Dancers without borders

Pub date May 20, 2008

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What do you need to create a first-rate hot product that is of value to others besides yourself? A great idea, a support structure, and money are good places to start. But what if you had no support structure and no money? If you believe in your idea, you’d plow ahead anyway — just like Andrew Wood, executive director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival.

In 2002, Wood began to think about something he felt this city full of artists and tourists needed: an arts festival that would bring the two together. The event would also focus local attention on a large, vibrant arts community that thrives in the shadow of the three big ones — the San Francisco Ballet, the San Francisco Symphony, and the San Francisco Opera.

"Lots of artists here are bursting with ideas," Wood explained during a recent interview. "We need an entity that supports them because they need more opportunities to show their work."

That a similarly ambitious undertaking called Festival 2000 went belly-up in 1990 didn’t deter the string bean–thin Brit, who talks faster than a cattle auctioneer. But Wood wasn’t about to let the fate of another festival stop him. Soon he was everywhere, talking to anyone who was willing to listen — and even to some who weren’t.

Mostly he encountered closed doors. The city had no extra cash. Foundations were already overcommitted. Wood — onetime director of ODC Theater — had no track record when it came to producing a such a large-scale event. Artists were suspicious that already-scarce funds would be siphoned off for a project that might have no room for their work. And another thing: did Wood know how to balance a budget?

He remained undeterred, largely because he had seen something happening in the Bay Area that others had noted as well, even if they hadn’t yet connected the dots. The community was supportive of young artists who were willing to put up with just about anything to get their work out — but once they got to the level where they needed decent rehearsal spaces, performers they could pay, and offices beyond their bedroom floors, the going got tough. Traditionally, local artists at this stage either called it quits or moved away. No longer.


In scouring the local arts scene, Wood noticed what he calls the advent of "journeymen" artists. He named them after the century-old tradition of skilled professionals who traveled long distances and practiced their craft wherever they were hired. Propelled by a desire for adventure and professional improvement, they also managed to support themselves, often handsomely, whether they were roofers, storytellers, or healers.

"Dancers like Janice Garrett, Kim Epifano, Scott Wells, Jess Curtis, Shinichi Iova-Koga, and Stephen Pelton work part-time in Berlin, or London, or Tokyo, or Mexico City. They create work where they are supported and bring it back," Wood explained. In addition, these artists return home with news from abroad about who is doing what, and where.

Despite his admiration for the vitality of the Bay Area arts scene, Wood recognized that "not a lot of artists come through here [on their own]. This place is insular in many ways." As one working artist told him, "You don’t need to see Merce Cunningham for the umpteenth time. You want to see something that resonates within you."

There is a huge pool of artists all over the world whose work has simply not yet hit the radar screens of local presenters. When the San Francisco International Arts Festival launched in September 2003, Wood presented the astounding Quasar Dance Company from Brazil; Indian British dancer Akram Khan (now a megastar); and Compagnie Salia nï Seydou, the first in a succession of contemporary African dance companies that have been seen here since. In 2005 (there was no 2004 festival), the festival showcased extraordinary performances from the AKHE Group (Russia); Fabrik Companie (Germany); Manasku no Kai (Japan); and — one of the wildest of them all — the Moe!kestra, from Manteca.

A focus of SFIAF has become fostering international collaborations that make local artists into journeymen citizens of the world. "We need to support artists here but they also need to realize that there are opportunities somewhere else," Wood said.

This process of cross-fertilization started in 2006 and continued in 2007, when the festival highlighted art from Latin America and the African diaspora. Since the city has yet to commit to any direct funding — Wood called local arts leadership "miserable and petty" — he has become a wizard at patching his budget together, creating cosponsorships, acting as an umbrella organization, and linking artists with individual funding sources. He also has become adept at handling the Department of Homeland Security’s onerous (and expensive) visa process for performers. "They all have visas!" he exclaimed.

A monthlong visual arts exhibit loaned SFIAF 2008 its name: "What Goes Around … The Truth in Knowing/Now." This year’s fest kicks off Wednesday, May 21, and runs until June 8, when it will be capped with a free Yerba Buena Gardens concert by the Omar Sosa Afreecanos Quartet, with local Latin percussionist John Santos.


The festival also includes operatic and theater pieces, as well as choreographers whose work might not be seen locally if not for SFIAF. For example, SFIAF enabled Idris Ackamoor, co-artistic director of Cultural Odyssey, to bring Brazilian dancer-choreographer Cristina Moura to San Francisco. "I was struck by her innovative movements," said Ackamoor, who encountered Moura while scouting for the National Performance Network’s Performing Americas Project, which he co-curated. "She moves like no one else, with a pedestrian and a highly physical vocabulary. She also has a unique way about storytelling." Moura’s solo like an idiot (2007) also resonated with him, as did the title. "Isn’t that the way we all sometimes feel?" he said, speaking of the work, which holds its California premiere at SFIAF.

Wood caught Shlomit Fundaminsky’s emblematic SkidMarks at the 2006 Dublin Fringe Festival and this year SFIAF is copresenting it with SF’s Israel Center. Speaking from Tel Aviv, Fundaminsky describes the work, a duet for herself and Gyula Csakvari, as inspired by "the home life of a man and a woman who live so close to each other — really as one person — that they lost their ability to communicate. They are creating this box for themselves and are unable to break out of it."

The Kate Foley Dance Ensemble may be familiar to Bay Area audiences because of Foley’s 10-year local performance history. In 1998 she moved to Croatia, where she is in residence at a newly constructed arts center. When Wood sent out a call for SFIAF participant proposals, John Daly of the Croatian American Cultural Center suggested her. Yet the Oakland-born Foley’s homecoming has not been without pain. "I have been so ashamed of what I have had to put my dancers through for the visa process," she said on the phone from Rijeka, Croatia. Her US premiere, Angels of Suderac, is a dance theater work using modern dance and what she calls "reconceived" folkloric material. The piece is based on her research into shamanistic practices that connect fairies and herbal medicine women.

By contrast, new to the Bay Area is the young AscenDance Project, which formed in 2006. German-born director Isabel von Rittberg joined Dancers’ Group when she moved to San Francisco, where she heard about SFIAF. The world premiere of Levitate, which combines rock climbing with dance, will be shown as part of "Jewels in the Square," a festival-spanning series of free performances in Union Square. *


May 21–June 8, various venues, most shows $20

For complete schedule, visit