“Sometimes art for art’s sake is not enough,” proclaim the program notes for D.I.R.T., Dance in Revolt(ing) Times at San Francisco’s Dance Mission Theater. But if you believe – along with August Wilson, Ai Weiwei, and Pussy Riot – that all art is politics, then this false dichotomy was just a diversion from the serious business of art.
Of the seven sketches presented in the third and final weekend of this festival, only Krissy Keefer’s Sin Palabras and Amara Tabor-Smith’s Untitled Evidence successfully wove polemic into dance. The rest were disjointed juxtapositions of visuals, audio and props that meandered on in their own hermetic worlds, no curator in sight. To feel strongly about your subject is not enough.
The riveting staging and crackerjack dancing by Sarah Bush, Adonis Damien Martin, Frederika Keefer, Jill Hibert, and Edisnel Rodriquez conjured up a cascade of metaphors – from the Kingdom of Snow in the Nutcracker, to the politics of rice (a highly fraught topic in Asia). Just inches from the performers, the audience, tightly wedged against the studio walls, and visible in the shadows, seemed to hold their breath as the conflicts evolved.
Suddenly, Tabor-Smith burst boisterously into the studio. An arresting figure in a purple top hat, draped in sheets of clear plastic, with half her face painted dead white, she appeared to mock our silence and complicity.
Of the other five pieces, Sammay Dizon’s Reclaim Bae was conceptually the most ambitious, with its stunning film clips of the Manobo tribe in the southern Philippines and with its live accompaniment. Against this backdrop, Alden Apusan, Dan Galvez, Jonathan Mercado, and Dizon, in fragments of shimmering robes, danced their rage at the longstanding theft of tribal lands by loggers and developers, at the abuse of tribal women by paramilitary forces, and at the corruption of local governments. The piece however had no compelling structure, and architectural details were overlooked (for example, many of the film’s subtitles were obliterated by dancers performing directly in the path of the projector.)
All seven choreographers represented in this weekend’s program possess impressive artistic, scholarly, and activist credentials. No doubt a post-performance conversation with each of them would have illuminated some provocative connections between their choreography and other elements of their pieces – connections that might have been missed by many viewers. Only Keefer and Tabor-Smith made that conversation unnecessary by sculpting a coherent world within their pieces, by taking us on a journey that built drama purposefully, by creating troubling images of arresting beauty that resonated long after we left the theater.
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