Since 2003, the San Francisco International Arts Festival has presented an eclectic array of performance—from circus to cabaret, dance to drag, solo shows to sprawling ensembles.
For audiences unfamiliar with performing arts festivals in other counties (including the Canadian Fringe Festival circuit, the Festival d’Avignon, and the largest of them all, the Edinburgh Festival), such an array of possibilities can seem daunting. How to choose between acts of similar merit but completely different mediums performing at the same time?
For example, what represents the shrewdest choice for an adventurous festival-goer: the chance to see Bay Area solo storyteller Brian Copeland in his foray into documentary drama, The Scion, or Baobab dance ensemble from Japan, paired with local queer dance company STEAMROLLER? The answer is twofold: as each act performs multiple dates, there's ample opportunity to see both—but also, accepting in the moment that there is no wrong choice can be liberating.
In truth, successful festival-hopping includes a component of surrender, especially as Fort Mason, where SFIAF now makes its home, is a bit of a trek for downtown city dwellers. “That hill,” observes festival director Andrew Wood, “is a bit of a physical and psychological barrier.”
To get the most out of any festival, but particularly one as varied as the SFIAF, making a full day of it is the best approach, with a willingness to take a chance on artists or art forms you may not have previously experienced.
Still looking for direction? Here are some of our picks below.
In terms of work that hasn’t been seen before in the Bay Area, the international acts are the festival’s biggest draw, though they typically only make up around 25% of the bill on any given year. This year sees not only the return of circus to SFIAF after an eleven-year hiatus, but one of the featured circus companies, Cirquantique, hails from Montreal, one of the hottest circus cities in the world. A female-led “burlesque” circus cooperative making their US debut, Cirquantique’s show, Bang Bang, transports audiences to a prohibition-era bordello, where the working girls rise up against the bootlegging mafia to control their own bodies—and their own destinies.
Another highly-anticipated international act is Taiwan’s Pao-Chang Tsai, whose “overtly queer,” multi-media examination of the consequences of social media and data mining, Solo Date, is one that Wood has been working to bring to San Francisco since 2016. Confronted with the loss of his longtime lover Alain, Tsai (as Ho-Nien) seeks to recreate him through the advances of artificial intelligence (a scenario somewhat reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode), with unforeseen consequences. Almost aggressively futuristic, yet emphatically human, Tsai’s piece seems tailor-made for San Francisco—where new tech and old principles so often collide.
Putting the San Francisco in SFIAF, acts as varied as the aforementioned Brian Copeland and STEAMROLLER Dance Company rub elbows with the likes of experimental performance artist and “sculptural” costumer Sha Sha Higby, and Dandelion/Bandelion’s playful, participatory We are All Dragons in Drag. In keeping with the spirit of the “international” component, however, many of the featured acts also incorporate a strong diasporic identity into their work, such as Los Altos’ Samudra Dance Creations and The Caged Bird Sings, which takes Indian classical dance as inspiration and reinterprets it for a modern audience. Likewise, Oakland’s De Rompe y Raja Cultural Association performs an original Afro-Peruvian musical entitled Cristo Moreno in tribute to the African influences that helped shape South America tradition, and Theatre Flamenco de San Francisco invite international performers—from Spain, Mexico, South America, and India—for their newest piece El Cruce de Lenguajes (The Crossing of Languages), created especially for the festival.
Down By the Riverside
One of the biggest events for this year’s SFIAF, and one very much rooted in the American experience, is this year’s centerpiece performance, Down By the Riverside: Requiem for a King. A world premiere that interprets Martin Luther King, Jr.’s antiwar “Beyond Vietnam” speech through instrumental jazz, movement, and song, it's led by composer Dr. Anthony Brown and the Asian-American Orchestra, and features Dr. Angela Davis. A companion piece, Go For Broke, gives recognition to the Nisei veterans and the people forced into Japanese-American internment camps during WWII, featuring former poet laureate of San Francisco, Janice Mirikitani.
Despite the challenges of curating and hosting a multi-faceted festival without a single defining factor or performance style, Wood prefers to think of the inability to pigeonhole his festival as its own kind of focus.
“There’s a lot of variety here,” he emphasizes, “(of artists) that you may never have seen before, and are not part of any circuit that’s going to come around every couple of years. And that’s what festivals are for...to experience this density, and variety of work.”
The San Francisco International Arts Festival runs Thursday, May 24–Sunday, June 3. Details here.