Behind the Curtains: Everything you need to know about making it into the Ethnic Dance Festival, June 2008

By Miriam Phillips


Light jingles from brass bells of Indian dancers merge into the clank of the Philippine’s bamboo sticks, which provide the undertone to bellowing calls of the Congolese drums that resonate from the farthest part of the theater. Recognizable smells of hairspray and makeup meld with exotic scents of Hawaiian leis, Argentinean cologne, African goatskins, and Middle Eastern henna. Mexican ribbons, Central Asian peacock feathers, Tahitian coconut shells, Senegalese raffia, Balinese silk and gold garments, Irish dance curls, Norwegian embroidery, Spanish flamenco ruffles and polka dots, flowers, beads, bark, palm leaf, elaborately woven cloth—familiar and unfamiliar objects spread across each dressing room’s floor or hang from metal clothes racks.

Hundreds of artists are to be found preparing and mulling about back stage, while on stage, a solo Cambodian dancer walks meditatively and regally down the diagonal from up stage right to down stage center, toes and fingers turned upward, head tilted to one side, at one with breath and the music. The performance has begun, yet the “dance event” of the SFEDF has been in process much longer—a process, which inter-circles with the cycles of the hundreds of ethnic dance companies and soloists residing in the Bay Area. Now in its 30th year, the Festival’s milestone anniversary also parallels the same anniversary of many of its veteran companies.

Dance ethnologists regard dancing as happening in an “event” rather than a “performance” as this embraces the wide variety of contexts that dance takes place around the globe. That is, not all dances happen for entertainment purposes on a proscenium stage where there is a division between performer and audience (i.e. “a performance”). Looking at dance this way takes into account broader temporal, spatial, aural, visual, kinesthetic and social aspects of dance cross-culturally. Thus, the entire time cycle of an event is considered, that is, the before, the during, the after, even the behind, above, below, inside and out.

The SFEDF that we see in June on the Palace of Fine Arts stage is the final product of a year-long cycle. This first phase begins roughly in the late summer when the calendar for the next year is set, which includes theater bookings, audition timing, and fund-raising. The planning continues in the fall with meetings; grant writing, publicity and preparation for the January auditions. Then comes the careful choosing of panelists (formerly called judges) who consist of a variety of performing arts professionals specializing in specific culture areas. They provide thoughts and feedback to the producers about auditioning artists, but do not make the final decision on who is chosen to perform.

In January, the wonderful auditions happen. Over 100 companies and soloists show their hard worked wares to a varied and enthusiastic audience and eight expert panelists. The Festival auditions are in and of themselves a wonderful performance and a great bargain. Over four days a ticket buyer can experience seasoned companies as well as refreshing new talent. Even more than the Festival itself, the auditions are a time where many diverse ethnic communities share the seats of one theater, appreciating the aesthetics and artistry of one another’s cultures.

After the auditions, the work in the World Arts West office intensifies. After a careful review of the panelist comments and scores the grueling decision of who’s selected and how the programming will look takes place. The final determination is the purview of the Artistic Director(s) (formerly called Program Director, or Festival Director)—a job that is really more like a museum curator. Having been a former Festival Director, and, as many of us who have been in this position, also a performer, the selection process is extremely difficult. The fact of the matter is the Bay Area has a tremendous amount of talent. Each year, there are easily over 100 groups who audition and only 30 slots in the festival. The 30th Anniversary is an exception with nearly 40 artists participating this year.

Many aren’t aware of the complex factors that go into the selection process. First and foremost the directors must consider strong pieces that can carry energy on a theatrical stage. In addition, the piece must have some degree of cultural authenticity—hence the need for panelists from culturally diverse perspectives. Then there’s balancing those artists that have performed in previous festival’s with those that are new, companies with soloists, groups using live music versus taped, and making sure a broad spectrum of geographical regions are represented, and finally that each show has qualitative variety—high energy pieces balanced with serene ones.

The auditionees, whether they make it into the Festival or not, are offered written feedback if they choose to pay a small administrative fee. The feedback they can receive is a careful synthesis of panelist’s comments. It’s a great service the organization provides to artists as it gives them opportunities to strengthen their work and understand how their performance carries to a diverse group of experts.

From here on out activities in the World Arts West office increase and keeps on going like a boulder rolling down a mountain. All artists are notified of their audition outcome and contracts are drawn for both the ones that made it in and the many independent contractors working for the Festival. A photo shoot occurs, meetings get set up with the lighting designer and technical director, budgets created, and Festival staff work on program order and theatrical concepts. A frenzy of meetings take place with photographer, videographer, publicist, as well as funders, donors, while simultaneously the lighting plan gets designed, logistics behind transitions are mapped out, and other adjunct programming is created. Brochures are mailed, website content for the current show go up, media appearances are booked, tickets go on sale and then comes the June Festival. The red-carpeted theater entrance at the Palace is transformed into a beautiful boudoir of culture; the stage illuminated with a rainbow of global colors reflected in the dance, music, costume, and performers.

The Festival may end here for audience members, but it continues on for Festival staff and even performers. Audience surveys are tallied, invoices paid, budgets rectified, final reports written, and the past season reviewed and reflected upon by Festival staff. Performers and community members continue lively discussions about their Festival experiences, many new cross-cultural artistic alliances get made back stage and are followed up on in the summer.

While the SFEDF has had many staffing changes over its 30-year existence, there is a way that it has a life of its own that endures the many shifts. The Festival offers a more visible platform for groups to be seen by other communities and individuals who might not otherwise see them, which can lead to additional bookings. In addition, the organization provides many wonderful services to the vibrant Bay Area ethnic dance community—services that many beginning to middle career soloists and companies need, namely, more performance experience, professional photos and video (all available after the show for a fee), a well-researched program write-up about their presented work, and a lot of publicity. The experience of performing in a professionally run theatrical production that includes technical and dress rehearsals, and a performance with excellent lighting and sound at a major San Francisco venue is a big boon as well. The Festival provides Bay Area audiences a chance to see and experience an entertaining show of different forms of dance from around the globe in one comfortable evening’s package.

There is no question that after 30 years, the SFEDF is a good product. Yet in this era of self-reflection and seeking to comprehend global problems more holistically, does the Festival, in its current format, truly serve the greater understanding of culture? In this overwrought globalized world, has the Festival contributed to the “stageification” of ethnic dance? As the Festival stage is a place where a lot of local companies strive to have a place on, has the Festival contributed to the homogenization of dance as it places standards of Western high art culture onto diverse forms? Why ruin a good thing? And it is true; the SFEDF is a good thing. Perhaps it is also time for a new model of performance to travel alongside.

Ok, who am I, and how do I know what I just wrote? In the early 1980s I was an auditionee and performer in the Festival, and in the mid 1990s I was Festival director. For the past six years I have been a consultant, audition panelist, and the Festival’s Program Book and website researcher/writer. I took a break this year to join a multi-disciplinary research team funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to travel to Guinea, West Africa as dance ethnology consultant. Working for Yale University’s African Art Museum we researched the masked dance event of the Baga people, D’mba, and are creating a collaborative publication and multi-sensory exhibition. While it was extremely refreshing to participate in village dance events, it was clear that “stageification” had reared its homogeneous head there too (see Lily Kharrazi’s article which references the nationalization of dance and its global effect).

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of In Dance.

Miriam Phillips is an independent dance ethnology scholar, writer, dance teacher, performer and Laban movement analyst. Comments?