The Concept dance series is a rare bird hiding in San Francisco's cultural aviary. Put on by RAWdance, it's pay-what-you-can, semi-undiscovered, and there's free food. First-date heaven! Or, for those muddling around sans date, you're practically guaranteed to meet new and (this being a dance audience) attractive people. Singles heaven!
Beyond that, though, lies something even more appealing and harder to define. It just feels good to be there. Part of it is the brick-walled, historic venue, 66 Sanchez Studio, formerly known as the James Howell Studio. The rest is because of curators Ryan Smith and Wendy Rein, the co-directors of RAWdance. They founded the group in 2004, and in 2007 they started this twice-yearly series. The two dancers, lithe and coiffed, have this emcee shtick that would be annoying if they were any less good at it.
See, after welcoming the audience -- Smith: "Is this anyone's virginal experience of the Concept series?" -- they hand out cups of popcorn, take coffee orders -- "or else people get limey" (Rein) -- then go dance the hell out of a piece or scamper offstage to ensure everything is running smoothly. Then they come back to vamp a bit, breathless and accommodating (more coffee orders, more popcorn), while the next performers prepare or someone in the crew leans over the front row of seats to ask an audience member to dim the lights halfway, as the switch is just behind her.
It's cozy like that.
At least twice per show -- this is where the Concept series seems utterly, un-self-consciously unique -- they ask everyone to move chairs to another spot in the room, because the next work is set differently in the space. So everybody bustles around for a minute, finding new seatmates and a new perspective and another shot at those hors d'oeuvres on the buffet table. Naturally, everyone feels compelled to talk to everyone else throughout. Finding such community, even here in wacky talk-a-thon San Francisco, is too rare.
Crucially, watching dance in such a climate changes your perception of the art. Across Saturday's seven pieces, I found myself responding more charitably to those that went a little long or seemed too presentational for the intimate space. I found it easy to focus less on the choreography (a habit I can overdo) and more on the dancers themselves -- you're never more than about 15 feet away from one, and usually much closer. In grander settings, it's too easy to ignore a performer's humanity by citing any choreographic flaws, however minor. Here, that dancer feels 100 percent human, flaws be damned. And sharing in that unignorable humanity -- Breton Tyner-Bryan's Break the Mold was an expansive example -- is a great feeling. That's the reason people watch live dance in the first place, no?
In the intended spirit of a salon (if not the details -- there's no discussion of the work, for instance, which is totally fine with me, and no tuberculotic poets), the work you'll find at a Concept series is almost always new or still in progress.
One such piece, The Tail by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, certainly deserves wider recognition when it premieres next year. Telling you this piece addresses the connection between primates and prayer -- itself a fascinating proposition -- wouldn't describe the allure of this excerpt's construction. Two women face away from each other while Stuart reads (from a text slipped into a book of anatomical drawings) a story she wrote about a woman with a tail. When her uncontrollable, endearingly randy appendage suddenly goes missing, she's thrown into a deep soul-searching confusion. As in, the human condition.
Anyway, the dancers count either down from 24 or up to 24 -- that's the number of vertebrae in the human spine -- while walking (backward) toward each other. It happens a few times, and whenever they meet, the choreography grows like vines, and limbs curl into cavities that vanish and reappear in the other dancer's shape. Each is tail and lady, limb and trunk. Stuart has begun to crochet some kind of devilish symmetry here, and I want to see more.
Previous works shown seemed crafted to appear on the same program, as they described a like-minded struggle against isolation. Dominic V. Duong's hyperkinetic, moody Moments of Surrender, for instance, foretold My Love, Come to Me, by David Martinez, danced to Schubert's "Ständchen," for piano, violin, and a soprano whose voice felt a mite large for the space. Set lengthwise against the studio's back wall, Martinez's work profited from merging richly associative gestural work into a two-dimensional variety of constraint.
Dancer Chin-Chin Hsu, strong and soft together, seemed to recall a curtailed romance. She outlined how the love, in exiting her body, wracked her frame. On the wall behind her, she traced letters with her finger: T-H-E and E-N-D, dotting the period with a satisfied finality.
Where one love ends, another more easily begins.