It’s pure coincidence that dozens of Bay Area dance artists will converge at a site of great spiritual significance on the day of the presidential inauguration. But it feels as if this year’s San Francisco Movement Arts Festival, taking place at Grace Cathedral on the evening of Friday, Jan. 20, has been created especially for the occasion.
This year’s festival already premiered with a separate performance on Friday, Jan. 13, at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. And while Grace Cathedral has no direct involvement in producing the festival, the building’s long tradition of supporting art and social justice means that this second outing, on Inauguration Day, will likely be steeped in significance.
The cathedral is no stranger to social justice movements and political protest. Over the decades, it has led the Episcopal church in awareness of and response to San Francisco’s homeless crisis, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s, and LGBT issues. After last November’s contentious presidential election season, the cathedral held a prayer service for healing and unity. “People are in pain today,” said the Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young, dean of the cathedral, at that service. “If you haven’t heard from people who felt it, then you need to talk to more people.”
Under Grace’s majestic vaulted ceilings, several groups of dancers will rotate at each of 12 “stations of movement” scattered throughout the cathedral. The audience is free to roam around the space taking in the different performances against a varied backdrop of visual art, video, spoken word poetry and music.
At least two pieces in the festival lineup deal with loss. One is Jetta Martin’s tribute to a fallen friend named Eli — choreographed for herself, her sister Coral Martin, and fellow dancer LizAnne Roman Roberts. “Eli was only 30, which is close to the age of all of the performers,” said Martin. “So his passing affected us in a way that forced us to reflect on our own mortality, how quickly what seems stable can lose its ballast or extinguish entirely.”
Julie-Ann Gambino’s piece, an excerpt from the choreographer’s work Mother Mary which premiered last year at SAFEhouse Arts in San Francisco, also wrestles with loss. The work portrays the impact on a family after a debilitating accident puts the mother in a coma.
There are many other thought-provoking works in the mix. Marika Brussel has her dancers wind along the cathedral’s inner labyrinth, continuously melting and unwinding from the ground as if tracing the tortured paths of the homeless. Costume designer Susan Roemer made the costumes for the work in hues that meld with the cathedral’s grey flagstone floor. The observer, at first, cannot tell dancer from environment, reflecting the “invisibility” of the homeless around San Francisco.
Meanwhile, AXIS Dance Company, the pioneering Oakland-based dance organization that unites traditionally able-bodied dancers and those with physical challenges, presents excerpts from Sonya Delwaide’s duet for two women, Dix Minutes Plus Tard (Ten Minutes Later), and Marc Brew’s trio Divide.
Featuring visual artist Carl Andre’s striking minimalist designs against the sparest of soundscapes, Divide explores how people negotiate and interact across fissures (in relationships, in the community). Dix Minutes Plus Tard addresses the intimate connection between two people, one of whom is missing part of an arm. The piece cloaks intricate partnering in the pensive music of Franz Schubert.
The Rev. William E. Swing, retired Bishop of California, spoke in a Christmas Day sermon at Grace Cathedral about “living in a ‘post-truth’ time,” in which “words don’t matter.”
Yet it will be hard to ignore the messages delivered wordlessly by San Francisco’s dance artists — especially when they congregate en masse in such splendid surroundings to engage in highly personal rituals of joy, trust, anguish, and rebellion in a bastion of centuries-old, ordained ritual.
The San Francisco Movement Arts Festival takes place on Friday, Jan. 20, at Grace Cathedral. Information here.