From Vision to Mainstay in a Decade: San Francisco Dance Film Festival

By Heather Desaulniers

November 1, 2019, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

What do you love about fall?

It’s by far my favorite time of year, so my list is on the longer side. There are the beloved seasonal traditions – Thanksgiving feasts and spooky Halloween trick or treating (my dog’s pizza costume last year was epic). Crisp autumn temperatures, though admittedly those are less common in Northern California. I can even fess up to my pumpkin spice latte devotion, no matter how uncool or uncouth. But above all, I love how fall seems a moment to mark milestones. Trees renew by shedding colorful leaves. Folks return rested and rejuvenated (hopefully) from vacation ready to dive into new projects. School begins once again, and a multitude of activities resume after summer break. When everything starts back up, there is an undeniable sense of forward motion, of passage into the next chapter.

Fall dance in the San Francisco Bay Area has always been full of this milestone spirit, and this year is no exception. In September, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center launched the new Queering Dance Festival while Epiphany Dance Theater’s Trolley Dances just marked its sixteenth iteration a few weeks back. Late fall will see the seventy-fifth anniversary of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker and the thirty-third year of ODC/Dance’s The Velveteen Rabbit. And as we say farewell to October and greet November another significant milestone unfolds: the 10th annual San Francisco Dance Film Festival (SFDFF). From November 2nd to the 10th, the festival will take over the city’s major screening venues with an eclectic array of short films, full-length features and gripping documentaries from all over the world. The vibe will be one of celebration and accomplishment, certainly for the films and filmmakers, but also for SFDFF itself, which in a single decade has become a mainstay in the dance community.

When SFDFF officially launched in 2010, it brought to fruition an idea that had been on Founder Greta Schoenberg’s heart and mind for some time. While dancing professionally in Europe in the mid-1990s, the Santa Cruz native had had many opportunities to witness dance/choreographic artists incorporating film, video and multi-media elements into their work. The innovation and risk-taking indeed impressed her, but she also started to realize that the intersection of film and dance could address yet another challenging obstacle. “I was frustrated with the reality that permission was needed from the powers that be to create something, as well as large budgetary resources,” Schoenberg explains. “It was exciting that I could make short dance films that wouldn’t require as much rehearsal space, I didn’t have to pay for a theater nor get a green light from anyone – it felt like a more democratic and egalitarian approach to artmaking.” After returning to the Bay and settling in SF, this attraction to dance and film only grew stronger, and in 2009 Schoenberg cobbled together a collection of films along with dance photography by her husband Gregg Schoenberg and the late Weiferd Watts for an event at a friend’s art gallery: “It was extremely DIY, and I had no idea whether anyone would come, but a bunch of people showed up – the idea had sparked, and from there, we were invited to do a more formal showing at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center.” Schoenberg was on board, and in March 2010 the San Francisco Dance Film Festival debuted to local audiences. “That first festival was still very grass roots; we had fewer films, it was shorts-driven, mostly local work, and we had a limited budget for marketing and publicity,” remembers Schoenberg. “And yet there was so much excitement about what this could be – Dancers’ Group reached out with an unsolicited grant to get us going; this early vote of confidence from an organization that works so hard bringing our community together was incredibly valuable.”

SFDFF has experienced much growth and change since their inaugural event in 2010. The duration of each festival has gradually increased over time, moving from a single weekend to the upcoming edition’s nine days. Similarly, the number of venues has expanded, with screenings this year happening at five unique spaces: Brava Theater Center, Catharine Clark Gallery, Delancey St. Screening Room, Lucasfilm Premier Theater, and the Roxie Cinema. Variety of submissions has ballooned and multiplied, as has the scope of international entries – 2019’s program includes films from Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, Iran, Slovenia, and more. But perhaps one of the most notable changes has been in the festival’s leadership structure. In its first few years, SFDFF joyfully welcomed some heavy hitters to its family – Judy Flannery as Executive Director and Randall Heath as Managing Director – two people whom Schoenberg credit with putting the organization on artistic steroids and setting it on an incredible, advancing course: “SFDFF feels very healthy, with a great working environment, helmed by these professional, talented individuals who constantly surprise me with their skill and ideas.” At the same time, Schoenberg herself transitioned into a different position and became SFDFF’s Director of Programming. While Director of Programming still encompasses a host of wide-ranging responsibilities, she was excited that this new role allowed her to focus more on her passions, like film curation (in collaboration with Heath and a screening committee) and building relationships with filmmakers. “Letting go of something that you are the founder of can be tough, especially at first,” she relays, “but I was glad to have the foresight to step sideways and see what other expertise could bring to the table.”

But much has also stayed the same these past ten years. First and foremost is SFDFF’s commitment to Schoenberg’s original vision – championing independent artists and creating a platform for their work to be seen. And, of course, the overwhelming positive response! From the first pre-event to present day, viewers have been all in for this experience. Having said that, Schoenberg is quick to acknowledge that building an audience base has been a challenge from the very beginning, one she hopes can change as SFDFF enters its next decade: “It is still a battle to get people to come to the theater for the festival; once they do, they’re on board and hooked.”

It’s safe to say that attendees of the 2019 festival will for sure be hooked – such a remarkable line-up awaits! A trio of British premieres are surely not-to-be-missed. SFDFF’s opening night selection is the North American premiere of Queen + Béjart: Ballet For Life, directed by Lynne Wake, which chronicles a collaborative project linking Queen’s music and Maurice Béjart’s choreography. Equal parts emotional stunner and sensory banquet, connection leaps from the documentary’s every moment – the connection across time, across disciplines, between iconic artists and the deep losses from AIDS. The US premiere of Romeo & Juliet, from Ballet Boyz founders Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, screens on Wednesday night. With Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography and titular performances by William Bracewell and Francesca Hayward, this new adaptation relives the timeless saga that intertwines the transcendent power of love and the ugly power of hate. SFDFF is also honored to present the world premiere of Betroffenheit’s filmed version, directed by Jeff Tudor, written by Jonathon Young and choreographed by Crystal Pite. Recently onstage at Cal Performances, the potent mixed discipline work follows Young’s real-life journey through personal tragedy, grief, escape and eventually, hope.

Alongside these phenomenal entries, Schoenberg is looking forward to so many other moments of the festival. Two different films, Dancing on Icebergs from New Zealand and Fram from Finland, seek to unite dance and choreography together with the urgency of climate change. In keeping a pulse on current technology, Adobe engineer Bhautik Joshi and Capacitor’s Artistic Director Jodi Lomask take a sojourn into virtual reality, as part of SFDFF’s yearly Co-Laboratory Program. Marvel at how the brain looks and functions as Lomask’s brain is mapped during the choreographic process in Into the Neural Forest. Or if short films are more your speed, there are plenty of offerings peppered throughout SFDFF’s nine days. “Shorts are still my favorite, and this year, we have a number of shorts programs, some of which are designed around a distinct theme,” shares Schoenberg. “Finding Me investigates the discovery of identity through dance; Women on the Move features all female filmmakers; and Raising Voices highlights social justice.”

Schoenberg is beyond thrilled that so many filmmakers, directors and participants are planning to be at the festival in person, especially Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley, the first recipient of SFDFF’s brand new Embodiment Award for artistic excellence and influence. “I’m quite star struck, to be honest – Lil’ Buck is an international dance force and presence, a ground-breaking collaborator famous for a flowing form of street dance known as Memphis jookin,” says Schoenberg. “An inspirational artist who sees the potential art has for change, he has done so much for dance, film and social justice.” In addition to the Embodiment Award, Lil’ Buck’s artistic contributions will be celebrated with an evening of film featuring the San Francisco premiere of Lil’ Buck: Real Swan, directed by Louis Wallecan.

With the festival a mere weeks away, the focus is understandably on the here and now – details, logistics, problem-solving and the invariable last minute issues that arise with such a massive endeavor. Though that doesn’t stop the SFDFF staff and board from thinking about the next ten years, and the ten years after that. Securing more funding. Developing a larger audience. No question. And for Schoenberg, that future also includes broad and expansive ideas: “I want to make the most of our current trajectory; to create collaborative and educational programs; to continue giving voice to the underrepresented; to showcase the plethora of ideas from our community; and to celebrate and support even more artists in getting their work seen.” Lofty aspirations? Indeed. But remember, it was vision like this that first built the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, and turned it into a permanent fixture on the fall dance calendar. Sure seems like an organization that is all about getting things done.

This article appeared in the November 2019 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.