Dance IS, Dance Ain't 

Julia Morgan Theatre's ambitious dance festival is a mixed bag.

Joe Goode, a pioneer in Bay Area dance theater, whose warm cowboy voice twangs with irony, got things rolling one Saturday night in late January during the first Dance IS Festival in Berkeley. About a hundred people gathered at the Julia Morgan Theatre for the second of three performances on three consecutive days. This one was dedicated to dance as a storytelling medium, and Goode, a skilled maker of wistful vignettes about place, self, and body, was on hand to explain what it meant for dance to tell a tale. Dance, he said, always recounts a story because it uses the body. The body is inevitably telling us something.

The night before, Frank Shawl, éminence grise and cofounder of the Shawl Anderson Dance Studio, had said that dance is movement. And before a matinee performance the next afternoon, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Assemblywoman Loni Hancock talked about dance as social change.

Dance, it seemed, could be anything.

Four hundred years ago, without having to define it, Puritans condemned dance as the work of the devil. Even fifty years ago, it still wasn't something "nice girls" did for a living. We've come a long way since then, putting dance back into our lives and making the United States an international leader in modern dance and ballet. You would think that what dance is would be self-evident by now, and that no one would still need to ask.

Just a few generations ago, no one would have had to bother to define it. Dance was an intrinsic part of life, performed in the field, in the tavern, or on every ritual occasion. These days we might dance at a party or a club, do the hora at a wedding, or walk in a processional at a funeral, but otherwise dance is a performing art typically reserved for professionally trained experts. Over the last century, the professionalization of dance has deepened. Ballet morphed into one of the modern arts, with training demands rivaling those of Olympic sports. Modern dance was born, with its own highly individualized methods. It is now possible to never watch dance as an audience member except on Sesame Street or in Super Bowl half-time shows. And after childhood is over, you might never have to dance except at your own wedding. Not many people seem to mind.

Nevertheless, there are a few people who see dance as a critical form of expression that the public -- even an apathetic one -- should have access to. What's more, this thinking goes, if the public doesn't want to see dance, someone should figure out how to convince them otherwise. Julia Morgan Center executive director Sabrina Klein joined this camp when, one year into her tenure, she discovered that there are few viable East Bay dance venues.

Dance is so ephemeral, Klein believes, because it has no script or score to anchor it. And except for large companies with significant budgets, dance runs tend to have the lifespan of a moth. This makes it difficult, she says, to "form a core place for dance" the way that plays have theater companies, and those companies have buildings that house them. Klein, an actress and director who came to the center three years ago after heading Theater Bay Area in San Francisco, wants to help the Julia Morgan Center make a place for dance to flourish in the East Bay.

She began to invite dancers to talk to her. Finally, she says, "On September 11, 2001, if you can believe it, we scheduled a community conversation, and forty people were signed up to come." Despite the events of that day, Klein recalls, 29 people actually attended and discussed "the chaos and terror in our lives. Everyone agreed that things need to be said through dance that can't be expressed in any other way." From that meeting, Dance IS was spawned.

Klein says the ultimate goal of the festival, which she hopes will become an annual event, is to make dance a more visible and stable presence in the East Bay performing arts scene, where local theater and music thrive but dance is produced only sporadically. And the hope for the long run is to establish a public profile for dance as a necessary and exciting art form. Unlike most other venues in town, the Julia Morgan has the physical goods to help this happen. While it doesn't have the best sightlines, it has a real theater with a real stage big enough for modest ventures and is physically central enough for dancers throughout the East Bay to use.

But is the issue really about venues? Space alone isn't the problem, and organizers of the Dance IS festival knew that when they began. They decided to try to tackle some of the other barriers they believed separate the public from dance -- which range from lack of interest to incomprehension -- and hoped to do it through a combination of sheer aesthetic variety and intergenerational diversity. Although no one said as much, an intergenerational approach was also the best way to secure an audience of kids who bring their parents and friends, and parents who bring their kids.

"Originally we had three separate weekends planned, one for college, one for high school, and one for professional dancers, but then we thought we should combine them," explains Jill Randall, a dance teacher at the Julia Morgan Center's Lincoln Center Institute, who borrowed the festival's catchphrase from the "Art IS Education" campaign of the Alameda Art Council. Themes seemed a way to "to pull people together and unify them," she says. It also seemed the best way to link radically disparate groups.


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