“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.

Krissy Keefer's <i>Sin Palabras</i> © Robbie Sweeny
Krissy Keefer's Sin Palabras
© Robbie Sweeny
For Keefer’s, we were led into a smaller studio where we watched a compilation of video clips about the Snowden affair and the Anonymous hacktivists (in their trademark Guy Fawkes masks) projected onto a mountain of Styrofoam pellets. The surface of the Styrofoam started to undulate, as a quintet of dancers poked their heads out of the pile, murmuring nervously to each other. They slowly emerged, fear etched on their faces as they heaved and rolled along the floor. The white pellets dispersed along the studio floor in waves – which suggested that the dancers could be refugees, washed ashore after the capsizing of a migrant smugglers’ vessel. Superb lighting effects projected a grid of wire fencing onto the dancers’ bodies as they tried desperately to escape an unseen threat, to the thrumming of an ominous soundtrack that evoked one of the more harrowing episodes of Homeland. The dancers soon turned on one other, brawling and punching, brutally trying to shove pellets down each other’s throats, and using a leaf blower to engulf one of them in a tidal wave of Styrofoam.

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.

Amara Tabor-Smith and Keisha Turner in Tabor-Smith's <i>Untitled Evidence</i> © Robbie Sweeny
Amara Tabor-Smith and Keisha Turner in Tabor-Smith's Untitled Evidence
© Robbie Sweeny
 As she led us back to our seats in the main theater, and through much of her piece, Tabor-Smith engaged us in a ‘mic check’ or call-and-response in which we were instructed to repeat lines that she called out, each line prefaced with “he said” or “she said.” Into her compelling text she wove strands of Sojourner Truth’s writings, the poetry of Audre Lorde and June Jordan, and the dialogue from the notorious encounter between Texas Highway Patrolman Brian Encinia and Sandra Bland. (In this exchange, captured on the police car’s video camera, Encinia stopped the African-American woman for failing to signal a lane change. At one point, he threatened “I am going to light you up!” as he brandished his stun gun. Three days later, Bland died in a police holding cell.) Dancer Keisha Turner performed a virtuosic dance of increasing agitation that, in very controlled fashion, conveyed the agony of isolation, the mental torture of humiliation. The piece ended abruptly as Tabor-Smith called for a “fade to black.” The irony of those words likely escaped no one.

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.