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Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, Ina Coolbrith Inspire Outdoor Dance Piece

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A scene from a rehearsal of ‘This Land: Oakland’ by Sarah Bush Dance Project (Photo: Lisa Harding)

The weather gods shed tears just as performers Nina Wu, Chelsea Hill and Nicole Casado of the Sarah Bush Dance Project began to ascend the massive stone staircase at Oakland’s Woodminster Cascade last Sunday afternoon, Mar. 20. Grey skies did nothing to dim the grandeur of the surrounding redwoods, Monterey cypress, olive and eucalyptus stands. Clad in starkly chic blouses and voluminous layered skirts in black and white – attire one might think wholly unsuited to a wilderness expedition – these graceful, intrepid young women scrambled and leapt and rolled and grappled their way up the 242 granite steps, dodging hypothetical bullets and slaying imaginary dragons en route.

The musings of three pioneering Bay Area women artists — Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, and Ina Coolbrith — whose lives intersected in the late 19th century, punctuate Sarah Bush’s “Reach,” the second in a triptych of springtime outdoor performances celebrating the wilds of Oakland, This Land: Oakland.

The first part was performed a month ago. Dubbed “Recreate,” it featured a quintet of ninjas in hoodies and sweats who seized the Lake Merritt waterfront, under the stern gaze of the Greco-Deco Alameda County Court House. Majestic vocalist Gina Breedlove held sway, delivering an urban jungle scat. In a witty moment, the dancers swung their legs over the waterfront railing and hung upside down, the sparkling lagoon as their backdrop, while Breedlove intoned, “We are learning to breathe underwater.”

Watch a short video excerpt of “Recreate”, performed at Lake Merritt on Sunday, Feb. 21:


For this second site-specific work, the choice of Woodminster Cascade on the edge of Joaquin Miller Park provided a bracing contrast to the concrete, metal and water of downtown Oakland. The park’s history led Bush to identify Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate and the first poet laureate of any American state, as an inspiration for her dance piece. Coolbrith, a highly influential figure in the San Francisco literary world, was a close friend and rumored lover of eccentric poet Joaquin Miller. Miller bought the 500 acres that eventually became Joaquin Miller Park in the 1880s. He extensively planted the land and made his home there.

Coolbrith was a generous mentor to many Bay Area writers and artists, including the dancer Isadora Duncan, the second woman to inspire Bush’s piece. For her third inspiration, Bush picked Stein, who grew up in Oakland. Stein wrote an appreciation of Duncan that began, “Even if one was one she might be like some other one.” As it canters along, Stein’s tribute appears to simulate the hypnotic rhythms, the antinomy of Duncan’s dancing, which radiated both discipline and freedom.

A scene from the second part of Sarah Bush Dance Project’s ‘This Land Oakland’, "Reach", at Woodminster Cascade, Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland
A scene from the second part of Sarah Bush Dance Project’s ‘This Land Oakland’, “Reach”, at Woodminster Cascade, Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland (Photo: Lisa Harding)

So, too, does Bush’s elegant, muscular choreography in “Reach,” danced with controlled abandon. The three dancers swept up the staircase, their movements writ large against the massive architecture and scenery even as their figures grew smaller. Those miraculous skirts billowed like sails on the clipper ships that plied the trade routes during the California Gold Rush. The dancers hoisted each other on their backs when the going got rough, and scaled the mighty stone parapets, arching into backbends, fearlessly lifting their faces to the rain. The silky strains of Zhalisa Clarke’s violin, together with Anita Lofton’s plangent guitar and smoky voice, propelled them on their journey between the readings from Stein, Coolbrith and Duncan.

At the close of the piece, the dancers stood poised on a rampart, tossing pieces of notepaper to the wind. Were they pages of autobiography? Love letters? Poems? Rulebooks?

The third and final episode of This Land: Oakland takes place at the Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline on Sunday, Apr. 17. “Recall” features musician and activist Melanie DeMore, who will take the dancers and audience through a Gullah stick pounding ritual, combined with spirituals and songs of protest and peace. As with the other two works in the series, Bush hopes to activate the surroundings in a memorable way. “We will, as a community, turn the whole place into a living, breathing drum,” Bush says.

To find out more about the third installment of This Land: Oakland, which takes place at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline on Sunday, Apr. 17, please click here


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