Earthly creations, unearthly longings

Week one dance at the San Francisco International Arts Festival

Dancing Earth's Indigenous Dance Creations performs the stirring Of Bodies of Elements.

The San Francisco International Arts Festival's model of presenting guest and local dancers side by side was initially designed to alleviate Bay Area artists' concern that SFIAF might siphon off funding for their own work. Yet the format works artistically. The 2011 festival's first week's lineup of local and imported dance proved it. One-night stands at the Marines Memorial Theatre came from Israel's Barak Marshall Company and Santa Fe's Dancing Earth. From San Francisco, Hope Mohr Dance and FACT/SF shared evenings at Fort Mason.

Marshall is a Yemeni-Israeli American now primarily living in Israel. Apparently the 2010 Monger was influenced by servant-master dichotomies like those portrayed, most prominently, in the evergreen British TV show Upstairs, Downstairs. The work turned out to be a Kafkaesque film noir comedy that wore its desperation just barely covered by maids' aprons and grooms' suspenders. That the despot, a mysterious Mrs. Margaret, is a woman — Marshall calls her the Whore of Babylon — only heightened its impact. After the recent Middle East (and elsewhere) turmoil, it's impossible not to see Monger as deeply political. Marshall first presents his 10 dancers wrapped in black, anxiously scanning the sky. He ends on the same pessimistic note.

Marshall's variety show format separates Monger's acts with blackouts and punctuates them with the tinkling service bell. Both provided a welcome continuum, though most of the sections work individually. The servants scurried like road-runners; the emotionally temperature between them steadily increased like a boiler about to explode. Attempts at self-assertion, whether through love or violence, failed repeatedly. I saw a touch of Ohad Naharin — Marshall cut some of his teeth in Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company — in the hilarious hate- and gossip-mongering "upstairs" ladies. Spitting venom, they bobbed up like corks in the sea. Monger gained valuable support from the choreographer's own exceptionally imaginative patchwork score.

I have, however, major concerns with the choreography. Although the extensive use of unisons, punctuated by gestural language, made intellectual sense, they pulled the piece down toward monotony.

What's your idea of "Native American dance?" Stomping feet, flying fringe, and pounding drums? Not a trace of a powwow could be found in the excellently danced Of Bodies Of Elements by Dancing Earth's 10 dancers (plus two babies).

Choreographed by Rulan Tangen and performed by members from diverse North American tribal cultures, Bodies included contributions from traditional practices, including a "Deer Dance" (by guest artist Jesus "Jacoh" Cortes) and a "Prayer Dance" (by Deollo Johnson), suspiciously looking like an Eagle Dance with strong elements from women's fancy dances. But this is a thoroughly contemporary work with performers — men and women alike — whose athleticism and multifarious talents and training acknowledge the air as much as the ground under their feet.

Bodies is presented as a creation myth whose believers become alienated from the natural order but find their way back into it. The choreography sometimes doesn't spell out the narrative that clearly, so the program notes help for those unfamiliar with indigenous American beliefs.

A small ritual sets the tone. A member of the local Ohlone tribe blessed the space the company had asked permission to perform in.

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