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YEAR IN DANCE 2011: Dancers excelled with exciting new work (and vintage classics), and redefined the concept of "performance space"

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AXIS Dance Company's Full of Words by Marc Brew, with dancers Alice Sheppard and Sonsheree Giles
PHOTO BY ANDREA BASILE

arts@sfbg.com

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 Childs' Dance (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.

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