On bright sunny afternoons, the Yerba Buena Gardens looks like the storybook picture of an urban oasis, with the waterfall rolling down on one side, sunbathers dotting the sloping hills and kids playing soccer on the green lawn. Perhaps it's not the most ideal setting for a dance performance. It's true that low flying pigeons don't usually buzz the audience in the nearby Center for the Arts Theater, nor is the music usually obscured by a passing Harley. But there's something pleasantly escapist about slipping out for lunch hour and seeing a free show, and when the show turns out to be well-conceived and satisfying, well, you feel as though you've gotten away with something.
The Yerba Buena Gardens Festival puts on free midday concerts and events through October, and this year for a week in August, the festival turned its focus on local choreographers and dancers, culminating in an hour-long program brought together by curator Brechin Flournoy and directed by Laura Elaine Ellis. Festivals that put their artists in a lineup and send them out one after the other are a dime a dozen, but for the Choreofest program Ellis eschewed such usual conventions and created instead a performance that blended and overlapped performers in a cohesive and engaging way. Just big enough to suit the outdoor expanse, and yet intimate enough to suit the eclectic style of the artists.
Some of the work has been performed before in other contexts, and intermingling the segments was a risky choice. With a line-up of as different as beatboxer Elaine Chao, poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, choreographer and dancer Sue Li Jue and hip hop group New Style Motherlode, it could have come off as a disjointed mishmash. But Ellis, who also directs the Black Choreographers Festival, puts the pieces together with a canny ear to form a mosaic of experiences that maintain a thread of continuity and commonality. Rhythms from Chao's chill beatboxing style (she mimics everything from cruising in a low rider to playing basketball) merge into the rhythm of Bamuthi Joseph's words, and Joseph's final lines of poetry pick up the lyrics of the New Style Motherlode number. Sue Li-Jue's political understatement and Joseph's outspoken choreo-poetic style moved us seamlessly from the political to the personal and back again.
In the end, the most seductive element of the show was the informality of the gardens, which seemed to give the performers license to move off the stage and get a little closer to the audience. Chao began the show up on the stage with a mike and stomp box, but it wasn't long before she joined Joseph who came from somewhere amidst the audience. Meanwhile, the dancers of New Style, in saucy, Prohibition era outfits, lounged comfortably on a picnic blanket on the grass with a large dark parasol, before strutting and posing their way to the front on their way in a skittish dance that could be set in the foxy little dress era of the Cotton Club or at Milk on Haight. They worked their way all the way around the group of seats to the waterfall, stopping strolling couples on the path that snakes around the gardens before heading back to the blankets -- that's one way to stop people in their tracks.
Actually, for that matter, it felt like any of us could have gotten up to dance along with them -- indeed, some of the kids moved right up to the front and were practically underfoot, until an overzealous security guard shooed them back to the blankets. By the end of the show, though, all the performers went out to lure assorted audience members into shimmying up at the front -- when you gotta dance, you gotta dance.
ChoreoFest ran August 20-26, 2006 at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco.