Turning the tide

Invigorated by a new format, WestWave Dance marks its 20th anniversary

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Dancers Jenna McClintock and Brandon "Private" Freeman perform a piece by WestWave veteran Amy Seiwert.
PHOTO BY DAVID DESILVA

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Joan Lazarus is one determined woman. This month, WestWave Dance celebrates its 20th anniversary. WestWave originated in 1991 as SummerFest by choreographer Cathleen Murphy; Lazarus joined her three years later, and the two women ran it together until Murphy moved on.

A few months ago Lazarus made noises about perhaps calling it quits. She was frustrated because in all the years of curating these annual menus of contemporary, often brand-new, choreography, "I could not make it work," she says. Audiences remained small, budgets smaller.

From the beginning, Summerfest/WestWave had a clear idea of its role within the panoply of Bay Area dance. Most important was offering opportunities to choreographers who may not be on other presenters' radar screens and who didn't have the cash — or energy — to self-produce. The application process has always been wide open. This year, for instance, Lazarus programmed three unknown-to-her choreographers simply on the basis of the video they submitted. "I was intrigued by their work," she explains.

It was imperative to present each choreographer under the best circumstances, which meant a professional presentation — lighting, sound, tech — in a professional setting, like the Cowell or ODC theaters. It was also important to create visibility, which usually translated into getting reviews. "It was only in year seven or eight that we started getting reviewed," Lazarus remembers. "That's when we noticed a tremendous jump in people who wanted to be in." Still, the festival barely scraped by. Every year it was touch and go.

Lazarus sounds newly invigorated about starting another decade for this problem child of local dance that, nonetheless, has given many a choreographer — Katie Faulkner, Ben Levy, and Kara Davis among them — a push up the professional ladder. So what happened?

An experienced local presenter Lazarus consulted with told her that what she did didn't work because it couldn't be done. Audiences, she was told, will not attend contemporary performances on successive nights, so forget about trying to run this type of program as a festival. She should also forget about preferring world premieres (something Lazarus admits she was "prejudiced toward") and insist instead that the artists present the best pieces they have. "You choose the artists based on their previous works and then let them make the decision on what they want to show," she recalls from the conversation.

Last year — by programming WestWave on three monthly Monday nights — Lazarus took a first step in rectifying the situation. The overall quality of the three evenings turned out to be more than respectable.

For the 20th anniversary season she expanded the format. Evenings of solos, duets, trios, and more will again be shown on Monday nights: Aug. 15, Sept. 12, and Oct. 10 at ODC Theater.

This month, Lazarus wanted to feature some of the artists for whom WestWave had been an important early step. This weekend (July 22-24) at Z Space, she offered Seiwert — in 2007, WestWave had hosted her first full-evening concert — another program along the same lines. But Seiwert demurred, wanting her im'ij-re dancers to grow beyond her own choreography. So with Lazarus' assent, Seiwert commissioned works from Matthew Neenan (Philadelphia), Adam Houghland (Cincinnati), and Susan Roemer (San Francisco).

For the second July program (July 28-29), the artists Lazarus selected asked to co-choreograph a single work. Lazarus told Manuelito Biag, Davis, Faulkner, and Alex Ketley to go ahead. Since each of them has a well-developed independent voice, this collaboration could prove fascinating. Later that weekend (July 30), Viktor Kabaniaev and Tina Kay Bohnstedt — Diablo Ballet's strong in-house-nurtured choreographers — present an evening of their own work. Why? "Because they have never had one, and it's about time," Lazarus says.

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