CounterPulse’s Next Ten

By Heather Desaulniers

October 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

TEN YEARS IS A LONG TIME. Since 2005, I got married, finished graduate research, moved across the country twice and adopted a puppy. And those are just some of the ‘major’ events. Taking stock of the past decade and imagining the next decade makes one thing abundantly clear. So much can change in the span of ten years.

A beacon in San Francisco’s avant-garde performing arts community, CounterPulse is keenly aware of what can happen in a decade. Ten years ago, CounterPulse was in its infancy, the result of a partnership between 848 Community Space and the Bay Area Center for Art and Technology. Merging these two ‘parent’ organizations meant a fresh combination of infrastructure and resources that could “set the stage to support artists in more profound and professional ways,” recounts CounterPulse’s current Artistic Director Julie Phelps. To that end, in 2005, CounterPulse took up residence at 1310 Mission Street and embarked on their maiden voyage. And it has been an epic ten-year journey in San Francisco’s SOMA District. But destinations change and itineraries shift. Today, CounterPulse finds itself heading in a different direction, to a new permanent home at 80 Turk Street in the Tenderloin. This is a unique moment for CounterPulse – saying goodbye to one era while simultaneously greeting a brand new chapter.

Phelps shares that the past decade at CounterPulse has been all about building an artist-centered environment – “incubating experimental and emerging work, creating a space to foster imagination and offering more direct artist services.” Classes were developed, CounterPulse-curated events were designed, and an eclectic mix of local, national and international artists graced the stage. In addition, the Artist Residency Commissioning program (ARC) was established “to support socially relevant work and community building by movement-based artists” adds Phelps. A significant undertaking, ARC has been incredibly successful, shifting and evolving over the years along with the changing artistic climate, and broadening to include a number of different tracks like Performing Diaspora and the more recent Art/Tech Combustible Residency. It is a testament to the work and workers of the last decade that all of these different programs continue to play an integral role at CounterPulse today.

Ten years in, Phelps affirms that CounterPulse is still committed to this artist-centered vision. Seeking that vision makes continual development, growth and responsiveness essential. While CounterPulse’s progressive trajectory is certainly linked to innovative programming (as illustrated above), it is also very much tied to space.

Space is a hot topic and a hot commodity in the Bay Area – living space; working space; performance space. In this ever-competitive market, obtaining the right location gets harder and harder everyday. Aware of this reality and knowing their current lease on Mission Street was coming to an end, CounterPulse began a time of discernment and planning about three years ago. With the help of a consultant, they engaged in a Facilities Strategic Plan to consider as Phelps describes, “how our facility wraps around our vision and moves it forward”. All options were on the table, including the possibility of staying in their existing location. During this process, they made a lucky connection with the Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), a newly formed (and desperately needed) organization seeking to assist arts non-profits with their space/facility requirements. Phelps explains that CounterPulse and CAST were well aligned – CounterPulse was currently examining and evaluating their future space needs and CAST was planning to acquire space and then work with community-focused/community-centered arts organizations in a lease-to-own model. The structure at 80 Turk Street was one of CAST’s options and so CounterPulse went to check it out. Phelps was struck on two fronts: the space on Turk Street not only supported CounterPulse’s dreams for expansion, but partnering with CAST could actually make moving to a new location a viable possibility. CounterPulse deliberated and decided to proceed with the 80 Turk Project. Their future new home was no longer a hypothetical. CounterPulse was forged by a partnership in 2005, and now a partnership with CAST would help launch its next phase.

Even with all the right pieces falling into place, a venture like the 80 Turk Project is certainly not without challenges and risks. Phelps can say for certain that CounterPulse’s biggest gamble was (and is) financial. For their initial contribution to the project, CounterPulse needed to raise one million dollars. This was going to be no small feat. But they took the challenge in stride and kicked into fundraising mode. Phelps is thrilled that CounterPulse was able to reach the goal, drawing more support for the 80 Turk Project than they had ever previously raised in a single campaign.

While Phelps acknowledges that the financial risk is real and at times “anxietyprovoking,” the possibilities that 80 Turk affords are “wildly exciting.” Amenities include dressing rooms, rehearsal space, a proper lobby with a gallery, a brand new sound system and an extensive lighting grid. Performers and patrons will even have their own dedicated restrooms (which given their current space is a huge improvement)! Phelps hopes that these various elements (and more) will lead to “higher quality productions” and contribute to “the pleasurable-ness of working in the space; a beautiful, comfortable and inspiring facility.” But the 80 Turk Project also has a much greater significance. It isn’t only about CounterPulse’s new decade; it is about the next ten years and the ten years after that. Phelps and the entire CounterPulse family are mindful that “we are building something bigger than ourselves – creating a landmark that will always stay in the hands of arts and culture.”

80 Turk is on target to open in October and CounterPulse has planned a phenomenal 2015-2016 season to mark this momentous occasion. The fall is filled with provocative and engaging work: Hope Mohr Dance’s annual Bridge Project, titled Rewriting Dance, and Nina Haft’s King Tide both go up in November. Then in December, CounterPulse will partner with their future neighbors, the SFMOMA (who open their own new space in the Spring of 2016) to host the North American premiere of Eisa Jocson’s Host. There will also be a new edition of the Artist Residency Commissioning program – a shared evening of original work by Liz Tenuto and Affinity Project that will run for two consecutive weekends. Tenuto will premiere This Year is Different: An Absurdist Musical About Self-Help and Affinity Project will debut When you read a novel it all seems trite and obvious, but when you’re in love yourself you see that no one knows anything and we all have to settle things for ourselves. While neither piece was commissioned to specifically reflect CounterPulse’s current transition, Phelps notes that themes of metamorphosis and change have organically evolved in each. Surely a fitting program for the new space.

“I hope the new CounterPulse continues to be an artistic, social, and political force for breaking boundaries, bringing us together, letting us hear each other with ever greater clarity, and pushing and supporting the whole bay area to have increasingly deeper, more inclusive and more far-reaching dialogue about what our future will be. The times demand it.”

“There are so many thrilling aspects of the 80 Turk Project but what sticks out to me is how rich it is in possibility…creating new, meaningful relationships, nurturing the relationships we’ve already made…”

“I think the new building represents a new model for arts facilities and I hope it’s embraced and successful.”

“CounterPulse is the only performance space on the West Coast to prioritize working with artists who are social minded and community driven. This mission coupled with the location of their new theater in the Tenderloin allows them to be a bridge between the new development and the existing challenges in the mid-market area of San Francisco.”

“Our new home will be chalk-full of transformative performances; new movements; gathering spaces for communities of all kinds; and grassroots-social-impact art-making overflowing into the streets of our beloved city. Come on art! Come on Tenderloin!”

“CounterPulse’s move positions them at the geographic heart of the dialog about the future of San Francisco (money, tech, art, the homeless population – these questions are heightened by their new location). I hope they continue to be a place to see edgy experimental art that gives voice to some of the weirdness that I love about the city.”

“I hope that, more than anything, YOU come and see us in our new home. Won’t be much fun without you”

For information on CounterPulse and their upcoming 2015-2016 season, please visit and to learn more about Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST) visit


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.