Saturday, November 03, 2007

Epiphany Productions-Trolley Dances

Production of the performing arts involves both logistical planning and artistic content. When the goal is a free, outdoor, multi-site series, both of these become much more difficult. Logistically, the work must be adaptable to the outside, the audience has to be transported from one place to the next, and the necessary permits must be obtained. This year’s San Francisco Trolley Dances was a logistical victory; artistic director Kim Epifano effectively facilitated the 4th annual performance series. The pieces worked in the outdoors, the audience arrived on time at each locale; the volunteer staff was incredibly professional and even the weather cooperated. Unfortunately, the artistic side told another story, plagued with issues of performance experience and visual obstructions.

Firstly, there was considerable inconsistency between the five dance companies who participated in Trolley Dances, in terms of the performers’ experience (or lack thereof). The first two groups, Run For Your Life!’s a dance company and Flyaway Productions showcased confident and proficient dancers who clearly understood the minutiae of staged performance as well as the relationship between the performer and the audience. These were consummate professionals. The third company, Paco Gomes and Dancers, did not rise to this established level of expertise. The choreography was not the issue; it was the communication and expression of the piece by the dancers. Unfortunately, their lack of performance experience was palpable. Performing outside is tough; noise, voices and activity can easily distract you. More seasoned performers can usually tune out this commotion, but this group hasn’t quite mastered that skill. Their technique was good, but they need a little more time and guidance to develop their stage presence. Gomes should exert more effort educating his dancers on the art of performance. Perhaps then his choreographic vision can be illuminated instead of being masked by the lack of stage presence exhibited by his dancers.

The final piece of the day also illustrated significant variance in the aptitude of the dancers, although not with respect to their stage presence, but in their technical maturity. Epiphany Productions/Sonic Dance Theater set a piece on dancer Robert Henry Johnson and the UC Berkeley Bay Area Repertory Dance Ensemble (BARD). First things first, the dancers from Berkeley are excellent but, individuals in this group are clearly at different points in their educational career, displaying various levels of movement maturity. Some of these UC dancers are new to college-level dance education. They are still at the point of transition between their ‘juvenile’ dance training and their adult pre-professional studies. This is not a bad thing, and is a necessary rite of passage. All young dancers go through this transition; they are learning. Learning how movement comes from within rather than peripherally; learning how to create positions and shapes without appearing posed; and learning how to be grounded, appreciating how the floor can change your movement quality. In contrast, other dancers in BARD are towards the end of their undergraduate education and have already transitioned into pre-professional dancers, with the critical, historical and physiological knowledge that has nurtured and changed their bodies and their movement. Epifano’s piece had all of the BARD dancers performing the same material. While that may have given cohesion to the piece, it also emphasized the vast technical disparities between the dancers in this company.

Secondly, two of the five pieces involved some traveling portions, where companies performed as the audience walked from one venue to another. The tap dancers executed a moving percussion sequence while steering the audience towards their next destination. As well, the final piece had a moving prologue in which the dancers led the audience from a starting point to the Duboce Park Labyrinth where the bulk of the piece would occur. It is clear that these moving sequences were an attempt to capitalize on the idea of non-traditional outdoor performance possibilities. But, at the same time, it is crucial in a presentational forum to remember that the audience still needs to see what is happening. Unless you were at the front of the group in both of these circumstances, it was impossible to see the performers until the transient section of their piece was completed. So, again, the beauty of the dance was camouflaged, this time by an inability to physically see the performers.

Trolley Dances provides a valued contribution to San Francisco performing arts. It exposes attendees, passers-by and the city itself to local dance companies, performing in several outside venues free of charge. However, there is an expectation of skill and proficiency with any organized performance series. Some of this year’s participants lived up to that expectation. For those who did not meet this goal, perhaps they can be inspired to look at the art of performance, so that it can match their technical ability. So much time is spent on technique and dancers often miss the chance to develop artistic sensibility. Performance is the sum of all of its parts, not just choreography and technical brilliance. Compositions that focus only on this are sanitized and empty; they are truly missing the heart of dance.

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