The challenge for writing thoughtfully about the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is that it’s hard to consider the event in its totality without resorting to broad strokes that meander into mushy, feel-good platitudes about cultural diversity and how alike we all really are. Don’t get me wrong—platitudes are based in truth, diversity in the arts is vital, and I do get a great big mushy “It’s a Small World” high every time the festival dancers come off the stage to dance through the lobby with the audience.
But the Ethnic Dance Festival isn’t there to pat us on the back for being culturally sensitive and aware. The artists who perform in the Festival are talented dancers and choreographers who create work that is about individual artistic expression and cultural preservation, and they do both in such beautifully different ways. It’s great to see how cultures are similar, but it’s also important to understand and appreciate their differences.
So now I want to write about all the different strategies artists use to create work within a cultural tradition, but then I take a look at this year’s line-up of 35 dance companies (from 23 different cultures), and I begin humming “It’s a Small World,” to myself and I think “how lucky we all are to live someplace that has such a diverse dance”…oh damn.
So this preview is focused on the five different Mexican dance companies performing at this year’s Ethnic Dance Festival.
My decision is based on there being a Mexican dance presence at almost every Festival performance this year, and that they are all performing different traditions. It’s also driven by the fact that according to World Arts West Executive Director Julie Mushet, “Mexican folk dance in the Bay Area is flourishing right now, and choosing these five companies from the 25 Folklórico companies that auditioned for the Festival in January was phenomenally challenging for the artistic team.”
Even with five, I can only scratch the surface in discussing the work these companies have created for the Festival and yet still explore some of the broader challenges of presenting and watching culturally specific dance in general.
The Ethnic Dance Festival has made a concerted effort in recent years to present dance forms outside the proscenium stage format, an acknowledgement that many culturally specific dance forms did not evolve in the theater. Two shows in this year’s Festival continue this trend.
On June 7th, the Festival (in partnership with Dancers’ Group) will present a Matlachines dance from the state of Zacatecas, performed by Ballet Folklórico Netzahualcoyotl as part of the ongoing free Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco’s City Hall.
Matlachines dance is from northern Mexico and is usually done within the context of Catholic celebrations, although the dance movements are derived from pre-Hispanic indigenous dances. Even the name Matlachines is derived from the Nahuatl word for the Mexican bean beetle, whose defensive movements are replicated in this performance, which takes the traditional repetitive movements and places them into a larger and more dynamic choreography that includes crossovers and exchanges between lines of dancers.
A common dilemma for artists presenting traditional ritual dance in a performing arts context is how to address that repetition which is often a core aspect of the ritual, but not one that works when being presented as part of a performance.
“When we prepare our work for the stage, we build out with more dynamic movement and choreography, and less redundancy,” says Ballet Folklórico Costa de Oro’s director Steven KoneffKlatt.
He is aware of the slippery slope a choreographer steps onto when movements are changed for a contemporary audience, but argues that it’s a necessary risk traditional artists must take to sustain traditional dance and KoneffKlatt states: “If it’s the same thing, if the dance is frozen, then you’re not living in the world today…you have to inspire people to do the dance or the dance dies.”
His company will be performing three ritual dances from the Huichol people, a Native American ethnic group who live in central and western Mexico, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum on June 22nd. The performance (which will also be free) will include a workshop on Huichol dance and culture.
Despite the challenges of re-creating traditional dance on the proscenium stage, the Festival is filled with companies that thrive in that environment.
A company that does this brilliantly is Ballet Folklórico de Carlos Moreno. This Oakland-based company has existed for 45 years and has a repertoire of over 120 different Mexican dances. At this year’s Festival, the company is performing a quartet of dances from the state of Guerrero, a state whose dance forms are not often seen at the Festival.
Guerrero is a coastal state, and the dances from that region that the company is performing at the Festival reflect the cultural influence of travelers who came through the port of Acapulco. Many of the movements seen in these dances are derived from Peruvian and Bolivian dance. Additionally, the dancers are accompanied by the Cajon, a wooden box played as an instrument, which was developed by African slaves in South America, and also used in Peru and Bolivia.
Bringing exposure to a lesser known Mexican dance was a goal of director Carlos Moreno, who states he created a piece for the Festival designed, “to re-create a feeling of community celebration on the stage—as a way for people to understand Mexican culture.”
Another company that has mastered the art of creating large-scale group dances for a proscenium stage is Grupo Folklórico Raíces de Mi Tierra from Sacramento. Their new work entitled “La Feria de San Marcos,” celebrates the annual spring fair of San Marcos held in the small central Mexican state of Aguascalientes. Director Roxana Reyes describes the piece as “a narrative to walk the audience through the life of the people of the region.”
At the company’s audition in January the piece masterfully simulated the raucous, chaotic vibrancy of a fair within the confines of a theater, and with the additional work that each dance company puts into their pieces between January and June, I look forward to seeing how Reyes and her company have finessed and strengthened the dance narrative.
Mexican culture is not a monoculture but a collection of cultural influences from around the world. It seems that this should be blatantly obvious. However, the public has been so trained to look at multiculturalism as an exceptionally American idea that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that these processes are not unique to our society.
The dances of Nuevo Leon in Northeastern Mexico are one example of the kind of cultural blending that is a product of immigration to Mexico. During the 19th century the region was settled by Bohemian immigrants from Czechoslovakia and other parts of central Europe. The polka, the varsoviana waltz, and the chotis were all established European dance forms that through a combination of generational cultural transmission and immigration to a new country became established forms of Mexican Folklórico.
Ballet Folklórico Mexico Danza will perform dances from this region during the Festival and their director Rene Gonzalez is adamant about wanting audiences to understand Mexican diversity: “I want audiences to know how every state in Mexico is different and how Mexican culture has diversity from different parts of Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.”
Gonzalez and I also discussed the challenges of creating new work within a cultural form and reconciling cultural preservation with artistic ambition. Gonzalez explains that he doesn’t see those: “I have danced Folklórico since I was 6 and now I’m 53. I keep the tradition, but I also have creativity within me.”
As he sees it, “there’s always room for creativity, as long as people can still identify the outcome as Mexican. Mexican groups in the Bay Area are doing traditional work, but with their own special flair.”
Of course, there are 30 other dance companies and dozens of cultures to be encountered at this year’s Ethnic Dance Festival besides these five groups. There are soloists and ensembles, and ancient dances and new dances, and young dancers and old dancers. Some of the ideas and issues in this article are faced by many of artists in the Festival, and many of them have other issues and ideas that are unique to their art and culture.
But like someone once said, it is a small world after all, and we need opportunities to understand the ways we are similar as well as the ways we are different. Experiencing the breadth of dance at the Ethnic Dance Festival is a pretty good place to start learning both ways.
The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival takes place from June 7-30. For more information about the groups mentioned in this article, and for tickets visit worldartswest.org