In Their Way: Ten Years of the Women on the Way Festival

By Joe Landini

January 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

In 1999, Mary Alice Fry became frustrated while running an arts space in SOMA called Venue 9. For several years she had been producing local women artists in a series called Women’s Work and Fry was able to see the effect of the ever-present glass ceiling. “For most, there was nowhere else to go but other showcases.” Fry could see how hard the artists were working to make new work and there were very few forums for the artists to continue developing their work. Fry also found that individual artists were struggling to find funding to present their work in larger venues and were not able to move up to the next level.

So Fry started the Women on the Way Festival (WOW), an annual event that has shaped how women performing artists in the Bay Area present work. According to Fry, one of the most rewarding things about being involved in a long running festival is witnessing how the performance styles have changed over the past decade. “Young women coming out of Naropa Institute and Mills College, for example, are confident in combining whatever their imaginations cry out for.” says Fry, “They are encouraged to tackle sophisticated themes, use more literary references in dance, include graphic images and sexual content.”

The festival started during the dotcom boom when the Bay Area arts community struggled with evictions and an increased cost of living that forced many artists to leave San Francisco. According to Fry, “There was a feeling of optimism and risk taking.” By this point, Fry believed in the importance of women producing other women, “The artists were wanting to make art that is personal and fearless without limitations from the culture of male dominance or feminism. They were frustrated and tired of competing with men for the few jobs in the industry.”

Fry feels that the relevance of the festival is that the focus is multi-disciplinary, “Something magical happens when someone comes to see a comedy and stays for the multi-media dance theater.” Fry also thinks that the artists find it exciting to work with women from other disciplines. The festival programming combines theatre, experimental music and contemporary dance. Audience members will see a wide-spectrum of genres, witnessing the artists interact with other artists working in different disciplines.

The festival format also supplies the opportunity for artists to see themselves in a larger context. Fry says, “Festivals are helpful because seeing each other and feeling part of something bigger works on many psychological levels. The artists work hard because they know they are being supported by the whole group.” Plus, she feels there is a real desire to contribute a high level of work.

Fry continues, “The artists want to get the audience involved, too. Some shows have potential to move to larger venues or be produced in full runs or further the artists’ professional careers, which is the mission of the festival. Some will be audience and critics favorites. They will all be invited to take on more in the years to come.”

This year’s festival will take place at three venues: the ODC Dance Commons, the Shotwell Studios and The Garage. The programming at ODC will focus on more established artists tackling bigger, more complex works, the Shotwell Studios will be featuring solo acts and experimental theatre, while The Garage’s program will showcase emerging choreographers and dance-theatre acts.

When asked about the importance of mentoring younger artists, Fry responded, “I am personally satisfied when an artist takes their experience with the festival and moves on to self-produce.” Fry is especially excited by working with composer Amy X again, who performed in the 2006 WOW festival and went on to produce her work at Dance Mission Theater and the Great American Music Hall. This year the festival is featuring her at ODC because they wanted to give her the opportunity to collaborate with the a capella ensemble Solstice.

Another veteran artist contributing to this year’s festival at ODC is Anne Bluethenthal, who is re-setting her seminal work Pluto in Capricorn. Bluethenthal’s work extends from her political activism and social consciousness and is layered with music and text. The primary theme of this work centers around Pluto, the planet of death, transformation and rebirth, and its migration into and residence in the constellation Capricorn, ruler of material systems, identity, and action. “Expect one’s personal and global infrastructure to undergo major renovation,” says Bluethenthal.

Bluethenthal’s feature in this year’s festival illustrates how programs like Women on the Way are crucial to self-producing artists, says Fry. “She is the epitome of a women persevering in the arts to reach gold. Her 25-year retrospective in July at ODC was highlighted by Pluto, the farthest out she has fearlessly gone. Her creativity is off the charts and she is aided by her dancer collaborators.”

Also featured in the ODC program is SF choreographer Christine Cali who recently re-emerged locally after a six-year sojourn in New York and South Korea. Cali submerged herself in the Korean culture, which deeply influenced her process, and led her to create more mature, sophisticated and aesthetically potent work. She combines improvisation with her own choreography and works collaboratively with her dancers and musicians. “Creative input from the ensemble is de rigueur with most young groups.” says Fry, “her performers look to her to craft their no-holds-barred, unruly and messy intersections into a well-crafted piece. They create the characters and what happens together into potent dance theater with humor and humility.” Also in the ODC program are the aerial dance companies Sonya Smith & Dancers and Koechlin Sisters.

Ultimately, says Fry, “The idea for a women’s only showcase came out of conversations with females of all ages, wanting to make art that is personal and fearless, without limitations from the culture of male dominance or feminism.” Fry felt that they were frustrated because there wasn’t a forum that focused on the female creative process. “And they were ready to listen to each other, take leaps to change themselves, not to fit into anyone’s mold, but allow themselves to step up and be heard for who they really are. The theater is one domain where women are willing to take chances, be outrageous, funny, and tragic. It’s still not socially acceptable to exhibit emotional content in public so where else can we safely do it?”

This article appeared in the January/February 2010 issue of In Dance.

Joe Landini is a choreographer and arts administrator. He received his BA in Choreography from UC Irvine and his MA in Choreography from the Laban Centre (London). He received the GOLDIE from the SF Bay Guardian in 2013. His new work, Container/Vessel will premier at SPF8 at the ODC Theater in July 2015.