San Francisco


I arrive in San Francisco late Friday night. Its a short enough trip to my apartment hotel in the Tenderloin district, just around a few corners from Union Square.

First impressions, especially after a long day of travel, and in the nighttime, are always raw and coloured by a sense of the unreal, of the surreal. Arriving into a new city with all your belongings attached to you and moving along with you, you are a small bubble wandering into an established world, whose ways and etiquette are beyond you.

Turk Street, my home in San Francisco, is (I find out) notoriously tough and unsavoury. Although on the map it is around the corner from the most expensive shopping district, it’s inhabited by many, many homeless and people going through a seriously raw and tough time. After I park my stuff in the rooms, I go around the block to get some milk. There are people lying on the street, shouting, fighting, sitting on the ground..vacant, talking to themselves, contorted faces and voices. Its my first impression – hellish – and those sink in deep into the mind.

The next day is Saturday, and I head out into the city – blue skies and warm day. I had been given a list of contact improvisation dance classes through a friend, and decide the best way to land is to get into my body, and move a bit. I’m quickly introduced to the geographics of San Francisco when I realise that most of the classes are in the other bays – involving a lot of travel, and some impossible to get to without a car. Luckily there is a class in the Mission District – I head to the ODC Dance School. I had already researched this school as they partnered the wellness centre and programs at the San Francisco General Hospital – perfect. I get to visit the famous Mission District, do some dancing, and check out where some of the wellness work happens.

So good to arrive into the body, especially after travel, and when in an unfamiliar environment. And when alone. The first thing the dance teacher gets us to do is throw small pillows at each other – pillow fight. Brilliant. Immediately we are laughing, ducking, jumping, moving about the room in relationship with each other – just what I need. A full hour and a half of responding to the weight, shapes, dynamics and qualities of other’s bodies – bringing in sensory awareness of my own, and giving my busy mind respite and time to reflect more organically, softly, gently.
This is the best way to arrive in a new landscape.
It’s a wonderful dance building – wonderful range of classes – lots of adults of all ages dancing. Of course there is the ubiquitous Saturday children’s dance class – I get lumps in my throat watching the kids dancing – missing my dancers – but there are quite a few children sat in the foyer, reading, or on computers, waiting for their Mom’s to finish their dance classes. I laugh when I see a warning sign to parents: “Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy”

On the way to ODC I walk through parts of the Mission District. The Mission district is hugely Latino – Mexican, as well as Asian – mostly Chinese, and more recently, Russian communities settling in. It is dealing with its fair share of gentrification – lots of bespoke cafes and bakeries, but still holds a very Latino feel on many streets. I am feeling pretty elated from the landscape – amazing trees and buildings – palm trees, huge old orange trees – just there in the busy streets. ( I read later that the Mission District has a warmer climate, as it is nestled into the hills, and so protected form the infamous fogs). Amazing old bar and cafe signage, abandoned cinemas, bay windowed Victorian houses, and crusty curled up cafes and shops, bars and galleries. Wonderful cafe names.

I notice people here are easy in their bodies and look – much more “regular” than the sleekness of New Yorkers. Its a very beautiful sunny day, and everyones enjoying themselves. Skateboarders and cyclists of all ages and both genders. Lots of families out together.

Later that evening I am due to return to the Mission District to see a dance performance by Anna Halprin and Simone Forti. Anna Halprin, officially a “US dance treasures” is 94, Simone Forti is turning 80 this year. Very briefly – they are both pioneers in post modern dance – championing exploration, experimentation and expression of body to create work. Anna Halprin began dancing in the 30’s, and has been a luminary inspiration for fellow choreographers and performers. She has been an early pioneed in the expressive arts healing movement. “I believe that if more of us could contact the natural world in a directly experiential way, this would alter the way we treat our environment, ourselves, and one another.”

I bought my ticket many months ago, and am pleasantly delighted to be just hours away now….I have no idea what to expect, but am thrilled to be a witness to work created by such illustrious, experienced and elder dancers.

I want to orient myself, see more, get a sense of the city, so I retrace my steps to the F tram, and head in a completely direction towards Fisherman’s wharf. Easy to just sit and watch the city rumble by. I’m on a tourist route, and its Saturday, so my first journey along Market street is to the soundtrack of wealthy noisy midwestern Americans, and tourists from all around the world. I do get off at the last pier and briefly walk about – trying to get a sense of the place underneath the swarms of tourists. Thrilling to see the sea, to see the bridges (Golden Gate just a glimmer further away), Alcatraz and Treasure Island. Back on the F, back towards the Mission District.

Earlier that day after the dance class, I had noticed a very busy Mexican restaurant, full of Mexican extended families – enjoying family a meal. I make a bee line for there, hoping its still open. It is, and is simply the most delicious (and inexpensive) dinner I’ve had since arriving in the US. The walls are covered in huge blown up posters of famous moustachioed Mexican film heroes, and heroines with beautifully coiffed elaborate hair do’s and perfect shining lips. With my dark beer, I enjoy their company and think about their stories; wander off in my mind thinking about how important film culture would have been to immigrants just arrived in a new city, making their way in unfamiliar and unwelcoming territory.

Finally I arrive at the off the beaten track theatre – would have walked right past it if there hadn’t been a typical dance person woman standing in the street.
I’ve arrived into the hallowed Anna Halprin groupie community – she is dearly, dearly loved and revered here, especially amongst these dance folk. Fascinating watching the audience arrive and overhearing all the conversations, playing at working out the connections. At 94, Anna Halprin is easy elegant, moves carefully and with purpose – her body is all angles, carefully and silkily draped with soft materials. She has that angular boned face older dancers often have – eyes, eyebrow and chin full of expression. Weathered and very wrinkled, and very beautiful.

Anna Halprin begins the evening – there are four dancers, four dance pieces. She introduces her piece, give us the background of its inception. Speaking simply and quietly – you can sense the collective strain and hush to catch her every word. Her performance is short, simple, eloquent. Thundeorus applause and standing ovation.
Simone gets up – less of a goddess – she just moves into the space and begins her improvisation. She moves throughout the space, occupying it fully, speaking as she moves. The words and the movements are not together – its strange and disconcerting to hear her words, and experience her body taking off in different directions and ways. Sometimes a phrase links to a movement and one wonder is the movement responding to the thoughts, but then the dis-synchrony sets in again. Simone references war in Syria – the first I hear of the war on Syria – at the time, I just think its part of a fictional piece. (Grim how easy it is to lose sight of international affairs whilst travelling across America) Towards the end of her piece, Simone reads out from a big black book – words written over several days – possibly the inspiration to her improvisation. I find Simone’s piece more interesting, more thought provoking, Anna’s piece more effective and theatrical.

I am interested in their presence as older dancers, in their ongoing search to create work – to still commit to being in the studio, collaborating and making. There is a post performance discussion, which is meant to be about how the East Coast postmodern body of work contextualises West coast dance developments …. it’s all a bit academic and slightly beside the point. The discussion, curated by a dance historian, keeps stalling, as both Anna and Simone return again and again to the core of their practice – to explore emotional and body expression realised by experimentation, by collaboration with other dancers, artists and media forms. They both deflect statements about their supposed legacy and influence. They tell us that they are still at it, still searching for meaning, they are still exploring – even into this day and age where there is less time and support time to practice as an artist. The process of work is more difficult for young dancers -they had much more freedom, time, and far fewer expectations and rules. They are direct, humble and natural about their place in their own practice and dance world – inspiring.

It is interesting to hear Anna reference the influences of the West coast – Asian art and philosophy and how integral this and the context of working post WW2 was to her work. This, and famously, her passion for and commitment to working in collaboration with the natural environment. In answer to questions around ageing and inspiration – get into the studio space, return to the body, to bodies for inspiration.
Anna Halprin: “Aging is like enlightenment at gunpoint.”


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