Monday, June 17, 2024

RAWdance - Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

RAWdance: Drawing on a Decade
Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, San Francisco
June 15th, 2024

Summer weather in San Francisco is famously unpredictable. And yet, every time I’ve attended a dance event at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, it’s been beautiful. The weather gods seem to consistently smile down on this family-friendly, free collection of music, movement and multi-discipline performance, and this past weekend was no exception.

Saturday midday brought RAWdance back to YBGF, a staple participant on the downtown esplanade for the past ten years. For 2024, the remarkable bi-coastal company, under the co-Artistic Direction of Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, offered an afternoon retrospective – three penetrating, site-specific works from past festivals entitled, Drawing on a Decade. While each was distinct, a throughline emerged as the day went on: a deep reflection of the dance’s chosen title.

RAWdance in Circuit
Photo Amal Bisharat

Circuit (2019) opened the program on the steps adjacent to the Leroy King Carousel, a work for six performers that aptly lived into its title. From a completely literal perspective, the piece was certainly a circuit of varied choreographic material. Clad in denim shirts, jeans and tomato-red sneakers, the cast was ferocious as they marched between the different steps. Subsequent partnering sequences not only introduced a soothing fluidity to the vista, but also explored boundaries as bodies were cantilevered out into space. We saw levels changing on a levelled structure. Airy extensions met grounded feet. And there was a fascinating play on texture as smooth, circular rolling phrases came up against the architectural Brutalism of the staircase. 

From a more conceptual perspective, the presence of an actual gym-like circuit was undeniable. A yoga inspired progression. Stretching postures that you find in a barre class. Lunging stadiums up the steps. And then, bookending the dance was a brilliant embodiment of 1980s step aerobics, but step aerobics on a deliciously heady artistic trip.

I saw Requiem when it first premiered in 2017, and its powerful, emotional spirit abides in 2024’s reimagined version. The word requiem has a number of definitions, one being a work of remembrance. And this is definitely a work of remembrance, composed after the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Florida. Rather than focusing on that night’s horrific violence and hatred, the dance takes on the act of remembering through an emotional movement poem. Its tone is, of course, sober, serious and somber, powerfully honoring the lost and mining the reality of collective grief.

Set in YBGF’s East Gardens, and blending several theatrical devices, Requiem opens with couples leaning on each other; embracing and comforting with tender, tactile intention. And then, the piece takes flight. Arms and wrists pulsate like wings. Limbs suspend in the air before floating to the earth. Billowy arabesque jumps abound. As do supported, lifted positions, like a soul was flying. It’s a dance that you must see if you get the chance. 

Last stop was the Terrace, overlooking the MLK Memorial and waterfall for 2018’s Slipstream (with additional material from 2023). Being in front of a water feature was an ideal site for a work whose title refers to water currents and to assisting forces. Created for the full RAWdance ensemble, Slipstream put together a number of the company’s signature movements: long lines, flying motions, spirals, cantilevered lifts, picturesque vignettes. Though there were some surprise sequences too, including a courtly social dance phrase. The company was costumed in bright white, and on Saturday afternoon, there was an added visual of white seagulls flying around and amid the dancers. At times, the birds came pretty close to the performers, and it is a testament to everyone’s intense focus that no one even remotely flinched! Slipstream’s finale was exuberant, buoyant and full of motion – the cast, so joyful. In fact, any commentary on this performance has to include a shout out to RAWdance’s extraordinary company members. Drawing on a Decade had the group performing three totally unique works with different costuming, different locations, different qualities, different moods. And they nailed it. To say, it was an impressive feat doesn’t quite feel sufficient. But it was.  

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