It wasn’t a month into my two years teaching at a small college in North Carolina before I realized: Dance made life meaningful. I didn’t want to live without it.
To be clear, Asheville, North Carolina is far from a cultural wasteland. It has a small ballet company which I’m ashamed to admit I never saw; it has performance artists, some of whom take inspiration from Black Mountain College, in operation from 1933-1957 nearby; it has a robust Butoh scene. But as my time in the Blue Ridge Mountains marched on, my memories of the aliveness of dance culture on the San Francisco Bay became ever more golden—possibly fantastical. Was dance really in the water there? As given a cultural necessity as NPR, as hip an attraction as the latest mircobrewry?
And so in June, not yet a week home on the West Coast (for good), I found myself in Heron Alley South of Market for LevyDance’s 10th anniversary performances. The spectacle wasn’t just on the catwalk-style outdoor stages in the round, the muscled bodies in postage-stamp sized spandex shorts lunging with a fierceness that made you wonder about liability insurance. It was in the scene, just as the craze for food trucks is as much about over-the-top novelty as it is about tasty nourishment. There were LevyDance viewers sitting on the roof of the neighboring building. The audience not just on the sides of the stages, but in the center of the triangle formed by the catwalks. There were free blankets so we could huddle against the night fog, which was artfully streaming around the performers, whipping their hair as though manufactured for a fashion shoot. A pre-show announcement advised everyone to freely Tweet or post pictures during the performance. There was hot chocolate.
Toto, we were not in North Carolina anymore.
But what mattered more than the blankets and the Tweeting (and even the hot chocolate) was the sheer number of keenly interested people present—and the knowledge that this kind of gathering was happening several times a week, every week in and around San Francisco—even during the “slow season” of summer. That’s what dazzled me three weeks later when I reviewed Bandaloop’s “Harboring” at the Fort Mason Center—a horde of fashionable folk journeying through the Festival Pavilion as transformed into a nautical dreamland by designer Jack Carpenter. Terrible to privilege this in memory when brave, stunning dancers (gorgeous Rachael Lincoln!) were flying and entwining with skill and passion, but what I kept thinking was: Look at all these arty dance people!
And just look at the new ODC Theater! Sold out on the second night of Imagery’s “Sketch 3” series on July 26th! The same space that Brenda Way and her intrepid dancers from Ohio had first remodeled by hand in the 1970’s, now a soaring modern black box with donor’s names lining the shiny lobby—and the even more impressive ODC/Dance Commons just across Shotwell Street. Any dancer would tell you that’s just one story of dance’s ever-growing stronghold in San Francisco—look at the busy Alonzo King LINES Dance Center just off Market, CounterPulse’s now-settled space, Margaret Jenkins’s CHIME mentorship program, the funky low-to-no-tech experiments going on at the Garage. Those who have been on the scene for the last two years could cite much more.
In this cheeringly stable landscape, it’s been good to catch up with a few favorite talents I began following back in my twenties. I remember when Benjamin Levy, barely graduated from UC Berkeley, gathered some of his baby-faced college-mates and first presented “pOrtal” at Mission Theater, and “Holding Pattern” (then danced by the spellbindingly sphinxlike Benjamin Hoijin-Lee) a few years later at ODC Theater. Now LevyDance has an impressive board of directors, its own studio and salon series—and a new generation of dancers. For the 10th anniversary, Levy reset four now “classic” Levy works on a fine new quartet: Yu Kondo Reigen, Paul Vickers, Scott Marlowe, and Sarah Dionne Woods.
The good news was not just in the gutsy performances—though Woods makes a fine advertisement for Summer Lee Rhatigan’s San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, where she trained. The news was in how well Levy’s old dances held up. Had they really been so great ten years ago, or had we all been seduced by the story of hot young talent? No, the seduction was in the choreography, which found electric pathways through the body and folded joints in mesmerizing chain reactions. Most original and enduringly striking this summer were the duets and trios, the way Levy sculpted cascades out of bizarre contact points—and yet always implying a very human story, especially in 2005’s “in this small space.”
Amy Seiwert is another choreographer I started watching about a decade ago, as she was making her first works at Smuin Ballet, and starting her own pick-up troupe, im’ij-re. Im’ij-re is now Imagery, and Seiwert is now a leading talent in US ballet-making, commissioned by Atlanta Ballet, Ballet Austin, Robert Moses’ KIN, and a flotilla of other companies. From the beginning, what set her work apart was her interest in challenging music, and her drive to try something new in every piece. And there she was doing it again—and inviting other dancemakers along—last month.
For “Sketch 3: Expectations,” Seiwert, Val Caniparoli and Marc Brew each made new dances on Imagery within five weeks (which Seiwert implied is a short gestation period, but in my experience is a normal time frame for a commissioned dance). Each choreographer identified a new risk he or she would take in the work, and their risk statements appeared in the program.
Val Caniparoli, a four-decade veteran of San Francisco Ballet with works in more than 40 dance companies, is the most accomplished craftsman of this trio—as any viewer would have readily guessed from seeing “Triptych,” his premiere. He’s also smart about how he’s been holding back (“I consciously skirt hot button topics,” he wrote), and he chose the smartest risk—to make a dance about the war in Afghanistan. The inspiration was Lalage Snow’s photo series of British soldiers before, during, and after their deployment to Afghanistan, though you wouldn’t have known this from watching “Triptych,” which had no sense of an emotional before and after, but did present a formally accomplished dance of eight performers in Army fatigues, doing steps that strangely peppered a buoyant fluidity with little boot camp style salutes, and pauses at attention with hands clasped behind backs. The minimalist string music by John Tavener and Alexandra Balanescu mainly served as blank canvas.
Watching “Triptych,” I thought of one of the best dances about war ever, Paul Taylor’s “Company B”—how it manages to lull you, charm you, and then sneakily, heartbreakingly remind you of the death behind it all—all in a way organic to Taylor’s dance aesthetic. “Triptych” doesn’t do that—despite the Army gestures, it is safe through and through. But if Caniparoli made being topically “unsafe” his risk for the next year, could he find a way to use his natural style in service of a bold truth-statement? I think so. I would like to see him try.
In the other two premieres, the dancers were more interesting than the choreography. Marc Brew was hampered by cheesy commissioned music in “Awkward Beauty,” and the lack of emotional motivation in flashy partnering moves made the dance feel very Cirque du Soleil. Seiwert challenged herself to make movement images inspired by a Leonard Cohen poem in “The Devil Ties My Tongue,” which was full of exquisite partnering but lacked form and trajectory.
All the Imagery dancers have beautiful feet and extensions and bravery to spare, but I was especially happy to see Brandon “Private” Freeman, an old ODC/Dance favorite, in fine shape. And I was especially taken by Rachel Furst, a recent LINES BFA grad, who despite her pixie stature moves with bite, and who looked completely at home alongside Freeman’s unfussy athleticism.
My reentry into the overwhelming Bay Area dance landscape has been gradual, for one so hungry and happy to return. But I am looking forward to seeing Ledoh’s new Butoh work at the Asian Art Museum this week—and to a dance-binge this fall.