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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Yerba Buena Gardens Festival presents RAWdance: "Drawing on a Decade," Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, June 14 & 15, 2024

RAWdance returns to Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) June 14 and 15 with a trio of sight-specific contemporary dances. Each is performed in a unique outdoor setting in the oasis of Yerba Buena Gardens, nestled amidst San Francisco’s towering downtown.  YBGF, now in their 24th year, presents robust free public programming from May through October, with an emphasis on local artists and organizations. The program, Drawing on a Decade, presented by YBGF. commemorates ten years of fruitful collaboration between the two organizations.

Through the years RAWdance has danced across the lawns, benches, and walls of the Gardens. Today’s program begins with a reprise of their most memorable and physically challenging piece, “Circuit” (2019 - choreographed by Wendy Rein, Ryan T. Smith and Katarina Wong with the original and current performers). The setting is a steeply tiered set of concrete and wood platforms set in the narrow space between the convention center and the carousel.   This sporty sextet finds the dancers moving in complicated patterns back and forth and up and down the 18-inch-high by 2-foot-wide steps. Pivoting often, they work around the trees planted within the compact terrain. The dancers (Kelly Del Rosario, Claire Fisher, Tajh Malik Stallworth, Juliann Witt, Stacey Yuen, Leesha Zieber) are each on their own paths, components of a complicated whole. The pace is fast but not hurried, their expressions stoic.

RAWdance's "Circuit" in performance at Yerba Buena Gardens Festival; Photo J. Norris

Braving the elements, moving on rough and uneven surfaces, and adapting to varied light from one rehearsal to the next, are only some of the challenges of performing site-specific outdoor dance. Making it look cleanly professional and dare I say fun, takes a special crew, and RAWdance has just the folks.

As the intricacy builds, artistic solos and partnerships emerge. Zieber arches their back deeply, their head almost touching the ground, hand-in-hand with Del Rosario who controls the descent.

The dancers lie on their backs, with necks and arms theatrically draped along the edge of the steps, their upside-down faces peering at us. Yuen wends her way nimbly down through a garden of her colleagues’ waving legs.

Performed in denim pants and chambray shirts, with the accent of bright red shoes, “Circuit” is captivating. A pause in the music indicates a change in dynamics from faceless cogs in a machine to one of human interdependency. They work in pairs, trust falling backwards to be caught by the shoulders and pushed back to upright, or to arch over atop their partners’ extended arm. Duets yield to larger group work. Lifts seem all the higher and more thrilling for their execution on the upper platforms, several stories above the audience.

Kelly Del Rosario performing in RAWdance's "Circuit" in performance at Yerba Buena Gardens Festival; Photo J. Norris

A perfect merger of dance and athletics, the physical feats are impressive. In one daring sequence the dancers bound up and down the superscale steps while always facing up the slope. Their legs extend forward to ascend, and reaching the top, they then leap blindly down, legs shooting backward to land on the lower platform in synchronous strides.

Only minutes before its end, Del Rosario finds the strength and energy for a martial-arts and breakdance inspired solo that few contemporary dancers could pull off.  Balanced on one arm, in a freeze, he holds his body taut, floating parallel to the riser, before rejoining the circuitous patterns of all. 

After crossing Howard Street en masse, we arrive at the next site. The East Garden is a raised courtyard, fronted by stage-width stairs, with SFMOMA as its backdrop.  Several dancers, in black gender-fluid skirts or pants, are slow dancing peacefully on the fore-terrace. Like a club filling at the beginning of the night, more join them as the piece slowly develops. Gold-painted shoes of many styles and sizes sit in pairs around the space and create a line up the stairs.

“Requiem” (2017, reimagined in 2024 Choreography Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith with the current and original performers) is a response to the tragic June 12, 2016, mass-shooting at Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando where 49 people were murdered and 53 more were injured.

Joel St. Julien’s original score is hauntingly beautiful, electronic resonance, which offers eternal space and a ghostly voice to those lost.  “Bodies and more bodies – queer, black, brown, Muslim, human - These waves of powerlessness we ride,” St. Julien reads in the opening minutes of “Requiem.”*

The movement language encompasses both ethereal exquisiteness and grim realities.  Arms spread, chests reach, a lift finds Rein floating atop a processional, or taking long leaps supported by courier colleagues.   A repeated gesture involves a hand slowly knifing down in front of a face, as if to close the eyes of one who has died.

RAWdance's "Requiem" in performance at Yerba Buena Gardens Festival; Photo J. Norris

The score includes unmistakable volleys of rapid-fire gunshots, which are wrenchingly embodied by the caving shoulder rolls of the central protagonist, Kyle Limin. Facing away from us, their arms are raised in a gesture merging festive dancing and horrifying surrender.

Carly Johnson expresses the deep emotion of all affected by the tragedy, in a chest-thumping, swirling, kicking and contracting dance of frustration and force, while reverential ceremonial sequences and rituals are offered by the corps along the fronting stairs and a rear pedestal.

“Slipstream,” the final dance on the program, takes place on the long linear terrace over the MLK Memorial waterfall and pools.  Seated on benches that run the length of the space, the audience trades the ability to take in all the action at once for the electrifying experience of being only a breath away from the dancers.

In recent years, RAWdance has been based in New York’s Hudson Valley as well as in San Francisco. One of the joys of this arrangement has been the opportunity to see visiting artist Yebel Gallegos dance.  Dashing, spinning, limbs extended, his agile opening solo in “Slipstream,” sets an artistically high bar for this abstract work for eleven dancers.   

Changes in momentum find dancers tilting expectantly forward on one toe, or canting backward under a lifted knee. Marrying the piece to this location, the performers launch themselves backwards onto the waterfall’s ledge. They land in a close-knit pattern, demonstrating the dancers’ nuanced sense of the space and each other.

Tumbling down to lie on the warm granite terrace, some roll onto their neighbor and are raised and held aloft. The partnering is engaging in its unexpected shapes. Four partners carry their mates, face to face, scooped inside their arms with a leg thrown over their shoulder.

RAWdance's "Slipstream" in performance at Yerba Buena Gardens Festival; Photo J. Norris

It concludes with a large unison section for all eleven dancers, which allows us to enjoy the quirky grandeur of so many human birds balancing on one leg. 

Drawing on a Decade is action-packed, thought-provoking, and inventive.  For those that know RAWdance well, it is a reminder of the company’s versatility and strong artistic voice.  For newcomers, it is a wonderful introduction to a company known for their imaginative environmental art, which marks its 20th Anniversary in San Francisco this year.

Review of June 15 performance by Jen Norris, published June 19, 2024

* Full Text by Joel St. Julien

"We mourn and there is only a cloud of unknowing that is our only consolation. In real-time corpses wash ashore and beat from dance floors exiting without elegance – seized by that deafening pang – all the while memories flash before their eyes with no goodbyes, alone and silent – Bodies and more bodies – queer, black, brown, Muslim, human - These waves of powerlessness we ride – these dark histories intersect into memorials until all is hopeless. Screens saturate us with the profane acts of cowardice and neglect - so what are we crying about anymore? It keeps happening. With alchemy, we offer all that we can, this space, our bodies, this sound. May the angels bring you home."


Production Credits:

June 14 at 6:30 pm & June 15 at 1 pm (with ASL interpretation)

Program starts near the LeRoy Carousel at 221 4th St. (see map on reverse side for map & locations)

Circuit (2019)

Choreography: Wendy Rein, Ryan T. Smith, & Katerina Wong, with the original and current performers

Performance: Kelly Del Rosario, Claire Fisher, Tajh Malik Stallworth, Juliann Witt, Stacey Yuen, Leesha Zieber

Music: Aether, High Plains, Raime, Zaliva-D

Requiem (2017, reimagined in 2024)

Choreography: Wendy Rein & Ryan T. Smith, with the original and current performers

Performance: Yebel Gallegos, Carly Johnson, Kyle Limin, Wendy Rein, Ryan T. Smith with: Kelly Del Rosario, Claire Fisher, Tajh Malik Stallworth, Juliann Witt, Stacey Yuen, Leesha Zieber

Music & Text: Joel St. Julien Requiem

Slipstream (2018, solo from 2023)

Choreography: Wendy Rein & Ryan T. Smith, with the original cast

Performance: Kelly Del Rosario, Claire Fisher, Wendy Rein, Ryan T. Smith, Tajh Malik Stallworth, Juliann Witt, Stacey Yuen, Leesha Zieber with Yebel Gallegos (soloist), Carly Johnson, Kyle Limin

Music: Kui Dong, performed by Del Sol Quartet

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