Sailing Away: Joanna Haigood Choreographs San Francisco History

By Claudia Bauer

October 1, 2010, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Flooded with Gold Rush lucre and teeming with the adventurers who hunted for it, San Francisco in the 1850s was a rootin’-tootin’, quick-shootin’, prostitutin’ Wild West boomtown. Halloween in the Castro has nothing on the Barbary Coast.

As choreographer Joanna Haigood describes it, “The energy was very chaotic, wild, violent, excessive. The city was being burned down on a regular basis, people were shooting each other in the street, there was a tremendous amount of crime and mayhem. There was so much money, it was absurd; rents were comparable to today.” That kind of drama holds obvious appeal to an artist whose métier is performance, and it provides the inspiration for Haigood’s latest site-specific contemporary piece, Sailing Away, which her company, Zaccho Dance Theatre, will premiere October 7-10 on Market St.

But there’s much more to Sailing Away than women and whiskey. Among those who prospered in the era were African-American entrepreneurs like Peter Lester and Mifflin Wister Gibbs, co-owners of the Lester and Gibbs Boot and Shoe Emporium at 636 Clay St., and George Washington Dennis, who established his Custom House Livery Stable at Sansome and Washington streets. Though their successes suggest otherwise, African Americans in San Francisco, including Lester, Gibbs, and Davis, endured escalating racism, including cruel labor practices, bondage and servitude, disenfranchising poll taxes, and vicious verbal and physical assaults. Worse still, as of 1858, black people had no redress for these crimes: that year, the nominally free state of California suspended black people’s right to testimony, so they could not speak in court against those who abused them. Life here became untenable, and a contingent of blacks emigrated to British Columbia, Canada.

“It’s a very important piece, especially with regards to African Americans here and what’s been termed ‘out-migration,’ meaning people leaving; we’ve been experiencing that of late—people leaving the City,” Haigood says. And yet, then as now, “there were some extraordinary people here pushing against all that and trying to, not just establish calm, but elevate the conversation around various social issues. And some of the [characters] in this show were the people working for equal rights, civil rights,” she explains. Sailing Away takes place at that intersection of the evils of racism and the hope for change, on the very ground where it happened: San Francisco’s original coastline, at First and Market streets, and along the four-block corridor where many African Americans ran their businesses.

Times have changed, but echoes of racism remain in our notoriously progressive City by the Bay. “I wouldn’t think of San Francisco as a chaotic city at this point,” Haigood says. “But there is still unrest, and that unrest is instigated by inequities. In this case, because I’m dealing with African-American figures, that’s a real parallel that we see here in [Bayview Hunters Point], the neighborhood where I’ve worked for the past 20 years.”

As she did with critically acclaimed site-specific works such as The Shifting Cornerstone and Departure and Arrival, for Sailing Away Haigood used the historic people and locations as jumping-off points for developing movement rather than pursuing than a literal narrative. “In general, place for me is a poetic container for all the historical events and social interactions that have occurred there,” she says. “I am really interested in how our memory works—why we forget things, how we remember things…how our memory is not always operating on an obvious level. We’re moving in certain patterns and behaving in certain ways, but you don’t necessarily understand why. And looking at history really does start to put the puzzle together and make sense of who and where we are.”

In Haigood’s mind, a site is not defined by the clearance of its ceiling or the depth of its stage, but by the history it bears witness to. “Some places, I think, are more resonant than others, and for reasons that are not quite sure, it’s still vibrating. It’s still there.” And if the structure or monument she is working with no longer exists, she might rebuild it: to create Ghost Architecture, Haigood and set designer Wayne Campbell reconstructed the buildings that were torn down to make way for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—inside the Forum, which stands over their original footprints. In the case of Sailing Away, the Shoreline Plaque at Market and Battery indicates the pre-landfill coastline, while Hallidie Plaza, the Mechanics Monument and the Admission Day Monument mark the growth of the city and the movement of the show.

Site-specific choreography also seems to embody a spiritual meaning for Haigood, who says, “This is one big progression; this is one big dance, if you will. It’s all one big improvisation, and in some ways a global choreography, that we’re working out. I understand, for instance, how I am still an expression of my ancestors, and most people would acknowledge that. I don’t even know many of their names; I don’t know where they lived. But there are certain patterns that have gotten set up that are perpetuated over time. I am still expressing those ideas, although I might not be conscious of it happening. And that’s interesting to me.”

In a sense, Haigood revisits her own past through her work. “My mother was the director of admissions at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and it has a very strong architecture school. She always wanted me to be an architect,” she recalls. “Even though my passion was in dance, I grew fascinated by the concepts and the structure of architecture, and how it supports human activity and holds history.”

In spite of her emphasis on learning from past experience, after twenty years of choreography Haigood still flies by the seat of her pants when developing each piece (rather appropriate for someone equally well known for aerial dance). “I would have to say that I don’t know how I do it,” she says, laughing warmly. “In some cases there’s a lot of research. It takes a lot of time to find the links and make it all become one coherent story. It arrives through a number of different exercises and experiments and explorations, and then by some intuitive shape of the pen, something emerges, and I decide that that’s it. It’s a collaborative process. The people who I work with are, for the most part, well-established artists who have enjoyed long careers in the arts. Above and beyond all things, they are really interesting thinkers, besides being beautiful movers.

“I pull together a certain amount of research, I lay the cards out—this is what we’re doing, these are the characters—and [the dancers] go off and work independently. They do independent reading, they do their own investigations, and then we come together and I start choosing and gleaning things that work with the overall aesthetic of what I’m trying to get at.” Her process sounds like a dream come true for dancers who long to share in creating the work they will perform.

And the characters in Sailing Away provided Haigood’s dancers plenty to work with. “In the case of Archy Lee…his master came from Mississippi and started a school in the Sacramento area. [Archy] became a runaway and petitioned for his freedom, given the fact that his master had decided to live here and was operating a business as if he had permanent residency. It was legal at the time for slaveholders to bring their slaves to California and do temporary business here in the state, but once they had declared residency it was no longer legal. So that became his defense; eventually he won the case and became integrated into the community, and became part of [the] group of people who then left San Francisco to emigrate to British Columbia.”

Haigood can count on her stellar cast of dancer/historians to deliver impassioned performances: Travis Rowland as Peter Lester; Raissa Simpson as Lester’s daughter, Sarah; Antoine Hunter as Mifflin Wister Gibbs, who eventually got a law degree and garnered governmental appointments from three different presidents; Byb Chanel Bibene as George Washington Dennis, who went on to earn substantial wealth in real estate (and fathered San Francisco’s first black police officer); Matthew Wickett as Archy Lee; Amara Tabor-Smith as dedicated abolitionist and philanthropist Mary Ellen Pleasant; and Robert Henry Johnson as Grafton Tyler Brown, one of California’s first professional artists and the recipient of several major retrospectives. Juxtaposing the past with the present, Tristan Cunningham portrays a contemporary woman from Bayview Hunters Point.

With a cast like that, and characters like those, and an imagination like Haigood’s, Sailing Away might just make history.

Zaccho Dance Theatre performs Sailing Away October 7-10, from 1 to 5 p.m., on Market St. in San Francisco. The 30-minute piece repeats eight times, on the hour and the half-hour, starting at Battery St. and finishing at Powell St. An excerpt from Sailing Away will be presented on Friday, October, 1, 12 noon at San Francisco City Hall, as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, a new program of Dancers’ Group and World Arts West, in partnership with Grants for the Arts. This performance is free to the public.

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

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and