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San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

Return of the Sun

For over three decades, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival has presented an event that is exceedingly rare in the contemporary arts community: the opportunity to witness a diverse dramatis personae of dancers hailing from dance forms across the globe -- including the familiar (like flamenco or clog dancing) and the more unaccustomed (like Indonesia’s Sundanese Jaipongan, said to be influenced by the intersection between western rock n’ roll and traditional Indonesian dance).

Continuing in its colorful tradition of educating awestruck spectators with generous splashes of the unexpected, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival marks its 31st anniversary, with 37 professional companies (representing over 20 distinct cultures and more than 500 Northern California dancers and musicians) bringing their repertoire to the Palace of Fine Arts over four weekends. One might think that after so many performances, the novelty of the festival would have eventually worn off. However, the aspect that makes the festival so remarkably watchable is its commitment to the artists, who are not simply there to provide exuberant, family-friendly fare, but to breathe new life into both age-old and more obscure art forms.

Each year, a theme assures the festival an atmosphere of renewal and newness, which also serves to tie the performances together in a way that goes beyond simply emphasizing the universal lingua franca of dance. This year, the “Return of the Sun” weaves together dance, music, myth, and storytelling in a mythopoetic array of pieces that are somehow connected to that most elemental of symbols. In using the sun as a reference point for the various performances, the festival also points to the timeless connection between dance and nature, as well as the cycles of the earth and civilization that are demarcated by the changing seasons.

The festival also features 13 world premieres, including three pieces especially commissioned for the festival (by Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Murphy Irish Dancers, and Leung White Crane) to encourage the creation of contemporary traditional work and perhaps, to dispel the notion that “traditional” or “ethnic” dance always hails from pre-existing choreography rather than perpetual innovation. Here are some of the highlights you can expect this year:

Weekend 1, June 6 & 7

Gamelan Sekar Jaya: Representing 30 years of bringing Balinese music and dance to the bay Area, this troupe sports the ever-memorable gamelan (a traditional Indonesian gong orchestra) that sets a haunting backdrop of interlocked rhythms for the world premiere of “Subak.” The dance honors the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who presides over the rice harvest and fertility -- and features evocative movement reminiscent of the rituals of ancient agricultural societies. The dance also includes a breathtaking ensemble of giant bamboo marimbas (the gamelan jegog), which actually require musicians to climb them in order to play them.

Murphy Irish Dancers: This local troupe (whose artistic director Mary Jo Feeney is also the recipient of the 2009 festival Lifetime Achievement Award) graces the stage with another world premiere, “Tir Na No’g", an enchanting suite of Irish dances based on a whimsical fairy tale about an immortal Celtic princess beleaguered by the passage of time. The company features older, experienced dancers alongside wee tots (which means it’s always fun for the entire family), whose the festive, kinetic jigs are both hypnotic and uplifting.

Weekend 2, June 13 & 14

Kariktan Dance Company: This company presents the dances of Mindanao, a southern Phillipine island with Muslim influences. The Mindanao-Muslim dance, represented in a trio of dances by the company, is at turns epic and regal -- including a piece on the pre-historic immigration of peoples to the Phillipines, as well as symbolic pre-nuptial and courtship dances. Intricate footwork, flashy costumes, and a fascinating orchestra of brass gongs, slit drums, and bamboo xylophones make for a tantalizing performance full of eye candy at every whirl and turn.

Weekend 3, June 20 & 21

Imani’s Dream: This local hip-hop and modern dance troupe brings the life of the inner cities into a poignant performance, “Love Radio Station,” which uses the framework of a fictional call-in radio talk show to address young people’s feelings about love and self-expression. Popping, locking, strobing, ticking, gliding, and sliding are just some of the fluid movements that you’ll see in this propulsive, gorgeously choreographed world premiere.

Weekend 4, June 27 & 28

The final weekend presents one of the highlights of the entire festival, a storytelling performance that includes five companies: First Voice (a Japanese-American storytelling/music duo comprising Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu), Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco (representing Mesoamerica), Northern California Korean Dance Association (Korea), De Rompe y Raja Cultural Association (Peru), and Shreelata Suresh (India). First Voice works to weave together the dance performances with Japanese Noh and Kyogen dance, with the story of the Japanese sun goddess, Amaterasu. Each of the dancers draws from their own tradition (e.g., through elements such as Mayan hieroglyphs and frescoes of the sun, or Indian bharatnatyam poses addressing the sun) to shape this universal tale of struggle, renewal, and light in times of darkness.

As the capstone of the weekend (and indeed, the event), it’s the kind of eloquent, layered piece that emblematizes what the festival has sought to do for 31 years: not just give people a taste of the exotic or unfamiliar, but to bring even the strangest gestures close to home. While few of us may have the cultural knowledge to fairly evaluate a dance form that we’ve never seen before, the sheer artistry, skill, and empathy of the assembled companies will always make us certain that what we are viewing is truly art.

31st Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
June 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, and 28
Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm
Sundays at 2pm
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco