United Nationals and The Ethnic Dance Festival

18 Jul

It may or may not have been inevitable, but seventy-two years after the United Nations was formulated and signed at San Francisco’s Opera House and Veterans’s Auditorium, the Ethnic Dance Festival celebrated thirty-nine years of presenting the multi-national traditions of the San Francisco Bay Area. And, apparently with great success, because executive director Julie Mushet said the event has been a sell-out.

It was a casual ambiance climbing the Opera House steps and the attire matched it outside. Klezmer music greeted me after I got my ticket at one of the Festival tables for Week One‘s matinee. I would wager that fully seventy per cent of the audience had never been in the Opera House auditorium before; I am also willing to wage that the auditorium had never enjoyed such a relaxed and participatory audience either, except, of course, after an opera or ballet star’s exhilarating aria or solo.

Outside the Opera House itself several groups presented musical traditions from China, Mexico and Indonesia over the two weekends..

The handsome 53-page, four-color program laid out the program sequence for both weekends and the inside page rightly credited David Lei and Judy Wilbur as co-chairs, both stalwart supporters of the Asian Art Museum, Lei himself a former folk dancer in San Francisco.

Some twenty-eight active in the Bay Area and California ethnic scene were listed as members of the Honorary Committee, from presenters to photographers and artists. Then followed not only the groups scheduled but acknowledgment of Carlos Carvajal and C.K. Ladzebo, the artistic directors of the Festival and Naomi Diouf, this year’s recipient of the Malonga Casquelord Award for Life Time Achievement. My only quibble with the format is how difficult it was to read the text against the bright paper, hard on aging eyes.
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Perhaps it was fortuitous that the Academy of Danse Libre, the opening ensemble, appeared in white gloves, hoop skirts of lively hues, floral hairpieces and for the men, black frock coats of a late nineteenth century vintage. The group, founded in 1996 by alumni of the Stanford Vintage Dance Ensemble, specializes in European dances of 1840-1860.

De Rompa y Raja followed, a distinctly sly commentary on European habits in the New World, specifically Peru, where sleeveless tunics and pantaloons on the males were accented by a clearly African rhythm, reflecting the Afro-Peruvian tradition, kept alive during the Spanish colonial period. The group was founded in 1995 by Gabriela Schiroma.

Na Lei Hulu Ika Wekiu, led by Patrick Mukuakane, started with its women, in beautiful patterned green floor length gowns swaying and gesturing to the Flower Song from the opera Lakme sung by Maya Kherani and countertenor Cortez Mitchell, both possessing staggering academic and musical accomplishments.

Feminine grace was followed by the male ensemble with Makukane and his gourd drum evoking the Hawaiian chant for statehood, the men in shortened trousers and loose shirts moving in solidarity for the right to participate in American politics. Minus the usual grass skirts, the knee flex conveyed the cohesion of the ensemble and the sentiment.

Just before intermission The Alayo Dance Company, organized in 2002, provided a colorful and flashy portrait of Cuban social dances, rhumba, salsa, comparsa and a touch of modern dance.

Zakir Hussein with sarangi exponent Zabir Khan and vocalist Pritam Bhattacharnayna led the excitement following intermission, Hussein’s tabla revving up the ante for the bol competition between his tabla and the bells and recitation by Kathak exponent Antonia Minnecola. Parts of the exchange seemed muted because of the lighting, but Minnecola demonstrated both skill and elegance.

New to my memories of the Ethnic Festival is San Francisco’s Awako Ken, founded in 2011 by Rimiko Berreman, and celebrating the folk tradition not only of Tokushima City but also the prefecture on Shikoku Island with emphasis on Awa Obon, a dance component of a 400 year old festival. In white tabi and tilting geta, the women, their circular straw hats folded into watermelon-like slices, the men in blue jackets and patterned headbands, the performers struck a singularly bright and cheerful note.

Closing the Weekend One program were Likhia, presenting traditions from Cotabatu on Mindinao, and Fogo Na Roupa Performing Company, celebrating the traditions of Afro-Brazilian both musically and sartorially, emphasized the ceremonial, the former solemn, almost snooty, and the latter alive with rhythm.

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