writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition



by Ann Murphy
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy

Four hundred years ago a bunch of Puritans condemned dance as the work of the devil. Since then, Americans have not only worked dance back into their lives but made the US an international leader in the art. You would think that no one would still need to ask what dance is.

But apparently they do, because this coming weekend marks the first annual Dance Is festival at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley, with each of its three days defining dance through a particular category—Friday, dance is movement, Saturday, dance is story, and Sunday, dance is social change. Twenty-five different companies or performers are on the bill, and run the gamut from a high school student who began dancing three months ago on a dare, to veteran dancemakers with dozens of dances to their names.

Each program will be introduced by hosts chosen for their affinity with the theme. Dance is social change, for example, is to be led by progressive Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Assembly woman Lonnie Hancock. Dance/theater choreographer Joe Goode will take on the dance is story genre that he helped developed, while venerable 71-year-old dancer Frank Shawl, a former May O’Donnell dancer, tackles dance is movement. The sheer eclecticism of participants is almost dizzying and includes the youth violence prevention/hip hop group Destiny Arts, the neoclassical ballet company Company C, the big dancer troupe called Big Moves, and Chingchi Yi. At the student end of the spectrum, Berkeley and Moreau Catholic High Schools are represented in the festival, along with Mills College, UC Davis and Cal State Hayward.

According to Sabrina Klein, executive director of the Julia Morgan, which is sponsoring Dance Is, the festival chose to thematically frame each of the three days to help out a public that may be mystified by what, exactly, dance is today. Over the last century, ballet morphed from a pastime of the aristocracy to one of the modern arts, while modern dance as we know it was born. But dance is no longer an intrinsic part of life, performed in the field, in the tavern, or on every ritual occasion as once it was. These days we might dance at a party or a club, do the hora at a wedding or walk in a processional at a funeral, but otherwise dance is a performing art typically reserved for professionals. This weekend’s festival aims to break down some of the barriers separating the public from contemporary dance, and are doing it through a combination of sheer aesthetic variety and intergenerational diversity.

"Dance is its own language," said Klein, an actress and director by training who came to Julia Morgan three years ago after heading Theater Bay Area in San Francisco. Within the language are many dialects not necessarily comprehensible across the field. To complicate matters, Klein said, "dance is so ephemeral, so hard to catch that it is difficult to form a core place for dance to exist."

With that in mind, Dance Is organizers set their sights on making dance a more visible and stable presence in the performing arts scene in the East Bay, where local theater and music thrive yet where dance is only sporadically produced. They hope to establish dance in the collective mind as a necessary and exciting art form.

Julia Morgan began to move in this direction when Klein realized that there were few viable dance venues here and started inviting dancers to talk to her. "On September 11, 2001, if you can believe it, we scheduled a community conversation, and 40 people were signed up to come." Twenty-nine showed up to this dance town hall, and those gathered "had a conversation about the events of the day, about the chaos and terror in our lives," said Klein. "Everyone agreed that things need to be said through dance that can’t be expressed in any other way." From that meeting, Dance Is was spawned.

Few if any producers have previously reached into all levels of the dance scene with such an eye toward community building as Julia Morgan appears to be doing. But this is not the first time fervent dance lovers have sought to build a dance hub in the East Bay. From 1984 to 1995, the Bay Area Dance Series at Laney College was a prototype for local dance festivals, although it never became the community’s anchor. The tiny Eighth Street Studio near Dwight Way has been a bastion of low-tech, noncompetitive showcases by East Bay dance makers for two decades, but it, too, never quite became the dance locus. By contrast, what Klein and her associates hope to establish is a nucleus in a community that either seems to have no center, or, every time one begins to form, it breaks up as quickly as mercury scatters into beads.

"We’ve been trying different projects over the last four years and this is the culmination," Jill Randall, the person Klein calls "the goddess" behind Dance Is. Randall is also a dancer and a lead dance teacher in the Institute of the Julia Morgan, a wing of the Lincoln Center Institute, a national arts teaching program. "Originally we had three separate weekends planned, one for college, one for high school and one for professional dancers, but then we thought we should combine them. The idea of themes came about trying to pull people together and unify them. How could we create a through-line? How could we create dialogue and conversation? A big component of the festival has been getting people together to talk about and look at their work at different stages of artistic development."

A few Sundays ago, a ceaselessly sunny but determined Randall led one of the three "sharing" days in which participants in each of the concerts showed and discussed their work with fellow participants from the same concert. This was the group from Dance Is Movement, and they ranged in age from 16 to their mid-50’s. They collected on stage in a circle, some of them fidgeting nervously, some quietly expectant. Randall asked them to say their name followed by a word or phrase and a gesture that expressed what they wanted to take from the experience.

"Fun," said Berkeley High junior Jack Nicolaus, an actor and football center who began to dance about 4 months ago, dared into it by a friend.

"New faces," said modernist choreographer Nancy Karp, an East Bay veteran who has choreographed more than 6 works over 20 years.

"The small voice," said Jono Brandel, the Berkeley High choreographer of a highpowered sextet called "Cyclic Photophosphorylation" full of morphing, physically demanding movement.

While the circle activity might seem corny to an outsider, it is a proven "community building activity designed to break down boundaries," Randall explained. "People later talked about how it leveled the playing field," she said. "They were able to meet each other and have a common language to talk about work. Even if someone hadn’t danced as long as someone else, everyone was tackling the same scene."

Everyone got off the stage, then one by one, performers clambered back and performed their piece with stage lights on and music rolling. Immediately after, a discussion curated by Shelley Senter, a former Trisha Brown Dance Company member, New York City transplant and Mills College instructor, began. One by one, the dancers in the audience offered the performers feedback in the form of empirical observations of the work—descriptions of direction, velocity, level change, spatial patterns. This was followed not with critiques but questions: Why did you freeze poses? Why did you use that music? The choreographers were free to respond or not.

"I think this was a good beginning," Nancy Karp said. "It’s a learning process." But at the same time, she added, "it was by no means a thorough process."

For curatorial advisor Jose Maria Francos, who co-founded the Bay Area Dance Series and is current production manager at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Dance Is is a step forward. "This is a fine group of people trying very hard to make something happen," he said. "Dance has been pretty much abandoned in the East Bay, and just for that Dance Is is laudable."

But the issue of not only what dance is but what it can be nagged at Maria Francos. Much of what he saw he said, has no relation to the exigencies of contemporary life. "It’s people trying to entertain themselves in a chaotic time. I see the lots of the dancers doing the same stuff as 10 years ago."

Does that make this festival just another festival, reinventing the dance wheel? If it is, Klein is unfazed. "Maybe we’re going back and backstitching," she said, but if so, "we’re pulling something forward into a world that’s changed." What she and her fellow organizers are determined to do, she said, is "with a common voice that is loud say: ‘dance is a language that is essential to a world in chaos.’"

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 4
January 26, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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