We arrive at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Film the week of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, so anointed by President Biden but not yet nationally affirmed. The holiday’s new name and its variants around the United States have been crafted to help acknowledge the myriad injustices wrought by Columbus and successive usurpers and conquerors — and destroyers — of civilizations extant on these shores for thousands of years.
So it’s by no means radical to suggest that the word “ethnic,” applied here to dance but to many other aspects of national history and culture, could be used anywhere and nowhere. Ballet’s ethnicity, for instance, is white and European. Yours is of equal relevance or, as might also be argued, irrelevance. So the long-running San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, so honorable by any name, might be unduly freighted with an adjective of no meaning in a community striving to be — oh, that word again — woke. But perhaps it’s more relevant to note that for the first time, the majority of the festival’s leadership is nonwhite.
By whatever name, the festival has taken a new path in 2021, around the pandemic’s pitfalls and onto film. It takes a year for the producers, World Arts West, to create the customary annual live festival, held in recent autumns at the Palace of Fine Arts. With dozens of Bay Area dance troupes during two weekends of shows, it generates kudos, pride, and excitement from participants and audiences alike.
The new film, which needs a more tantalizing title, is a delightful 40-minute compendium of eight troupes, chosen by the festival’s artistic co-directors, Mahealani Uchiyama and Latanya d. Tigner, as well as World Arts West’s Executive Director Anne Huang. Three have performed at the festival before: Denmis Bain Savigne +Angel Yoel Mullen-Robert, Lahydi Dance Collective, and Mythili Kumar of Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose.
Watching the movie brought no sense of deprivation. On the contrary, sending the companies, their dancers, costumes, and musics out beyond the relative sameness — beyond the safety, if you will, of the proscenium — made the dances seem more a part of the everyday lives of the artists and the many worlds from which the art came — even though most of the settings were recognizably part of the Bay Area. That was fun, and often beautiful.
So when you see Ensembles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco dancing in the parking lot of a Mission brake shop, you might think about how restorative it would be to have them present with their Son Jarocho, or Veracruz Sound, their Zapateado — feet rat-a-tatting on wooden platforms, the women in dresses of the frothiest white, their red aprons matching the lettering on the garage — easing the pain of having your car in the shop.
Or bringing your family to see soloist Mythili Kumar, the venerable founder in 1980 of Abhinaya Dance Company, exquisitely bringing the grace of Bharatanatyam that is Abhinaya’s specialty from South India to a San Jose playground. In her sari, adorned with sparkling jewelry, she’d captivate them, every movement of her eyes and hands delineating a Vedic story.
By the Pacifica seaside, Halau o Keikiali’i, women in white adorned with leis, brought the eloquent movements and chants of ancient Hula Kahiko from Hawaii to another ancient shore. Interestingly, the men’s dancing went beyond macho moves to something that seemed a bit more sensitive, while equally demanding strength and control: floorwork (sandwork?), as they lay on their sides, moving their bodies to the beats of the gourds. Their halau, or school, is in South San Francisco.
Cliffside, overlooking the bay, dancer, educator, and filmmaker Eddie Madril’s Native American hoop dance intermingled artistry, athleticism, and magic. Madril, a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, specializes in dances of the Plains Indians of Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora, Mexico. Madril danced through his hoops, wove them onto his arms and legs — don’t ask how — and, perhaps most beautifully of all, linked them from shoulders to fingertips, arms spanning space as he moved like a magnificent eagle.
Soloist Miriam Peretz brought Sufism to Grace Cathedral’s vaulting heights and meditation maze, her white silky dress backlit, whirling with a — yes — grace and radiance reminiscent of the pre-modernist dancer Loie Fuller, in devotions from Iran and Turkey.
Molodi, an African American stepping and body percussion troupe, dazzled with speed, precision, and geniality against the stunning murals of an outdoor stage in Oakland, breathtaking acrobatics underscoring their taps, stomps and clogs.
At Oakland’s Malonga Casquelord dance center, Lahydi Dance Collective’s intensely rhythmic, spirited West African Djun Djun drumming and rhythms from Guinea enlivened the studio.
Off to Havana, where Denmis Bain Savigne + Angel Yoel Mulen-Robert staged a frisky two-handed Sunday, or Domingo, game of dominoes, stepping up to the table and jumping on it, singer and dancer just enjoying their day off in rumba time.
In all, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival film offers an international journey of thousands of miles and thousands of steps — away from a theater, yet so close at hand.