Dance on The Go: San Francisco Trolley Dances | By Marie Tollon

Born from the post modern and experimental dance movements from the 1960s and 1970s, site-specific choreography has taken dance outside of the theater, transforming rooftops, streets, galleries, abandoned factories, apartments and all possible places into temporary performance spaces.

San Francisco Trolley Dances 2015 Marlie Couto of The Foundry Photo by Andy Mogg

San Francisco Trolley Dances 2015
Marlie Couto of The Foundry
Photo by Andy Mogg

As site-specific dances transform the space they evolve in, they also alter the relationship between audience and artwork. They often present viewers with a busier visual and sonic field than proscenium stages and black box theaters do. When a performance takes place outside, there are pedestrians to take into account besides the artwork, and their trajectory – a sort of non-voluntary choreography- is somehow made more noticeable next to the performers’ movement score. There are the unexpected car horns and sirens of ambulances; there are snippets of a conversation held loudly on cell phones by passers-by potentially oblivious to the art unfolding nearby. All these environmental elements tend to add layers and transform the performance experience.

Site-specific dances also activate the texture, volume, size and details of a space in ways that make them stand out and become more noticeable. You may not have notice the faded yellow mural on that building until an aerial dance company uses it as its stage.

The capacity of site-specific dance to increase our awareness of a specific environment is an aspect that Bay Area choreographer Kim Epifano is sensitive too. She is also deeply committed to the potential for this kind of work to bring people together. In 2004, Epifano created the San Francisco Trolley Dances (SFTD), which bring dance to different neighborhoods that are connected by trolley buses. In anticipation of the upcoming SFTD, Epifano and I talked over the phone last week.

Marie Tollon: What prompted the beginning of SFTD in 2004?

Kim Epifano: Trolley Dances originated in San Diego with Jean Isaacs, who was inspired by going on the train system in Germany to see art. She thought that San Diego had a great train system and started Trolley Dances there five years before we started in San Francisco. I thought: “We are the city of the street cars and trolleys, we have the F line, the Museum on Wheels!” I talked to Jean and told her I would like to start San Francisco Trolley Dances and make it into our own idea. She agreed to trademark the name and I pay her a fee to use it. SFTD is different than the San Diego Trolley Dances because theirs is ticketed whereas ours is free. Jean also tends to stay more within the modern dance tradition and I like to mix modern dance, post modern dance with other genres.

First, I had to get a hold of MUNI. They first thought: “What is this lady talking about?” Now they really respect and love the program and they have been a great partner. There are a lot of people involved – community centers, permit people…- everybody is trying to make it happen! The people I work with are fantastic.

MT: How do you choose the sites?

KE: We’ve been all over the city now, since it got too big to stay on the F line. This is our third time on the T line. I wanted to go back to a line where we hadn’t been in a while. When I go back to a line, I’ll do a different section. This time, we are going the furthest out on the T.

You don’t just plop yourself into a place and expect people are going to want you there. You are coming into their world. So I walk the neighborhood, meet people, think about whom I have worked with before. That takes a long time.

For 2015 I first secured the Bayview/Linda Brooks-Burton Library. I was there to do something else and wanted to see the new library they rebuilt. There is this beautiful atrium inside the building, and a walkway with two trees with Adinkra symbols from West Africa. I was inspired to do a piece there as sometimes places call me to “make a dance here.”

People at the Bay View Boat Club were open to share their beautiful space with us on the Bay. Once I knew I could use their site, I decided to start there. I worked with Mission Bay Park and with the police station at the First Responders Plaza. I also talked to the woman at Bayview Opera House. The Opera House is under construction, so we went to Mendell Plaza and that’s where Byb Chanel Bibene and his company Kiandada Dance are going to perform. We are working with them to try to activate the garden. Then the audience will travel to where there is a mural which ODC “Pilot 66” artist Sheena Johnson will perform her piece.

MT: There is a lot of community and network building that goes into planning SFTD. How early do you start planning for the next one?

KE: I’m already starting for 2016. I’ve already decided which line I will be doing.

MT: How do you select the artists?

KE: I don’t think Amy Seiwert has done site-specific work, so I was very excited to shake her process a bit. It’s great to have her in the program because I think she makes wonderful work. I gave her a few options but she really liked the Bay View Boat Club. I thought she could articulate the space in a way that would be very classy and elegant.

Alex Ketley had a piece that is site specific. We thought: “Let’s see what it looks like if we put it at the Mission Bay Commons Park.” I’ve always admired his work.

Zoe [Bender] had applied to Pilot. I had seen her work in the past, and admired it. There is a political and activist through line in her work. I thought it would be interesting for her to do something at the First Responders Plaza.

In the library I decided to do a collaboration with Valerie Gnassounou-Bynoe, who is the chair of department at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. I went to teach and set a piece on her students. Being at the library made me want to share. I feel that is what libraries do: they share a wealth of information. We are communicating by text, email and video about our process and then will have a couple rehearsals planned on site.

Then we have Cielo Vertical Arts at the YMCA Bay View branch. They will present an aerial piece outside on the YMCA big yellow wall. This wall is high and the moment I saw it I thought: “Can we pull this off and get the OK to do aerial work on it?” Not an easy task!

Rachel Furst and Antoine Hunter Photo by Andy Mogg

Rachel Furst and Antoine Hunter
Photo by Andy Mogg

MT: This year, two of ODC “Pilot 66” artists are performing their work in SFTD. Can you talk more about your role in mentoring them?

KE: Kimi [Okada] and Christy [Bolingbroke] approached me about including Pilot artists in SFTD and I took that on. I go to some of their rehearsals; I talk about their choreography, about sight lines, audience flow, sounds, what works and what doesn’t work in the areas they are working in. I have a lot of experience with site-specific [work]. I am not just mentoring about the exact choreography that they are making, but it’s about venturing in the production of a festival, outreach, community organization and collaboration, so there is a lot of ways in which I am mentoring them.

MT: You have been living in the Bay Area for over 30 years. Has SFTD increased your perception of all the changes happening to the city?

KE: When I am walking downtown or Mission Bay right now, I can see all the changes first hand visually because of all the construction. There are now even more homeless people so I get to hear what’s going on for them. When I go into communities, everybody is sort of feeling the same thing with changes happening fast and people moving further out of the city.  This is why places like the Bay View Boat Club that have survived amidst the change is so special. I also discover what is new or re-done and how it makes a positive impact on a neighborhood. So I think I see all sides of it. San Francisco Trolley Dances provides “art for citizens,” connecting neighborhoods and people through art making, free of charge.

For more information about the 12th Annual San Francisco Trolley Dances, visit the Trolley Dances site.

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