Around the bay, around the world

The 33rd San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival embraces a variety of cultures — and new venues

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Rumsen Ohlone Tribe dancers Henry Munoz, Desiree Munoz, Melissa Moreno, and Jessie Peralez
PHOTO BY RJ MUNA

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE "When one door closes, another opens" is the kind of cliché that drives you batty when you've been fired, or your lover has literally showed you the door. But once in a while even clichés prove their right to exist. Take the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, which last year faced homelessness when Caltrans requisitioned the Palace of Fine Arts' parking lot for the duration of the Doyle Drive reconstruction. With poor access to MUNI and no parking lot, EDF had no choice but to start a frantic search for another venue. The crisis challenged them to rethink a format that has worked for them since 1989 — potentially very risky, because, to quote another cliché: "Don't mess with success."

With a need to move from one temporary shelter to another, EDF took the opportunity to reshape its offerings in a way that might yet prove beneficial to both audiences and performers.

For one group of dancers, however, this year's EDF is a homecoming. For the first time in more than 200 years, dancers and musicians from the Rumsen Ohlone Tribe will perform on their own land. Decimated by disease and dispersed because of persecution and discrimination, most live in a diaspora in their own country. But they did not, as popular history and the federal government would have it, die out; the tribe is 2,000 members strong. Many, including tribal chief Tony Cerda have settled in the Pomona area. But their ancestors are buried below what is now Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

On Friday, June 3, in the presence of tribal dancers and musicians, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee presented Cerda with the EDF's annual Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award. The homecoming festivities continue on June 18, when a half-dozen other California tribes join the Ohlones for an all-day "California Indian Big Time Gathering" at Yerba Buena Gardens.

Two other aspects of this year's program deserve special attention. June 11 and 12, eight companies will perform at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley for the first time. For dancers used to showing their work in community halls, stepping onto a generous professional stage (and in front of a potential audience of 2,000) will be both a challenge and a delight. In January, EDF held its auditions at Zellerbach to an enthusiastic response from the primarily East Bay crowd. The word clearly had gotten out about how much fun these auditions are. In previous years at the Palace, the events regularly sold out.

The Zellerbach lineup aims to offer a similarly broad perspective of world dance. The eight companies will present taiko and Bharatanatyam contextualizing each other; African music and dance as practiced in Benin and Ghana; ancient belly dancing with a modern twist; and theatrically appropriate rituals from the Philippines and Bali. It also includes a barefoot version of flamenco, dances from a multicultural Veracruz, and, to top off the evening, a premiere for 100 celebrating Tahitian culture.

This year's other innovation relates to performances June 19, 25, and 26 at YBCA's Forum, where audience members will have the opportunity to enter the world of these dances. It makes sense. Culturally-rooted dance is integral to a community's sense of well-being. It enhances milestones — courting, funerals, the changing of seasons, coming-of-age ceremonies, and thanksgiving practices.

These dances are not primarily meant to entertain — although of course they do — and many are participatory. When divorced from their contexts and put on a proscenium stage, something is inevitably lost. The Forum performances will restore some of the communal aspect of world dance. Each program offers a different quartet of companies that will perform a short piece, then invite the audience to join them in one aspect of their practice. You can choose among Balinese, Polish, square, Filipino, capoeira or African dance.

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