“Lighten up-it's only dance!” is choreographer Betzi Roe's message to anyone who believes dance is a stuffy, esoteric affair fit only for dark theater spaces. “It's very powerful to put it out there in the fresh air, in the sunlight.”
Roe is talking about the San Diego Dance Theatre's annual Trolley Dances, which take place Sept. 28-29. “It's accessible; it's all the things about public art that we embrace,” explains the event's creator, Jean Isaacs.
As artists often do, Isaacs gave birth to Trolley Dances out of necessity. She formed SDDT five years ago after her previous dance company disbanded. Only, she couldn't afford renting a theater space. So she built from an idea she had witnessed in Bern, Switzerland, and decided to create dance that didn't need a theater.
Audiences who go along for the ride-literally-will experience what is known as “site-specific performance,” art that uses unusual locations as an impetus for creativity. Starting at 11 a.m. on both days, tours depart hourly from Trolley Central at 12th Street and Imperial Avenue downtown, and travel along the public transportation line all the way to the U.S./Mexico border.
At each stop, viewers will be exposed to a different dance style. “It's about community,” stresses Faith Jensen-Ismay, another one of the project's choreographers. It's a view of the San Diego community that can't be seen while fighting traffic or chatting on cell phones.
Now in its fourth year, the Trolley Dances deliberately use a different section of the trolley route each year. For some of the stops this year, there won't be perfectly paved sidewalks and immaculate Starbucks nearby. The tour will take San Diegans into economically challenged areas they're not always comfortable exploring.
Jensen-Ismay's piece proves that Trolley Dances' aim is not only to make dance accessible to all audiences, but to all dancers as well. “One of my passions is to make dance accessible to everyone,” she says.
Children with no dance training will mingle and twirl amidst her four professionals. And then there are three participants who aren't necessarily expected to dance-quadriplegics.
Michelle Caputo was a dancer before an accident confined her to a wheelchair. She's found a way to continue with her passion despite losing use of her legs. Another wheelchair dancer is a former college wrestler who sought a new form of physical expression, and the third is a 9-year-old Oceanside boy named Uriel.
“He's quite limited in his mobility,” Jensen-Ismay says of Uriel, “but he's so lively and full of joy when he moves.
“Working with people of different abilities can be scary,” she admits. The challenge is to build trust between the fully mobile dancers and those in chairs. The performers have plenty of physical contact, lifting and turning one another in what may seem like impossible feats.
“I try to give [the movement] to everyone as if they're all equal. I say, ‘I'm going to ask you to do something and you tell me if it's possible.'
“The dancers are doing a great job of overcoming some of the challenges,” she explains, adding that she attempts to view the wheelchairs as assets rather than obstacles. “‘What can the chair give us? How can we use these spirals and turning movements?'”
Another piece that strikes a human chord is “Funeral For a Fallen Hero,” which will take place at Chula Vista's E Street station. San Diego Dance Theatre's Betzi Roe learned the piece from its creator, an Iranian American named Jamal.
“I took the images and imbedded them in my modern dance,” Roe explains. The dance depicts mourners at an Iranian funeral that Jamal witnessed as a child, but Roe saw its relevance to Americans still grieving over 9/11.
Jamal's version of “Funeral for a Fallen Hero” has been performed in 10 different cities around the U.S. in conjunction with 9/11. The performers-eight women and six men, a mix of professionals and amateurs-use solemn, dark, repetitive movements to convey the mourning. In the original, one of the female mourners picks up the shield of a fallen soldier and carries it off in sorrow. For her interpretation, Roe replaced the shield with an American flag.
“It's very simple and quiet,” says Roe. “It provides the audience with a basis to just be quiet and contemplate.”
Roe believes art and movement should be used as a catalyst for discussion. She expects some controversy about the fact that “Funeral for a Fallen Hero” comes from an Iranian source, but contends that all cultures can relate to grief.
“The lay audience can relate to this. All human beings can be touched by this,” she says, adding that the average person will enjoy Trolley Dances as a whole. “It's a nice introduction to dance.”
“It's wonderful to see art in atypical places,” agrees Isaacs, who choreographed two of this year's dances. One features her own dance company squeezing onto a five-foot loading dock in Barrio Logan, and the other posits community dancers in front of the adult education center in National City.
“It's always been that to be a dancer, you have to be beautiful and skinny and have your leg up to your ear,” Issacs reflects.
With her project, everyone-including your average trolley rider-has the requisite skills.