IN THE SANDBOX: Sara Shelton Mann and a Career’s Worth of Collaborators Join in Erasing Time

By Robert Avila

December 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Black and White photo of Sara Shelton Mann
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

CHOREOGRAPHERS WHO PERSEVERE and maintain a long career can find themselves wondering about history, legacy and influence. Hence, the retrospective. As a convention, it is generally more testimonial than inquiry but smacks of a working plan for a more permanent monument.

A retrospective, however, in the sense of trotting out tried-and-true pieces, is an intolerable concept to Sara Shelton Mann, an artist who has never been high on chronology to begin with. (A perversely satisfying aspect of Keith Hennessy’s remarkable biographical solo for Mann, Sara (the Smuggler), which premiered at CounterPulse in April, was that it compelled her to take a strictly sequential approach to her life and work.)

Moreover, a monument is an awfully static thing. If any artist was built to keep moving it is certainly she. Even now, in her early 70s and recovering from surgery to replace her hip (the list of injuries sustained in this career, incidentally, would thrill even the most battle-hardened dancer), Mann appears as feral and restless a creator as ever.

So it is unwise to call Erasing Time a retrospective. In fact, from what I’ve been able to gather, it may not always look like a dance. All the same, it is sure to be a unique and extraordinary occurrence. Running five hours on two consecutive nights (December 4–5) at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—where it will make an open kinetic installation of the Forum’s big white box—Erasing Time gathers more than 60 present and former Mann collaborators from around the country and globe in a rowdy, performative reconsideration of work and working relationships spanning four decades.

Unlike anything she’s done previously yet motivated by all that came before, Erasing Time promises an oscillating, nonlinear collage of mood and movement, in which past productions, music and concepts are refracted through a distinctive and dynamic process—one that will have Mann livedirecting some of the action in the way she employed with her dancers in last year’s excellent series of solos, The Eye of Horus.

With nearly every former member of Contraband, Mann’s groundbreaking company of the mid-1980s and early ’90s, scheduled to participate, as well as dozens of artists from her varied and vital work since (everything from Monk at the Met on through the Tribes series and The Eye of Horus solos), Erasing Time will shimmer with the many lines of influence and gratitude attendant on an intense, highly collaborative body of work.

“I have extraordinary luck with collaborators,” reflects Mann, sitting in the morning light of her longtime residence at Project Artaud. Her temporary walker is parked in front of her and, per doctor’s orders, she’s trying not to fidget or bounce in her chair.

“I just think of all the people you can work with. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s OK, sometimes it’s great. But there’s something else that can happen, a situation that you’re both placed in such that the chemistry has you learning from each other. It’s something beautiful, something really refined, and it’s much more than you could have imagined. It’s really what I seek.”

Erasing Time emerged from a more prosaic project with frequent collaborator David Szlasa: building a digitized, accessible archive of Mann’s work. “Sara and I both got inspired to make something more than just an encyclopedia,” explains Szlasa by phone from New York. “We were going to do a book, a printed thing. But at some point we said, let’s do what we know how to do, which is make a kind of living archive project and call it a show. I approached YBCA to present and they came on enthusiastically. Then it was a matter of tracing across the lineage and figuring out who to involve and at what level, and what we wanted to try and represent.”

The response to the call has been overwhelming, and speaks to the mutual inspiration characterizing Mann’s artistic partnerships, which have propelled more than one artist of more than one generation along distinguished career paths of their own.

“The first thing [Sara] said to all these people,” explains composer and sound designer Norman Rutherford, a principal contributor to the current project, “was, what are you interested in? People would write back, well, I like this but I don’t know if it’s possible. So she told them, ‘Just do something new or make it different,’” he laughs. “She’s not holding any of us and wants it to be its own thing.”

A stalwart collaborator of Mann’s for nearly three decades, Rutherford joined Contraband in 1986 to work on Religare, a major site-specific work of performance and ritual made in the Gartland pit at Valencia and 16th Streets, a scarred site of a notorious and deadly landlord arson fire. Religare’s original composer, Rinde Eckert, had been called on tour with Slow Fire, the piece he had just made with Paul Dresher. Rutherford, a bassist who had studied instrumentmaking before fleeing what he found the stifling limits of New York’s avant-garde jazz scene, was ushered into Religare by his roommate at the time, Keith Hennessy. With composer-friend Richard Klein and Gwen Jones, Rutherford put together a score and never looked back.

“I was hooked,” he says, “because it was exactly what I wanted. There was this problem-solving, immersive component to the work that I liked. Five-day-a-week rehearsal and grappling, in that piece, with real issues of being on the street, in the pit. What do you do about the social issues? There are people living down there. All that was really compelling to me.”

Rutherford and his collaborators thrived in the outdoor environment, creating a 20-piece percussion and vocal choir and orchestrating a score that used Rutherford’s own original instruments. In the process, Contraband worked with locals to reclaim the space as a form of what would later be called social practice art.

“That’s what Keith [Hennessy] was able to do, and Lauren [Elder] and Norman, to bring in numbers of people and train them, teach them and actually bring them into the work,” says Mann.

“I remember standing up on the street at Valencia and 16th [site of the Gartland pit] and watching rehearsal from above,” she continues. “I saw a tremendous mandala. Down there, you could be witnessing someone making a solo or performing. If you stepped back, you could see what was in front of you and see someone else watching those solos. If you got farther up, then you began to see groups of people interested in specific activities, the coordination, the flow of the energy of the whole. And then, if you got above, it was like watching a village in action.”

Mann says this vision reminded her of something she knew much earlier on. “I used to spend a lot of time in my sandbox when I was a kid,” she recalls with a chuckle. “It’s a square. Makes me think of the [The Eye of Horus] solos, you know, the little quadrants! I was in this little container. It was a little scary. I was four or five years old. I had my bucket of water and could build and destroy cities and roads and people and all kinds of things. But I didn’t have anyone to play with, and when someone would come down the road in a car I didn’t know if they were friend or foe. So I have a sense of protection or container around me.”

Mann, sitting upright in her chair now, looks ready to leap up onto the floor.

“There was something about looking down on Religare and seeing the intensity of it, the ritual, the desire to heal the land, to clear the space … to try to create a world, make sense of it or change it. If you tear down a road what do you have left? How do you get in and out? I was practicing all that when I was a kid. But I was the only person.”

I suggest that, since then, she has drawn quite a few people into the sandbox with her. At this she reclines again in her chair and laughs.

“I have.”

Robert Avila is a San Francisco-based arts writer who has covered theater, dance, film and performance for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, American Theatre, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He also writes at Since 2016, he works as director of communications at GLIDE.