FACT/SF Summer Dance Festival including works by Simpson/Stulberg, Fog Beast and Joy Davis – San Francisco

Liane Burns and Charles Slender-White of FACT/SF in June 2017 picture.<br />© Robbie Sweeny. (Click image for larger version)
Liane Burns and Charles Slender-White of FACT/SF in June 2017 picture.
© Robbie Sweeny. (Click image for larger version)

FACT/SF Summer Dance Festival
Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations: Still Life No. 7 (excerpts)
Fog Beast: Manimal Suite
Joy Davis: NGC 3603 (Consider The Star no. 3)
FACT/SF: Platform (excerpts)

San Francisco, Joe Goode Annex
16 August 2018

The San Francisco dance festival game has a lot of players. Gazing around the table, one notices the permanent fixtures (like ODC/Dance’s Walking Distance Dance Festival and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival), the newer additions (like Yerba Buena Gardens’ ChoreoFest and San Francisco Movement Arts Festival) and the empty spaces open for those still en route. On Thursday, FACT/SF pulled a chair up to the table with their first ever Summer Dance Festival, curated by Artistic Director Charles Slender-White. Like most festivals, this new endeavor brings different choreographic voices together – the inaugural edition welcoming Boston-based Joy Davis and the Bay Area’s Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations, Fog Beast and of course, FACT/SF. But this festival has a unique quality too. “While all four groups are certainly interested in experimentation and committed to compositional rigor, this festival is not topically specific, there is no unifying theme across the pieces,” shared Slender-White, “I think it’s fair to say that we are all working in the contemporary dance genre, but we are in very different lanes.” The evening definitely delivered a broad swath of dance performance – a very strong debut and a great addition to the SF dance festival circuit.

When it comes to unison performance, there may be no better Bay Area team than Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations. Each time I see Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg in performance, I’m completely blown away by their synchronicity. Whether quick sequences of delicate, tiny movements, or large expansive phrases, their unison is a picture of precision and exactitude. And they also manage to avoid the contained, rigid or stuffy quality that extreme unison can sometimes give off. Once again, they knocked it out of the park with excerpts from Still Life No. 7, which had its premiere in January.

Each dance in Simpson/Stulberg’s Still Life series (I’ve seen 1, 4, and 6) is a choreographic/movement response to a different piece of visual art. No. 7 looks to John Frederick Peto’s Job Lot Cheap, an 1892 painting that invites the viewer to contemplate a wooden cabinet shelf, where subdued colors, weathered signs and a collection of slanted, strewn books and journals reside. Subtle hues of olive, plum and muted teal (costume design by Stulberg) echoed the painting’s palette – just as the steps and movement mirrored its objects. The slanted angles of the books were everywhere in the dance. Feet and torsos tilted to one side than the other; arms traced diagonal pathways away from the body. Simpson and Stulberg pitched towards each other, their solar plexuses connecting like the spines of two books. Back to back, they leaned against one another, this time, their shoulders acting as the point of contact. Even the painting’s open cabinet door was hinted at through the hinging of joints and limbs. While much of the dance was performed in silence (making the unison choreography the more impressive), vocalizations, text and song were also peppered throughout. One sequence found the pair reciting a lengthy list of seemingly random words, perhaps referencing the randomness depicted in Peto’s work. Exquisite physical and verbal unison – Still Life No. 7 was a great start to the festival. Though I do think with works that reference visual art, it’s important to mention context. I had studied the painting ahead of the performance and I wonder how my watching lens would have been different without that familiarity.

Typically, at a dance performance, you experience the piece first and then the post-show Q&A. In the world premiere of Manimal Suite, Fog Beast (the artistic partnership of Melecio Estrella and Andrew Ward) flipped the order. And in doing so, revealed the whirling mass of ideas and expectations that surround the creation of some contemporary work. Using a dance theater brew of humor, gesture and melodrama, Manimal’s opening scene found Estrella, Ward and musical collaborator Ben Juodvalkis in a dramatized post-performance dialogue. In total deadpan, they unpacked the need for creative endeavors to be profound, mindful and full of significant thoughts. They talked about how working in multiple disciplines was a necessity; as was being cognizant to the influence of social media. It was a hilarious send-up on the Q&A format that the audience responded to with knowing laughs. But as Manimal shifted to a choreographic duet, the light comedy morphed to a weightier mood. Swirling relentlessly around the stage, Estrella and Ward searched for where, when and how to center their physical ideas. They attempted to navigate the layers and layers of creative nomenclature; limbs billowing through the air trying to carve a pathway. Would they find their way out? Stay tuned – the piece has its full-length premiere in 2019.

One of the highlights of the new festival was the chance to see Joy Davis perform. She is riveting, someone who commands the space, is enviably articulate (physically and verbally) and can entrance her audience with a grand, elastic extension or the subtle raising of an eyebrow. Unfortunately, the piece that Davis premiered at the festival was not as engaging. Titled NGC 3603 (Consider The Star no. 3), the solo just had too much going on. There were choreographic sequences, gestural cycles and a series of dramatic facial expressions. There was stillness, an astronomy/astrophysics monologue and hard rock air drumming to the Smashing Pumpkins. At one point, a cat mask made its way into the scene and in the final moments of the piece, Davis made a complete costume change. If there was a throughline connecting all of these theatrical elements, I couldn’t find it. And so, NGC 3603 felt somewhat disjointed and compartmentalized. But Davis’ luminosity on stage was undeniable; I hope Bay Area audiences get more chances to see her in performance.

With its pure, full-throttle physicality, excerpts from FACT/SF’s Platform (2017), co-created and performed by Liane Burns and Slender-White, brought the festival to its close. From start to finish, Platform moves and builds, the intensity never letting up. Each movement phrase was filled with striking steps and postures. Arms shot out from the shoulder, piercing the air; feet darted forward, leaping and covering space; the spine slid up and down in grand plié. Framing all of this action were a number of internal conversations. Moving in and out of unison, there was definitely an ongoing conversation between the two dancers. And when certain movements happened in conjunction with or in opposition to the music, the conversation between the choreography and the score was apparent. But it was the third conversation I found to be the most powerful – the conversation between the phrase material and the space. Many of the choreographic phrases were repeated but explored at different facings. What happens when you change that visual perspective? What do you discover when the back of the room is treated as the front? What if only one dancer changes their facing? This excerpt from Platform didn’t seek to provide answers, and that’s ok. This is contemporary performance, where asking structural/formal questions feels a far more interesting exercise than wrapping things up in a tidy bow.

About the author

Heather Desaulniers

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland, California. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly and a frequent contributor to several dance-focused publications. Website:

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