Golden light slants onto the San Francisco Bay, as Dana Iova-Koga steps forward on the Hyde Street Pier. This is a dance of simple gestures that begins as four people emerge on the pier, carrying a galvanized metal bucket in each hand.
The performers put down the buckets full of water, wet their feet, pick up the buckets and walk a few steps. Then they do it again. And again. Slowly and ceremonially, down the pier.
As they walk, the audience, distant on the deck of the ferry boat Eureka, sees the performers’ wet footprints form then evaporate in the sunlight and the wind gusting off the water.
It’s a moment of relative stillness in the performance of 95 Rituals, a series developed by San Francisco-based performance art company inkBoat and collaborators to celebrate the 95th birthday of groundbreaking dancer and choreographer, Anna Halprin. And the passage, called “Water Prints,” stands directly in Halprin’s lineage of immersing movement so deeply in place that the environment becomes part of the performance.
“For about three minutes it was the most alive, sensual, delightful feeling, just feeling the air, feeling the unrestricted movement of the body,” says Iova-Koga, who spontaneously decided, with two other dancers, to perform this section in the nude last weekend. “I was able to really enjoy that feeing. Until I looked up.”
When Iova-Koga looked up, she saw two of the company’s producers. She couldn’t see their faces. But she could see their bodies, and they looked a little panicked.
Iova-Koga had a sudden, nauseating realization that she had broken the National Park Service (NPS) rules for the use of Hyde Street Pier: The dancers weren’t allowed to be unclothed.
“Dark, icky feelings came flooding in,” she says.
The NPS cancelled last weekend’s Saturday performance of 95 Rituals.
Halprin has been arrested and praised for her use of nudity in dance over her long career.
In a 1967 New York performance, her company dressed and undressed repeatedly in a protest against corporate greed. Halprin was arrested for indecency. But when the dance premiered in Sweden, Halprin says she received a letter from a farmer.
“He wrote, ‘Your nude bodies were sacred, like my newborn calves,’” Halprin says of the letter. “‘Sacred and innocent.’” The difference, it seems, was cultural context.
The nature of transgression
Halprin’s legacy of transgression encompasses content — subjects like race and nudity — as well as process. The choreographer sees everyday tasks as dance and works to erase the boundary between “performer” and “audience.”
A transgressive act, says Shinichi Iova-Koga, inkBoat artistic director (and dancer Dana Iova-Koga’s husband) is also “an act that gives us courage to do something.” It’s like singing in public, a commonly viewed transgression that 95 Rituals invited audience members to join in with at the end of the performance.
“The use of nudity is an extension of nature, that’s all,” Halprin says. “It’s as simple as that.” Nudity is also powerful, the choreographer says. So it’s important to know how audience members, particularly children, might receive it.
It’s an inkBoat and Halprin standard that artists can “break the score.” Shinichi Iova-Koga says he supports the artistic decision while respecting the park’s position.
The main problem, says Lynn Cullivan, spokesman for the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, is that the dancers had specifically raised the question of nudity when they were preparing for the event at Hyde Street Pier. Cullivan says the dancers had agreed to abide by the park’s rule.
“We cancelled the event for violating the permit,” Cullivan says. “Maybe it could have worked out if we could have prepared people for that, given them a choice.”
Nudity and a sense of place
Dana Iova-Koga says she wanted to deepen the contrast between the boisterous indoor dance that came before and the slow simplicity of “Water Prints.” That’s how inkBoat sound artist Suki O’Kane saw it. O’Kane says the absence of clothing, together with the quality of the light and the air, allowed her to absorb a sense of place.
“I was bound up in the elegance of these small gestures,” O’Kane says. “Moments like that can awaken us to the extraordinary qualities of where we are right now.”
As for the NPS rule, Iova-Koga says she simply forgot about it. And she still can’t figure that one out.
“I’ve been a good girl all my life,” Iova-Koga says. “I follow the rules. I don’t break them.”