Dancing Through the Summer Solstice with Sara Shelton Mann

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Six dancers in colorful clothes dance on and around large cement block in outside setting
'7 Excavations / at the edge of the shore and the edge of the world' by Mixed Bag Productions (dancers jose e abad, Gabriele Christian, Abby Crain, Clarissa Dyas, Ellie Goudie-Averill, Gizeh Muniz-Vengel, Ainsley Tharp, Jesse Zaritt, and filmmaker Tori Lawrence) was the culminating work of the ensemble’s 21-day activation of the Fort Mason campus. (Robbie Sweeny)

“Not everyone’s a sun gazer,” Sara Shelton Mann said softly just before the curtains rose on a glaringly vivid sunset. The Golden Gate Bridge appeared through the windows of Fort Mason Center’s Gallery 308, as audiences squinted and gasped. “If you don’t like what you see, turn around and wake up,” Mann added.

The choreographer's foreboding house note was an overture to an enveloping summer solstice performance of 7 Excavations / at the edge of the shore and the edge of the world. The work activated the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture campus to investigate our relationship to the region’s landscape and its history of ecological transformation.

Throughout the evening of June 21, dancers populated space as a mosaic of colors and patterns, falling and finding themselves in forlorn duets. Props on the cement floor waited to be activated; chalk created a hopscotch grid. A guttural synth grew louder as live percussion crescendoed and waned. Film was projected and poetry was whispered as dialogue to the audience.

Dancers in gallery space with large open windows
Mixed Bag Productions' dancers performing at Fort Mason Center’s Gallery 308. (Wes Miller)

7 Excavations by Mixed Bag Productions (dancers jose e abad, Gabriele Christian, Abby Crain, Clarissa Dyas, Ellie Goudie-Averill, Gizeh Muniz-Vengel, Ainsley Tharp, Jesse Zaritt, and filmmaker Tori Lawrence) was the culminating work of the ensemble’s 21-day activation of the Fort Mason campus. But the performance was also the result of scores developed over two decades by Mann, a longtime Bay Area dancer, choreographer and healer.

The evening was an experimental dance in collaboration with the sun, the view and all of the dancers’ surroundings. Sitting in the audience, which surrounded the “stage” on three sides, I had difficulty parsing reality from performance.

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“I forgot to mention there is a pre-show, show, post-show and second show,” Mann told the audience midway through 7 Excavations. “This is the second show.”

A Black person in a green dress poses with their arms outstretched
Performer Gabriel Christian in '7 Excavations.' (Wes Miller)

The second show involved dancer Jesse Zaritt being pushed to the limits of his physicality. He read from a page held by Mann as he lifted himself above a stool with only his arm strength. His palpable discomfort juxtaposed with Mann’s calm demeanor. Next, he joined the other dancers who slapped flower bouquets to the ground, spilling petals across the stage.

The sequence was interrupted by another kind of house note: the voice of Frank Smigiel, director of arts programming and partnerships for Fort Mason. As his voice echoed in the gallery space, we learned it was part of the theatrics. His speech shared historical insight into the site’s history of colonization and army-caused ecological destruction, both at Fort Mason and across San Francisco. Meanwhile, dancers sparred with themselves in struggling motion, embodying the history of the land we were occupying.

A woman with white hair with two performers in background
Sara Shelton Mann. (Robbie Sweeny)

Leading up to the solstice, the public could witness and participate in open rehearsals of Mann’s choreographic process on the Fort Mason campus. That process included activities like “Chi Cultivation,” “Movement Alchemy” physical training, and a writing and movement workshop. Filmmaker Tori Lawrence led a class that made a black-and-white film of the desert that later became part of 7 excavations. Watching the performance, I wondered how much the public contributed to the final product over the course of the residency.

7 Excavations’ site-specific process was subtly displayed through performance vignettes. Unlike many pandemic-era performances, the June 21 audience wasn’t roving through an outdoor site to follow dancers as they jumped on benches or out of buildings. Rather, the ensemble’s relationship to the Fort Mason campus felt more intimate and contained.

At first I was surprised to be seated, but Mann later invited audiences to navigate the world she and her collaborators created, expanding the stage to include more of the world beyond Galley 308, with the dramatic Bay as its backdrop. We separated ourselves into indoor and outdoor viewers. Outside, dancers chased one another and scribbled chalk on the blacktop while Ira Echo played her violin. Inside, we explored the traces of the performance and set pieces constructed during the residency: projected prose about racism, a forgotten game of hopscotch, chalked poetry.

8 artists in colorful clothing smile in green meadow
Mixed Bags Productions includes dancers jose e abad, Gabriele Christian, Abby Crain, Clarissa Dyas, Ellie Goudie-Averill, Gizeh Muniz-Vengel, Ainsley Tharp, Jesse Zaritt, and filmmaker Tori Lawrence. (Robbie Sweeny)

Through the art activations and culminating performance, 7 Excavations mined motifs of our relationship (or lack thereof) to nature. The work yearned for ecological and communal harmony without didacticism. And it succeeded; there was an acute whimsy at play with the gravity of the performance. The audience chuckled. Violin strings were plucked like a wink. Poetic choices were met with brevity, such as a voice that repeated, “Congratulations, you got the job!” alongside Miles Lassi’s lush, synth-drenched soundscore.

Watching the ensemble animate the Fort Mason campus, time seemed to stretch as it got dark. It felt like days ago I was squinting at the sunset through newly uncovered windows—always a good sign. 7 Excavations / at the edge of the shore and the edge of the world found innovative ways to collaborate with its setting, leaving me contemplating how “the rules” of a performance can evolve to match the evolution of the landscape around it.

‘7 Excavations / at the edge of the shore and the edge of the world’ took place on Tuesday, June 21 at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. For more information on the venue’s summer programming, click here