In 1996 Mann disbanded Contraband, the celebrated maverick Bay Area performance collective she had founded and directed for more than a decade. And then she brooded.
"I was massively in debt from Contraband," Mann remembers, sitting in the light-flooded reception room of Dance Mission and running her fingers frustratedly through her sandy hair. On the wall across from Mann hangs a framed poster from the mid-'80s promoting one of Contraband's legendary performances. "I had to use a lot of my inheritance to pay it all off," she continues. "I was in hell. I was really unhappy. I should have gone away and taken a break but I shut myself in my room with the bills for four years. It's not a healthy thing to do."
In truth it only seems to Mann that she spent those years staring at the bills. She traveled to Mexico City and throughout the U.S. doing performance art pieces with another Bay Area artist, Guillermo Gomez-Pena. She returned to San Francisco and taught open classes based on the pioneering improvisational techniques that had both made her name and influenced a generation of Bay Area dancers. Still, she felt lost.
But late last year Sara Shelton Mann started to get her groove back. First came two commissions, one a solo for Bay Area choreographer Robert Moses and another for his company, Robert Moses' Kin. In December, Dance Mission Theater honored Mann with an evening-long birth- day tribute, in which Mann continued her artistic resurrection with a riveting new solo. And finally this February, as if in inevitable response to the momentum, came the ultimate career rejuvenator: a Guggenheim Award.
"It couldn't have come at a better time," Mann says, speaking in between rehearsals for her latest work, prompted in large part by the honor. "I was wondering what I was going to do. I had just about given up."
Don't expect a slow but steady comeback. Mann, who spent seven years creating Contraband's groundbreaking Mira Cycles, is already working on a characteristically large scale. Her first evening-length work since 1994, simply labeled a "Community Performance Extravaganza" and premiering May 26 through 28 at Dance Mission Theater, involves a logistically staggering 40 performers, including some of the Bay Area's most gifted modern dancers. All are donating their time. Because of scheduling conflicts, full rehearsal often runs from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, and no one complains.
Except Mann, who does so with good nature and intentions. She wants to be able to pay her dancers and musicians, and she wants to be able to hold rehearsals during daylight hours, if possible. Beyond that, she wants to be able to pay for professional costumes, lighting, and even multimedia film work. This "community extravaganza" is a dry run for a new piece, tentatively titled Monk on the Mat, a full-length work about "place being spirit and past lives and honoring ancestors" slated to premiere at ODC Theater next June. Mann's hoping the prestige of the Guggenheim will give her enough clout to raise real funding for it.
"This performance is research," she says. "I'm beginning to really get some ideas. I have this idea of a room where people see it in the round, and the light is in a tight circle, and it's like an interrogation room. I made a bunch of movement but for weeks none of it worked. I wanted all this canon and counterpoint and I ended up with solos and duets -- unison, it's all built on call and response -- and I had to give up my fancy ideas. I have a fear I'll just end up with music and dancing. But why fear that? There's nothing better than beautiful music and dancing."
Like Mann's work with Contraband, the new piece will use text (Mann's own poetry as well as contributions from her dancers) and draw input from Mann's collaborators -- in this case, primarily Kathleen Hermesdorf, Austin Forbord, Abbey Crain, and, musically, Norman Rutherford, with whom Mann's worked for more than 14 years. For Mann, "collaboration" is the only word she can use to credit her works truthfully. "I think it's an issue of semantics," she says. "Choreographers are collaborators. We can't work without developing a relationship with the dancer and dancers are all so different. It's a collaboration, but I'm head honcho, so I get what I want."
But while Mann's diving right back into her own style of working, the question of whether she'd like to run her own company again makes her pause. "Times are different," she says. "I love to choreograph. That I know.
"I've always felt a friction between being in the world and not being in the world, I mean between living and taking time to yourself to reflect and sort things out. I feel I've just chosen to be back in the game."