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The 30th Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

Around the World in Eight Days

Tajikistan, Senegal, Hungary, Colombia, the Phillipines. Even if you’re a world traveler, it’s unlikely that you’ve trekked through all these terrains, but not to worry. If the globe-trotting budget is tight this summer, simply head on over to the 30th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival to get your requisite dose of culture. The festival, which has wowed thousands of audience members for three decades now, has challenged the already-permeable boundaries of world dance (despite its “ethnic” moniker), as well as viewers’ understanding of the intersections between dance, tradition, and artistic innovation.

The cultural extravaganza -- which has ensured that “ethnic” dance is not simply a curious specimen, but rather, a vital part of the Bay Area’s very fabric -- includes 36 dance companies and over 500 dancers over four weekends of performance ranging from the highly propulsive to the breathtakingly meditative. The performances also include four festival-commissioned pieces and, despite the fact that this is a festival that highlights the work of local troupes, dozens of international musicians and dance “masters” to whom the festival is paying tribute (including Indian classical musicians and Mexican marimba experts). This year, more musicians than usual are taking the stage, including master drummer/dancer Alassane Kane, who will be joining the Ballet Lisanga, and a ceremonial pin-peat percussive orchestra from Cambodia, who are accompanying the Charya Burt Cambodian Classical Dance Company.

Lots of people would say that the best way to understand any culture is through the shared lingua franca of dance -- what with all its subtle allusions to ritual and history -- but in many ways, the SF Ethnic Dance Festival reveals that despite the specificity of any given dance modality, there is always something familiar in even the most exotic of movements. Aside from exemplifying shared humanity, the dancers who congregate year after year for the festival sometimes even reveal shared movements across various regions and dance forms.

And given the growing cross-fertilization between dance companies, as well as the fact that dances once considered “traditional” and regionally specific are becoming accessible to legions of movement buffs (even those who don’t hail from the culture their chosen dance form stems from), the importance of dialogue across seemingly disparate art forms is continuously stressed throughout the performances

Now that the festival is a local tradition, making for highly competitive auditions and dance enthusiasts finding themselves clamoring for tickets at the eleventh hour, you’ll want to make sure you nab yourself a seat before the opportunity slips away. Here are just a few of the highlights you can expect this year:

Weekend 1, June 7/8
Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu: The popular, San Francisco-based hula dance company brings it with a new world premiere commissioned especially for the SF Ethnic Dance Festival, spurred by Hawaiian scholar Lucia Tarallo Jensen’s "Maui Dialogues". The troupe’s evocative percussive accompaniment sets the mood for the company’s epic tale of ancient Hawaiian survival skills and myth-making. Hula music and dance are always performed around a larger narrative framework, so be sure to look out for some colorful depictions of the twelve challenges that the Polynesian god Maui encounters along his journey.

Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose: Not unlike hula, the South Indian Bharatanatyam dance form relays epic tales through interpretive movement, gestural evocation, and always colorful costumes. The female dancers in the troupe perform another commissioned world premiere that centers around Shakti, the Hindu goddess of power, who also exemplifies the feminine force of the universe. Guest musicians from India accompany the dancers as they perform the many incarnations of Shakti and pay homage to the elemental power of femininity throughout history.

Weekend 2, June 14/15
Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco: This local Mexican troupe based their world premiere, “Las Cortes Mayas,” entirely on drawings that can be seen on the walls of ancient temples in the Chiapas district of Mexico. It’s essentially a highly celebratory and hyper-kinetic dance centered around the nuptial ceremonies of Mayan kings and queens, but the participatory nature of the dance might encourage a little shimmying in the aisles.

Imani’s Dream: Critically acclaimed local hip-hop group Imani’s Dream combines modern dance and b-boying in a stirring, poignant performance addressing inner city issues and the instrumental role of hope in healing communities ravaged by systemic injustice. The great thing about Imani’s Dream? It’s one example of how modern American dance idioms can serve the same storytelling purposes of more “traditional” forms, which means that as far as “ethnic” is concerned, anything goes.

Weekend 3, June 21/22
LIKHA Pilipino Folk Ensemble: Guest artists from the Phillipines, including a musician who left his island of Palawan for the first time just to perform at the festival, add vigorous energy to “Semba,” a world premiere that depicts the elemental power of nature spirits and their appeasement by ancient Batak tribal rituals. All the references to hunting and harvesting may seem a bit archaic, but given their obvious survival even in today’s dance forms, they’re more awe-inspiring than anything else.

Ballet Lisanga II West African Performing Arts Company: Like many of the other dance companies in the festival, this Senegalese troupe chooses to focus on the fundamental role of women in society and in shaping aesthetic traditions. Mesmerizing drumming and a sexy, high-energy performance make the dance as entertaining as it is reverential.

Weekend 4, June 28/29
CollageWest Dance Theatre: Dance is perhaps best summed up in raucous celebrations of fecundity, fertility, and love. This gorgeous Anatolian-style performance accordingly offers a glimpse into time-honored wedding traditions, all the while offering an intimate look at the diversity and artfulness of Turkish culture.

Alafia Dance Ensemble: Accompanied by the life-affirming beats of a percussion troupe, the Alafia Dance Ensemble offers Afro-Haitian dance like you’ve never seen it before. Exploring the potent interconnections between Haiti’s various cultural traditions through a rich sequence of mythopoetic dance and music, this performance reenacts the battle of Vertieres, which was the final Haitian revolution that was waged before the country seized independence from French rule. It’s a truly moving spectacle that produces new realms of possibility and hope while also drawing attention to the rich legacy of Afro-Haitian dance in the Bay Area.

For more information on the festival, visit http://www.worldartswest.org.