Today I was working for a great dance company called Zaccho Dance Theatre. They were holding a free public performance on Market St. all weekend. I was helping connect with the public, offering a survey and informing everyone about the traveling dance. “Yes, there was a large exodus of African American‘s from San Francisco in 1858.” “Yes, the history of racism lives in the present.” “Yes, dance communicates the power of social change.”
The dance was on Market St. It began at Powell St. and moved down Market until Battery St. The dancers would stop at different historical sites along Market Street to perform a piece. Their intensity was resonant, fierce in moments. They were all dressed in period clothing. Their silence spoke the history of discrimination and struggle that lived in the bodies they represented. Each dancer played a former resident of Market St. who “Sailed Away” with hundreds of their community members. Each dancer offered their performance a sense of connection with the journey down Market St. A ship wheel, an anchor, a bell, a suit case, paintings, a cart of chests, “Mirror of the Times” – a period newspaper for the black community; it was their lives they carried, their sense of place dislocated, their spirits proud and full of endurance, survival.
I had the privilege of witnessing each performance. Twelve, one-hour long performances in all, and with each day I glimpsed more depth, more emotional intensities. The meaning of this journey was writ through their movement and the ongoing dialogue with their environment. Jumping off news-stands, prying up an anchor, standing on statutes of liberty, looking up at “old glory,” gazing at historical plaques telling of former San Francisco shore-lines, and uniting together at Battery St. for the final gathering – the moment of sailing away. This end piece was exceptional. They sit on the benches together, the public taking their lunch surrounding them… There bodies sway in unison, with the sea, the waiting, the destiny-to-come, the departure. Each dancer arises to board the ship. The ship “Sails Away” and the passengers are in calm waters only for a moment before a storm threatens their survival. The storm is their historical circumstance. Their bodies are thrown around the ship, the threat of loss strengthens their ability to help one another, dancers fly, lifted, others throw off the chains binding their wrists and ancles, and with all their futures in the balance the ship is finally turned toward safe heaven. Their new home would be British Columbia. They straighten each others clothes. They know they’ve out-lived adversity, and they welcome new shores.
I now know the importance Joanna Haigood’s work! Under her direction “Sailing Away” had its 2012 debut with complete success. The power of Joanna’s work is the emphasis she places on… place. Her work exercises sight specific narration; she tells a story through the material of location. Sailing Away accomplished what most dance performances strive to achieve – social intervention through the power of place. The magic was magnified in another radical fashion – the nature of place based performance dissolves the boundaries between the public and private and the boundaries between the performers and the audience. Zaccho’s dance truly enlightened the streets of San Francisco this weekend. It was an honor to both participate and watch.