It Takes a Village

imagesIt’s fascinating to see how amateur artists are forming the backbone of some of the most ambitious, site-specific cultural happenings in the Bay Area these days.

The Bay Area has a ready source of people who make art simply for the love of it rather than for a living, and who also possess a healthy spirit of experimentation. These qualities greatly facilitate the mounting of large-cast, non-mainstream productions.

Prominent upcoming examples include Lisa Bielawa’s Airfield Broadcast which will involve hundreds of musicians at Crissy Field in the fall, and Helen Paris/Carolyn Wright/Jocelyn Pook’s Out of Water, a performance art work scheduled to take place at the end of June at San Francisco’s Fort Funston Beach involving a large chorus. The casts of these projects are predominantly drawn from the community.

This past weekend, Bob Geary, the director of three singing ensembles — The San Francisco Choral Society, Volti, and The East Bay Piedmont Children’s Choir – collaborated with the Leah Stein Dance Company to stage a production of the Leah Stein-David Lang dance-music piece, Battle Hymns. The show involved a legion of amateur singers drawn from Geary’s choruses.

The setting of Kezar Pavilion (the San Francisco 49ers erstwhile home which resembles a militaristic-looking mess hall) isn’t conducive to good acoustics unfortunately. But visually the work is stunning as a result of the size of the forces involved and the precision of the music and choreography with such a large group.

I didn’t go for David Lang’s music, which lacked the icicle delicacy of the composer’s Pulitzer-winning little match girl passion and seemed even more repetitive in its minimalistic shards of melody and text. (Some of the singers I spoke with after the show said that the piece is extremely tiring and monotonous to sing.)

But the group of 150 or so performers created some arresting patterns in the space and sang with conviction. The execution was almost flawless.

That so many people gravitate towards these artistic community spectacles is gratifying because it shows a level of engagement that goes beyond mere spectatorship. And professional artists like Lang, Geary, Stein, Bielawa, Pook, Wright and Paris seem to be enthusiastic about the idea of bringing non-professiobals into the fold. I am excited to find out how Airfield Broadcast and Out of Water transpire.

Some additional notes about two other events I attended over the weekend which involved a strong community element:

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Residency at Cal Performances: The esteemed New York-based dance ensemble has been coming to the Bay Area since 1968 and has built up a massive local following over the decades. The hordes that attended Friday evening’s performance at Zellerbach Hall whooped and cheered inexhaustibly for the dancers at every turn. They created opportunities to show their enthusiasm in fact. And they never seem to get tired of watching the Aileys perform their signature work, Revelations, which was on the otherwise-diverse program all week. The piece dates back to 1960 and somehow still feels muscular and socially relevant. In line with its Berkeley residency tradition, the company did much more last week than perform seven shows. Company members worked with local teachers, undertook master classes with UC Berkeley students and gave workshops for schoolchildren. But to return to the performance I witnessed on Friday: My favorite piece was the opener, Another Night. This work set to Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia choreographed by Kyle Abraham explores the roots and development of jazz culture. It is the perfect showcase for the rippling physiques of the Ailey dancers and their scorching charisma.

Public Square: Future Soul Edition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: All day on Saturday, top local choreographers and dance teachers including Claudia Anata Hubiak, Ramon Ramos Alayo, David Dorfman, Kim Epifano, Cera Byer and Amara Tabor-Smith offered dance classes to members of the public for 50 cents a piece. 50 cents! The styles on offer ranged from Afro-Cuban modern and modern to hip-hop and roots. No experience necessary. I caught some of Ramon Ramos Alayo’s Afro-Cuban class. What an amazing opportunity. The dance classes were followed that evening with performances by some of the companies whose leaders had taught classes earlier that day, artist discussions and a dance party.  I value the way in which YBCA works hard to create these spiraling, in-depth arts experiences with a strong community engagement angle. They shrink the traditional divide between “professional” and “amateur” creators, inspiring a more focused and engaged audience for the first group and a memorable, pheremone-inducing experience for the second.

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