Looking back over the past year always entails a look forward, and perhaps the best part of 2008 is that in 2009 there is at least the possibility of the arts becoming part of the national dialogue. Two reasons warrant such optimism: during the Great Depression, people still wrote books, went to the theater and movies, and created canvasses. Modern dance went through its most crucial development in that time.
Furthermore, President-elect Barack Obama actually has an arts agenda the first president to have one in a long while. That alone is encouraging. As for 2008, out of dozens of experiences, some inevitably have imprinted themselves more than others.
**If I had to choose the single most important event of the year, it would have to be the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s two-week residency at Cal Performances, culminating with Craneway Event at a former Ford auto plant in Richmond. It was a quiet, luminous, and utterly unforgettable Sunday afternoon of being in the presence of genius.
**San Francisco Ballet’s commissioning of 10 works by 10 choreographers in honor of its 75th anniversary could have been more adventuresome. Still, it signaled a commitment to the future. Margaret Jenkins’ and Julia Adam’s pieces were not critically acclaimed, but both choreographers dared to go outside the conventionally balletic.
**Ballet San Jose impressed with first-rate programming. Just Balanchine, Swan Lake, The Firebird, and The Toreador highlighted just how fine a group of dancers they are with an excellent repertoire the South Bay can call its own.
**Shelley Senter set Trisha Brown’s 1979 hauntingly beautiful Glacial Decoy before the professionals and graduate students of Mills College dance department, titling it Glacial Decoy Redux. Adapted for a smaller stage, the 30-year-old piece looked as pristine and daring as ever.
**Joe Goode Performance Group made Wonderboy after a sabbatical spent recharging batteries with travel. With its touching tenderness and poignant exploration of loneliness and community, Wonderboy was vintage Goode, though in its use of the material dance in particular, but also text, music, and puppetry it was as fresh and imaginative as anything he has created.
**Former Joe Goode dancer, Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People’s edgy and audience-challenging Retrospective Exhibitionist asked the year’s most intellectually trenchant questions about the nature of performance, perception, and theatrical manipulation.
**Hip-hop artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s the break/s: a mixtape for stage proved to be another of his meditations on what it means to be an African American, a man, a father, and a human being. Using a travel diary approach, he integrated language, music, and movement into a self-effacing monologue that was as freewheeling yet formally cogent.
**Certainly the most intriguing, but least promising, collaboration happened between Janice Garrett and Dancers and the Del Sol String Quartet. The idea was to have dancers and musicians physically interact with each other. The result was the sparkling StringWreck, a spirited entertainment with musical as well as choreographic substance.
**Jess Curtis/Gravity’s imagistic Symmetry Study #7 for Curtis and Maria Francesca Scaroni paired the two nude dancers in a structured contact improvisation in which their interlocking bodies became a piece of sculpture trying to find its form. They used the body at its most basic: weight, mass, and skeletal structure.
**The San Francisco International Arts Festival brought the year’s best surprise: Berkeley’s Art Street Theater’s US premiere of Yes, Yes to Moscow, a wistful and beautifully imaginative dance theater work that picked up where Chekhov’s Three Sisters left off. If you have ever wondered what would have happened if Olga, Masha, and Irina had made it Moscow, go and see Yes if it ever returns.