Chris Black’s Multigenerational Edition of the Rotunda Dance Series

By Julie Potter

December 1, 2012, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

During her 20 years of creating theatrical and humorous work in the Bay Area, Chris Black describes her shift from creating works for the stage to developing intricate site-specific dance in public space as intentional. This shift has allowed her to guide the audience so they share the mindset of the performers by entering the same environment to participate together. In these unfixed situations she points out how one cannot be passive, but rather selects a relationship to the performance. She hopes to fracture the assumption that performance occurs separately from the audience. As an extension of these ideals, Black increasingly works in spaces where people can happen upon a performance, as in Pastime, which was performed free to the public in multiple locations within the San Francisco Parks system. Black now even rehearses in public, as she did during her 2011 residency at the Academy of Sciences during regular museum hours, creating Extinction Burst.

Pictured: Chris Black Photo by Andy Mogg
Pictured: Chris Black
Photo by Andy Mogg

On December 7 at noon Chris Black takes on the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda for the next edition of the free Rotunda Dance Series with the help of her eight-year-old daughter Tamsin’s third grade class. For the Rotunda, Black worked with the youth to create the dance, while teaching at their school during the weeks leading up to the lunchtime performance. Thematically the work addresses environmentalism. Introducing movement in the classroom, Black may, for example, ask “What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?” and manipulate and direct the resulting actions presented by the youth. While the work will be performed by children, Black maintains that the material is not “kids’ dance,” but rather, artistic and crafted as work she would create with any of her adult artists. They’ll walk and flock and perform postmodern pedestrian movement in the grand city building. Black’s adult dance collaborators will perform as well in the piece created specifically for the City Hall Rotunda. Additionally, Black choreographs with all ages in mind, her hope being that children and seniors alike can access the same dance.

In her dancers, Black values personality and presence, as well as clarity and specificity, which direct the focus of audience members. These elements combined deliver the humor and theatricality for which she is recognized. It’s no surprise that her work The Adventures of Cunning & Guile, was created and performed at The Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco in collaboration with Ken James, during which the two playfully bound about the walls and benches of the gallery.

As a 2011 resident artist at the Academy of Sciences, Black explored the disappearance of the great auk, imagining how this extinct species might have moved to conduct her choreographic research. “I want to re-animate kinetic memory of a creature that no longer exists,” commented Black. As a result of rehearsing in the space where the performance would be, she was able to gauge bystanders’ reactions to different sections throughout the development of Extinction Burst. In addition, songs about missing someone like “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” and “It’s Too Late” doubled to comment on animals no longer living, through composer Erik Pearson’s breakup-themed soundtrack. Black hopes to expand her work surrounding extinction during the next couple years with Project Passenger Pigeon in development for 2014. Project Passenger Pigeon illuminates environmental activities and the human impact on the earth. The project will move through different locales potentially in the Midwestern and Eastern United States responding to the study of birds and concepts around flocking. Although her path has been one of dance, Black acknowledges she has always had an interest in science.

Another question Black ponders is “How do you occupy space and move in terms of something you are not?” As a non-baseball player, she created a work, Pastime, about the sport. Now she’s developing a solo based on the boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Her research about where people held boxing fights during the 1880’s and 1890’s informs the selection of locations for this performance. Since getting paid to fight was unlawful, the events would take place secretly on trains or in private lots. As a result, Black hopes to stage her solo on a boat in the San Francisco Bay, as fights took place in the middle of the water as well.

Black teaches a variety of classes in technique, composition, and dance appreciation, recently creating work for students at Iowa State University as well as the University of San Francisco. Her approach to dance appreciation is to create empathy for and transfer the experience of the performer. “I want to capture the sense of joy and visceral aspect of it,” comments Black. In her classes she encourages revealing personality, specificity and clarity – elements she admires in the dancers with whom she collaborates. When asked what recent work she finds particularly exciting, Black names Lizz Roman as a vibrant choreographic voice, with whom she has also worked.

In addition to creating her own work and teaching, Black (along with dance artists Miguel Gutierrez and Amy Seiwert) is contributing to Monique Jenkinson’s new solo Instrument. Black has known Jenkinson for close to two decades. The work premieres at CounterPULSE on November 29 as the final performance of Jenkinson’s de Young Artist Fellows residency. With Instrument Jenkinson hopes to “expose and undermine the roles of dancer as workhorse and choreographer as auteur. The artist’s relationship to authorship is a major theme, as is the dancing body as translator, container of knowledge and preserver of culture.” Gutierrez, Black and Seiwert employ diverse approaches to movement-making and will each choreograph something for Jenkinson’s body. She considers the ‘putting on’ of movement to be aligned with her obsession with clothing and costumes. “The choreographers will use a dictatorial studio practice to create movement on my body. This phrase, ‘on my body’, common in traditional choreographic parlance, evokes the creation of a bespoke garment, but makes the distinction that the movement does not come from the dancer’s body,” remarks Jenkinson in the Instrument press release.

From embodying boxers, baseball players and extinct birds, to creating work for museums and directing third graders in a site-specific dance, Black, with her smart and humorous signature, will host a vivacious lunchtime in the City Hall Rotunda.

Chris Black performs at the free Rotunda Dance Series presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West on Friday, December 7 at noon in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda.

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.