It's excellent news that Laney College is opening its theater once again to independent dance companies. Laney Theater is a perfect venue — comfortable, well equipped, the right size, right near BART — and there's an audience that doesn't want to have to cross the bridge all the time. Many of the dancers and musicians who perform in SF live in the East Bay. Twenty years ago, when Laney was last available, it was home to Redwood Records concerts and also to the wonderful Bay Area Dance Series, which showed Margaret Jenkins, ODC, Fua dia Congo, Dimensions, Kulintang Arts, Lines Ballet, Contraband, all the major companies in important premieres (e.g., Joe Goode's "29 Effeminate Gestures," which gave a new face to gay anger and made Goode internationally famous).
The loss of the Laney was one of many factors that led serious dance performance to move to San Francisco. Oakland was hard hit by the earthquake; the Paramount was closed; Oakland Ballet went into decline; arts funding dried up here while across the bay, SF's Hotel Tax Fund (aka Grants for the Arts) lured companies like Dance Brigade to reincorporate in SF, where Krissy Keefer, director of the feminist Dance Brigade, went on to found the Gay and Lesbian Dance Festival, a festival of Aerial Dance, and to run a theater at Dance Mission that replicated the successes of the old series at Laney and presented interesting new work on a weekly basis. But she missed Oakland. "Our work is feminist," she said. "We have an audience in Oakland, which has the largest 20,000 Lesbians population per capita in the country."
Yes, the Malonga Center on Alice Street is home to three excellent dance companies, Axis, Fua Dia Congo, and Diamano Coura, but the converted vaudeville theater in that building has many inadequacies, and there's no presenter who wants to turn it into a hang-out, as Keefer has made of Dance Mission and Rob Bayliss has made of ODC. But Laney has possibilities: The stage is good-sized, and the lighting possibilities are better than at the Paramount.
This week, Keefer's Dance Brigade, which has not performed here in two decades, plays Laney with a new dance drama based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is in fact a promising subject, a classic in the dance-theater of Indonesia — the journey of a consciousness after death through the catacombs of loss, bewilderment, encounter with the five Buddhas, and purgatory to rebirth. It's a succession of visions, requiring major stage magic, the sort of thing dance can do perhaps best of all the arts. With Matthew daGumbia designing the show and Elaine Bucholtz on sound, it may well be spectacular. It might even pay its way. Dance Brigade, The Great Liberation upon Hearing, Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St. (Lake Merritt BART), Nov 13-22. 415 273-4633 or BrownPaperTickets.com
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