Monday, June 16, 2008

Ethnic Dance Festival

Over four weekends in June San Francisco has an Ethnic Dance Festival. 2008 is the 30th annual festival. I’m embarrassed to admit that until recently I was totally unaware that this event existed. Fortunately, this year I paid attention to a brochure we received, we decided to attend and are very very happy we did.

The performances are staged at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, about a half hour walk from our house. The Palace of Fine Arts is a large structure created for the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. The Exposition was an event dedicated to progress, the celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, and the rebirth of San Francisco following the disastrous 1906 earthquake.

It is a bit of a miracle that the Palace has survived. It wasn’t built to last. And over the years various preservation movements have ebbed and flowed. Finally, in the late 1950’s a drive to rescue the Palace from demolition began and was successful. The Theater was added in 1970. It is a comfortable venue seating 1,000 people. We had great seats, dead center in the sixth row.

Each weekend during the Festival different dances and dance companies are featured. We went knowing what the line-up was, but not knowing what to expect. The dancers, from various parts of the Bay Area, are not professionals. We assumed we’d be treated to enthusiastic but not necessarily skilled performances. We were wrong. They were absolutely wonderful, each of them and all of them.

We saw nine groups:

Chinese children got us started with a dance celebrating the New Year. They were accompanied by guest musicians from Beijing.

Next we went to Mexico, “Raices De Mi Tierra,” dances from Mexico’s Chiapas region, accompanied by five marimba masters. The costumes were a rainbow of bright colors.

At the other end of the spectrum, quiet and elegant, were classical Khmer dancers from Cambodia. They were Apsaras, celestial beings, dancing in a lovely garden.

Now we were in Central Asia, watching and listening to hand drum players and a soloist doing Ukbek/Tajik rhythms.

The first half of the show concluded with a totally unique Hawaiian dance, a World Premier Piece inspired by ancient Hawaiian celestial navigation and homage to the Polynesian god Maui. The several dozen dancers were more than enthusiastic and talented and beautifully costumed.

The Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose treated us to a South Indian style Bharatanatyam piece depicting the Goddess Shakti. They were accompanied by wonderful guest musicians from India.
Now came another World Premier Piece from the Korean Ong Dance Company. Very hard to describe this one. Abstract, extraordinary music, said to be Shamanistic in honor of the Souls of the Lost. I loved it.

I also loved the Flamenco dancers and musicians. Classic. Powerful. Moving. The rhythms of Spain at their best.

The program closed with a Cuban-Haitian piece that was a communal celebration, replete with songs, flags, cartwheels and revelry. Again, great costumes and energy to spare.

Without a doubt, we’ll be back for the 31st Annual Ethnic Dance Festival next year.


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