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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Epiphany Dance Theater Presents TROLLEY DANCES 2023, October 20-22, Downtown San Francisco

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Trolley Dances San Francisco, a presentation of Epiphany Dance Theater, celebrated their 20th Anniversary October 20 – 22 with ten free public tours spread over Saturday and Sunday, preceded Friday by a “Kids on Track” program for school children. Trolley Dances continues to be my favorite dance event of the year. Presented annually along different transit lines, it brings attendees to varied parts of San Francisco familiarizing them with public transportation.

Each tour features a half dozen or more dance companies performing in unique outdoor (typically) settings. This year’s outing begins in downtown with seven works spread across two miles and three hours’ time. Beginning in 2007, my Girl Scout troop and I attended eight consecutive Trolley Dances. It is a testament to its universal appeal that it is the sole activity the girls insisted on doing annually, from kindergarten through seventh grade,

It is a rainy Sunday morning but I and fifty other hearty individuals are not to be dissuaded by a little moisture. Though quite soggy by the end, we are still smiling and whooping with appreciation. Due to the rain, two dances must be relocated. The second dance on the program, Blind Tiger Society’s “Let’s Go,” is excluded from the first tour of the day, while the performers rework their piece in their revised location. I happen to catch a bit of it as I return to my car post-tour. It’s a sassy, strutting number for six no-nonsense gum-smacking, sunglass-wearing ferocious femmes.

NAVA Dance Theatre performing at One Bush Plaza, Trolley Dances 2023; Photo J. Norris

NAVA Dance Theatre starts the day off well with “Allowing Joy,” featuring a quintet of dancers performing an Indian classical dance form named Bharatanatyam. Despite the wet ground and constant light mist, the dancers move elegantly over the concrete steps and plaza of their exposed site at One Bush Plaza. Performing barefoot with jingling ankle bells, the dancers’ footwork is intricate, expressing complicated and unified rhythms. Graceful arms extend, with nuanced hand and finger gestures communicating meanings passed down for generations. Storytelling is important to this dance genre. A playfulness develops as several dancers toss an imaginary ball back and forth, while another creates a bird in flight with her hands nested atop each other swooping out from her belly.

Umbrellas up, Sunday morning's Trolley Dance audience is ready for weather; Photo J. Norris

With umbrellas up, and hoods on, we walk five blocks to the Hyatt Regency, where Jean Isaacs has moved her dance indoors to a carpeted meeting room. Isaacs is the creator of San Diego Trolley Dances, now in its 25th year. She has brought four dancers and a guitarist with her from Southern California to perform her contemporary dance “Sleep Walk.” As the dancers climb the large open-work sliding entry- panels, and dive through narrow openings, one would never guess they only met the space within the last hour. The initial sequence feels like contact improvisation, as the dancers experiment with lifts and weight sharing. A choreographed phrase in which the performers are seated shoulder to shoulder facing us follows. As one leans into another a chain reaction causes all four to slump sideways as if melted. Their repose is short, as they shoot up from their chairs to pace chaotically while loudly recounting the specifics of four overlapping nightmares. Their fingers point upward out of tension-wrought clawed-hands as the weight of their tilting heads leads their torsos in a descending swirl. This sleep dance is far from restful.

Amal ElWardi, Meesh Herd, Liv Issacs-Nollet, & Yarrow Severn perform Jean Isaacs's "Sleep Dances;" Photo: J. Norris

Rather than take public transport to our next stop, we hop on a double-decker BIG BUS. The open-air rooftop seats fill quickly, despite the precipitation. Arriving at the Exploratorium, we take theater seats inside the Kanbar Forum where Kinetic Arts performs “Aurum (Act III).” Aurum, meaning gold in Latin, speaks about Gold Rushes past and present. While adventurers of old came to San Francisco seeking ore in the foothills, today aspirants arrive chasing the promise of technology driven riches. Clad in office wear fashioned from silver metallic materials, the cast includes six live dancers. They are joined by a posse of chrome-colored life-sized inflatable dolls with deflated heads. The headless mannequins become dance partners, logs on a pyre, a woven clump of limbs that roll machine-like through the space. A haunting sequence finds the inflatables “standing” alternatingly between the humans in a tightly compressed line, becoming place holders for real people.

Kinetic Arts performing "Aurum (Act III) in Kanbar Forum @Exploratorium; Photo J. Norris

Stiff-limbed and stuttering as if short-circuited, the dancers move robotically through acidic orange and green light. Sholeh Asgary’s sound composition includes machine noises, the whirl of technology, as well as a sub-human/computer-generated vocal strand.

Jennifer Perfilio Movement Works is interested in the intersection between performative and non-performative experiences. Their piece, “Accumulated Tuning: 14 Phases in the Regeneration of the Body,” is as perplexing as its title. It is a make-your-own-adventure piece danced amongst the exhibits and attendees of this activity-based hands-on science museum. The tinkering of a child’s exploration upstages the dance for a moment, as a preschooler places a beach ball atop an air cone and thrills at the uplift the orb acquires. “Accumulated Tuning” is crafted as a guided journey through the space. For me, the requirement to keep up with the group and reposition myself continuously detracts from the observational experience.

Jennifer Perfilio Movement Works performs alongside museum goers young & old @Exploratorium; Photo J. Norris

A chartered MUNI bus delivers us to Fisherman’s Wharf where a cast of fourteen dancers and large batteria await us. Loco Bloco, an Afro-Latinx dance group, wows us with their lightning-fast samba steps, voluptuous shoulder shimmies, and sensuously spiraling hips. Outfitted in vibrant red carnaval pageantry, trimmed with flounces, feathers and sparkles, these youthful performers transition from circular to line formations with seasoned assurance. Their artistry is supported by a thunderous drum corp. This troupe is definitely a crowd pleaser, providing world-class entertainment, not only for the Trolley Dance audience, but also many tourists.

Loco Bloco dancers performing "O Amor Verdadeiro E Eterno" at Fisherman's Wharf; Photo J. Norris

Keeping with tradition, the final dance belongs to Trolley Dance producing organization Epiphany Dance Theater. Artistic Director and choreographer Kim Epifano has outdone herself this year with “Pagine nel vento (Pages in the Wind).” Bringing to life the old wooden piers of the authentic Fisherman’s Wharf, her clever use of small ensembles, and crafty costume changes, allows a cast of seven dancers to seem much larger. As if beckoned by the pied-piper, we follow the dancers & musicians down the wharf, and are rewarded with a dancer’s thrilling backward leap onto the outstretched arms of his castmates. Women, in their Sunday best, dance a jig of sorts. A man tosses a hat up to his friend on the balcony, as accordionist Jonathan Kipp plays a timeless tune.

Derek DiMartini gives us a smile during Epiphany Dance Theater's roving performance: Photo J. Norris

Arriving at the Fishermen’s and Seamen’s Memorial Chapel, we marvel at the daringdo of Roel Seeber and Hien Huynh, who soar over and balance atop slender rails. Daryl Henline and Amy Tobin’s rendition of the traditional Neapolitan song “Santa Lucia,” celebrating the picturesque waterfront aptly closes the show. Once more, thanks to Trolley Dances, I discovered anew this great city, while having a joyful introduction to several new-to-me dance makers.

Trolley Dance San Francisco Founder Kim Epifano with help of accordionist Jonathan Kipp; Photo J. Norris

Review by Jen Norris, published October 24, 2023


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