Expanse, regality and largesse filled my senses as I walked into San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on Friday evening. Overlooking the city from the swanky Nob Hill District, the historic structure marvels with massive stone columns, stained glass windows, elaborate woodcarvings and wall murals. For the third year in a row, the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival, under the direction of Founder James Tobin, has returned to Grace Cathedral, planting its one-night choreographic program in this glorious architectural container.
With its mobile, immersive format, the SF Movement Arts Festival encourages decision-making, engagement and curiosity on the part of the viewer. It places pockets of simultaneous dance performance (referred to as Stations of the Movement) around the Cathedral, most named for their location in the church, like Station of the Main Altar, Station of the AIDS Memorial Chapel or Station of the Corridor. Each attendee traverses the space in their own time and on their own trajectory, taking in as many performances as they wish. If something isn’t speaking to you, you are free to move on; if something resonates, you can choose to stay with it, and maybe even return to it later. It’s a fun, cool event, where everyone, whether a dance enthusiast or not, can encounter a wide swath of choreography and performance in an unexpected environment.
2018’s edition of the festival boasted fourteen stations where over two hundred artists performed fifty-five different pieces. And with respect to its participants, the Festival is committed to welcoming a range of performing experience, from new faces to seasoned veterans, students (it seemed there were more this year) to professionals. Certainly an ambitious vision with many moving parts, all unfolding in this majestic space to a sold-out crowd – ‘vastness’ was clearly a thematic thread. Yet, at the same time, surprising moments of intimacy permeated the event. Here’s what I experienced as I journeyed through this year’s festival..
At the Station of the Movement Behind the Main Altar, Classical Chinese dancer Lucy Chen entered the space costumed in jeweled yellow and a long ombré pink scarf that trailed onto the floor. Delicate grace and intense specificity converged as she cycled through her first arm series, her wrists, fingers and elbows sculpting defined and ornate positions in the air. Then she began swirling and whipping the long ribbon-like scarf with that same rigor and attention, almost as if its two ends were extensions of her arms. The vignette concluded as Chen quickly spun in one spot, over and over again, while simultaneously maneuvering the scarf around her – like a funnel of color and energy.
Prior to Bonnie Crotzer’s performance at the Station of the Commanding Labyrinth near the Cathedral’s front entrance, it was announced that the piece was about healing. That spirit was clearly present in the brief, but powerful contemporary solo. Palms gestured upward, in a posture of both acceptance and pleading. Hands cradled the head in comfort; long, flexible extensions reached away from the self, outward into space. Her curved arms suggested the wings of a bird, soaring in freedom. Crotzer gave a deeply emotive performance, to be sure, but one must mention that she did so with incredible technical acumen.
Currently an artist with AXIS Dance Company, Lani Dickinson featured her own choreography at the Station of the Red Stone Sculpture. As she walked into the small performance area, staccato impulses rippled through her body. Quickly she was pulled downward like a magnet, and that groundedness would inform the remainder of the solo. Whether standing, inverted, or in the many floorwork phrases, Dickinson seemed energized and stirred by the power of the earth, having begot an enduring connection.
A familiar face in San Francisco’s contemporary dance scene, Hien Huynh brought a sequence of extremes to Station of the Glass Doors. Individual isolations met with huge full-body flips; stylized choreography with pedestrian walking; inward focus with direct audience connection. So many choreographic genres influence his choreography: contemporary, of course, but elements of street dance and martial arts are also so present. And underscoring every second is Huynh’s hypnotic movement style – smooth, legato, calm and connected, yet intense and potent at the same time.
The logistics at each Station of the Movement went off without a hitch, which, with that many performers and works, is an astonishing feat. But a few general production issues did arise over the course of the evening. The crowd for the one-night festival was pretty large, which led to some congested bottlenecks, to the point that at times, some of the stations were not accessible. And there were occasional noise bleeds – not from the audience, but from other performances. Not all, but some of the choreographic works had musical accompaniment or included spoken text, and in the Cathedral’s main cavernous space, that sound really traveled. So, you could be watching a dance that was intended to be in silence and it inadvertently would be scored by another performer’s music.
After the festival, I was struck by how such an event brings thoughts of abundance and curation together. With so much choreography and performance happening at the various stations at the same time, it wasn’t possible to catch everything. The performance works that I saw really only scratched the surface of what the SF Movement Arts Festival had to offer. In today’s climate, we are so used to accessing content whenever we want, so it’s easy to come away from an evening like this wondering ‘what did I miss’ rather than considering ‘what did I see’. Perhaps the festival is also challenging its audience to embrace the rarity and specialness of spontaneous curation in the midst of significant abundance.