Halprin, as well as spawning (from approximately 1975 to 1995) one of the most active and innovative postmodern dance communities in the world.

But you wouldn’t recognize this San Francisco if you arrived today to attend a few contemporary dance concerts. Not without a careful search.

I was among a few local dance artists invited to publish a Top Ten of local dance events of 2005 in the SF Bay Guardian, one of the nation’s few remaining independent, leftist weeklies. I’ve elaborated my list as an archive of Bay Area dance tendencies that I want to praise. And I’ve prefaced it with a no-name critique of the dances I’d like to challenge. This conversation occurs within a larger context of questioning contemporary dance in the US, especially in comparison with trends and practices (and always funding!) in Europe.

Without specifics my list of distastes might render me a bitter and ignorant snob. I celebrate the massive quantity and generous spirit of local dance work in all and every genre,despite the crushing accelerations of time, space and capital that leave most SF dancers running from rehearsal to stupid job to class to teaching gig to rehearsal to the other job.

Mary Wigman in 1933, with the memory of the 1st war still alive and the Nazi’s already on the move, wrote, “War had changed life. Revolution and suffering tend to destroy and shatter all the ideals of prettiness. How could these old and broken-down traditions remain firm throughout this awful period of destruction?” Wigman’s critique of the irrelevance of ballet helped me to focus the following criticism.

HERE’S WHAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND, DON’T LIKE, AND AM CRITICAL OF IN BAY AREA DANCE:

• Too much pretty dancing that seems oblivious of the past thirty or fifty years of dance innovation, of invitations to release and surrender weight, of challenges to representations of body and gesture, especially of the gendered body that pretty dancing seems to defend.

• Too much choreography that seems oblivious of the past thirty or fifty years… that doesn’t even seem to care what others have made or are making.

• Too much making vertically-upright, non-falling, barelytouching dances to a nice piece of commercial (and or electronic) music.

• Too much soft (non-threatening) political intentions and lack of commitment to grounding the politics (or destabilizing the politics) in the actual dancing, action, and images on stage.

• Too much lack of danger, risk, discomfort, experimentation, play.

• Too expensive tickets for everything from CounterPULSE to Yerba Buena and too little concern about expanding and engaging an audience for dance.

• Too much unrehearsed work that clearly did not get honest, mature feedback at a point in the process that could actually influence outcome. This includes my work. There’s an extreme poverty of public criticism or discussion. Local dance writing, with a few exceptions, is meager.

• I consistently see the most a-historical and/or problematic work coming from graduates of local universities.

• With some of the larger companies, there is way too much money spent on promotion and not enough on visual design of the work.

• I also have a special disdain for work that is hyped too much (we are the future of dance! we are the most unique fusion of art & science!) but there are self-hyped companies in New York and Los Angeles that are at least as tired as any in San Francisco.

KEITH HENNESSY’S TOP 10 LOCAL DANCE EVENTS OF 2005 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER):

1. The Adventures of Cunning and Guile, Chris Black and Ken James, Cartoon Art Museum

This show was a delight. A site-specific, hour-long duet staged in the various (little) galleries of a cartoon art museum. Two suitcases, ingeniously holding both lights and sound accompanied the dancers and the audience as we moved from room to room, often guided by reading
crumpled notes tossed by the performers. The dancing was precise, intimate, and odd, combining intricate gestures and whole body contact. The show was entertaining and funny but wasn’t stupid or predictable and did not lack a crucial pathos or poignancy. James recalls a silent film star. His face is plastic, allegedly neutral until the eyebrows seem to shift and we’re laughing or sighing, aahhh. Oh and they sang and it was terribly real, exciting, touching, and human.

2. House of LaBeija dancers, Jack Ya Body Dance Series, curated by Traci Bartlow for Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Hip hop is the dance community that is most inspired and tainted by pop culture commerce. For some that’s an encouragement to innovate, to be unique, but for the overwhelming majority it seems like a pressure to conform. Clearly few in this context subscribe to Doris Humphrey’s
2nd rule: Symmetry is Lifeless. But these comments could also apply to whiter modern dancers. Traci Bartlow is an Oakland dancer-photographer-curator whose contributions to the form include a dynamic fusion of vintage lindy hop partnering and contemporary hip hop. For the above-mentioned festival she curated a stellar line-up, a pedagogical tour of hip hop styles from yesterday to tomorrow. I was most moved by a couple of young, postvogueing, House of LaBeija dancers that swirled through queer and Black dance histories with shameless passion. With runway-ready arms and attitude they had this crazily impossible fall, one leg bent back to slow the whole thing down and bounce them back up. Some queen, a friend, came storming out of the audience to steal/share the light. He gave everything, keys falling from one pocket, and two cell phones flying across the floor. He could do that fall.

3. Everything by Fauxnique, aka Monique Jenkinson, at Trannyshack

With drag I’m a fickle nationalist and declare that there’s none better than SF drag, especially the pomo trash of Trannyshack every Tuesday at midnight. (When I’m in the South I recognize it as where all the best drag queens come from, and when I’m in NY I recognize most of the best live singing queens – Kiki & Herb, Joey Arias, Hedwig.) Fauxnique made drag history as the first woman-bornwoman to win a major (hmmm?) drag queen title, Miss Trannyshack. In a collision of feminist-inspired gender theory, Weimar cabaret, American vaudeville, ballet, and old school drag culture with its drag mommies and daughters, Fauxnique is a faux-queen gender illusionist par excellence. When not making near-weekly performances for Trannyshack (rent the movies to learn more), Fauxnique is Monique Jenkinson, a solo performance artist and half of the now-retired dance/performance duo Hagen and Simone with actor/dancer/designer Kevin Clarke. Their Future Perfect, was a smart and delightful hybrid performance mash-up of Vogue’s Diana Vreeland and Element of Style’s E.B. White.

4. ButterFLEE, Jose Navarette, performed at ManiFestival, Dance Mission Theatre

As the Minutemen stepped up their misguided antiimmigrant activism along the US-Mexican border, Jose Navarette responded with a devastatingly well-crafted performance based on his own border transgressions. Using the tri-national Monarch butterfly (that travels
without border agents from Canada to Mexico) as a role model, Navarette proposed a free movement of people dependent on availability of resources. The hybrid solo work, dangerously personal and political, featured dance, confessional monologue, live & pre-recorded video projections, and queer-Mexican camp. The images were never too obvious and the politics varied from child’s eye view to abstract investigation. Navarette has danced with numerous local choreographers including Sara Shelton Mann and Joanna Haigood, and is best known for his excellent avant-tango work with Debby Kajiyama. ButterFLEE, a project of their duet company Navarette + Kajiyama, is a curious and welcome addition to the repertoire.

5. Solo, Amara Tabor-Smith, excerpt from Urban Bush Women directed by Jawole Willa Jo Zolar, performed at Greening New Orleans Benefit, Brava Theater

Amara has dignity when she dances; a fusion of muscle and grace. Another example of interdisciplinary Bay Area anti-specialization, Amara has performed with SF Mime Troupe, trained intensively in capoiera, and worked with Oakland girls to make dances in the street. Within a tireless afternoon of benefit performances, Amara’s solo offered a sublime moment in which the necessary cause of the day (devastation from Katrina and government neglect) could be filtered through a Black woman’s body that recognized this devastation and refused to bow down.

6. Limerance, Twincest (aka Jez Kuono’ono Lee & Shawn Tamaribuchi), performed at Passing — Less Than Satisfactory, CounterPULSE

I only saw this performance on video and still became an instant fan. Against a video projected background of their own homemade porn, Twincest, wearing only baseball caps and red t-shirts, stared each other down from the edges of a large circle of light. Tension, anticipation, builds. After three minutes they lunge at each other, wrestle, slap, punch – really hitting – and then stop after 45 intense seconds. Repeat. Stand. Attack. Are they non-surgical trans boys without pants? Are they angry Asian punk grrrls? Is this their personal relationship manifest or a political commentary? Fuck off and watch the show! Twincest evolves sexual liberationist performance (that SF has nurtured from Isadora to the Cockettes to yours truly) to forge new contexts for genderqueer and trans visibility that defies expectation and cliché. Jez Lee is also a dance curator to watch out for, building cross-genre platforms for dance and performance art, with a focus on Asian artists.

7. Dear Fidel, Dance Brigade, Dance Mission Theater

Moderates and liberals enjoy disliking what they consider to be knee-jerk politics or preaching to the allegedly converted. But these critics rarely comprehend or appreciate the role that art plays in nurturing, stretching, and affirming a politically engaged citizenry. The Dance Brigade rocks now more than ever, with long-term members who train simultaneously in percussion (taiko), martial arts (wu shu), and dance (ballet, hip hop, aerial, whatever’s required) in service of a serious political engagement. In a transition that survived the ideological Lesbian battles of a previous generation, The Dance Brigade emerged from the groundbreaking feminist dance collective The Wallflower Order, and is now directed by Krissy Keefer. Extending her politics to a different theatre, Keefer ran for Congress against Nancy Pelosi on a platform that included ending the war in Iraq, impeaching George W Bush, and confronting the causes of global warming. The spirit of Isadora lives.

8. Flyaway Productions/Jo Kreiter’s retrospective, Zaccho Studio

Since the 70’s, the Bay Area has been a hot spot for aerial dance and new circus. Key influences along the way include Terry Sendgraff, the Pickle Family Circus (now morphed into the SF Circus Center), Joanna Haigood, Project Bandaloop, Jo Kreiter, and Burning Man . After several years performing with Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre, and a few years training at the Circus Center with master Lu Yi, Kreiter founded Flyaway Productions an all-female company of dancers who explore unique aerial structures. Working on floating poles, ledges at various heights, fire escapes, exaggerated scale trapezes, or an enormous horizontal hoop, Kreiter’s choreography for vertical spaces requires a demanding upper body strength and mutual trust. For Kreiter these requirements become metaphors for a less restrictive vision of female and femininity and form part of a larger political engagement. Showing a selection of work from the past ten years had the warmth and charm of showing old photos, visiting old friends, while witnessing a process of evolution. It was a sweet show.

9. Susan Voyticky on aerial hoop and Emily Leap on trapeze, various sites

Susan Voyticky and Emily Leap exemplify the best of local circus as well as the aesthetic tensions between commercial and non-profit contexts. So many US circus artists gear their choreographic work to commercial and club gigs, and if they’re really good they dream of working for Cirque du McVegasDisney. Both Susan and Emily began their training in dance, then spent a few intense years training in circus, and now (while training is ongoing) perform in various companies and choreograph their own work, straddling circus and dance/performance cultures. Willing to hybridize forms and intentions, they are outstanding early-career artists to watch out for. Among several other projects they have both performed with my company Circo Zero and with Lauren Steiner’s hilarious, all-female aerial dance company, Eat Cake Productions, which suggests another wave of Bay Area aerial feminism.

10. Touched, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

I danced with Jess for nearly 20 years so I have no distance from which to comment on this work. A few people I know loved to hate this piece and one reviewer’s comments were so intense they revealed a feeling of betrayal. Paraphrase: “Jess used to live here, he used to be great, now he lives in Europe and makes conceptual trash!” The costumes seemed not to fit, neither bodies nor a concept. The lighting destroyed any possible depth or nuance. The language seemed tentative, indecisive. There was no center to this piece. In fact there were rarely any images in the center of the performing area, except for one crowd-pleasing acrobatic duet, which stood out as ‘real dancing’ in a sparse field of subtle improvisations by lonely people who don’t know how to touch or be touched. Performers inhabited large transparent plastic bags, slapped each other’s faces, interviewed each other. Curtis spent most of the work blinded by painted glasses, working the edges of the space, in and out of the audience, touching, touching self, touching others. I adored this work as an experiment, as disciplined research in crafting a personal voice and a perspective on contemporary life, as hard work and clear intention, abandoning the comfortable expectations of dance in a theatre.

HISTORICALLY REVISIONIST ADDITION, ONE YEAR LATER:

Erika Chong Shuch is the only local choreographer to have an ongoing residency/production partner. Based at the tiny Intersection for the Arts, her ESP Project engages in hybrid performances with dancers, actors, musicians, light and video artists. She spends oodles of time experimenting, hybridizing, collaborating, playing (does anyone have time or desire to play anymore?!!) and comes up with gorgeous performance images. Her total works always seem flawed or imperfect, affirming her willingness to risk everything in pursuit of a vibrant contemporary performance language. Her most recent work, Orbit, opened with an against-the-wall duet of close, weighty dancing and making-out between Shuch and emospectacular actor Danny Wolohan. Without a doubt it’s the best five minutes of dance I’ve seen in SF all year.

FINAL BONUS:

And the most exquisite dance of the year was by Keriac (RIP, March 17, 2005), dancing in her bed a few days before she died. By some unpredictable blessing, I ended up next to Keriac’s bed in a spontaneous improv ritual with pioneering Mangrove dancers Charles Campbell and Byron Brown, singing Swing Low Sweet Keriac, a band of dancers comin’ for to carry her home. Keriac was a much-loved teacher of improvisation, Contact Improv, and New Dance, working in both Germany and San Francisco for the past 30 years. Keriac’s SF home base, Danceground Keriac, has been inherited by Scott Wells.


Keith Hennessy was born in a mining town in Northern Ontario, Canada, lives in San Francisco, and tours internationally. He is an award-winning performer, choreographer, teacher and organizer. Hennessy directs Circo Zero, a laboratory for live performance that plays with genre and expectation. Rooted in dance, Hennessy’s work embodies a unique hybrid of performance art, music, visual and conceptual art, circus, and ritual.

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