Asian Artists Front and Center at SF International Arts Festival

Gu Jiani and Wang Xuanqi in ‘Right and Left’ at The San Francisco International Arts Festival. (Photo: Ryan Cui)

This year, in the face of increasing right-wing antipathy to ethnic diversity, the San Francisco International Arts Festival has found its rallying cry in a line from German dramatist Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there also be singing?”

To that end, performing artists from 15 different countries join forces with American counterparts at this year's festival in two busy weeks of music, dance, theater, and performance art. The flood of events includes One Day We Will All Be Happy, a darkly humorous play from Russia’s famed Meyerhold Theatre Center, epic drumming from the Shanghainese GuGu Drum Group, and ABADÁ Capoeira San Francisco’s high-spirited images of resistance fusing traditional and contemporary Brazilian music, dance and martial arts.

Since its birth in 2003, SFIAF has championed overseas artists who were not yet well known in the U.S. -- like British choreographer Akram Khan -- and nurtured vital cross-cultural and genre-bending experiments. An important part of this effort is the festival’s strong focus on Asian voices during the second week of the event at Fort Mason. Here are four highlights.

In Visible Light by Gamelan Sekar Jaya

Gamelan Sekar Jaya in the world premiere of ‘In Visible Light’
Gamelan Sekar Jaya in the world premiere of ‘In Visible Light’ ((Photo: Courtesy San Francisco International Arts Festival))

Among the offerings is a world premiere from the Bay Area’s Gamelan Sekar Jaya under the direction of master Balinese musician I Dewa Putu Berata and dancer Emiko Saraswati Susilo, in collaboration with American shadow puppet master Larry Reed. Reed fuses traditional shadow puppetry techniques with modern theatrical animation to create live cinematic effects.

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This new work, titled In Visible Light, deploys shadow puppets, dance, voice, and Balinese gamelan to tell the tale of a tyrant “whose arrogance,” program notes inform us, “poisons the rivers of knowledge, arts and culture, casting the world into chaos.” Fighting on the side of justice and enlightenment is Saraswati, goddess of arts, language and learning. The plot speaks broadly to the rise of authoritarianism – including the seismic rumblings in Indonesian politics from Islamist vigilantes who are threatening democratic institutions in the world’s largest Muslim country, long known for being a mostly secular, pluralist society.

Gu Jiani’s Right and Left

Light and shadow is also a vital component of Chinese contemporary choreographer Gu Jiani’s Right and Left, a spellbinding meditation on the power dynamics of an intimate relationship. Gu’s silky, brooding interactions with partner Wang Xuanqi unfold to a soundtrack cobbled from fragments of electronica, Chopin, and the experimental acoustics of Dawn of Midi. Framed and manipulated by the eerie lighting effects of projectionist Ah Ping, the dance appears to comment on the erosion of trust in a relationship that is constantly under surveillance by shadowy figures.

Gu belongs to a rare breed of independent choreographers in China, where the state overwhelmingly controls funding for the arts, and where the crackdown on freedom of expression has intensified since Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in 2013.

From the Top by Victor Fung

The long arm of Chinese censorship reaches to Hong Kong – a territory whose freewheeling capitalist system has, in theory, been shielded from the mainland’s authoritarianism by the “one country, two systems” principle invoked at the 1997 handover from Britain. Notwithstanding this promise of autonomy, Beijing has increasingly imposed its authority over the territory, provoking mass protests. Hong Kong artists like Victor Fung, however, enjoy freedoms and funding support unheard of on the mainland, while political frictions continue to fuel their creativity.

Kenny Leung and Ronny Wong in Victor Fung’s ‘From the Top’
Kenny Leung and Ronny Wong in Victor Fung’s ‘From the Top’ ((Photo: Keith Hiro))

Fung’s piece at the festival, From the Top, takes a jab at the power politics of art. The work made a splash at its Hong Kong premiere two years ago. On the surface, it’s a hilarious romp about a pair of long-suffering dancers browbeaten by a pretentious choreographer. But From the Top also plays with the idea that meaning in art is often sabotaged by the artist’s ego. In the dark times, Fung suggests, you can’t always trust the artists.

Scarabe’s Sell Our Body

Scarabe in ‘Sell Our Body’
Scarabe in ‘Sell Our Body’ ((Photo: courtesy San Francisco International Arts Festival))

Japanese experimental dance troupe Scarabe tackles ego and the commodification of art in the latest incarnation of an ongoing project starkly titled Sell Our Body. Earlier works under this title have enlisted duos, trios and casts of thousands in various site-specific settings. This version is danced by the three co-founders of the troupe. Izumi B Fujii, Yukio Miyahara and Mikiko Shinohara are alumni of the iconoclastic contemporary dance company Noism. Their work, the epitome of 'Japanese cool,' straddles various European dance traditions and the worlds of modern art, Japanese theater, performance art and fashion.

As Japan recovers from the Fukushima disaster, it grapples with serious environmental issues, aggravated threats from North Korea and China, a rapidly aging population and deeply rooted gender inequality. Young artists like those of Scarabe are at the forefront of exploding popular myths about a homogeneous and compliant Japanese society, often standing up to traditional power structures.

The 2017 San Francisco International Arts Festival runs from Wednesday, May 31 through Sunday, Jun 4. For tickets and more information click here.

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