Take that, New York dance mafia: New docu “Artists in Exile” convincingly argues that, given an East Coast critical/aesthetic bias, much innovative choreography elsewhere has been overlooked, particularly in alt-culture capital San Francisco. This frequently exciting overview of the last few decades’ leading talents is a must for dance-on-film showcases, also meriting attention from general-interest fests, arts-oriented broadcasters and adventuresome rep programmers. Pic opened Sept. 22 in San Francisco.
Frequently dismissed (when noticed at all) as a land of unpolished navel-gazing by Gotham-centric dance mavens, the West Coast has in fact long attracted choreographers fleeing the fiercely competitive, hierarchical infrastructures and “cool,” formalist styles of the Big Apple’s leading lights. Many profiled here abandoned prestige gigs dancing for Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and others because they felt no possibility of developing their own styles, let alone experimenting with collectivist creation, mixed media and so forth.
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The more open playing field they sought was easily found in S.F., with its fabled history of bohemian subcultures. Price of this freedom, however, has been scant acknowledgment from the national dance establishment (and even similarly jaundiced local critics). One irony duly noted here is that many groundbreaking methods were recognized only when exported to Manhattan.
Though arguably this story could be traced back as far as S.F.-born soloist Isadora Duncan a century ago, co-helmers Austin Forbord and Shelley Trott concentrate on local post-modern dance pioneers from the ’60s onward. Active here for the last 50 years, scene matriarch Anna Halprin broke new ground on myriad fronts — deploying dancers of all ages, shapes and experience, staging site-specific works, deploying spoken texts, exploring dance as a communal and shamanistic rite.
Clips dating back to 1950 (when she draped performers all over an airport hangar) offer striking, too-brief evidence of her key role in shaping a countercultural, anti-conservatory dance aesthetic.
Likewise very much a reflection of their times were the ’70s all-male, gay-positive troupe Mangrove, their female compatriots Tumbleweed and the radical-politicking Wallflower Order/Dance Brigade.
Marginally more traditional in organizational structure were Brenda Way’s still-extant ODC/San Francisco and Margaret Jenkins Dance Co. — though each also experimented liberally with multidisciplinary work, text, collaborations with poets, actors and others. Former Jenkins corps member Joe Goode further pushed the dance theater envelope, incorporating autobiographical material, having dancers sing and so on.
Docu culminates in a look at the still-dominant area influence of Sara Shelton Mann, whose electrifying Contraband ensemble seemed to both coalesce and transcend all prior trends from its early ’80s start. Staging pieces in abandoned buildings, honing a unique tribalist/
spiritual/agitprop aesthetic, taking the contact-improvisation school to wildly acrobatic extremes, Contraband performances often skirted chaos.Parting suggestion that S.F. underground dance still flourishes is somewhat misleading — though pic’s various commentators do note the scene’s funding shrinkage, status quo is in fact far more grim, with skyrocketing real estate values spurred by the region’s dot-com revolution having shuttered most key performance/rehearsal spaces.
Hewing primarily to a loosely chronological, artist-by-artist structure, docu also makes room for brief discussion of general issues: the hostility or neglect of high-profile local and national critics; the huge talent loss brought on by AIDS; influence of the Bay Area’s natural beauty and progressive gender/sexual politics; characteristic innovations in interpolating gymnastic and circus disciplines, ritualistic content, etc.
Well-paced package captures its subjects’ idealistic zeal without becoming too fawning, its p.o.v. broadened by deftly edited input from administrators, journalists, scholars, artistic collaborators as well as choreographers. While some archival excerpts (shot in various formats and in variable condition) work better than others outside their original context, as a whole “Artists in Exile” is colorful and educational enough to beguile arts-savvy auds beyond dance junkies.
Sole structural flaw is occasional placement of unidentified multiartist clips between segs focusing on specific choreographers.
Mostly privately bankrolled on a shoestring, vid-shot pic is above-average in tech polish.