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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Zaccho Dance Theatre ‘Flying to Freedom’, Bayview Opera House, San Francisco, June 16-17, 23

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

The creation and sharing of art are acts of liberation, sweeping us away from our quotidian concerns, and opening our hearts and spirits. Such is the experience of Flying to Freedom, Celebrating Juneteeth through Aerial Dance, Theater and Music, a new performance review curated and directed by Joanna Haigood. It is offered free-of-charge on June 16 and 17 at the Bayview Opera House, which presents the show in collaboration with Haigood’s organization, Zaccho Dance Theatre. With Flying to Freedom, the artists hope to inspire others “to explore and expand their own liberation” and to “re-imagine our individual lives, communities, and world as a place where Black people and all people can truly live freely.”


The evening showcases the work of exceptionally gifted individuals, whose joy in coming together to make this community offering is palpable. The intention to welcome and uplift is present from the moment we arrive. Dressed all in white, performer Amara Tabor Smith is preparing the space, sweeping and tidying while keeping an eye on the door, greeting friends with hugs, and newcomers with a smile, sharing affirmations with specific individuals as the spirit moves her. She speaks softly to a seated youth, tracing the outline of their feet and chalking the words “Plant Your Feet and Grow” on the floor near them.


As the house darkens and the performance begins in earnest, Tabor Smith circles a pole in the center of the space. Moving with urgency, the weight and speed of her footfalls increase as she expands her focus. Pausing, with feet firmly planted, her face and chest lift skyward, arms open to welcome possibilities, energy ripples quakingly through her body. Known for her Yoruba spiritual rituals, this dance feels like one of possession and of seeding the proper aura for the artists and offerings to come.


As one of the elders nurturing our collective and individual pursuit of freedom, Tabor Smith returns periodically between acts. She urges us to consider when we feel truly free and what may be holding us back. She urges us to develop a daily practice of visioning freedom in which we log our observations in the compact journal we have each been given.


Each artist’s selection is meant to reflect their own understanding of liberation. Actor Steven Anthony Jones is our orator sharing excerpts from two Black American folktales, Robert Hayden’s “O Daedalus Fly Away Home” and Virginia Hamilton’s “The People Could Fly.” Sitting on a swing, surrounded by the young performers, he is a striking presence. He recounts for a new generation these stories which represent a “powerful testament to the millions of slaves who never had the opportunity to fly away.”


Three aerial performers display their strength and grace. Each sail above the stage in ways that leave us breathless and amazed. Toni Cannon hovers high about us, his legs looped around a pole which extends from floor to high-ceiling, his torso tautly extended. There is a collective gasp as he suddenly drops, a collision with the deck seemingly inevitable, until he regrips his legs just in time to hover once more, this time only inches from the stage. A trans masculine circus performer, Cannon’s program citation notes that living as our authentic selves is a path to liberation.


Nationally recognized aerial artist Veronica Blair is transfixing in an aerial-silk work choreographed by herself, Yayoi Kambara and Yuko Hata entitled “Forgiveness, Thank You.” A series of suitcases, our metaphorical baggage, or props for the great migration, deftly become the source of Blair’s silks, which she attaches to hook and are then raised to the rafters. High above us, her limbs swathed in silk, Blair alternates between surrender and struggle, as the fabric which supports her is also what confines her. Ten feet above the stage, she runs in place, her feet ensconced in silk, before extending out so that she hangs with her legs fully split. Her vocalizations, be they audible breathing, crying, or laughing, add layers of meaning.


Jason Span, whose apparatus is aerial-hoop, moves from one stunning pose to the next, all while rotating on high with his hoop. He is elegance embodied. Calibrating his muscles and weight distribution allows him to hang supported by one flexed foot over the hoop, or by the crook of his neck with his body arching in perfect balance under it. He makes the near impossible look easy.


Erik Raymond K. Lee takes us to church with an infectious praise dance performed to the late great gospel singer Duranice Pace’s “The Corinthian Song.” We can only agree when he pats his chest to the lyrics “I have a treasure in me.” Building toward an ecstatic finish, he points skyward overwhelmed by God’s power. The stage becomes a jubilant revival as all the performers join Lee’s passionate celebration.


Dancer Alice Sheppard performs her entire dance, “Tranquil Shelter” inside a wooden crate. The box is perhaps two-and-a-half by five feet and positioned vertically on a raised stage, with a single open side facing us. She seems curious about, and at peace with, her confined existence. Fighting boredom and interested in the possibilities, she arranges herself upside down, feet at the ceiling. Later with her flexible legs pretzeled, she explores the side and upper walls with her hands. It wasn’t until I read the program tribute to Henry Box Brown, a man who escaped slavery by having himself shipped in a crate to abolitionists, that I understood Sheppard’s seeming acceptance of her truncated state.


The jazz stylings of Tossie Long and Red Clay Sound Haus take us on a sonic odyssey with original music and vocals. Unfortunately, the configuration of the speakers and the overly loud sound mix made the lyrics largely unintelligible from my seat.


Six members of the Zaccho Youth Company round out the evening. The young people prance and swing, strutting their stuff on the dance floor and as budding aerial stars. They exhibit both their skills and a deep level of care for each other’s success as they perform in well-matched duos, reminding us that the future holds great promise.


The production was constructed with care and attention making it a pleasure to partake. Haigood weaves the pieces together with a light but effective touch, bridging sections with brief thoughtful connections between artists. Flying to Freedom leaves spirits soaring, and hopefully the seeds of liberation the show plants grow and flourish in all who had the privilege of attending.


The cast of "Flying to Freedom" bows together; Photo J. Norris

Review by Jen Norris, published June 18, 2023

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