Dancers without borders

San Francisco International Arts Festival thinks locally, acts globally
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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.

HAVE ART, WILL TRAVEL

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.

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