KUNST-STOFF Celebrates 10 years

By Michael Wade Simpson

January 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

You can pronounce KUNST-STOFF with a little Germanic ‘sh’ added to the stoff and a very oo-sounding kunst, and you’ll still only be half-way in the know. Part-two is its rather mutli-layered definition. KUNST-STOFF means, well, something rather mundane according to director Yannis Adoniou. It has to do, in German, with plastic and recycling. However, the word kunst also means art. Plastic, recycling, art. This is the dance company Yannis Adoniou founded with Tomi Paasonen ten years ago. They were two European ballet dancers picked by Alonzo King to dance in San Francisco for LINES Ballet (Adoniou stayed with the company for seven years). And they were both interested in making their own dances.

It was their backgrounds in ballet, as technicians, all disciplined and detail-oriented, that gave them the refreshing counterweight to the new styles they were learning: California-friendly, free-wheeling experimentalism which can be a trap. This dichotomy, a two-headed way of moving, gives the work its kinesthetic charge and often palpable beauty. The dance company does live up to its name– in spirit and in irony and in bohemian cool– embodied in a band of ballet-trained modern dancers with a Greek director, Finnish house choreographer, German name and San Francisco address. “My work doesn’t belong anywhere,” said Adoniou in a recent interview, “and that’s not what America is used to.”

Ten years is a long time in the Mission. Dancers grow weary and give up practically every day. Choreographers fail, constantly. Adoniou has a different kind of fatalism, an appreciation for the freedom it means to be in the Bay Area, not the other– the provincialism, lack of funding, lack of jobs. “The Bay Area is a great place,” he says. “You have to believe in your approach. You will be recognized. Listen to your own voice.”

Success has certainly followed Adoniou’s company (even after co-founder Paasonen moved to Berlin in 1997), from ODC and all the other theatres in the Mission, to Burning Man, to the International Arts Center in Athens, to the SCUBA tour that recently hooked small to mid-sized regional dance companies up with presenters all over the US, and now to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where they will be celebrating their birthday on Februrary 14-16. “We really have nothing to lose (out here),” he says. “We can afford to play—be different.”

KUNST-STOFF approaches dance concerts as opportunities to explore different themes. In 1999, the company looked at nostalgia. Several years have been media focused, with live feed video, collaborations with photographers, motion capture. Now there is ritual. Three world premieres in the company’s home season will explore various aspects of ritual and the ways we ritualize in our lives today.

Out of Hand is Mr. Paasonen’s investigation of homeless people, of false ecstasies and false happiness. Succinct will be a structured solo improv for Mr. Adoniou under the direction of Alonzo King, who asked the question, “What is clean energy? What is pure?” Adoniou’s new group piece, un state, is a collaboration with local Korean artist, vocalist and composer Dohee Lee that explores the spiritual essence of ecstasy, the physicality required to achieve nirvana.

Speaking of rituals, Adoniou can recount many. On a tour to Hawaii, the dancers of KUNST-STOFF were invited by a prominent hula teacher to visit her studio. Here, the ritual was one of entrance, as each person that arrived at the studio had to chant, one at a time, in order to clear the energy for dancing. There were also lots of rituals back in Greece growing up, where plates were broken at weddings, and the seasons were marked with picking of flowers in May, and then the ritual burning of the summer flowers later on, of negative energy released, dances with cowbells, of village life as it still exists there.

“The idea of a dance, of moving through time and space, is to create a vibration the viewer can get, feel, create, and use to get out his own emotions,” Adoniou says. It was no doubt the seven years under the tutelage of one-of-a-kind master Alonzo King that helped create the choreographer Adoniou is today. “The task with LINES was to go back to the true essence. Where ballet came from. When we know too much, we start controlling it…when we know how it is supposed to look, or feel, it’s time to go back to the essence. Back to spirit.

“You have to analyze, take the scientific approach to the physical laws of dance, you have to understand that,” he said. “But you want to get people emotionally involved. To create vibrations.”

For ten years, Adoniou says, he and the company have been blessed. Blessed, among other things, to serve as dance-company-in-residence at ODC for the last six years. Blessed that all of his original dancers, Nicole Bonadonna, Kara Davis, Leslie Schickel and Nol Simonse, are all still dancing with him (along with several new ones).

It would seem likely that an ambitious artist like Adoniou would have imminent plans to decamp for New York or Europe. In fact, Tomi Paasonen took off for Berlin, where he is enjoying the opportunity to work in an atmosphere of conceptual art and multi-media domination over movement. Adoniou has no plans to leave, however. Why does he stay?

“San Francisco has a lot of artists,” he says. “CounterPulse, Dance Mission– there is something for us to learn, to change and have dialogue with here, to be able to jump from LINES to ODC, to the Dance Commons, to have conversations with Scott Wells, Joe Goode, Robert Moses. Kathleen Hermsdorf, Sara Shelton-Mann, Alonzo King, Rob Bailis, Matt Ingall….”

KUNST-STOFF presents the company’s 10th Anniversary Season February 14-16, 8pm at Yerba Buerba Buena Center for the Arts. For more information visit KUNST-STOFF.org. For tickets visit ybca.org or call 415-978-2787.

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.