San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Auditions

29 Jan

Mid January is the time World Arts West schedules its hundred plus slots for groups wanting to audition to one one of the 40 selected for the June Ethnic Dance Festival.  This year’s January 16-17 auditions were held for the second time at Zellerbach Hall, the University of California, Berkeley.  The second week, January 19-20 occurred at the Lam Research Theater, better known as the theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

As I remember the regulations from the two times serving on the jury panel, soloists are given five minutes and ensembles perhaps ten.  They should appear in some part of the costuming and with props audiences will see in June.  There is a panel of specialists in most of the diverse ethnic dance forms practiced.  They  vote and their choices are given to C.K. Ladzekpo and Carlos Carvajal, the artistic directors, who then take the choices as guidelines for assembling  the four June weekends of performances.

Saturday January 19, I managed to see seventeen out of the twenty-five afternoon/evening auditions.  Claude Dieterich A, teaching calligraphy and graphic design at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, and Hanna Lu, a computer whiz handling computer tasks at the University of San Francisco Law School, provided stimulating non-specialist perspectives.  Dieterich has studied Cuban dances and is familiar with Peruvian dance traditions.

Much of the time you’re uncertain of what you’ll see.  Some names and ensembles return yearly, performing elsewhere, so seep gradually into the memory bank as noteworthy. A percentage of the entertainment is derived from the clutches surrounding any one presenting group.  Back in the days when auditions were held at the McKenna Auditorium of San Francisco State University these small enclaves seemed more apparent, and also, until two years ago, at the Palace of Fine Arts.  Around the stage door they still can be found, if somewhat constrained by downtown San Francisco.

The Festival draws a number of volunteers, many seasonal repeats. Assiduous in their tasks, when one arrives late, entrance is barred until a given audition is completed and the stage is being set for the next ensemble.  It also gives the judges time to make notes.  The pauses lend a relaxed ambiance for audience and performers, and as the evening continues, the auditorium is  gradually emptied of rooting groups, only diehard dance enthusiasts remaining  as the groups finish their assigned spot on the roster.

Directed upstairs and opting to sit on the side rather than on the steep central seats, the view enabled an eighty per cent stage vista.

With the exception of the Bollywood finale, the Indian groups were disappointing.  One ensemble attempted a contrast between Kathak and Bharata Natyam; the technical grasp seemed rudimentary.  Also an exposition of Odissi in non-traditional format didn’t do the style a favor.  Without saying, the costuming was lustrous.

Senegal was represented by Cheikh Taou Mbaye and Sing Sing Rhythms; their drumming was compelling.  World Arts West Executive Director Julie Mushet interviewed the leader during one of the short breaks. Later she brought the leader of El Wah Movement Dance Theatre forward to speak about Haitian traditions.

Early in the afternoon ARAX Dance, two women, executed symmetrical patterns in long tunics with full sleeves and flowing skirts.  With heads adorned with caps, they were a visual cousin to Afsaneh which specializing in Central Asian traditions.  While listed as Armenian contemporary folkloric, they might well have stepped out of a Persian miniature painting.

Ballet Folkloric Alta California danced a pageant common to Zacatecas, presenting harvest produce to a shrine.  A devil figure cavorted, being dodged and outmaneuvered, a pleasant variation to many Mexican ensemble presentations.

La Tania’s Bailes Flamencos produced three dancers in black blouses and trousers, dancing in the unforced feminine quality characteristic of her movement, but with unusual spatial patterns.  La Tania is not one for explosive torrents of emotion, but expert in a yearning, a conjuring of desired passion which is quite beguiling.

I don’t envy the panelists and artistic directors their task of selection.

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