Seated in the center of the industrial-chic dining space at Orson in San Francisco last week, Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein look like any other cute, urban couple catching up over a meal.
But--wait--the twosome are picking at unadorned lettuce, albeit artfully arranged on the plate. Under the table they sport ballet slippers. And, diners are about to discover, not as some quirky fashion statement. For a few nights this month, Elizabeth Falkner's restaurant, which has a rap for adventure in the kitchen, is bringing some extra buzz to the table.
Smith and Rein, the long and lithe co-creators of the popular local company RAWdance, are giving eaters something to chew over while they dine out. Their 10-minute A Public Affair, showtimes roughly at 7 and 8:30, makes fun, flirty use of objects on hand (greens get nibbled suggestively, napkins are tossed playfully over a partner's head, and chairs morph from obstacles to props).
This week, the couple will perform their new work, billed as "California cuisine with a side of violins and a dash of dance," on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Think a riff on traditional dinner theater with a surprise twist a la flash mobs.
This isn't the duos first foray into performing sans a stage: They've danced in an empty store at the Westfield Shopping Center during the holiday season, strutted their stuff in Union Square Park, and just last week took their modern moves to a UCSF LGBT mixer on the rooftop grass patio at the Mission Bay site. (Gotta love the bounce back a sprung surface like grass provides.)
Smith and Rein, partners in dance for more than a decade (and housemates too), are artists-in-residence at ODC Dance Commons, where they teach classes in the wildly popular Rhythm and Motion program (Full disclosure: This writer has been an R&M devotee for 20 years.)
And, like fellow teacher Amara Smith, the pair want to play with food in their creative work. "San Francisco has such a strong, pulsing food culture that we're all naturally pulled to it," says Smith. "I also think there's something about the sense of community around food, the act of bringing people together to share an experience, that's really appealing to tap into."
Rein and Smith, both vegetarians, cook, eat, and experiment in the kitchen together, which is the only room in their house they can dance in. They're also big fans of Top Chef, where Falkner has served as a judge. (This month she can be found among the competition on The Next Iron Chef on the Food Network.)
Despite the unconventional setting, the dancers choreography exhibits classic technique with a strong physicality, set to violin music composed by Sarn Oliver, one half of Tangled Duo, which performed live in the preview run of this work last Tuesday. Scheduling conflicts prevent the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra members from performing each evening.
The dance world can be insular and elitist, says Smith, which is why his company performs for the public in unexpected places. "We like to break down those boundaries by showing athletic, crafted work up close and personal without any distance from our audience," he says.
Dancing in a restaurant is not without unique challenges. "The performance is a constant negotiation between musicality, character, spacing and safety," says Smith of the self-contained piece performed in the heart of the dining room while staff ferry hot food to hungry customers. "We have to negotiate jackets hanging from chairs, purses on the floor, waiters passing by, and dropped spoons." He adds: "It's a tricky situation but a fun one."
This writer can report that no food went flying (except as choreographed) during last Wednesday night's two performances and diners seemed delighted by the cheeky interlude between courses.
The curious and couples looking for something special for date night should snag a table at Orson tonight or tomorrow.
And, heads up to those who want to catch the show without forking out major money in the dining room for, say, hangar steak: The bar or lounge serve as perfectly fine spots from which to watch.
Orson's Happy Hour menu, now available from 5 to 8, features duck fat French fries, curry cauliflower gratin, and mac & cheese, along with $5 cocktails. Watching patrons' reactions to the seemingly spontaneous display in the dining area: Priceless.
Orson Restaurant Bar + Lounge
508 4th Street
(between Bryant & Brannan Streets)
October 18 and 19