New Art Things in a New Art Space: KUNST-STOFF’s Home

By Sonia Reiter


FIVE STORIES ABOVE A HIP SHOE STORE and the hustle of tourists, shoppers and panhandlers in downtown San Francisco there is a long calm room filled with light and 2500 square feet of empty space. The floors are sprung and the ceiling is high. Most of the walls are exposed brick and a rust colored girder divides the room. There is creative energy palpable in the air up here and a sense of future historical significance. Though at the time I’m writing this, KUNST-STOFF Arts has only been open one week, it feels as if there are already the traces of hundreds of invisible dances moving through the space, a portent of what’s to come.

Walking into the space for the first time, I find dancers in Frey Faust and Kira Kirsch’s week-long “Tipping Points” intensive starting their lunch break. The windows on the far side of the studio are fogged and the air is moist with their efforts thus far. Many sit on the floor eating from Tupperware, others wander out perhaps to the food court down the block. Yannis Adoniou, artistic director of KUNST-STOFF Arts and dance company explains that he found the space, the way most people find their apartments–on Craigslist. For about fifteen years all the floors above the ground level store in the building were empty. When he found the space in October 2009 there was no ceiling in the studio and the place was a mess. He signed the lease in November and after extensive remodeling the studio opened with a New Year’s Eve celebration. Adoniou was interested in bringing a dance cultural center into the downtown area in the hopes of integrating the dance world with those who involved in downtown San Francisco commerce. He quotes the familiar adage, “we have to bring art to the people, we cannot expect them to come to us.” He has a clear conviction, however, that KUNST-STOFF Art’s main function is to support professional dance artists, and its location at Market and 5th Streets is easily accessible by public transportation and close enough to SOMA and the Mission to foster partnership, collaboration and support with other dance organizations such as the Garage, CounterPULSE, Dancers’ Group, SF Dance Center and ODC Theatre, among others.

Adoniou was born in Greece and studied at the State School of Dance in Athens. He furthered his training in Germany and started his dance career there with the Hamburg Ballet and Bonn Ballet. It was around this time that he learned about Andy Warhol and his Factory, which inspired a desire to open a space for dance and art. He explains, “I was not necessarily interested in Warhol as an artist, though his work is great, it was more the idea of The Factory as a base that interested me: a place where people went to create art and have a dialogue.” The idea stayed in the back of his mind while he moved to San Francisco, danced with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet and freelanced with other choreographers and companies in San Francisco, New York and Europe including Sara Shelton Mann, Complexions and Forsythe among others. In 1998 he formed KUNST-STOFF, literally translated as “art things” or as a compound word, “synthetic” or “unnatural.” At first he tried to model KUNST-STOFF like Warhol’s Factory, as an institution to support many artists, but at the time there was not the financial and community support to undertake such a large project. KUNST-STOFF reconfigured itself as dance company and went on to have eleven successful San Francisco seasons in addition to tours around the U.S. and Europe, but the dream of The Factory never left him.

Around the beginning of 2009 he began talking with Kathleen Hermesdorf, a longtime dance partner and collaborator about opening a space. Hermesdorf says that she had “been harping on starting an Alternative Conservatory and looking for a stable home for it to incubate, as well as needing a place to create on a regular basis. Adoniou asked me to bring my organization, La Alternativa, into residence, and offered me a place for the Alternative Conservatory, as co-education director.” With Hermesdorf’s and Adoniou’s loyal following of students there was sufficient community support to fill the classes and hopefully help pay the bills. Other artists have been brought on board since, including the legendary and influential Sara Shelton Mann of Contraband fame (whom they had both danced for extensively), Kira Kirsch of corpi liquidi and Axis Syllabus, Tomi Paasonen, the video artist and choreographer known for his site-specific work in Berlin, and Christine Cali a choreographer and teacher who recently returned to San Francisco after a number of years teaching in South Korea.

Currently the class schedule includes two early morning Yoga classes followed by professional dance technique classes Monday through Saturday; Adoniou plans to add additional evening technique classes in the near future. Heremesdorf says that the goal of the education program is to “offer an intimate, hard-core art experience to serious practitioners.” Adoniou and Hermesdorf will be teaching classically based and release technique classes respectively, with Mann, Kirsch and Cali contributing whenever Adoniou or Hermedorf have other commitments. Adoniou feels these two movement techniques inform and reinforce each other. He recalls, “my way to understand how to stand in a perfect sous-sus was something I found while standing on my hands in Kathleen’s class.” By restricting the number of classes and styles Adoniou hopes to bring a focus and clarity to the ongoing regular training. He is quick to clarify that this is just one side of KUNST-STOFF Art’s pedagogical approach: “The main idea, the way I would like things to be taught is through project-based experience, so workshops, workshops, workshops.” Having just participated with his company in CounterPULSE’s Performing Diaspora he is enthusiastic about involving other disciplines, but in a workshop model rather than in ongoing classes, saying “we are open to all kinds of artists, so long as they have a clear voice and they are masters of their form.” Adoniou is specifically committed to bringing artists from Europe and elsewhere to give the San Francisco scene a chance to see and learn what is happening in the development of the form elsewhere.

In addition to its pedagogical programming KUNST-STOFF Arts will serve as a home for the KUNST-STOFF Company. With its own space, the company will be able to employ its dancers full time which will undoubtedly affect the development and growth of the work. The studio will also be available to the rest of the artistic staff as well as outside artists in need of space for rehearsals or informal performances.

The evening after my interview with Adoniou I attended one such performance at the space organized by Kirsch, which shared the work of students and artists involved in “Tipping Points,” the La Alternativa conservatory, and a LINES workshop with Julie Stanzak, of Pina Bausch. Also on this bill were short works by Sara Yassky and Greg Holt and from Hana Erdman, Kirsch, and Mann. I watched the performances along with at least sixty audience members who sat or stood against the walls, many of them familiar faces from class, workshops, and other dance events. Kirsch later related her excitement that “all of a sudden we had several different dance communities in one room watching each others’ work and process. In a way I felt something was connecting all of us, the wish for deeper processes…a meeting ground for the classical, contemporary, post-modern, somatic or radical/queer dance communities to discuss, train and maybe collaborate together.” From my own point of view, looking around the room, I saw a group of people who were there to support and nurture and challenge one another. Their faces were flushed with the heat generated by the bodies in the space and the excitement of witnessing the start of a new momentum in the San Francisco dance scene. Here was a community, with a new place to gather.

This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of In Dance.