Cycling Through: The 8th Annual SF Trolley Dances

By Josie Garthwaite

October 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Few dance events integrate more closely with the city’s pulsing arteries of public transit than San Francisco Trolley Dances. Now in its eighth year, the annual event presents dance and physical theater at sites linked by light rail. All it takes to hop aboard is payment of the Muni fare and an appetite for movement in the wilds of San Francisco.

This year’s Trolley Dances, taking place on October 15 and 16, will feature works ranging from the traditional Tat Wong Kung Fu Lion Dancers, to Capacitor’s alchemy of science, dance, and sculpture, to the contemporary style of ODC/Dance co-artistic director KT Nelson, who offers a sneak peek of a new work in progress.

“I feel like it’s bigger than me,” Kim Epifano, the founder, curator, and chief organizer of San Francisco Trolley Dances, said one recent afternoon. She sat at a table in her office–a neat, quiet corner of a buzzing hub for startups and nonprofits on the first floor of the Chronicle Building–and maintained a small smile as she spoke about Trolley Dances.

Finding locations for the performances is “like a treasure hunt,” says Epifano, who began developing Trolley Dances after performing in a similar series produced by Jean Isaac’s San Diego Dance Theater in Southern California. San Diego Trolley Dances is now in its 13th year, and Epifano continues to search our City by the Bay each year for a mix of intriguing new sites, as well as old sites worth revisiting.

In the West Portal neighborhood, for example, where Epifano will present a handful of vignettes as part of next month’s event, the choreographer has been inspired by the sense of history in an area where some architecture dates back to the 1920s. The Muni tunnel connecting West Portal to the eastern side of Twin Peaks, she says, “really feels like a portal. It’s like entering Old San Francisco.”

Once Epifano has finalized the sites and tour route, she turns her attention to the artist lineup. There is not an application process. Rather, Epifano begins by asking, “Who am I interested in? Who’s local? Who’s interested in us?” She looks for a balance of emerging and established artists or companies, as well as groups based in the neighborhoods where Trolley Dances will take place. “The cross fertilization is exciting,” she adds.

Creative Journey
ODC/Dance’s contribution to Trolley Dances this year will be part of an upcoming work that happens to fit squarely with the event’s use of light rail and the urban landscape. Dubbed Transit, this larger piece is meant to celebrate the “wacky chaos of urban congestion,” and ultimately offer positive vision of “what a dense inner city could look like,” according to Nelson. She adds, “Transit is a salute to the urban bicyclist, the users of public transport, city parks, and the urban dweller.”

Part of Nelson’s vision involves bicycles, which ODC has commissioned local metal artist and mechanical engineer Max Chen to build for the piece. Why bikes? For Nelson, who says she travels by bike as much as possible, bicycles are the ultimate symbol of “humans and technology in a beautiful, elegant balance.”

In addition, the bikes offer a kind of control group for her investigation of pacing. “The bike is medium-paced. High technology is very fast. Low technology–like walking, writing, reading–it’s really slow,” she says. These observations lead Nelson to a number of questions, which she is exploring through the creation of Transit: Can these different paces, different technologies “live side by side?” Taking not a small leap from the coexistence of low- and high-technology to the harmony of humanity, she expands the question: “Can we tolerate each other’s differences in this regard?” In other words, can we respect different choices about how to pace our lives?

Throughout the creative process so far, Nelson and the ODC dancers have been working inside the studio as well as on the streets of San Francisco and on BART trains. The idea, Nelson explains, is to have the “urban world” inform the movement vocabulary. “There’s going to be what we might call ‘dancing’ material, but [it will be] very weird,” she says. “For every piece I try to identify a particular vocabulary, and in this case that specific vocabulary is also mixed with some very pedestrian activity from working in the urban world.”

Going Public
The Main Library site initially appealed to Nelson for two reasons: “I knew we could ride the bikes, and it’s very public,” she says. In fact, to Nelson, the library and surrounding plazas are models of the kind of public life she hopes to celebrate in Transit. “It’s the public-ness I’m after,” says Nelson, who decided against at least one other site because it seemed too private., Jodi Lomask, of Capacitor, expressed a similar attraction to Trolley Dances. “There is so much quality artwork created in this city and many of our residents are not touched by it,” she wrote in an email. For Lomask, the event is about bridging that gap. She commented, “I will consider Trolley Dances a success if folks who don’t see us in the theater get to see us on the street.”

Viewer’s Guide to Trolley Dances 2011
Sat, Oct 15 & Sun, Oct 16

Guided performance tours will begin outside the San Francisco Main Library (by the Civic Center BART/Muni station) every 45 minutes from 11am-2:45pm.

Each tour will weave through the library before heading out to the West Portal Station via Muni Metro (K, L, or M line, $2 fare). Tours should last an hour and half. Allow additional time for the return trip from West Portal.

All performances are free and open to the public, so you can also travel to one or more sites by foot, car, or bicycle (bike maps will be available at the Main Library). More information can be found at

ODC/Dance: Swooping on bicycles by local metal artist Max Chen, the virtuosic dancers of ODC will perform a sneak peek of co-artistic director KT Nelson’s upcoming work about the richness of urban living. Where: Main Library, Larkin Street Entrance

Sweet Can Circus: This family-friendly group will bring its heartfelt and entertaining blend of circus arts and physical theater to an intimate setting in the library’s kid-centric zone. Where: Main Library, Children’s Reading Room

Salsamania Dance Company: Complicated footwork and patterns are the calling cards of this Alameda-based troupe, which will perform to music featured in the library’s current exhibition, American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music. Created by the Experience Music Project and set up for national touring by the Smithsonian Institution, American Sabor is about the contributions of Latino artists to music in the United States since the 1940s. Where: Main Library, 6th Floor Terrace

Urban Jazz Dance Company: Antoine Hunter, artistic director of Urban Jazz Dance, will perform an environmentally themed piece alongside a gallery exhibit about plastic bags (across the street from the Main Library). Where: San Francisco Environment Building, 11 Grove Street

Epiphany Productions Sonic Dance Theater: Joined by dancers Jennifer Perfilio, Christine Bonansea, and Kim Epifano herself, eight dancers from San Francisco State University will perform a series of vignettes at ground level and atop a balcony. Where: West Portal Neighborhood

Capacitor: Dancing with a seven-foot-tall steel structure, Capacitor artistic director Jodi Lomask will perform a solo from her evening-length piece, The Perfect Flower. She says the excerpt is about “sprouting” as part of a cycle of aspiration, struggle, and overcoming. Where: West Portal Library

Tat Wong Kung Fu Lion Dancers: Performers from the local Tat Wong Kung Fu Academy will show the Chinese Lion Dance, a traditional and colorful part of Kung Fu training. Where: West Portal Neighborhood.

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of In Dance.

Josie Garthwaite Sadan is a dancer and journalist living in San Francisco. She has performed with Robert Moses' Kin, Shift Physical Theater, and the electro-punk artist Peaches, among others. Josie's byline has appeared in publications including The New York Times and Wired Magazine. She welcomes ideas and feedback at