SF Ethnic Dance Festival

June 1, 1999

Photographer Marty Sohl’s photograph of a traditional dancer from Kala Vandana Dance Center (India) captures the beauty of the 1999 SF Ethnic Dance Festival.

San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco, California

June 1-27, 1999

Reviewed by Rita Felciano

In San Francisco the annual return of thetwenty-one-year-old Ethnic Dance Festival (EDF) signals the advent of the foggy summer as surely as the sight of shivering tourists. The EDF is a simple but genuine celebration of why people still dance and a reminder of what lies at the heart of all theatrical dances.

Not much changes from year to year. Courting dances don’t wear out their welcome. Spectacle-whether in footwork or costuming-is openly embraced. Circle patterns and unison formations emphasize a sense of community. Since these are staged versions of participatory dance forms, stylistic differences between, let’s say, Jalisco, belly, and Bharata Natyam ensembles are, not surprisingly, minimal.

Still, there have been changes. While the majority of these ensembles is still made up of non-professional dancers, the performance level is considerably higher than it used to be. Fewer soloists are featured, but there is more live music, a most welcome addition. A few years ago the Festival tried having an emcee, primarily popular television anchor personalities. Mostly they were an embarrassment. This time around, the organizers got it right. Chiori Santiago, a local arts writer, beautifully set the tone with her colloquial but informative introductions about the styles and contexts of the works about to be seen. The programs, of which I managed to see the first and the last, were thematically grouped as “Dance as a Second Language,” “Spectacular Vernaculars,” and “Rhythm Sticks.” At three hours each-one had ten, the other eleven, groups-they were, as usual, too long. Three hours of unremitting cheer is simply too much. Either the audition process should be tightened or the works should be spread over a fourth weekend.

The first weekend, three groups from Peru provided more than worthwhile glimpses into Peruvian traditions. All three worked with glosses on indigenous and non-native influences. Star-shaped and circular unisons, with the women gently swaying against the men’s more assertive flatfooted stepping by Kanchis Folkloric Dance Group, enlivened a dance that mocked the Spanish bullfighting tradition.

De Rompe y Raja’s barefoot washer- women celebrated their African ancestry: their upper bodies did the talking as they gossiped in syncopating shoulder shakes with hip rolls, while sitting in a circle.

Finally, El Tunante performed the marinera, a national dance of Peru, in which swaying lines for the upper body and fleet footwork, including cross-steps and a skipping walk, distantly echoed flamenco.

Some of the more intriguing presentations were by performers who put their own stamp on folkloric material. You couldn’t miss the Beijing opera influence in the flowing lines and rolling foot patterns of Liu and Han Chinese Dance’s flirtatious courting duet. However, its speed and less-restrained expressiveness imprinted on the dance an unmistakable contemporary identity.

Similarly, Harsanari performed jaipongan, a fusion dance form created in the 1960’s in Indonesia, in which martial arts inform the men’s grounded hops and broad-beamed stances. These are contrasted with the women’s dainty, close-to-the body sways and turns. It’s a dance at the same time comical and flirtatious.

The Celtic Dance Ensemble’s The Immigrants Return, a humorous and deftly choreographed work in which Irish step dance and American clogging meet in the context of a family reunion, was a wonderful illustration of differences and similarities in footwork. Sometimes, however, ensembles ran afoul of the context. On the final program, Salsanismo, a takeoff on salsa with gyrating unison duets, suffered from cookie-cutter blandness despite a central spitfire all-legs pas de deux. Also, its Las Vegas-style slickness felt distinctly out of place.

Fatchancebellydance & Helm lined up its dancers in a semicircle with not much to do except undulate in rhythm while accompanying the few excursions into solo presentations. This maywork in a crowded Middle Eastern marketplace but it looked thin on the Palace’s enormous stage.

Still, the most successful works stuck pretty close to tradition. Dressed in a white gown with sleeves some six feet long, Il Hyun Kim from Korea performed a blessedly quiet monk’s dance in which tight turns from the tips of her toes led to prostrations, only to serpentine into intricate rhythm patterns on a single taiko drum on stage left. Los Lupeños de San Jose shone in an all-male military dance from Michoacán that mixed precision stick patterns with circles, crouches, and line-up maneuvers.

Most enchanting, Folklorico Latino de Woodland’s fandango suite was exquisite in the way the women were swept along by their voluminous white gowns over quick percussive footwork, which fused into the men’s more robust, high-stepping patterns.

Also performing were Chung Ngai Lion Dance Troupe; Chitresh Das Dance Company; Kalanjali: Dances of India; The Minoan Dancers: Greek Folklore Dance Ensemble; The Red Thistle [Scottish] Dancers; Owo Ache, African Queens; Kaiaulu; The English Ritual Dance Company; and Ballet Folklorico Alma de Mexico of South San Francisco High School and Community.