Her way

Krissy Keefer of Dance Brigade celebrates 35 years of rabble-rousing and dance-making

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Early in the 20th century, Ezra Pound declared "the artist is the antenna of the race." True or false? Do artists have the ability to predict the future, or are they stuck in the present?

Krissy Keefer, artistic director of Dance Brigade and Dance Mission Theater, tends to side with Pound. While she wouldn't go as far as writer-performer Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who considers the artist a shaman, she does think that "there is something about the artistic process that opens your brain to see into the future, to see things happening before they actually happen."

This weekend Keefer and her troupe are celebrating the 35th anniversary of Dance Brigade and its antecedents the Wallflower Order. The performances, all with free admission, include a retrospective of works spanning the last three decades, plus the 2009 Great Liberation Upon Hearing, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead; Keefer created the work after losing two close friends within the same year.

Women taking charge of their own fate may not be news today, but in 1975, Wallflower's five female warriors were pioneers. The turmoil of the post-Vietnam era and the rise of feminism had created a climate in which audiences hungered for dance that spoke to their lives. Many of them were women. The company was made up of contentious women, strong dancers, committed activists. They were not about to be stopped, much like their "grandmothers" Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham or, in terms of politics, the characters in 1964 Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women.

Most remarkably, Keefer's commitment to make art addressing issues that matter has not waned — she's as ready as ever to mount the barricades and make her voice heard through art. In retrospect, it is surprising how much of her past work was highly prescient.

She recently called my attention to my reservations about her having drenched one section of the 2002 Cave Women in images of extreme destruction and war. (At the time, the bloodiness seemed over the top). Almost immediately, all hell broke loose in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, a huge success from 1987-1997, features one-percenters the McGreed family, an abused undocumented servant in Clara, and a homeless Sugar Plum Fairy. Issues that were under the radar at the time have become headlines.

Appearing in Nutcracker — with an excellent, Tchaikovsky-based score by jazz composer Mary Watson — were then-little-known artists like Axis Dance Company and aerial dance pioneer Terry Sendgraff; Keith Hennessy played the McGreed's renegade son.

For all her predilection for "making art that includes themes of social responsibility and dealing with real situations with real people," Keefer is also very much a creature of the theater. The work has to stand on its artistic feet, perhaps not surprising for a woman who trained as dancer at age six — long before she knew what she wanted to dance about.

The 2005 Dry/Ice, a look at the effects of global warming, for instance, was a commission from the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Now who else, except someone who besotted by the stage, would lug a cast-iron bathtub, weighing over 300 pounds, into Theater Artaud for two performances? "I just wanted to do something about the environment," she recalls. (Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth came out the next year.)

In the 2004 Spell, a collaboration with Hennessy, Keefer became a raging goddess-witch figure doing an exorcism for peace and economic justice. It was a power performance that, given the lives many people have today, probably would play well in the suburbs.

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