Where would you take out of town visitors if they arrived today? What’s “interesting” about San Francisco, something tourists travel the world to see? How would you compose an insider’s guide to the city, full of local flavor, for the passionate traveler who searches beyond famous attractions?
Spend an afternoon touring the town with Trolley Dances and you might wonder why you’ve never taken yourself to some of these places. Now in its fifth year in San Francisco—tenth in San Diego, its origin—the series of site-specific dances invites audience to get to know their neighborhoods and even re-imagine them with the fresh and perceptive eyes of an explorer. Equally enticing is the likelihood of seeing parts of the city for the first time, if only to recognize how much more ground there is still to be known. Getting there is half the adventure. Patrons led by a volunteer guide ride public transportation from place to place, sometimes into unfamiliar territory. At each destination dancers offer a medium for the audience to experience their setting with heightened awareness.
This year’s route explores MUNI’s young T-line, starting at the two-year-old Mission Bay branch of the San Francisco Public Library and reaching Bayview Hunters Point (BVHP) before circling back to UCSF’s new Mission Bay biomedical research campus. Stops along the way find local companies in action: Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theater, Scott Wells & Dancers, Brazilian martial arts group Adigun Sipho Capoiera, and event host Kim Epifano’s Epiphany Productions. Guests San Diego Dance Theater, headed by Trolley Dances founder Jean Isaacs, will join in for the shared anniversary performances.
Each chosen space holds ideas, has a history, and is lived in by particular people right now; the artists involved draw inspiration for their original works from the dance’s location. From the historic Hunters Point Naval Shipyard built in 1869 to new and impressive architecture at UCSF Mission Bay, the area of focus contains points of interest on an as-yet unbeaten path. BVHP is a center of San Francisco’s African American community and one of the community’s few remaining neighborhoods. It is also the focus of a controversial redevelopment plan, in action since 2006, which proposes improved housing and business facilities but arouses the fear of dispersing the community, recalling the massive displacement of Black residents from the Fillmore District in the 1960s.
Epifano is especially committed to this year’s choice of territory. Bayview is home to Zaccho Dance Theater and Adigun Sipho Capoiera, and the nearby Potrero Hill has housed Epifano’s company for around ten years. When the T-line opened in April of 2007 and increased access to and from the remote southeastern side of San Francisco, it felt natural to hold Trolley Dances among neighbors. “We’re part of that community,” Epifano says, and anticipates involving fellow members of the Bayview, Hunters Point and Dogpatch neighborhoods by advertising the event heavily there. Each year MUNI helps out with bus placard space, while grant money allows the event to be free, with only the normal city bus fare or a transit pass needed for the rides.
The public performances are happening October 18 and 19. Groups will leave every 45 minutes between 11 am and 2:45 pm for a tour that lasts two hours, but Epifano points out that audiences can stay for parts of the tour or even bike along instead. The day before, the same production will be held for youth, and this year it will include students from a Bayview public school, who will join high schoolers from School of the Arts and other repeat participants. On Fridays leading up to Trolley Dances, Epifano visits the participating schools to hold workshops on site-specific performance, piquing students’ interest in the creative process through direct involvement.
Last year an estimated 4,300 people attended San Francisco’s Trolley Dances, including the children but not accounting for the passersby—and there were many—who spontaneously joined the ticketed watchers. Epifano hopes to attract the curious onlooker, or potential dance fan, by creating an informal and accessible format. She looks forward to introducing San Francisco’s traditional dance audience to a part of town that’s outside the mainstream (and familiar, “non-mainstream”) performance viewing venues and districts. It is a treasured opportunity for Epifano to be able to share her art outside the studio and proscenium theater. By doing so, each site can be as memorable as the dance within it; to Epifano, the environment becomes “Enlivened in some way.”
After each year’s neighborhood selection comes “site hunting” to research the locations where each company will perform. Epifano learns about local businesses by meeting store owners and asking to borrow the sites for rehearsal and performance. “I just started getting sort of nosy, going into the neighborhood and finding my connections. It’s fun—I keep finding out about my own city,” and in doing so, she says, “You get to know the people that make the city run, and that’s an art in itself—making the city go.” Included in the discussion about transforming public space through dance is San Francisco’s homeless community—some of them have spots staked out within the proposed sites. In a previous edition of the Trolley Dances, Epifano discovered that one man slept on a certain bench at the same time every day, so the dancers involved took care not to impose on his routine.
The Trolley Dances’ social aspect and place-specific design caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Mark Freeman, Professor of Television, Film and New Media at San Diego State University. His new short film “Trolley Dances” follows the yearlong preparation for San Diego’s brand of the event and will be shown on Bay Area public television this month (schedule at markfreemanfilms.org). Freeman explains, “If there’s a through line to my body of work, it’s that I’m interested in telling stories that are community-based.” Footage of the performance intentionally captures audience reactions, sometimes in the same frame as the dance itself. Asked how he faces the challenge of presenting a live, site-oriented art on film, Freeman acknowledges, “A lot of it is determined by serendipity of having the camera in the right place at the right time: a young kid or an older person or somebody distinct in the background, and you can accommodate or reflect their experience seeing it.” The documentary broadcasts not only allow long-distance viewers to learn about the event, but also provide an additional lens for the live audience to revisit their sensorial encounter with the dance in a different space and time.
Audience experience is central to Trolley Dances’ mission, and to Epifano’s and Isaacs’ setups of the event. Individual works of dance function independently as artists’ involvement with their sites and subjects, but are connected in their direct and intimate contact with their viewers. For San Francisco residents, the T-line circuit of the Trolley Dances may or may not be a familiar travel route. Taking MUNI could be an everyday necessity, or a special event for walkers, bike riders and drivers. Bayview Hunters Point, Dogpatch and Potrero may be considered home, or as places one desires to see and better understand. After a summer of high gas prices and suggestions to vacation at home, Trolley Dances offers many ways to see what’s in front of you and be engaged in your surroundings.
This article appeared in the October 2008 issue of In Dance.