Fill her up

This year's Women on the Way festival sets off sparks
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Gretchen Garnet
Photo by Rob Kunkle

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REVIEW In the late 1990s, Mary Alice Fry, artistic director of the now defunct Venue 9, found a hole. She has been filling them ever since.

The January performance calendars at her theater and many other local small venues, she noticed, were empty. At the same time her curatorial experience had shown that women artists still had a harder time getting noticed than their male counterparts. "So many of them," Fry said, "struggle with multiple responsibilities of mortgages, children, two or three jobs, keeping relationships going." So she started the Women on the Way Festival, now in its ninth year, to create "a stepping stone" for local women performers.

After Fry lost her lease on Venue 9, she moved the Festival to the Shotwell Studios and to Joe Landini's Garage. For reasons of practicality and availability, WOW's lineup changes every night. The performers seem to enjoy what, to an outsider, looks like a complicated format. "They like sharing the stage and seeing each other's work," Fry explained. "For them it's about standards and not competition. These women are pumped up and work and scramble and always want to do more."

While this year's 17 performers working in theater, the circus, comedy, and dance are mostly up-and-coming, WOW also invited at least two highly experienced artists. Molissa Fenley and Nina Wise have each been working for more than three decades apiece. Each will present a world premiere.

On opening night, Jan. 15, the Garage hosted two soloists and a quartet. While none of the three pieces broke revolutionary ground, each had that spark of effervescence that makes one want to see where these artists are going. They deserve a bigger audience than they got.

Ara Glenn-Johanson's based her earthstepper on a 10th-century English poem, "The Wanderer." As a choreographer for herself, she proved to be rather heavy-handed as soon as she moved beyond a rather basic gestural vocabulary. But she is a strong, expressive vocalist — both live and in duets with herself on tape — and her solo became an intermittently moving meditation on loneliness and perseverance.

Gretchen Garnett's Edited for Time needs more editing for time, but impressed the audience with the ambition, if not quite the realization, of a rigorously conceived study in formal structure. With an extended duet for Garnett and the beautifully expressive Leah Samson, the piece started with simple swaying motions and quickly evolved into patterns of elastic tension that would snap, only to be picked up again. Edited looked full of contradictions, pre-ordained accidents, and surprising repetitions. The other committed dancers were Becca Rufer and Chad Dawson.

Despite having what must be one of dance's more convoluted titles, Pfannenstiel Incision Marks the Spot, Lenora Lee's solo was a stark, tightly choreographed portrait of one woman's fear and anguish about her own body — Pfannenstiel was the surgeon who invented the so-called bikini cut. With her feet planted as if nailed to the ground and her hands veering between tendrils and claws, Lee pulled, yanked, spread, and hung her guts inside out. Performed in silence, Pfannenstiel was small in scale, but it resonated in a big way.

WOMEN ON THE WAY FESTIVAL

Through Feb. 1

Thurs-Sun., 8 p.m., at the Garage, 975 Howard, and Shotwell Studios, 3252-A 19th St., SF

$15-$25

(415) 289-2000, 1-800-838-3006

www.ftloose.org

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