In SF Dance Film Festival, Turmoil Fuels Great Performances

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A photograph of young Alvin Ailey from 'Ailey.' (Jamila Wignot and NEON)

Two films anchoring this fall’s San Francisco Dance Film Festival trace the growth of two trailblazing dance companies on opposite sides of the globe, led by men haunted by their ancestral pasts. Ailey and Firestarter are gripping accounts of the social and political turmoil that fueled the creative geniuses of Alvin Ailey in America and brothers Stephen, David and Russell Page in Australia. They offer a rare window into the breadth of the Ailey repertoire and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s contemporary embrace of Aboriginal dance traditions.

“Using our art form as our weapon is the way we have to fight,” says dancemaker and Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page of the longstanding injustices against Australia’s First Nations people that robbed them of their land, wrested children from families, and forced them to assimilate in an attempt to “breed the Black out of them.” In profoundly stirring and visually spectacular works like Ochres, an interplay of sacred Aboriginal rites and symbols with aspects of modern Aboriginal life, and Bennelong, an epic retelling of the life of the Aboriginal leader who mediated with British colonial authorities, Bangarra has celebrated indigenous culture and resilience.

Firestarter is a frank, deep dive into the lives of the Page brothers, including composer David and dancer-choreographer Russell—the arc of their lives both tragic and uplifting.

Ailey takes a more oblique approach to its subject, who was born in Depression-era Texas to a single mother and who largely kept his personal life private. Perhaps the best clues to the man lie in his work, from his early Blues Suite, reminiscent of the honky-tonks of his youth, “where we let it all hang out... [at] a time where people didn’t have much but they had each other,” as he noted in an interview, to his blockbuster Revelations, Masakela Language’s blistering portrait of apartheid, and Cry, his gut-wrenching tribute to Black women.

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Ailey died at 58 but his company has flourished, and like Bangarra, was one of the earliest to assemble a world-class company of principally Black and Indigenous dancers and collaborative artists. Representation in dance can be transformative—and while concert dance on world stages may still be afflicted by tokenism, some of the thought-provoking films at this year’s festival foreground dance as a celebration of identity and dance as embodied activism.

In Chishkale: The Blessing of the Acorn, a modern-day dance by young Pomo Indian women in the East Bay frames efforts to reclaim indigenous land and to conserve the Tan Oak tree, a sacred source of acorns that have fed indigenous tribes for generations.

Bernadette Smith in 'Chishkale.' (Linda Mai Green)

And in Black Magic, multimedia artist Rashaad Newsome used motion tracking software and film and editing techniques to amplify a sense of the superheroic in an electrifying live performance. The sensational sound design surrounds the performers with musicians, a choir, opera singer and MC and layers a spoken manifesto of the Black male body on top of vogue beats, the sinuous lines of flute and sax, sacred plainchant and mesmerizing vocals.

Digital magic of another kind revamps the 19th-century comic ballet Coppelia, choreographed by Ted Brandsen for Dutch National Ballet. A cutting-edge mix of live action and animation whisks this absurd yarn into the 21st century, satirizing modern beauty standards and the vapidity of the beauty industry. The villain, now a deranged plastic surgeon, faces the quick-witted Swan (Swanhilda in the original), danced by ballerina Michaela DePrince.

DePrince, who will be present at the film’s U.S. theatrical opening on Saturday, Oct. 16, has become a real-life heroine to many young people, for her extraordinary journey from an orphanage in Sierra Leone to America and on to the world’s leading ballet stages, and for her outspokenness against racism in ballet.

Swan (Michaela DePrince) and Franz (Daniel Camargo) in 'Coppelia.' (Jeff Tudor, Steven De Beul and Ben Tesseu)

The festival has plenty of locally focused offerings as well. In a time of heightened racial conflict and pandemic isolation, dance as a yearning to connect is depicted in a short conceived by Gary Morgan (a.k.a. Ice cold 3000) of the Oakland-based Turf Feinz dance crew. What I See unites dancers from Oakland Ballet and Turf Feinz in a moody, spellbinding collision of dance styles.

Before turfing, there was boogaloo—also an Oakland phenomenon. In Big Dubb, Darrin Hodges, one of the pioneers of boogaloo, revisits old haunts, recalling the era of the Black Panthers and James Brown’s funk innovations, when drugs flooded into Oakland and when survival, to him, hinged on the dance.

But what can dancers do when studios and stages are shuttered and gathering to train, battle, partner and rehearse poses a potential threat to public health? Like we did with so many activities over the past year and a half, Juliet McMains’ Milongueando takes tango milonguero outdoors. Steps meant for crowded, cigarette smoke-filled dancehalls are now traced on sidewalks, beaches, dirt paths and rooftops around San Francisco.

The San Francisco Dance Film Festival runs Oct. 15–24, with films streaming on Marquee TV alongside select in-person screenings. Details here.