Top flight

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YEAR IN DANCE If you are a trend spotter, you will have noticed two changes within the local dance ecology that probably will influence how we see dance in the foreseeable future.

First, not only have dancers been foregoing the proscenium theater — after all, there aren’t that many around here — but they’ve also been sidestepping theaters altogether. They find spaces in museums, bars, parks, and streets, even former newspaper offices. Or they perform in studios which become informal community gatherings where audiences, in addition to seeing work, get a sense of participating in something being created. Dancers’ Group and CounterPULSE’s “2nd Sundays,” the RAWDance’s “CONCEPT Series,” and Kunst-Stoff Arts are among the most prominent examples of this.

The second change relates to funding. No need to spell out how dire the financial picture has become for big organizations that have infrastructures to support. But for the small and medium-sized companies, it’s been just about catastrophic. So how to get the cash to put on a show or take advantage of a touring opportunity? In the commercial world it’s called “direct marketing.” Dancers are nothing if not entrepreneurial. They are taking to the internet, asking for small donations and keeping people informed about the progress of the “campaign.”

Trying to rethink the past 12 months of dance viewing is mind-boggling; coming up with a “best-of list” is no less so. Take the following ten as one observer’s bouquet to all the dancers who have enriched our lives in 2011. They are listed chronologically by the date of when they were seen.

In its third program (Feb. 24, War Memorial Opera House), San Francisco Ballet showcased the classical language as infinitely pliable and capable of contemporary expressiveness. Yet Yuri Possokhov and William Forsythe could not have done it more differently. Possokhov’s 2010 small-scaled Classical Symphony — three couples and a corps of eight — seduced with its speed, wit, and exuberance. Forsythe’s 1984 tour de force Artifact Suite challenged a huge ensemble with gale-force attacks, imploding unisons, and ever-changing designs. In this context even Helgi Tomasson’s 1993 Nanna’s Lied looked decent.

Spanning 55 years of work, the Merce Cunningham Company (Feb. 3, Cal Performances/Zellerbach Hall) bid its farewell with three pieces that beautifully showcased the late choreographer’s extraordinary range. Antic Meet (1958) showed him young and clever; in the lyrical Pond Way (1998) we saw Cunningham’s affinity for the natural world, and in Sounddance (1975) the backdrop swallowed his dancers one by one. It was a good-bye from artist who had the guts to pull the curtain on himself.

Zaccho Dance Theatre‘s The Monkey and the Devil (April 17, Novellus Theater) didn’t pull any punches about the persistence of racism. A tough show to watch, it was low on “entertainment” values but chock-full of convincingly painful confrontations in which two couples, one white, one black, mirrored each others’ anguish and anger.

In 1979, audiences were taken aback by Lucinda ChildsDance (April 28, San Francisco Performances/Novellus Theater) which incorporated a film by Sol LeWitt and a score by Philip Glass. Its rigor, aesthetic purity, and pedestrian vocabulary alienated many. Yet Dance is a gorgeous piece of choreographic architecture. How fun it was to watch, in 2011, dancers doing the exact same steps so differently as those caught on the film more than 30 years ago.

The Polish Teatr Zar‘s stunningly original and impeccably realized The Gospels of Childhood Triptych, (May 25, St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church and Potrero Hill Neighborhood House) is one of the reasons that the San Francisco International Arts Festival has to exist. With its ritualistic pacing and its fusion of music, movement, and language (“Zar” means “funeral song”), Gospels attempted to suggest something approaching the divine and the restrictions of the self.

Pooling resources is today’s mantra. But few go to the depth of intellectual and emotional sharing that Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton do. They co-choreographed the exhilarating The Experience of Flight in Dreams (June 9, ODC Theater) and came up with a soloists-ensemble format rarely seen in modern dance. To have such a unified and well-realized perspective from such different artists was thrilling.

Science, or writers such Maxine Hong Kingston or Gary Snyder, often inspire Kathryn Roszak‘s work. The reprise of the fine Pensive Spring (Sept. 25, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley), based on the works by Emily Dickinson, proved to be a thoroughly intelligent and finely crafted dance theater piece that illuminated a great creative mind through music, dance, and language.

AXIS Dance Company (Oct. 7, Malonga Casquelourd Theater) commissioned the Australian choreographer Marc Brew to give the company its first story-ballet. Taking a bow to dance history and soap operas, Brew’s slyly voyeuristic Full of Words moved through knotted entanglements with insight, humor, and compassion. It was a fine vehicle for the company and should be around for a long time.

José Limón is a giant of early modern dance, yet few practitioners have ever seen his work live. So for tiny San Jose’s sjDANCEco (Oct. 15, California Theatre, San Jose) to attempt Missa Brevis, a major Limon choreography, just about amounted to hubris. But former Limón dancer and sjDANCEco’s artistic director, Gary Masters, scoured the community and trained the dancers — some of them college and high school students — in the requisite combination of strength and restraint. The performance of this jewel of modernism became a minor miracle.

Finally, Deborah Slater and Julie Hébert‘s Night Falls (Oct. 21, ODC Theater) looked at the process of aging from a “three ages of man” perspective, except that this was a woman’s life crisis. Most intriguing was the way language and dance — much of it gestural — bounced off each other, creating the vibrant environment in which the performers could fully extend themselves.