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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Presidio Dance Theatre, 25th Anniversary Gala, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, May 18, 2023

Updated: May 21, 2023

Presidio Performing Arts Foundation (PPAF) and their performance company and school, Presidio Dance Theatre (PDT), pulled out all the stops at their 25th Anniversary Celebration: Honoring the Women of Iran gala.

PPAF, founded in 1998, provides quality arts education programs to underserved Bay Area youth. In partnership with San Francisco Unified School District, their DANCEOUT! program offers free, on-site after-school dance classes at SFUSD and YMCA sites, benefitting more than 140,000 students thus far. PDT is a multi-generational dance company whose dancers are trained in Vaganova style ballet, folk and character dance, a style they call “Ethno-Classical Ballet.”

The cast of Presidio Dance Theater's Unbreakable take a bow; Photo by: J. Norris

Over the course of the evening video testimonials of alumni from the DANCEOUT! and PDT programs are interspersed amongst the dances. Through them we meet people whose lives were transformed and grounded by dance thanks to PPAF. PDT not only taught them how to value themselves, but their focus on dances from around the world served to expand the young people’s understanding of other cultures. Touring internationally and making cross-cultural connections through dance, several spoke movingly about seeing themselves as cultural ambassadors.

Performed in richly detailed, colorful folkdance-inspired costumes, the selections in the first act are stylized representations of traditional folk or national dances. The program is delightful, it is an excerpted version of the Children’s Day show PDT offers schoolchildren each spring at the War Memorial Opera House.

The dancers’ strong balletic training shines in several pieces including Mazurka, from the Petipa’s Paquita, Shalom Aleichem choreographed by Ronit Ronen Tamir, Danse Russe, from Petipa’s Swan Lake, and the Bell, from the ballet The Fountain of Bachchisarai. While I enjoyed these smaller pieces, PDT excels in the large company numbers in which twenty-plus dancers from kindergarten age to adult take to the stage.

For the Ukrainian Suite ten women toe-heel across the stage in their red boots. They stand erect, shoulder to shoulder, their arms crossed to hold the hand of a girl two to their left or right. Not to be outdone the men enter leaping into the splits, touching midair their outstretched toes. Their Cossack style wide pants tucked into their boots accommodate acrobatic tricks like walking on one’s hands, back to the floor while kicking one’s feet or cartwheeling handless through space. Tambourine in hand for all, the joy and energy of La Tarantella is contagious, as dancers jingle and tap them overhead or under a raised leg.

The Men of Azerbaijan, choreographed by Zurab Dudashvili, is a scene-stealer featuring five men in traditional Georgian curly-black-fur hats. They defy gravity with their jumps, legs folded to the side in zig-zag. The audience exclaims as a dancer circles the stage on his shins, and bounces on his knees.

Act two features the world-premiere of Artistic and Executive Director Sherene Melania’s Unbreakable, her tribute to the women of Iran. Melania offers an introduction to the work, speaking of four decades of women being disrespected, targeted and treated as second class citizens in Iran. PDT’s motto is “Justice Through Dance,” and she hopes to bring continued attention to the Women, Life, Freedom movement in Iran in which women are removing their headscarves in acts of disobedience and protesting the police murder of a young woman for that crime.

Unbreakable’s eight sections carry us from oppression through fight, and loss, to freedom and hope. In stunning black shear full-length chadors, designed by costume designer Lily Samii, women enter in a line, their legs kick forward in long strides their torsos arching backward behind them struggling to keep up.

Dancers perform Presidio Dance Theatre's 'Unbreakable' in costumes by Lily Samii; Photo by Vin Eiamvuthikorn

In western shirts and jeans, the obedient are replaced by those more ready for a fight. Waving their newly removed head-scarves in the faces of the fatigue-clad soldiers lining the backwall, these protestors are soon carried away. The arrested are quickly replaced with demonstrators chanting in Farsi and carrying placards, one reading #FightLikeAGirl.

In the section titled The Spirit Awakening, Melania uses dance vocabulary to embody the spiritual awakening of the captured. Four women in grey-blue are visited by four spirits who dance on pointe, as white transparent fabric, extending to their fingertips, envelopes the fallen. The spirits help lift the victims, assisting them in fighting back. The casting of grown men as the soldiers, against the frailty of the young female performers adds to the tension, but may be triggering for some, as they lift a flailing young woman above their heads.

Sherene Melania performing in Presidio Dance Theatre's 'Unbreakable' Photo by Vin Eiamvuthikorn

Melania is not only the choreographer of Unbreakable but also the star. She implores a guard to assist or understand her, to no avail. Prayerful and alone, she too is visited by the spirits, who embody the grace, beauty and tenacity of Iranian women.

A gratuitous men’s dance follows. Unnecessary to the story’s arc, the men’s power having already been established, it showcases the high bent-legged jumps and distinctive knee twirling of a Georgian war dance all performed with fisted hands.

Freedom may be won in a dance off. To zurna and drum music the stage is split men on the left, women the right. The groups match each other in skill and speed. Coming together face to face, their feet ablur in Kurdish-influenced quicksteps. the lines rotate like spokes of a wheel.

Candles fill the stage. Women, girls and small children, all balancing a votive-light in each palm, offer them skyward. Hope exists in the form of a light twinkling on a now darkened stage. Art is a powerful tool for social justice and one can imagine this piece being inspiring to the women of Iran and others facing oppression.

The evening concluded with a fundraising auction and a delectable Persian family-style dinner in the Veterans Building Green Room. San Francisco VIP’s were on hand to toast PDT’s ongoing engagement with local students and international audiences and causes. California’s Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis was all smiles as she recalled hosting PDT’s tour to Budapest as Ambassador to Hungary. Former San Francisco Mayor’s Art Agnos and Willie Brown, Jr. were also seen mingling with guests. The event’s proceeds will be split between PPAF’s education programs and the Center for Human Rights in Iran, both excellent causes.

Review by Jen Norris, published May 21, 2023

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