In 1991, three friends—Keith Hennessey, Michael “Med-O” Whitson, and Todd Eugene—co-founded an underground performance venue on Divisadero Street known as 848 Community Space. A hub for body-based art and activism, including dance, pagan sex rituals, and performance art, 848 was a place where queer and sex-positive San Francisco could gather, perform, and create among allies. Born during a time when AIDS was still a full-blown public health crisis—a portent of pandemics to come—848 provided a safe haven of radical access and acceptance to its artists and audiences alike.
“One of the powerful aspects of 848 was that people lived there,” recalls Rick Darnell, CounterPulse’s current Associate Director of Neighborhood Arts, who performed at 848 in the early years with his own dance company—the High Risk Group. “People waking, making art, sleeping, and loving there really blessed the space...truly epic, authentic, vision-grade stuff.”
Now, 30 years, three spaces, and a name change later, CounterPulse may have lost some of its original outsider shine, but it’s gained an expansive constellation of resident artists, fiscal sponsees and co-presenters whose points of inquiry remain both the body and transformative experiences. Now located in the heart of the Tenderloin’s Compton's Transgender Cultural District, CounterPulse continues to expand its vision even as COVID-19 has contracted its in-person programming.
While planning any season comes with myriad challenges, planning an anniversary season in the middle of a global pandemic is definitely next-level hard. Hedging their bets, CounterPulse—like many other performing arts companies around the Bay—released their Spring season schedule just weeks ago, mostly without set dates. This precaution, Artistic and Executive Director Julie Phelps points out, was prescient, as several announced presentations, including their Spring Festival, have already been quietly withdrawn and pushed to the fall.
“Postponement has become a whole new feature of programming, and it feels less like ‘postponed’ and more like we’re ‘ongoing trying to find a place to situate this thing that we’re going to do,’” Phelps says. “When they made the announcement about the potential that the entire Bay Area would be vaccinated potentially as soon as August... I don’t know if we can have hope in that...or how we can expect that to change audience behavior, or what staff will feel comfortable with.” (Indeed, just days after we spoke, CounterPulse announced that this month’s Gravity Dance performance, scheduled as a virtual presentation, had also been postponed.)
One performance that’s still scheduled to go on as planned—though the granular details of the presentation format are in ongoing conversation—is April’s Combustible residency, with StratoFyzika and Pseuda. Rescheduled from 2020, this double bill features two companies devising at the intersections of dance and technology. For their piece Human/ID, Europe’s StratoFyzika draws inspiration from the laws of physics and the inner workings of the human mind, and the Bay Area’s Pseuda presents work combining the immersive qualities of an installation piece with the isolating effects of screens and “rapidly evolving” technologies. The aspect of isolation is leavened somewhat, creator Nicholas Navarro adds, by the evolving realization that in the pandemic, virtual connection also provides “beauty and importance and power...in terms of visibility, representation, community and mobilizing people.”
“The pandemic started out as a speed bump in our path to enjoying in-person dance rehearsals and viewing our process through the lens of IRL rehearsal,” Navarro’s collaborator and choreographer Kim Ip reflects. “(But) once Nick and I realized our piece pertains to the social dilemma of socializing on screens, we understood that rehearsing online was the safest and most apropos—to the concept—option.” Now meeting and filming in small groups at CounterPulse in anticipation of their presentation, they look forward to sharing the results.