Review: RAWdance & TJPA’s Salesforce Park present “Step Song Story” –October 16, 2022 12 & 2 pm
Outdoor performance in San Francisco is always a risk, with weather being so unpredictable. The rewards when things go well can be amazing in this stunning city full of curated public spaces. Such is the case with TJPA’s and RAWdance’s presentation of their free, and open to all, monthly series: Step, Song, Story. The brainchild of RAWdance’s Co-Artistic Director, Katerina Wong. I caught the noontime performance on Sunday, October 16 in Salesforce Park. The setting is stunning, nestled below the soaring skyscrapers of San Francisco’s Financial District. The stage, the glass floor of the main plaza, in the center of the 4.5-acre rooftop gardens. Virtually everyone has a front-row seat, as the performance space is lined on three sides with chairs. The musicians and storytellers perform along the glass wall behind the dance floor.
RAWdance dancers from left Stacey Yun, Nick Wagner & Katerina Wong Photo Credit Jen Norris
Step, Song, Story is billed as a series of collaborative, storytelling performances uniting dancers, musicians and literary artists. Despite its billing I had no idea what to expect. Who would take the lead? Would each group take turns performing? Would the dancers be illustrating the songs and stories?
Each iteration of this 3-part series is unique, as the storytellers, musicians and dancers change. Wong is the th
roughline. She is credited, not only with the concept, but with the curation and direction, including the choreography. For this showing the music, or SONG, is by the Cocoa Keys, a contemporary R&B duo made up of two women of color, singer-songwriters Devon White and Olivia Carrington. The STORIES are written and spoken by Brianni “Bri” Blue, Kai Heartlife, and Jamey Williams from Bay Area Creative. Mike Taylor is credited as the Co-Curator for Bay Area Creative. RAWdance dancers Nick Wagner, Stacey Yuen, and Wong provide the STEP. Throughout the one-hour performance there is always a dancer moving in the space. They dance solo or in groupings of two or three. They perform with the spoken word artists and during the jazz-infused songs. There are perhaps ten sections which alternate between music and storytelling. The choreography fills the space. The movement vocabulary is fluid and sometimes playful. It lives well in these bodies. The weight of a body part at times creates the impetus of a motion. Wagner’s head drops to the side its heaviness causing him to collapse sideways. Yuen is compact and athletic, moving with grace from the floor to a lift. Their partnering sections are dynamic. The trio unison sequences are tightly matched but seem natural. These dancers, longtime collaborators, are able to follow each other even when something unexpected comes their way.
Full company of Step/Song/Story TJPA Salesforce Park Oct. 16, 2022; Photo Credit Jen Norris
Each poet shares two stories. They are each memorable and rich with feeling. Williams tells us how angry he is at a woman for writing off his home town of Richmond as too dangerous. He experiences Richmond as being full of “pride and purpose;” a place “you don’t get to deem worthless.” Blue speaks about the experience of being a Black woman in America, where there is an ongoing “war against spirits and solidarity,” and she lives “behind invisible bars.” Her very being represents “expectations defied.” She recounts how she persists because she knows she is “a brilliant beam of magic,” and the audience knows it too breaking their rapt attention to applaud as she concludes. Heartlife, the youngest of the group, shares about not being able to cry and the grief of not remembering enough about a person they loved, who they lost unexpectedly. They try to “hold on tight to the things that matter.” Rarely, but on occasion, the dancers act out the text. When Heartlife recalls running on a beach or being taught to climb a tree we see that in the dance. The Cocoa Keys’ jazzy, soulful songs are about love and longing to be cared for and cherished. These are universal desires that connect well with the audience and provide fruitful inspiration for the dancers. Their first song contemplates “would you still love me if?” Later a songstress wishes to be taken to New York, telling the object of her love, he will be her American boy. Part of the magic of this format is how the pieces are arranged to take us on an emotional journey. The transitions between spoken word and song sections happened seemingly effortlessly. The Cocoa Keys’ keyboard riffs, playing under the beginning of the spoken word, keeps the format moving smoothly without any overt starts or stops. There was a freshness to the afternoon. The concept allows each artist to contribute meaningfully. The joy and inspiration they each found as a result of their interdisciplinary collaboration was palpable. The whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The series repeats Sunday November 20 with different storytellers, musicians and dancers, but fear not, Wong is still at the helm. Though she hasn’t yet decided whether she will be dancing or just directing those performances. Review by Jen Norris October 21, 2022 _____________________________________