Major celebrations and successes meet the usual challenges of presenting new work

By Rachel Howard

December 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

This past year was a time of big birthdays, initiatives, celebrations, and rebuilding in Bay Area dance. Outshining all in historical import, ambition, publicity, and yes, hype—some perpetuated by this critic—was the San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s season-crowning New Works Festival in May—10 world premieres by 10 choreographers unveiled over three days—did not show us the future of classical choreography. None of the works proved a revelation, and about four proved keepers, not a bad batting average for new ballet choreography. The New Works Festival did reveal to many visiting observers an internationally ascendant troupe of terrific dancers, and that can only help bolster the San Francisco Bay Area’s larger reputation as a hot region for good dance. The festival offered a larger stage and audience to our local legend of modern dance, Margaret Jenkins, who did not make one of her best works, but who has not slowed down on her new streak of remarkable productivity, which took her to China this fall to continue a three-part collaboration with Guangdong Modern Dance Company.

June, brought a celebration of the flip side of the Bay Area dance ecology, with the 30th anniversary of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Four weekends showcased everything from children’s Chinese dances to wild Cirque du Soleil-like Korean Shaman rituals (Ong Dance Company), with many groups dancing to rich live music, or in new works commissioned by the Festival. It was a potent, high energy reminder of how broad the Bay Area dance scene is, blurring the lines between professionals and hobbyists, dance as cultural tradition and dance as innovative art.

That freewheeling diversity has also long been seen as a weakness of the dance community, creating factionalism and in-fighting, but in 2008 several organizations took steps towards making cross-cultural, cross-genre conversation a strength. CounterPULSE executive director Jessica Robinson and co-curator Mary Armentrout did this through their wonder fully inclusive Dance Discourse Project discussion panels, and CounterPULSE’s programming. ODC Theater director Rob Bailis, a presenter without a home as the old ODC Theater was waiting to be demolished for a major rebuild, seized the opportunity to mount an eclectic series of festivals, including one juxtaposing modern and postmodern choreographers (“Local Heroes”) with so-called culturally specific choreographers (“New Traditionalists”), effectively making the case that a rising ballet-trained talent like Alex Ketley and an Odissi master like Vishnu Tattva Das are both creating contemporary art. August’s revamped WestWave Dance Festival, produced as a partnership between Dancers’ Group and DanceArt, gave equal time to hula and hip hop, tango and toe shoes, in a strict five-minute-per-act format that could still use some curatorial tightening.

Other institutional happenings:

Smaller Bay Area Ballet Companies: The 40-year-old Oakland Ballet continued its rebirth under founder Ronn Guidi, first with an ill-chosen but well danced offering in spring (Guidi’s full-length Secret Garden), then with a delightful, family friendly repertory program in the fall. Walnut Creek’s Diablo Ballet carried on after losing a major funder; the tiny troupe has some wonderful performers (like the strong-as-nails Tina Kay Bohnstedt), but I wish they would not rely so much on thin story ballets by Nikolai Kabaniaev. Smuin Ballet made it through a tough transition year after the sudden passing of Michael Smuin in 2007, anointing the formally inventive Amy Seiwert resident choreographer. The East Bay’s Company C Contemporary Ballet rose to new heights with the spirited world premiere of a lost Twyla Tharp pas de deux.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Executive director Ken Foster’s new model is working. Now that the YBCA is not merely a semi-subsidized rental house, but a full-fledged presenter offering commission dollars, local choreographers have a more meaningful ladder. Erika Shuch, Keith Hennessy, and Robert Moses’ Kin were all worthy picks for Bay Area Now, Moses’s dancers filling the Novellus Theater with lush, finely textured movement, and Shuch finding a new expansiveness for her tender dance theater in the Forum. The YBCA had worse luck presenting out-of-town companies with Vietnam’s Ea Sola and New York’s Shen Wei offering flat work, but the YBCA’s emphasis on socially provocative dance continues to fill a significant presenting void.

UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances: Continued to play it safe with the big ticket tried-and-true: the Kirov Ballet in warhorse 19th century repertory, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and an incredibly dull Romeo and Juliet from Mark Morris. But presenting the big institutions is what Cal ought to do.

Shawl-Anderson Dance Center: Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson’s hospitable East Bay school celebrated 50 years with abundant good wishes and gratitude.

Anchors of the Bay Area Dance Scene: ODC/Dance and Lines Ballet, institutional hubs by virtue of their professionalism and attached dance centers, coasted in 2008. ODC/Dance offered fierce, propulsive dancing (enduring cheers to Private Freeman and Anne Zivolich) but conceptually convoluted choreography in their home season. Alonzo King’s Lines, busy with increased international touring, took it easy locally with a repeat of the Shaolin monks collaboration in the spring, and an undistinguished new work with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders in the fall.

San Francisco International Arts Festival: I’m befuddled by executive director Andrew Wood’s labor of love. Not so much by the uneven quality of the works presented, although Kim Epifano’s Speaking Chinese, held up as the fruits of the festival’s goals of cross-continental collaboration, was thin and incomprehensible. But what exactly do the local companies get out of participating in this? Presumably, more collective power of marketing and promotion. But the festival’s packaging is confusing, its website and marketing materials unattractive. Is it possible the local participants would be better off putting whatever money they expended to be in the festival towards their own home seasons?

And my personal performance highlights, in no particular order:

Joe Goode’s Wonderboy. Yes, the puppet by collaborator Basil Twist was mesmerizing, but I was just as taken by Goode’s reinvigorated movement vocabulary: lush and loose and richer than in recent seasons. Jessica Swanson leads a new generation of Joe Goode performers.

Janice Garrett & Dancers and the Del Sol String Quartet in StringWreck. A model for true artistic collaboration between the gamely musicians, Garrett, and fellow choreographer Charles Moulton. Lively and never gimmicky. And graced by a ravishing performance by Nol Simonse!

Jess Curtis/Gravity in The Symmetry Project. Our bad boy in Berlin returned with yet more deeply
thoughtful, fully present movement, this time a nude duet for him and the entrancingly placid Maria
Francesca Scaroni. Proving why Gravity took home two Isadora Duncan Dance Awards this year.

Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People in Retrospective Exhibitionist. The former Joe Goode dancer made an unforgettable homecoming with a one-man tour de force of narcissism and charisma. Good call, Rob Bailis, on making this part of the ODC Theater Festivals.

Chitresh Das: The 63-year-old Kathak guru was agile and athletic as ever in a rare, virtuoso evening-
length solo, pounding out ear-teasing footwork rhythms with master musicians from India.

EmSpace Dances: Erin Mei-Ling Stuart turned her own flat into a voyeur’s theater for the cleverly staged Keyhole Dances, with musicians popping out from foyers and pantries. Special appreciation for the tiny, fierce redhead Julie Sheetz, who steals every show she appears in.

Some closing thoughts: When I arrived in San Francisco in 2000, the Bay Area dance scene was in crisis, forced out of space by the dot com boom. Today, space is still a perpetual worry (when will it cease to be a worry for dance?), with ODC Theater temporarily closed and the future of Project Artaud Theater uncertain. But over the last years, in my enthusiastic but admittedly non-comprehensive survey, I feel I’ve seen the Bay Area dance scene grow and expand and enter a period of new energy. I’ve felt so fortunate to be here in exciting times.

Perhaps I’m only engaging in the national media panic to ponder economic doom and gloom in 2009, but I can’t help fretting about the arts funding cuts that may come. Many In Dance readers have a much longer historical memory of the Bay Area dance scene than I do; you know better than I how dancers and choreographers here persist. I appreciate how difficult it is to devote your life to choreographing and dancing, in good economic times let alone bad ones; I’m grateful for the gorgeous dance I see here. And I’m sure to see much more of it in 2009.

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

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.