Cut Back and Move Forward: San Francisco International Arts Festival 2009

By Mary Ellen Hunt


It’s been a tough few months for the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF). Always an invaluable contributor to the landscape of Bay Area arts, the SFIAF has presented the likes of Akram Khan, Tere O’Connor and the AKHE Group, along with local mainstays such as Robert Moses’ Kin, AXIS Dance Company, Joe Goode, Circo Zero and Janice Garrett and Dancers. But this year, the SFIAF’s $100,000 funding from the city of San Francisco wound up a casualty of budget cutbacks in February. And yet, a conversation with executive director Andrew Wood gives the sense only of forward momentum. Retaining two weeks (May 20-31) out of its original three-week schedule, the SFIAF is operating on a bare bones budget.

As bad as the cutbacks have been, many pieces will still go on. One of the most exciting is the revival of Sasha Waltz and Guests’ 1993 work Travelogue I: Twenty to eight, a surrealistic journey through the domestic travails of five roommates played out dazzlingly in a kitchen—a tango on a table, a fight for a loaf of bread. The SFIAF performances represent Waltz’s only appearances in the United States this year, a grim reminder that in the era of belt-tightening, the possibilities for international artistic sojourns may begin to look like a luxury. “One of the things I like about what we do is that we often present people in the U.S. for the first time,” says Wood. “These are collaborators, or people who might not have U.S. agents or the resources to help deal with the visas.”

It’s a problem choreographer Scott Wells faced when he learned about the budget cuts. Ultimately it meant he was unable to bring a German collaborator to the Festival to work with Scott Wells and Dancers on What Men Want, an evening of four pieces that features the humorous and beefy Wrestling with Affection. Also included is an expanded version of his joint effort with author Michelle Tea, which he showed at LitQuake last October, but this time with the readings performed by Dublin-born dancer Niamh Condron. “I think the International Arts Festival is awesome,” declares Wells, “and there should be even more support for it. To be able to bring all of these people to San Francisco—the artistic community here is so hungry for it.”

Among the artists who have spent time abroad seeking out just the kind of inspiration that the SFIAF brings home is Jess Curtis, who, with his co-collaborator Maria Scaroni, will present Transmission the next installment in their ongoing series, “The Symmetry Project.” Those who have followed the project may recognize the same movement ideas that Curtis and Scaroni expressed in re: Presentation when they performed it in March at CounterPULSE. But this latest episode is on a grander scale involving scores of performers in the wide, open space of Union Square. “The Transmission project is less about the contact improvisation stuff that we do,” he says, explaining that he and Scaroni will be working with any and all interested participants who come to the workshops they’ve scheduled throughout April. Curtis elaborates: “The score is very simple—whatever you do on the left side of your body, you mirror on the right side of your body, but what will be interesting is to see what people do with it, how they figure that out for themselves. We’re trying to get people to drop into a kind of physical awareness—to pay attention to their bodies on a different level. What we’re really interested in is how people, being in an active process of problem-solving, feel in their bodies—where do my physical impulses and sensations take me if I can’t walk in a normal way, how do I move across space, or do I even want to cross space?”

Curtis describes Transmission as an examination of how physical ideas and information pass through communities and culture, and because it will happen in Union Square at lunch time—and not necessarily on the stage—it may take on a “found art” aspect to it as well. “We did a version of this in Berlin, in a large open square,” he says, “and all these people joined in, so we’re hoping it will become something like that—a big public installation event.” Curtis compares the serendipitous aspect of Transmission to the performance art event “Frozen Grand Central,” engineered by Improv Everywhere, in which a flash mob of 207 people inexplicably froze in place for five minutes at New York’s Grand Central Station before continuing on as if nothing had happened. “All of a sudden a bunch of people who were just part of a crowd morph into this alternate physical reality,” he continues, “and sometimes people, bystanders just join in. They get what’s going on and they join in. So I think we’re really just curious to see what happens.”

“I just love the idea that you could wander in and happen upon the dance,” says Gretchen Garnett, who along with the Riley Dance Project and Shah and Blah Productions will also present her work during the noontime concerts in Union Square as part of SFIAF’s MASH program for emerging artists. “Union Square is so expansive and with five dancers, it’s a little overwhelming to think about how to use that whole space, but it’s a great opportunity to break down the boundaries of the stage—to suddenly see dance in a different way.”

And bringing one of many perspectives to international dance is Gamelan Sekar Jaya’s Serasi, an Indonesian word translating roughly as “harmony” or a feeling of unity. A suite of pieces evoking a wide variety of Balinese folk and ritual dances, the whole evening is based around themes of interdependence and balance. In fact, harmony is one of the overarching themes of many of the works that this 60-member Oakland-based ensemble produces. “It evokes the idea of unity, and our art is devoted to unity, to looking past the individual,” says director Wayne Vitale. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the troupe continues to investigate the core philosophy of these Balinese arts: balance and harmony.

In the Balinese tradition, music and dance are inseparable. Though the group will feature three gamelan ensembles—a gamelan gong kebyar with 25 musicians, a ceremonial gamelan angklung, and a gender wayang quartet—alongside nearly a dozen dancers, including master artist-in-residence Emiko Saraswati Susilo and I Made Moja, the main story features the theme of serasi, of a group cohesiveness. Some of the hundreds of performers who have collaborated with the ensemble over the years will be onstage, including original ensemble member I Nyoman Wenten, a Balinese dancer and professor at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, along with his wife, the Javanese dancer, choreographer and teacher Nanik Wenten.

“Dance is performed in lots of different settings,” Vitale notes, “but its home is in the temple, and this piece has the feeling of what goes on when gamelan is performed in the temple.” But lest we get the notion that Serasi will be a performance of somber ritual, Vitale, who has spent years traveling to Indonesia to research and document the music and arts, adds, “Temples in Bali are festive, the dances are fun-filled and exuberant.” “Serasi,” he is quick to note, is not intended to be an East-meets-West fusion, but rather a more traditional take, a refashioning and rejuvenating of the traditions, which even now are changing and evolving. Dancer, musician and composer I Dewa Putu Berata assembled existing traditional material, composed new sections and stitched them all together into a new suite. “It feels like things are converging,” observes Vitale, “which is why we settled on this theme of togetherness, of tradition and balance.”

Sadly, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the cutbacks of the festival’s 2009 season threw the SFIAF’s plans out of balance—most of the festival’s events represent commitments initiated years ago. It’s more than just a cancellation when artists have to pull out as Mark Foehringer was forced to do. Foehringer had planned to present MUSE, a politically-charged collaboration with the Ballet Nacional del Peru and it represents the loss of several years’ worth of organizing and coordinating with the artists. Given the chilly state of the economic climate, this won’t be the last year of struggles for the many arts groups with whom Wood works. Although most of the artists generate the funding for their projects independent of the SFIAF, as Wood puts, “the city funding of SFIAF is the glue that holds everything together.”

But as fluid and unpredictable as the present is, Wood’s mind is already turning to the future and a conversation with him might flit back and forth from Sasha Waltz’s appearance at the festival, to a possible work with Shinichi Iova-Koga, to “how can we get [Balinese puppeteer] Larry Reed to China?” For the SFIAF, struggles with funding and visas aside, the drive to find and develop new work is a continual process that starts three years in the past, so at the moment Wood is not just thinking about 2010, he’s got 2011 on his mind. And the MUSE has not been abandoned just yet.

“We won’t just let it [the festival] go,” Wood says thoughtfully, “We have to find a way.”

This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of In Dance.

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.