Dancer, Healer, Shape-shifter: Sara Shelton Mann in Keith Hennessy’s Sara (the smuggler) | By Marie Tollon

A large aqua green drape splits the stage at a diagonal, from floor to ceiling. Its color is reminiscent of seas and skies, worlds to travel through. There’s a wooden kitchen table, and the dark Marley floor licks up the sidewall upstage right, creating a black board 7 feet high above the floor. The stage calls to mind an attic, hastily divided by a homemade curtain, veiling potential stories and objects, meant to be revealed or left in a state of permanent and secretive abandonment. Since so much of Keith Hennessy’s Sara (the smuggler) is about history, memory and disclosure, its setting is perfectly adequate.

Sara Shelton Mann in "Sara (the smuggler)" Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara Shelton Mann in
“Sara (the smuggler)”
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In anticipation of the last of the three sold-out performance evenings, a sense of urgency and excitement can be traced through the audience. In the intimate setting, friends hug and talk, latecomers squeeze against others and find a seat on the floor. The room at CounterPulse is packed to the hilt.

Sara Shelton Mann appears with a cutting presence, wearing casual black slacks, white jogging sneakers, her head and face shrouded by a golden headscarf that runs to her mid torso. She walks to the black board, white chalk in hand, and furiously scrawls notes, phrases and symbols. The hand and wrist movements are quick, frenzied, as if dictated by some external power source that she has tapped into.

Hennessy had mentioned including solos from Contraband’s repertoire in Sara (the smuggler). Since I didn’t see the company perform in the 80s and 90s and only know brief excerpts of the work from video, I can’t tell which moments are revisited from older works. Yet many sections of the evening-long work, such as the opening, convey the feeling of the world Contraband is known for having created: mystical, performative, inclusive.

Whether Shelton Mann is revisiting this first scene from a previous performance or not, the beginning of the piece can be read as a metaphor for choreography, the writing of bodies in space. It also announces the first question the performer addresses with the audience: “What is choreography?” She goes on to propose some answers, still in the form of questions: “Is it going from point A to point B with intention, tension and desire?” In retrospect, the initial question seems to linger as the backbone of the piece, like something left in an attic: hidden, yet pervasive. It is a reminder that artists, like philosophers, can spend a life digging deeper to answer a single question, each time bringing new layers of their art form to light.

Sara Shelton Mann Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara Shelton Mann
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Since the board on which Shelton Mann is writing is on the sidewall, it is hard to decipher what she is writing or drawing. In this culture of “full disclosure,” where so much unedited information is shared and flung in your face, it is a relief for an image to be allowed to incubate in its mystery. Sara (the smuggler) artfully contrasts such scenes with moments of full transparency, both in form and content. Hennessy makes several appearances on stage, to ask Shelton Mann a question, or add a prop for her to use. Discrete, his interventions are moving, as the trust and friendship between the two artists are apparent. Later on, the drape is brought down, revealing composer Norman Rutherford in the background. Shelton Mann also shares intimate, and traumatic, personal stories of growing up in the South, of her life in New York in the sixties and her journey to the Bay Area. She also announces her performance fee ($3,000), thereby exposing the financial transactions that are involved in the making of performances, information about which viewers are rarely informed. Shelton Mann reveals that this money will help pay for a hip injection. “Keith cried,” is all she says following the disclosure of her fee, and the silence that follows that statement is heavy. Here she also reveals the socio-economical realities of the dancer’s life: it is hard to make a living dancing, health insurance is rarely included in a dancer’s contract, and the dancer, whose body is prone to injuries, learns to live with pain, waiting for the next chunk of income to address health issues.

Sara (the smuggler) is an ode to Shelton Mann, her curiosity, her formidable strength and her irreverent spirit, in the many forms it manifests. There’s Sara, the wild child, whose appetite for life gets her in trouble in the stern, conservative family that adopted her after she lost her parents at a young age. There’s Sara the dancer, who recalls the support of her first dance teacher that went far beyond the dance studio; there’s Sara the choreographer, who shares her dreams and desires when founding Contraband. There’s Sara the teacher, who invites audience members to get up, move around, lift their arms, thereby leading a momentary class. There’s Sara the healer who gives a ‘clearing’ to a volunteer who has his right foot in a cast. Hands fluttering like birds on his arms and legs, she ‘removes knots’ from his body with loud exhalations and sounds, interrupting her talk to mention the left leg: “This one is doing all the work! I know how that feels.” The volunteer has a huge smile on his face. Sara the possessed: lying down and humming, muttering feverishly, occasionally springing upright to spit off to her side, before returning to her prone position with her spine undulating while her wrists perform a dance of the wild. Like a tapestry composed of pieces masterfully sewn together, Sara (the smuggler) succeeds in exposing the many facets of Shelton Mann’s identity in a seamless way.

Sara Shelton Mann Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara Shelton Mann
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

At the outset of this tour de force, Shelton Mann breaks the wooden table in half with a hatchet, momentarily channeling Indian Goddess Shiva, the destroyer and transformer. What does she –and Hennessy- manage to destroy and transform through this work? Maybe unintentionally on the part of its maker, the piece succeeds in undermining common beliefs that still pervade the dance/performance world: that the young and athletic body is the only one adept enough to perform or be looked at; that the spiritual has no place on stage; that choreography needs to be “dance-y.”

With flawless transitions, Hennessy also succeeds in transforming a talking solo into a work that transcends its subject: Shelton Mann’s personal memories offer a window into larger pieces of American history, such as vivid images of a South devoured by racial tensions and gripped by the looming presence of the Ku Klux Klan. The piece also provides material for gender and socio-economical studies: Shelton Mann’s upbringing story exemplifies what was generally expected of women in poor, religious communities in the fifties. It also conveys a moment of dance history: the making of work with Alwin Nikolais in New York, the dreams underlying the founding of Contraband, its influence on the Bay Area’s artistic landscape.

At one moment during the show, as Shelton is reflecting on Contraband’s work, she mentions realizing then that “she was creating something much bigger than [herself].” With Sara (the smuggler), Hennessy and Shelton Mann accomplish that: they create a powerful and moving piece, one that resonates beyond genres, traditions and autobiography.





Sharing the Legacy of a Dance Collection | By Marie Tollon

340 Bryant Street Studios, TwinSpace, The Goodman Building are just a few of the names to add to the running list of art spaces that have been forced to close in the past few years in the Bay Area. Sadly, it keeps lengthening, as each week seems to bring the news of another organization that has lost its lease. Naming these places fails to capture their liveliness, their contribution to the larger cultural fabric of the Bay Area, nor the individual and collective trajectories of the artists who made them thrive. With San Francisco’s “hyper-gentrification” and the closure of so many art spaces, how many stories are being aborted? How much is the cultural wealth of the city being stifled by voracious and massive financial transactions?

Photographs displayed on the wall at 66 Sanchez Photo by Priscilla Murray

Photographs displayed on the wall
at 66 Sanchez
Photo by Priscilla Murray

In most cases, the stories behind those arts organizations live solely through memory and the artists’ body, as Jess Curtis’s The Dance That Documents Itself demonstrated last fall at CounterPulse, and which selections will be presented at Walking Distance in June. But how else can we experience those stories and the memories that have survived?

In rare cases, objects are left behind, becoming the sole relics of moments in time that constitute the history of a place and are part of a community’s collective heritage. Such is the case with the 66 Sanchez Collection, partly on view in the lobby of ODC Theater until May 12. The collection belonged to the owner of 66 Sanchez, Gerald Arpino, co-founder of the Joffrey Ballet and its Artistic Director from 1988 to 2007. It includes posters, photographs, prints, books, sculptures, records, playbills, letters and personal effects that belonged to Arpino and his long-time partner and choreographic assistant James Howell.

Known as “Mr. A,” he bought the property at 64/66 Sanchez Street in the mid-1970s, soon after Howell left the Joffrey Ballet and moved to San Francisco to study physical therapy. Also a musical assistant and photographer, Howell taught class in the studio built at 66 Sanchez. After Howell’s death from AIDS complications in 1982, 66 Sanchez housed dancers and artists who kept the space alive, while Mr. A lived in his main residence in Chicago. He visited the property annually “to rest, stay in touch with friends and enjoy the marvels of the meticulously placed artifacts that lined the walls of the home’s kitchen, living room, staircases, dance studio and back porch,” Carlos Venturo, ODC School Registrar and one of the last residents, explains. “Through Mr. A’s generosity, professional dance artists lived in the house, and managed the dance studio activities while dancing and creating work in a variety of Bay Area dance companies.”

When Mr. A passed away in 2008, the house was put up for sale by his trust, its residents forced to leave and its artistic activities to cease. Two of the house’s last residents, Venturo and ODC/Dance Company Manager Joseph Copley, inherited the 66 Sanchez Collection. I sat down with them last week to talk about the collection and life at 66 Sanchez.

Marie Tollon: How did you come to live at 66 Sanchez?

Carlos Venturo: After dancing in Colorado for 5 years, I returned to San Francisco. A friend of mine lived at 66 Sanchez and invited me to stay with him. A few months later, a room opened up and I became one of the regulars – from 2001 to 2011. I started to take charge of the studio, book events, do maintenance. So I became very involved with the life of the house.

Joseph Copley: I moved in much later, as Carlos’ partner. When Carlos took over managing the activities of the studio, it became a very busy yoga center. RAWdance started the Concept series there; Amy Seiwert made a lot of ballet there; local drag performers would rehearse there – a lot of the Trannyshack members – Heklina, Peaches [Christ]- it became a really popular space. It had beautiful blond marley, and 8 gigantic skylights.

Inside 66 Sanchez Photo by Priscilla Murray

Inside 66 Sanchez
Photo by Priscilla Murray

MT: Was the collection on display?

CV: The house was covered with posters, except in the studio.

JC: You couldn’t tell which color the walls were!

MT: What was Gerald Arpino’s relationship to the house?

CV: When James Howell died, he never wanted to sell the house. It was a place for him to get away. There are many Joffrey connections here in the Bay Area. So he had lots of friends to visit. He would socialize and go to the ballet, visit the dancers. Sometimes he would get up on stage and give them notes! He was a very eccentric person. He was very entertaining and incredibly generous. He was mostly gone: at least 11 months of the year, it was just us. There was a bank account where we deposited all the payments, and rents, that sustained the place. When we were living there, the studio was sustaining itself. It was a way for us to demonstrate our gratefulness for having this place that we thought would last forever but was suddenly gone.

JC: Going back to the 70s and 80s, the Joffrey had a strong connection to San Francisco. They had seasons at the Opera House. [Gerald Arpino] would use the studio to make pieces. The Joffrey would rehearse there. We have a document of Mayor Diane Feinstein declaring “Gerald Arpino Day” in San Francisco!

MT: How did you inherit this collection?

CV: It was kind of a curse and a blessing, because we were the ones who happened to be there when [Gerald Arpino] died. His niece inherited everything. Little by little, she started to organize the estate. It took her a year to contact us. For a year after he died, we knew nothing. Nobody called us. The people we tried to contact suddenly didn’t work at the Joffrey anymore or we couldn’t reach them. For a year, we lived in a limbo, not knowing what was going to happen. First they sent a family member to come and take a look at the house. From that visit, it was another year until we received the visit of a real estate agent, who was very aggressive. That was 2010. From 2010, it took a year until we had to leave. Ultimately there was a family who was interested and ended up buying it. They were very well intentioned but it is impossible to be in good terms with the people who are going to kick you out. So we hired a lawyer who took over all the communication.

MT: What was the reaction in the dance community?

JC: There was an amazing outpour of support. When we heard from Mr. Arpino’s family, I started reaching out to people asking that they write a letter in support of keeping this property. I tried to have it registered as a national landmark. Everybody stepped up: Wayne Hazzard, Margie Jenkins, David Gordon who had visited us, Amy Seiwert, RAWdance, all the yoga teachers… We had a big fundraiser party to help with the cost of the move and everybody came and was very generous.

CV: Mr. Arpino’s niece never came to visit the place. She said that it was probably more valuable to us than to her, and probably [consisted of] copies of things that the family already had. By the time they got to us, they had to sort his Chicago’s property. It was probably more work than they had ever anticipated. She said that if we left everything, it would become the property of the new owners or we could take it if we wanted. We started the process of cleaning and discovering things we didn’t know were there. It was a massive endeavor. I stopped working and it became my full time job for 6 months.

JC: The entire third story of the house was an attic full of dance-related things. Sorting through things gave us the opportunity to look at each piece individually. In the house they were so cramped together that you took them in as a whole. To look at each of them one at a time and take the time to catalogue was really special.

The library at 66 Sanchez  Photo by Priscilla Murray

The library at 66 Sanchez
Photo by Priscilla Murray

MT: Where do you keep the collection?

JC: We have a 10 by 10 [foot] storage space that is totally full. When this was first happening, we reached out to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Performance and Design, the Dance Heritage Collection, everyone we could think of. And while everyone thought it was a fascinating story, nobody had the means and resources to move and archive the collection. They told us to hold on to it. But we don’t really have the resources to clean, archive and store it, so the problem is still there! The good news is that James Howell was very meticulous and the back of every picture has who did the lighting, who was dancing, on what stage, the name of the piece, what year… But when it comes to the slides, we have so many negatives, organized by date and place.

CV: It’s sad and expensive to see them in storage. It’s nice to give them light and share them with people who have no idea. We’ve had some appraisers come in. They told us that the value is in the collection itself. They have quoted us $30,000 to do the work of archiving all the pieces. Everything that we’ve found along the search was fascinating: autographed photographs, books that were given to them.

JC: A beautiful note that Mr. Arpino passed to James Howell, especially when he was sick, saying “get well soon”. When you look through books, you find these little notes.

MT: Has there been any interest from the Joffrey ballet?

CV: It became interesting to me to keep the collection here, in the West. It’s so unique that something from the East made it here in this shape. Part of the value is that it is here.

JC: The Joffrey School did show some interest but just in some photographs that were school related. So once again we come up against this problem of people who just want a little bit but we are trying to keep the collection as a whole. There are some photographs that are unique in that they are well documented. I remember some visitors coming and wanting to put Mr. A’s ballet back and the photographs in our house are the only documentation of an old ballet.

CV: Some dancers who were in the Joffrey want to take a piece with them. But it’s not the vision that I see for this collection of having a history that should belong to everybody.

JC: When [the collection] was in the house, everyone had access to it. Friends borrowed books; students at St Mary used the library for their research paper. Now, not intentionally, we have locked it away from everybody. That doesn’t feel right.

In addition to the lobby gallery open to the public, more pieces from the 66 Sanchez Collection will be shared during ODC Theater’s annual Indulge event for one night only on May 12, 2015.




Create a free website or blog at