The Bay Area’s Summer Performances: Theatrical adventures for any taste

By Rachel Howard


If you want to experience the real Bay Area dance scene in all its breadth, depth, variety, and just-get-up-and-move wildness, you may have to come in the summer.

True, September through May here are so jam-packed with dance performances that at first glance summer may seem quieter. Presenters like San Francisco Performances, Cal Performances, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts take a three-month hiatus from importing visitors from New York and beyond. The San Francisco Ballet leaves on tour. Major Bay Area companies like ODC/Dance, the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, and LINES Ballet have either just finished their home seasons, or are gearing up for new ones come fall.

But into the supposed off-season rushes the cacophony of dance styles, traditions, and innovations home-grown in the Bay Area, second only to New York in its quantity of dance companies, and boasting the highest rate of dance activity, per capita, in the country. This is a town where practitioners of traditional forms from flamenco to Indian Kathak move their heritages into the future, where activist choreographers take their message to the streets, where aerialists soar from the rafters, where chamber-sized ballet troupes see classicism anew, where Contact Improvisation-influenced artists challenge the idea that dance must look dancerly, where dance theater innovators speak as eloquently as they move—and where all these varieties of dance might find themselves sharing a program during one of the summer’s abundant festivals.

If there’s a defining characteristic of Bay Area dance, it’s diversity. And if there’s ever a chance to see that potently, in a single weekend or even a single evening, it’s during the summer. That’s more the case than ever this year, with several festivals celebrating milestone anniversaries, several newer entries gathering momentum, one anchor of the summer dance scene reinventing itself, and a brand-new series of festivals launching.

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (June 2-29 at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater) is a party, have no doubt. But it is also an eye-opener for many to the sheer cultural range of the Bay Area dance scene. All of the troupes, from Raices de Mi Tierra’s Mexican Folklorico to Gadung Kasturi’s Indonesian, are based in the Bay Area. Some, like the Dunsmuir Scottish Dancers, might be called “hobbyists,” though the word doesn’t capture their level of skill and dedication; others, like the exquisite Cambodian classicist Charya Burt, have dedicated nearly their entire lives to the perfection of their art. From hip hop to hula, the SF Ethnic Dance Festival reveals to us the multitude of cultures thriving here.

This year the Festival, the first of its kind in the US, celebrates its 30th anniversary by expanding to four weekends. Old friends like the storied Theater Flamenco and the flamboyant Na Lei Hulu I Ka Weikiu join newer discoveries like the belly dancer Shabnam and the Turkish fantasia of Collage West Dance Theatre. Each weekend presents a slate of nine companies, from Korean to Afro-Peruvian. Most of the troupes bring fabulous live music, and inside word from the festival is that extra funding will bring more famous musicians from around the world. Look, too, for festival commissions of new choreography that prove “traditional” dance lives in the present, not the past. Visit for more information.

Meanwhile, across town, ODC Theater is marking diversity with not just one festival, but a whole series of them. The theater, a 29-year-old black box that might be considered San Francisco’s equivalent of New York’s Dance Theatre Workshop, is going dark for the summer months for a tear-down and major rebuild. Instead of waiting for the sawdust to settle, ODC Theater director Rob Bailis has seized the chance to create a new presenting partnership with the spacious Project Artaud Theater (a converted former can factory) just a few blocks away.

The ODC Festivals launch with “For the Record: Dancers Debate the Body Politic” April 24 through May 10, featuring San Francisco legend Sara Shelton Mann’s new Inspirare, Burma-born Butoh artist Ledoh’s Color Me America, Jo Kreiter’s Lies You Can Dance To and much more. But the ODC Festivals roll right through the summer months, too. June 26 through July 26 will bring “Local Heroes/The Big Picture,” a festival of local artists, national guests, and new traditional cultural forms.

The national guests bringing work are Philadelphia-based Kate Watson-Wallace, and Minneapolis-based queer performance artists Karen Sherman, June 26-28. They’re both making debuts here, and they hail from locales whose work is too seldom seen in the Bay Area. Bailis has worked tirelessly over his last five years at the ODC Theater helm to weave San Francisco into a web with the dance scenes of other cities, helping to found the SCUBA Touring Network that. “The Big Picture” part of the festival looks like the next step to open up dialogue among artists from across the country.

Then July 17-26, the spotlight shines back on local diversity, but with a fresh twist. For “Local Heroes” Bailis’s position is that modern dance and ballet are as “traditional” as any “ethnic” forms. Thus Manuelito Biag, who works in modern dance, Alex Ketley, who trained in ballet, and Yannis Adoniou of Kunst-Stoff, a mix of modern and ballet training, will share the festival with the Haitian dance of Colette Eloi, Hearan Chung’s Korean dance, and classical Indian dance by Vishnu Tattva Das. Will new common ground be found, new talents discovered? Visit for more.

And while Bailis’ new festival launches, an established anchor reinvents itself. The WestWave Dance Festival, once known as Summerfest/Dance, has over the last 17 years become one of the best ways to sample the overwhelming range of Bay Area dance and cast an early eye on developing talents, with local luminaries presenting work alongside just-born companies.

This year’s WestWave Dance Festival, a new presenting partnership between Dancers’ Group and DanceArt, running August 16-24 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, takes the chance for discovery a step further with a bold new format. More than three dozen dance groups will each be given five minutes, allowing not just for rapid-fire exposure but for a greater range of styles on one slate, with Butoh rubbing up against ballet, dance-theater against tap or flamenco. The WestWave will be part of the Yerba Buena Center’s hotly watched “Bay Area Now” festival, and will also include a lineup of dance film screenings.

An added bonus: Under its ONSITE series, Dancers’ Group will commission a new site-specific work to premiere during WestWave by Joanna Haigood and her Zaccho Dance Theater, whose moving meditations on history and place have graced everywhere from Jacob’s Pillow to the side of San Francisco’s Ferry Building clock tower. For The Shifting Cornerstone Haigood will set up just outside the Yerba Buena Center at the corner of Third and Mission Streets, her five dancers becoming part of the South of Market hustle and bustle in a series of vignettes looped continuously for five hours each day. For more on the WestWave Dance Festival, visit

The East Bay is hardly leaving itself out of the summer dance scene. At least two festivals will give Bay Area denizens and visitors reason to cross the Bay Bridge. For five years now, Company C Contemporary Ballet Artistic Director Charles Anderson has been working to promote downtown Oakland and its Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts as a dance destination by presenting the Oakland Dance Festival, usually featuring his own company alongside other leading troupes like Savage Jazz Dance Company and AXIS Dance. This year, Anderson is kicking things up a notch. The second and third nights of the 2008 Festival will feature a double-bill of Company C performing alongside San Francisco’s ODC/Dance. But the first night, June 20, will offer a sampling of eight to ten companies from throughout the Bay Area. Spicing things up is a friendly competition, with the audience to vote for their favorite dance group, and the winner to receive $1,000. For more information, visit

Weeks later, a few miles further east, a very different kind of jam gets underway at the West Coast Contact Improvisation Festival. The Bay Area has provided a thriving community for the freewheeling, weight-sharing movement technique of Contact Improvisation since early in CI’s development, in the 1970s. More than 30 teachers will lead daytime workshops during this year’s 20th anniversary celebration, July 3-8 at the Eighth Street Studios Complex. Themed “Transformation: Honoring Our Roots, Dancing into the Future,” it offers three training tracks: Extreme Physicality, Somatics, and Performance. This is a hands-on festival with quiet, blindfolded, and music jams every night, but for observers the festival kicks off with an evening performance curated by the festival organizers, and includes student performances on select nights. For more information go to

And finally on the festival frontier, you might consider getting a jump on the Bay Area summer dance scene in May to catch the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which wraps in early June. Andrew Woods’ five-year-strong initiative to mix dance and theater artists from the Bay Area and around the world aims to place San Francisco dance happenings in a global context, and highlight socially engaged, cross-genre work, while also promoting San Francisco’s arts-friendly vibe and compact, easily traversable geography as an ideal place for visitors to immerse themselves in performance. Shows like “thirty-seven isolated events” May 22-31 mix worldwide collaborators, with San Francisco choreographer paige starling sorvillo working with Australian composer Susan Hawkins. May 29 through June 1, San Francisco Contact Improv daredevil Scott Wells shares a program with the Kate Foley Dance Project and Sonja Pregad, both from Croatia.

Other programs juxtapose Israel’s poetic Shlomit Fundaminsky with San Francisco’s chic Dance Elixir, and team Spain’s Compania Y with San Francisco’s raucous Dandelion Dance Theater. The Bay Area’s wildly theatrical Kim Epifano will premiere Speaking Chinese, created in Shanghai, Beijing, and San Francisco. The final dance offering June 5-7 at CounterPULSE is the world premiere of The Mapping Project, a performance installation created in collaboration by San Francisco’s own Navarrete x Kajiyama and Element Dance Theater, and Mexico City visual artist Ilya Noe. With maps as the metaphor, the work sounds quintessentially San Franciscan in its political fearlessness, taking on colonialism, “the war on terror,” and Mexico-US immigration. For the full, busy festival schedule, go to

There are plenty of ways to sample the Bay Area dance scene à la carte this summer, too. One of our most iconic dance artists, Joe Goode, will premiere Wonderboy June 6-15 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For more than 20 years, the Joe Goode Performance Group has created a distinctive body of work melding text and movement, a Midwestern-boy’s empathy for the extraordinary moments in seemingly ordinary lives, a winking camp sensibility, and Goode’s own considerable charisma. Now for Wonderboy he’ll partner with acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist on the story of a super-sensitive superhero, with music by the always richly atmospheric Carla Kihlstedt. For more information go to

Marc Bamuthi Joseph is another sui generis Bay Area artist, blending spoken word, hip hop, West African dance, politics and personal story telling into one seamless stream of breath and movement. In the break/s, June 19-21 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, he draws on Jeff Chang’s history of hip hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, to produce a multimedia odyssey. Expect video, verse, physical and verbal virtuosity, and two-turn tables with live DJ and thumping music.

And don’t count CounterPULSE, six blocks up the street from the Yerba Buena, out for the summer months. Now settled in to their still-new home (with beautiful sprung floor for dance!) at Mission and Tenth, this “home for grassroots art and culture” in San Francisco is the place to catch up-and-coming young companies, including the quirky modern dance of peck peck dance ensemble July 11-12, and the edgy, chic modern/ballet style of RAWdance July 31-August 2. Late summer brings an opportunity to catch up with the Bay Area’s gutsy feminist aerialist Jo Kreiter, whose Flyaway Productions will partner with the community center Oasis for Girls August 13-14 to present an evening of dances by young women, culminating with Flyaway’s fearless Lies You Can Dance To.

Finally, summer is for getting out of doors. Don’t let that old Mark Twain saw about the coldest winter he ever spent being a summer in San Francisco scare you. The al fresco Stern Grove Festival is a quintessential San Francisco experience.

You never know what kind of weather you’ll get at this wooded bower in the Sunset District—bone-chilling fog some years, bucolic sunshine others. But there’s always a healthy (read: up to 6,000 people) and appreciative crowd for this series of free Sunday concerts. And this year, on July 20, the dance attraction on the lineup is Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, looking stronger than ever with its roster of otherworldly dancers and innovative, shape-shifting ballets after 26 years. Early word is that the eight-member company will dance King’s 2006 work Migration, one of his finest in recent memory, and that legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders will be on hand for live music for the other repertory selection. Visit for more information.

Will the sun come out for LINES Ballet? There’s no telling in the unpredictable microclimate of San Francisco. And with the outrageous panorama of dance in this city, there’s no telling what you might discover during the crazy remixed summer dance season here, what among the Bay Area’s wild juxtapositions of rebels and traditionalists, political raucousness and personal eloquence might speak to you. One of the many upsides of radical diversity is that there’s something for everyone—and that your something may turn out to be not at all what you expected. So bring your layers of clothing for the surprises in the weather. And bring your open-mindedness for the surprises that await you on the stage.

Rachel Howard has written about dance in the Bay Area for about 16 years. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and many other publications. She also writes memoir and fiction.