Gary Masters and Marie Basile Continue to Pay Tribute to Dance’s Past and Future

By Heather Desaulniers

two dancers embracing
Photos by Bob Shomler

Not long ago, we said farewell to 2014 and welcomed in a new year. For some, this shift is just a passage of time, devoid of any special meaning. For others, it is a significant moment. A new calendar year brings opportunity and promise – a chance to reflect on the past while simultaneously looking forward with excitement and anticipation. 2015 is shaping up to be a groundbreaking year for sjDANCEco, San José’s preeminent contemporary dance troupe. Over the next twelve months, the company will travel to the Taipei International Arts Festival and perform at the Limón International Dance Festival in New York. Several South Bay events are also scheduled, including sjDANCEco’s mainstage season at San José’s California Theatre this coming October. And in March, sjDANCEco is pleased to present their first San Francisco season – a two-night engagement at ODC Theater. Though 2015 may not technically be a leap year, Founder/Co- Artistic Director Gary Masters and the entire sjDANCEco family are surging forward with gusto, “we are at a place where we need to leap faster, broader and higher; find the resources to do more and continue to increase our exposure.”

Plans for sjDANCEco were brewing long before the company’s official formation in 2003. After relocating from New York to San José, Masters spearheaded a number of new choreographic endeavors on the West Coast, including the Limón West Dance Project. Maria Basile, currently Co-Artistic Director/Dancer for sjDANCEco, joined Masters as a charter member of the Limón Dance West Project during the mid-1990s. After Limón Dance West ended, many folks (Masters and Basile among them) felt an absence; there was a void in the South Bay’s contemporary dance scene. But in order to meet the artistic needs of this unique geographical region, there had to be more to it than just starting another dance company. How would this new organization distinguish itself? What would make it special and distinct? How would it serve artists and patrons? Over time, a dual vision began to emerge. “sjDANCEco would focus on historic modern dance works as well as new contemporary compositions by living choreographers, both from within the company and outside of the company,” relays Masters.

With that path carved out, the company founders got right to work. Building a diverse repertory was of utmost importance but at the same time, only one part of a much larger picture. Also on the agenda was program development. First up was the Dancin’ Downtown Festival (which continues today under a new name, sjDANCEco Festival@ Santana Row). This free annual outdoor dance event is not only for the entire community, but over the years has become a creative gathering place; “a hub for the area’s dance artists to come together,” shares Basile. Another sjDANCEco series currently in its eighth year, ChoreoProjects Awards is open to local professional dancemakers (by audition) and celebrates the work and journey of emerging choreographers. ‘sjDANCEco presents’ is a more recent development. Dance artists/groups outside of the company are invited to perform their own repertory on a shared program that also includes new choreography by sjDANCEco dancers. Over this entire growth period, sjDANCEco has also cultivated a long and meaningful relationship with the Dance Department at San José State University that still continues today. Being in residence there has meant access to rehearsal and performance space, but for Masters, their connection runs much deeper than logistics, “SJSU’s Dance Department has been very good to us and we couldn’t have made it this far without them”. Eleven years ago, sjDANCEco was in its infancy. Today it is a formidable arts institution.

2015 is all about continuing sjDANCEco’s commitment to moving forward. Just this past September, they were part of SAFEhouse’s West Wave Dance Festival at Z Space in the Mission District. And in March, will return to San Francisco for their first season at ODC Theater. Right in line with sjDANCEco’s original vision, the program, titled “PASSION-INTRIGUE-DRAMA,” pairs a historic modern dance masterpiece, José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane (1949), with a dynamic contemporary work, Basile’s Tango Fatal (2013). While definitely distinct, The Moor’s Pavane and Tango Fatal do share common concepts and narrative themes— love, insecurity, jealousy, power, revenge, desire and betrayal—hence, the program’s well-chosen title. With such charged material, this evening promises to be one not soon forgotten.

Basile is eager to introduce Tango Fatal to San Francisco audiences, especially in the up-close-and-personal setting of ODC’s theater. Originally written as a screenplay by San Francisco resident Lorenz Russo, the story transports its audience to a seedy bar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Seven characters and one narrator are embroiled in a hot, heavy, tumultuous environment where jealousy rules and tragedy unfolds,” notes Basile. Composed specifically for this work, Carlos Franzetti’s score features musical themes that correspond to the various characters, further defining their essence and personality. And while the title of the dance may suggest tango choreography, Basile describes her Tango Fatal (which premiered in 2013) as a work of contemporary movement, “instead of traditional tango steps, there is tango energy and tango flavor.”

two dancers in tango
Photo by Bob Shomler

The second piece on sjDANCEco’s “PASSION-INTRIGUEDRAMA” program is 1949’s The Moor’s Pavane by José Limón. With its rare combination of narrative strength and structural complexity, The Moor’s Pavane has the power to move audiences and artists, even sixty-five years after its first performance. The famed dance-drama takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Othello, though does not seek to be a direct reenactment or retelling of the play. Limón’s adaptation features a quartet, a turbulent sequence of events, a hurricane of impulsivity, and ultimately, a disaster. Masters is intrigued by how, “Limón took a story with twenty plus characters and by reducing it to four was able to really crystallize the main themes – information is shared at a party that eventually leads to an evil outcome; whispers breeding chaos and devastation.” From a structural perspective, The Moor’s Pavane treats dance, drama (sans text), and Baroque music (by Henry Purcell) as independent theatrical elements and then also fuses them together in interdependent relationships. As Masters is keenly aware, this kind of compositional intricacy is a powerful thing, one that stands the test of time, “ Limón believed that form speaks and this work still captivates because of its form. I believe that presenting works from earlier decades is crucial to dancers and choreographers today because the structure is different. We can learn and grow from this knowledge, so it is very important that dancers know and see what came before. It also gives our audience a broader experience to also see works by the masters.”

Having served in multiple capacities with the Limón Dance Company between 1969 and 1994, Masters has a rich history with José Limón’s body of work. And in 2014, Masters received the Isadora Duncan Award for Outstanding Achievement in Restaging/Revival/Reconstruction for his 2012 remounting of The Moor’s Pavane. But no matter how familiar one is with a certain dance, going into a new venue may still require accommodations and adjustments. “ODC’s theater is quite intimate and at times, the movement in The Moor’s Pavane can be very broad (especially between the two men) so we need to ensure that their interaction is still powerful but not overbearing,” explains Masters, “having said that, The Moor’s Pavane has been staged in many different types of venues, so while there may be some challenges, they are far outweighed by the possibilities of a new space.”

Clearly, 2015 is a substantial and aspirational year for sjDANCEco. Basile sees 2015 as, “the year for us to travel outside our home base, both regionally and internationally.” And the upcoming March performances at ODC are one of the company’s big leaps. Masters is hoping that the San Francisco season will bring “full houses, press and reviews so that the company can get a little more known in the dance community and that we can feel more like a part of the dance fabric of the Bay.”

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This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.