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This summer, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is proudly celebrating its 35th anniversary with 35 dance companies and more than 500 performers and musicians who will come together to highlight and showcase the enormous diversity of the Bay Area’s dance community. The festival will open at noon on Friday, June 7 with a free public performance by Ballet Folklórico Netzahualcoyotl (Mexican folkloric from Zacatecas) and Fogo Na Roupa Performing Company (Brazilian BaileCarnavalesco) in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda. The opening weekend festivities continue on Saturday, June 8 at the Legion of Honor Museum, with a performance by Charya Burt Cambodian Dance.
The festival, originally founded in 1978 and produced by Grants for the Arts of the San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, was the first multicultural, city-sponsored ethnic dance festival in America. It has since expanded its reach to include performers from throughout Northern California representing over 600 dance companies from over a hundred different genres that have included traditional classical dance, sacred dance genres, vernacular dance forms, and social dance and folk dance presentations.
The subsequent three “classic” festival weekends (June 15-16, June 22-23, and June 29-30) will take place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Each weekend’s program will be different, and will include nine to ten masterful performances of varying cross-cultural collaborations.
Festival artists were selected through auditions held in January, and these artists proudly represent countries, cultures and traditions including those of Mexico, Bolivia, Tibet, Cambodia, Senegal, China, Peru, Haiti, Japan, Brazil, Liberia, Congo, Indonesia, Hawai’i, Spain, The Philippines, Poland, India, Israel, Egypt, the Middle East, American Sign Language, and more. Featured Indian artists include Charlotte Moraga (kathak), Tarangini School of Kathak Dance (kathak), Vishwa Shanthi Dance Academy (bharatanatyam) and Xpressions (folkloric).
Vishwa Shanthi will be performing as a group of ten members with a bharatanatyam choreography of dynamic visual patterns that emulate the three-dimensional space of nature, which is part of the theme that the group has chosen to perform this year. Artistic Director, Shreelata Suresh advises the audience to look for clean lines formed by the limbs and bodies of the dancers, for the symmetry and the synchronized movements of the dancers matching the mathematical patterns of the drum beats, and to “feel in their very bones the joy with which the performers will be dancing.”
Suresh states, “ To be selected to perform in the four-week festival is not easy since hundreds of companies audition and only 30 top artists are selected. So every year is a new challenge and an artistic inspiration for me and my dancers—we have new judges, new choreography, [and] new dancers in the group who must meet the high standards of technique and skill and coordination.”
Suresh adds, “[The] festival gives me nuanced appreciation of the ethnic diversity yet similarity in artistic aspirations of different styles and allows me to collaborate more with other dancers. For example this year in addition to our piece, I will be performing a transitional duet with a Spanish Flamenco dancer, La Tania.”
Xpressions is making its second appearance at the festival this year and will be performing as a group of 16 dancers (ages 13-15) presenting Jai Jai Rajasthan, showcasing folk songs and dances from India’s northwestern state. “It’s a praise to the vibrant life of the people in India’s inhospitable Thar Desert, once the land of the Rajasthani kings. The piece incorporates different folk styles including ghoomar, chari, terahtaali, chakri and kalbeliya,” explains Srividya Eashwar, Xpressions Artistic Director and Choreographer. She adds, “Performing at the festival is truly an inspiring and very exciting experience. It is a great opportunity to present our work to a new audience and see their reaction. We also get to share experiences and insights with other great artists and groups in the community representing cultures from around the world, all of whom show an incredible passion for this art.”
Charlotte Moraga has previously performed in the Ethnic Dance Festival with the Chitresh Das Dance Company (1999 and 2001). This year for the first time, Moraga will be performing a short solo comprised of many elements that unfold to take the audience and performers on a unique journey. She stated, “It takes at least 20 years to master the art, to master the four elements: tayare (preparedness with technique), laykari (rhythmic play), khubsurti and nazakut, (the beauty and delicacy of the dance). The most important thing is to be able to improvise within the classical Indian cyclical rhythmic structure called taal, [which] requires intense reyaz, practice. Group choreogprahy is an important part of sharing the art with the world, but the heart and richness of Indian Classical dance lies in the solo and upaj is the heart of the solo.”
Inspired by her guru, Pandit Chitresh Das, Moraga created Conference in Nine to perform at the Festival. “It is a tribute to my guru and the journey I have been on studying with him for the past 20 years. I was inspired to go deep into the art to learn more about the universal truths in the art. There is so much history, philosophy, mathematics, and storytelling. The Indian classical system is a lifelong study. It is so important for the young generation to understand the richness of kathak.” Conference in Nine merges virtuosic traditional elements in kathak within a nine beat taal (a sixteen beat taal is most commonly performed).
Anuradha Nag last performed at the festival in 1995, and this year the founder and Artistic Director of Tarangini School of Kathak and her dancers are excited to perform on the festival stage once again. This year holds special meaning as Nag’s beloved guru, Pandit Birju Maharaj, is being honored as the Festival’s Special International Guest of Honor. “Maharaji is renowned for his mastery of rhythm and expressive abhinaya,” and has received numerous accolades, including from The New York Times and The Times of India. There are two festival events honoring Maharaji, who will be arriving from New Delhi. A ceremony on Saturday, June 15 (8 p.m.) during which he will receive recognition from the Consul General of India, N. Parthasarthi and a Master Class and Artist Dialogue with him on Sunday, June 16 (Noon).
“It’s going to be wonderful,” Nag exclaims. “[This year’s] group of dancers have been my students for the past ten to eleven years and they have also been learning from Maharaji.” The Tarangini dance group’s performance at this year’s festival revolves around the innovative combining of a well-known Bollywood song about true love with the purity of kathak dance. Nag believes that the festival serves as integral platform for diversity in the Bay Area. She states, “California is just so rich with different traditions and cultures. [The festival showcases] all the ethnic dance styles, whether from Africa, Asia, Europe or the Americas and you can see the entire world united on that platform.”
Without a doubt the Indian dance culture is well represented at the festival, and along with performances from other ethnic dance groups, the 35th Annual Ethnic Dance Festival promises to be a memorable series of events. Audiences can look forward to Festival Artistic Directors Carlos Carvajal and CK Ladzekpo shining to spotlight not only Bay Area’s cultural legacy but also on the artists who continue to inspire new generations of dancers and dance lovers. “We are thrilled to present a breathtaking line-up of artists whose work embodies the essence of human experience,” says Festival Executive Director Julie Mushet. “From heartfelt spiritual quests to exhilarating celebrations, dance from cultures that span the globe are thriving in the Bay Area thanks to thousands of local artists working passionately to sustain and share their labors of love.”
June 7 – June 30, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard Street, San Francisco. Opening Weekend: June 7 (San Francisco City Hall Rotunda) free, June 8 (Legion of Honor Museum) $38. Tickets: $18 to $58. www.sfethnicdancefestival.org. (415) 978-2787.