Edited by Zackary Forcum
No matter where I go I can’t help being informed and infused by the culture, architecture, history, and resonance of an area and its people. This curiosity began in 1979 during my time in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. We traveled from village to village (mules often carrying our equipment), creating a show with a cohort of clowns, guitarists, and community members as a part of the “Year of the Child. ” It was there where I first experienced how art can go beyond entertainment to be a cross-cultural and educational exchange with the ability to help people live healthier lives.
I came to San Francisco in 1982, when the city was bathed in wonder and imagination. It was a time of coming as you are and being who you were meant to be. Though I had years of training in movement (ballet, modern, jazz, gymnastics, swimming/diving) I wasn’t interested in fitting into any box or being easily categorized; even modern dance was too focused on a narrow view of bodily success, so I immersed myself in movement arts that blended dance, singing, ritual, and the playing of instruments, forms like Afro-Haitian Dance with Blanche Brown, Capoeira with Mestre Acordeon, and Congolese with Malonga Casquelourd.
During a Roda de Capoeira at Civic Center, two women approached me—Krissy Keefer and Nina Fichter—and asked if I also danced. Next thing I know I am dancing in the Wall Flower Order (Dance Brigade). Over the course of a decade, we created various sociopolitical and feminist works, such as CointelPro where we performed in drag as men in business suits in front of the San Francisco Federal Building. I went on to study with Sara Shelton Mann as a way to connect with new ideas and concepts in modern dance (such as contact improvisation), while staying grounded in the mixing of genres that I was experiencing outside of western concert dance. I joined Contraband for nine years, collaborating in all kinds of works for the stage (such as The Mira Cycles) and on the street in vacant and discarded plots of land, creating art that spoke to issues of the area and the time.
Simultaneously, I continued my cross-cultural arts exchanges, expanding opportunities to American teens through Mudd Butt International of the Telluride Academy. With my collaborators Wendy Brooks, Sally Davis and Mike Stasiuk, we established a youth program where art was the common value, language, and connector in creating performances in theaters, fields, broken down churches, gymnasiums, beaches, and temples.
Throughout all of these experiences, artists were cross-culturally exchanging and experimenting by mixing traditional and modern genres and practices, activating and involving the communities they were creating with. There was a confidence that we could do anything, even with cultural or language differences.
By 2000, I was constantly on the road touring and teaching, building a thriving company, Epiphany Productions Sonic Dance Theater (now Epiphany Dance Theater), and while I had no interest in slowing down, I wanted to anchor more of my art back in my longtime home of San Francisco. I found my answer while choreographing for Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Trolley Dances. Bringing this site-specific event to San Francisco seemed like the perfect opportunity to: connect with and support local artists, continue Epiphany’s growth, offer dance performances free of charge (which at that time was a rare occurrence), and explore and share the culture and history of San Francisco and its people.
In this constantly evolving city (that has grown more in the last decade than many of us are comfortable with), with distinct neighborhoods, people, architecture, and countless stories to tell, there are few better landscapes for site-specific work. San Francisco Trolley Dances (SFTD) began in 2004 with its primary partner, SFMTA/Muni, and others. I curated four artists: Joanna Haigood, STEAMROLLER Dance Company, Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater, and myself at four different sites along the F-Line. I had particular romance with the F-Line, “a Museum on Wheels,” that runs along Market Street. With magnificent trolleys from all over the world, I would often think about where they could take us and what the pathway would reveal. SFTD’s maiden voyage was a success (even with rain, audience members came in droves with their umbrellas), and so we returned the next few years and before I knew it, San Francisco embraced us as an annual event. Taking inspiration from my work abroad, and my desire to reach out to more of the Bay Area, it was important to commission culturally traditional arts groups, placing them side-by-side with contemporary artists. Since 2004, Epiphany has commissioned new works from more than 80 companies and artists and has collaborated alongside vital community partners such as SFMTA/Muni, Market Street Railway, SF Public Library, SF Recreation and Park, Friends of San Francisco Environment, Intersection for the Arts, and more, opening doors that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. SFTD, now in its 15th year, continues to celebrate the story of this city and its people.
Producing a festival has proved to be an outward-bound experience full of curveballs and lessons learned. I have been fortunate to work with some of the Bay’s brightest in troubleshooting these obstacles, such as: entertaining an audience group during an unexpected delay (and then rerouting the tour completely), finding a replacement for a stolen speaker mid-day, facing an ensemble of dancers ready to riot as they performed in the big meadow of the Botanical Gardens (in the pouring rain, in grass littered with duck-poop, no less). There are also the more pressing conversations on how we bring audiences into places where people work, live, and build their lives: How do we respect folks living on the streets? How do we keep our sound levels appropriate for neighbors? How are we working with the communities in which we seek to make art so that a valuable exchange can take place? How do we educate our audiences so that their presence as part of the festival is holistic and not an example of privileged voyeurism? Epiphany has faced these challenges head-on, and because of this, San Francisco Trolley Dances is still rolling.As the festival grew, so did the area’s desire for more site-specific work and accessible/free public performances, some of which I have been proud to mentor. The artistically and logistically strong formula for SFTD has led to my involvement in co-envisioning the initial years of similar events such as Baile en la Calle the Mural Dances with Brava! for Women in the Arts, Mission Street Dances/Walking Distance Dance Festival with ODC/Dance, and Island City Waterways with Rhythmix Cultural Works. As I look out on our SF Bay Area performing arts landscape, I see SFTD not just as a platform for commissioning artists, but as a launching pad for how various organizations consider their own site-specific efforts.
With continued requests to expand the event, I have considered sustainable and engaging possibilities. In light of its 15th anniversary, Epiphany Dance Theater is piloting “Transit Dances: Night Trolley” a night-time site-specific event atop the new downtown Transit Center at Salesforce Park on October 12. As more industrial buildings sprout up throughout downtown and fewer environmentally friendly spaces remain, it seemed natural to partner with this new transit center (a project of the TJPA) that offers a new green space. Transit is the vein of a society and Epiphany looks forward to expanding on the complex art of how we make a city move.
Just as you get to know a person, you get to know a place. I find it mesmerizing how by simply sitting, seeing, listening and absorbing details in a specific location has informed my cellular soul and investigative mind. Having created site-specific work all over, from the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, the Streets of SF (Natoma, Minna, Annie, Shotwell, Balmy Alley, and many more), along the waterways of Alameda, under Coronado Bridge in Barrio Logan, a parking lot in Chula Vista, to a bar in Mexicali, Mexico, and more, the physical world and my own personal map have become fused. San Francisco Trolley Dance’s focus of site-specific art continuously feeds my creative practice in and outside of the annual event.
I’m often asked what my favorite moments of the festival are from over the years, which is a challenging question as there are so many. But one that often comes to mind is SFTD 2012 when Epiphany performed at the City College’s Evan’s Branch in the Bayview; the piece had a lot of moving parts, one of which was a verbal telling of the neighborhood’s past (its people and the history of the Dogpatch area). A local preacher, in his Sunday suit, approached me at the conclusion of performance and exclaimed, “This is amazing—where did you come from? You’re making history here!” To which I responded, “We just told the history! The piece is called Where You From?” We laughed. Over the years it is moments like these that show what San Francisco Trolley Dances is about. All of these everyday places have a vibration waiting to be magnified, explored, and experienced.