Tuesday, July 3, 2007

at the crossroads

I’m not a regular to the Ethnic Dance Festival—for years it has had to compete with the school play, the orchestral recital, a birthday celebration or the annual end-of-the-school-year getaway booked 12 months in advance.

But kids grow, the school schedule changes, and now that the children in question are teenagers, the getaway no longer seems as tantalizing as it once did. Life evolves. Cultures do too.

That, at its heart, is the essence and genius of the Ethnic Dance Festival, conceived in 1978 by the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund as the first multicultural, city-sponsored dance festival in the country: culture evolves. The founders may not have had their philosophy entirely sorted at the outset, and in the 80s the Festival sometimes threatened to adopt the milquetoast tone of “It’s A Small World, After All”. But it was only a matter of years before the wisdom of anthropologists and the knowledge of dance preservationists joined with the ethnic pride and physical joy of local community dance troupes to fashion a festival with cultural sophistication as well as down-home fun. Today, it is nearly as much a part of San Francisco’s psyche as Bay to Breakers or Halloween in the Castro

This year I made it to Program 2 (out of three programs) and I was reminded how valuable and often spellbinding the Festival is. If you don’t believe that the Bay Area is both a crossroads and repository for dance traditions from around the globe, glance at the three-week lineup. You’ll quickly know better.

Saturday’s program was a seamlessly executed wave of dance that ran the gamut from the sublime (Hearan Chung) to the dutiful (Kantuta, Ballet Folklorico de Bolivia) to the improbably adept (Barbary Coast Cloggers). Nothing stays long on stage, so if your taste is threatened or you don’t like the sight of nimble beer bellies jiggling above clacking feet, all you need do is take a cat nap and in 10 minutes, max, the next act is up. And if “act” seems like a misplaced term here, it isn’t. The Festival has nurtured a form that straddles vaudeville’s parade of skits and entertainments and the more sober procession of high art. It’s a style that has breathed light-heartedness into the art scene even as it insists on the highest production values.

I won’t catalog the entire gamut from the Festival’s second Saturday. The preponderance of it was good, largely convincing, and when it wasn’t, the dances were nevertheless interesting, and occasionally that was thanks to the very ways in which they fell short.

For instance, I had difficulty with “Oya: The Female Warrior” by the Afro-Cuban Arenas Dance Company but was oddly grateful for the internal conversation it spurred. The movement in the dance is drawn from the mystical Orisha tradition originating in Nigeria and brought to Cuba by African slaves. It’s a dance style that is as demanding as it is sensuous. It ripples and athletically bounds, often at the same time, and requires a sinuous authority to shape the body into both the dancer and the danced. The steps are a means to transformation, not the end point.

To their credit, the troupe gave it their all, and the central dancer in a rainbow-hued skirt danced up a minor dust storm. But they as a group they never captured the mysterious wonder of dance as mystical ritual. Part of it had to do with physical limitations--several performers had tight or unruly shoulders and spines that trapped the action in the upper body. These dancers either under- or over-performed the steps with an almost earnest sense of industry. (As a coping mechanism, this struck me as quintessentially American.)

But more centrally, the question arose: how do American dancers tackle dance that is fundamentally animist? Few among us access nature’s spirit world with any fluency; most among us don’t even believe such a world exists. Can dancers from our culture be taught to embody spirit messengers from the realm of tornados, thunder and lightening? Or are the religious dimensions of the steps doomed? And If the mystical dimension leaks away from the dance, is it still Afro-Cuban dance, or is it truer to call it Afro-Cuban-American dance? So then, if the Orisha soul fades, can American dancers fill those Orisha steps with some new spirit? The ferocity of global warming, perhaps? The anger of distant war?

Call me a degraded purist, but I’m a sucker for the dances at either end of the pole—the happy fifth cousin to the original that has burrowed back into the form from our place of louche secularism and found something holy and hot, or the sublime gem of a still living tradition. The fifth cousin was Hui Tama Nui’s “Nui, The Tree of Life.” The gem was Hearan Chung’s “Shin Kai Deh Shin Mu.”

The young women of Hui Tama Nui, short, tall, rail-thin or undulantly chubby, rotated their hips and ferociously rocked their pelvises back and forth below their coconut-cup bras and raffia skirts with a combined pride in their bodies and in their mastery of movement. They also danced their group line dance with a sensual frankness heartening for any feminist wondering if women really can successfully take back eros from the seedy maw of the porn industry (and soft-porn advertising), and endow it with Dionysian glory. These performers can and did, and the men in the troupe celebrated right alongside them. The women pulled it off with what struck me as a post-post-modern sensibility—they seemed to know they were re-inhabiting Polynesian dance, but they did so without an ounce of vamping, self-consciousness or apology. Their awareness played on their faces, and they cannily revealed that, as young women, they were navigating the difficult shoals of sexuality, power and joy by drawing on ancestral tradition. Not only were they finding their way but they were celebrating en route. Quite an accomplishment in the age of Paris and Brittany.

I first met Chung for an interview in her South Bay apartment some years ago, and although she could only mark her movements that day, her marrow-deep mastery of Korean dance showed in every bend of the knee, lift of the wrist and bow of the head. Her musicality was impeccable, and she decoded some of the mysteries of Korean dance rhythms and the importance of the breath to the movement arc and courtly, 4/4 meter. Not even her jeans and tee shirt or her extreme modesty diminished the impact of her artistry or could hide her standing in Korea as a "holder of important invisible properties". Seeing her on stage some weeks later deepened the impression: Chung is a sublime artist, like gold in a fast stream.

For Program 2 she performed “Shin Kai Deh Shin Mu,” a shamanistic dance that draws on ancient Korean practices and contemporary shamanist, or muist, rites. Historically, shamans in Korea have been women, called mudang, and they are the ones who mediate between realms and assist the dying on their journey into the world of souls. According to the program notes, every aspect of Chung’s solo was rife with symbolism, from her layered white robe, her headdress, the white cloth she unfurled (the path of the soul) to the paper wands with their wavey tresses that represented money to abet the spirit’s passage. When she shook those wands she was keeping the devil at bay.

While few of us in the audience could say precisely what the symbolic import of each element was, Chung plunged us exquisitely and quietly into another realm where the air, the earth and the light seemed filled with gnosis. She flicked her sleeves, threw her hands up then let them descend slowly, eyes cast down, the material and immaterial now magically bound. She conjured, then rested, dashed then pulled herself up. The rising and falling, the fast moves and rests were acts that offered access to another world, like the magic door Ofelia draws and penetrates in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” And even if we didn’t know precisely what that world was or we deny other realms even exist, Chung made us believers in the power of dance to communicate what words alone can’t say.

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