Naked, Outspoken, and Thriving: A Decade in the Bay Area

By Rachel Howard

December 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Back in February or March of 2000, I braved MUNI in the rain and headed to the Cowell Theater for my first concert of Bay Area dance. This was a showcase juxtaposing student works with professional companies, and I watched with avid attention, but mostly, during the intermissions, I listened. I eavesdropped on klatches of what appeared to be choreographers and dancers. One woman said loudly that the Aerial Dance Festival was coming up. I butted in. “Aerial dance? Like people dance from ropes and harnesses in the air?” She explained that they also danced off the sides of buildings and mountain faces, and from trapezes. My eyes must have been wide, because her sweetly pitying expression was like a hand upon my shoulder.

“Oh, honey,” she said. “You’ve got a lot to see.”

She was right, of course, and aerial dance was only the beginning. That night at the showcase, I was 23, newly arrived in San Francisco, a self-proclaimed dance critic. My qualifications included childhood ballet classes, a college dance history course, the absorption of as many dance books as I could lay my hands on, and a handful of reviews I’d written during a nine-month stint at the Orange County Register. Those reviews were of touring ballet troupes, and modern companies from New York, because Southern California had precious little local dance culture. But now, in San Francisco, I had a scene. The Bay Area dance scene. Little did I guess just how wild and wonderful the next decade of it would prove.

I remember interviewing Krissy Keefer for the first time at her Dance Mission Theater, marveling at this mother-witch and her bohemian house of dance, her complete disregard for what anyone might think of her, and her complete giving to the motley array of dancers and artists who called her space home. I remember first meeting ODC leaders Brenda Way, KT Nelson, and Kimi Okada, and first hearing the story of the big yellow bus of dancers from Oberlin, arriving in San Francisco like the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, seeking freedom from the establishment.

Clearly, dance was community here, first and foremost. It gathered friends for candlelight rituals; it spilled into the streets. It rallied towns around plucky companies like the Oakland Ballet. Dance was healing here, in the works of Anne Bluethenthal, Sara Shelton Mann. Dance was politics, nakedly so, in the rants of Keith Hennessy, the socially conscious symbolism of Jo Kreiter. Dance was primal, deeply present being, in a continuing butoh lineage. Dance was cultural identity, in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, the Black Choreographers Festival, the thriving dance families gathering daily to pound the studio floor to the sounds of flamenco guitars and West African drums.

And dance, when I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, was fighting for its life. As dot com companies and their escalating rents closed down studios and stages, defenders of art shouted in social protest. If I can think of a single most dramatic story of Bay Area dance in the last decade, it is this: That ten years ago, dance was literally losing its lease, while today we take for granted the spacious and welcoming ODC Dance Commons, the buzzing LINES Dance Center, the mentoring environment of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab, and the crucial incubator stage at CounterPULSE, among many other important venues.

But then and now, above all, Bay Area dance had no rules. This was brought home to me in two ways. First, by the excellent documentary Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco, by Austin Forbord and Shelley Trott. Second, by my first interview with Anna Halprin, the now 89-year-old mother of postmodern dance, in 2002. She opened the door to her wooded Marin home stark naked, grinning. There in her gleeful nudity, giddy with freedom and entirely without self-consciousness, stood the ultimate emblem of Bay Area dance. Dance here did not care what society, what the tastemakers, what the supposed powers-that-be had to say.

But I did. For many of those ten years, I had another dance scene in mind: New York. It was the mecca. I had never lived there, so it was also, in my mind, a mythology. And part of the mythology was this: That I could measure the success of a choreographer or a company by who had made it in New York—and I could measure the strength of the Bay Area dance scene by how many climbed this mythical ladder of national touring. This elevated artists as varied as Joe Goode and Joanna Haigood and Margaret Jenkins to a certain tier. It meant that artists that had talent, but hadn’t yet made it out of San Francisco, should make getting out their goal, and that part of my job as a critic was to identify such potential and help it along.

I delighted in finding choreographers who might propel themselves beyond the Bay Area stage. Some talents I saw and championed were Robert Moses, Yannis Adoniou and his company Kunst-Stoff, Benjamin Levy, Shinichi Iova-Koga, Sean Dorsey, Janice Garrett and Erika Chong Shuch. Some of these talents made a splash elsewhere, some stayed close to home. The Indian Kathak guru Chitresh Das was clearly a breakout story. So was AXIS Dance Company, as Judith Smith smartly began commissioning name choreographers from across the country. It was a satisfaction for me to identify or follow these talents. It was a source of befuddlement to me to find such a talent who seemed to care nothing of national ladders.

One such befuddlement was Scott Wells. The moment I saw his mischievous yet tender play based in Contact Improvisation, I thought, this is utterly brilliant. I also thought, why is this running in 40-seat theaters, on a shoestring? Why, despite its genius, does the work feel three-quarters baked? Why doesn’t he try for slicker costumes and lighting, a sheen of professionalism that would allow him to sell himself to presenters, to take this on tour to bigger crowds? In other words, I had only one frustration with his work: Why doesn’t he package it so that he can be a success?

But ten years of following an artist—and ten years of changing in your values—can shift a critic’s perspective. As I prepared to write this essay, I tried to think of the principal fulfillment of writing about Bay Area dance for ten years. Without a doubt, my greatest satisfaction has been in following artists, getting to know deeply a given choreographer’s aesthetic and body of work. And when I tried to think of the artists I had followed most deeply, the artists whose work had grown in my understanding, I kept thinking of two: Scott Wells and Alonzo King.

King is a major local success story of the last decade. He has pursued a global ambition—in part, I believe, as a natural outgrowth of his global ballet aesthetic. His LINES Ballet has grown sleeker, his productions with their stunning lighting and chic costumes, ever slicker. LINES plays the Joyce in New York. The company tours for months every year in Europe, in high demand with presenters. King’s work has not changed much over the ten years I have followed it, and neither have some of my reservations about it: the murky musicality, the unconcern for structure. But the moments of beauty he and his dancers have offered have been my priceless privilege to witness.

Wells, meanwhile, has not had such an upward trajectory. He gained a teaching position at Sonoma State, which one hopes provided the living he deserves as an artist, and he seems to attract an increasing following of students in Europe, to which he has recently decamped. But for the ten years I was fortunate to see his work, he played in the same tiny venues, to the same loyal audiences, in the same thrift-store costumes, with the dances always three-quarters developed (or less) and showing it. Only slowly over the last ten years have I realized that this seeming lack of ladder-climbing was a gift. To have tried to package Wells’ work would have killed it: his dances’ lack of worldly ambition makes them authentic, original, and irreplaceable. His exchange with his audiences was an act of relaxed, familial community.

This tale of two true Bay Area artists brings me to the present state of the Bay Area dance scene, ten years after my naïve arrival. A lot has changed. Some of our most rule-breaking talents have left for Europe, either full-time, or in the case of Jess Curtis, half-time. Others among the scene’s most unruly have turned to academia for stability, earning advanced degrees. But a diploma has clearly not tamped the anti-authoritarian outspokenness of Keith Hennessy, or watered-down the taboo-breaking provocations of the younger Eric Kupers.

Rob Bailis has done important commissioning at ODC Theater, and Jessica Robinson has supported a new generation at CounterPULSE. Both have paid special attention to the surge of culturally specific dance in California, and set forth a multicultural politics in arguing that traditional dance, like modern dance, innovates. This—the recognition of so-called “ethnic dance” as art—is another of this past decade’s most important developments.

But over the last five years I have been especially interested to follow the results of Kenneth Foster’s fresh leadership at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Foster has been cheeringly bold. He and his performing arts curator Angela Mattox have put heart and soul into presenting dance from across the country and around the world, bringing an important source of outside influence and context to the local dance scene. Even bolder, rather than keep the YBCA’s Theater and Forum mere rental houses, Foster has diverted a former blanket discount to local artists into meaningful commission money. He has created a new ladder for Bay Area choreographers to have their work seen on a larger stage. Among the beneficiaries—though no stranger to broader exposure—has been Margaret Jenkins, who collaborated with China’s Guangdong Modern Dance Company partially supported by YBCA commissioning.

Foster has not always been thanked for his direction. The decision to end an across-the-board theater rental subsidy did not initially go over well with some Bay Area choreographers, their sense of fairness shaped by the non-curated entitlements of Grants for the Arts funding. And I admit that I am disappointed that more Bay Area choreographers don’t seize the chance the YBCA now provides to see companies and ideas from beyond the local bubble (though finances—and ticket prices—are always a challenge for artists).

But I’m curious to see the long-term effects Foster’s policies will have, along with Bailis’ efforts to create a network for California dance touring at ODC. Will these steps to broader recognition allow more choreographers and companies to emulate LINES’ upward and outward mobility?

If so, that will be to the good, insofar as it excites dancers towards greater discipline, and motivates choreographers toward finer craftsmanship (not always hallmarks around here, historically). But along with those upward-climbing companies, I’ll be looking forward to the new Scott Wells of Bay Area dance, those choreographers who can’t or won’t package their work, whose originality requires close community, to whom worldly ambition is an alien concept. Because after ten years I finally understand that the point of great dance is not to make it out. The point is to make the truest art possible, the kind of art that flourishes in this wild community unlike any other.

This article appeared in the December 2009 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.