SF Int'l Arts Festival Celebrates Global Performance

by Jean Schiffman

Seventy ensembles perform at this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason.

This year’s three-week-long San Francisco International Arts Festival virtually hijacks bucolic, bayside Fort Mason Center, with 70 ensembles appearing in almost 150 performances in seven on-campus venues. Executive director Andrew Wood has reason to celebrate: Fort Mason Center is now an active presenting partner, billing the

Festival as part of its FMC Presents series. Among the offerings are U.S debuts and world premieres in theater, dance and music, from international groups as well as local and national companies.

This month, in the theater division alone, the American company Inferno Theatre premieres “Quantum Love,” examining how quantum theory affects love and desire (Firehouse, May 21, 23-24, 29-31); the much-admired Polish company Teatr ZAR returns to the Festival with “Armine, Sister,” the title referring to the Armenian genocide (Herbst Pavilion, May 24-26, 28-30); San Francisco’s Theatre of Yugen presents the world premiere “General Hogan and His Benjamin” (Fleet Room, May 28, 30-31, June 4, 6-7); and Sweden’s Jesper Arin offers the U.S. debut of “Evil,” about a boy struggling to leave his violent past behind (Southside Theater, May 29-31). Check June listings for upcoming premieres by two popular locals: actor/writer Bob Ernst and poet devorah major.

Two pieces in the May theater category are likely to be particularly alluring.

Compagnie Artara from Belgium (the name is a cross between 20th-century avant-garde French dramatist Antonin Artaud and Tomas Sankara, an African political leader), in its U.S. debut, brings to the Festival its lauded, six-year-old “Le Chagrin des Ogres,” in French with subtitles.

Two news items that appeared in the European press in 2006 initially attracted the attention of Atara director Fabrice Murgia when he was 21: German teenager Bastian Bosse shot 37 schoolmates and a professor at his former school, then killed himself; and a girl who’d been kidnapped (at age 10 in 1998) finally escaped.

Murgia translated Bosse’s blog and went on to develop the play as an exploration of loss of childhood. On the phone from Belgium, he explains that he was a young father with “a lot of questions in my head—what world am I giving to this child?” “Le Chagrin des Ogres” is the first play he wrote and directed, creating it with the actors, whose own memories of childhood are woven

into the text. The 70-minute piece focuses on an imaginary little girl narrator, goes from “the crudest to the most dreamlike,” includes pre-recorded video and live video and is described as “a terrible fable.” The “ogres” of the title, Murgia says, comes from a folktale about a villager who ate his children so that they wouldn’t take his place—a generation, says Murgia, that cannot let the following one live. (Cowell Theater, May 21-23)

Similarly dark but more realistic, and funny, is “Kitty in the Lane,” in which 22-year-old Áine Ryan, from the Republic of Ireland, portrays the title character, a young woman who cares for her elderly father and imitates many other characters in this solo drama. Andrew Wood was enchanted by the show when he saw it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and hastened to book it.

Alone in a cottage in rural Ireland, Kitty is awaiting her boyfriend and reflecting on her life. Along the way, she plays the fiddle; on the sound track, traditional Irish music at times becomes ominously distorted.

Ryan, on the phone from Cambodia, where she is editing her short story collection, explains that she herself is one of five daughters in a musically inclined, pub-owning family in rural County Tipperary. Although she draws from her own experiences, the play, which she has performed to great acclaim in Ireland as well as in Edinburgh, is fictional. Both an actor and a writer, she says it is, for her, an example of an ultimate artistic experience. The character of Kitty is “larger than life,” she explains. “You get all of her vulnerability, her wild streak, you can love her and within the next hour hate her. By the end of the play the audience has to renegotiate what they’d felt for the character—maybe Kitty’s version of the other characters wasn’t entirely truthful.” Ryan based Kitty on girls she knew—“I see so many amazing characters every day, I could write a book on a single day of their lives!” (Southside, May 21-24, 29-31, June 5-7)

The May dance lineup is packed with world premieres and international exchanges; local performers Anne Bluethenthal and Dancers’ collaboration with Mezoamerika from El Salvador, “Andares, Part One” (Firehouse, May 29-31); and Deborah Slater’s world premiere for her Dance Theater, “LINE OF BEAUTY,” inspired by poet Diane Ackerman and painter William Hogarth (Fleet, May 29-31), are among them.

Taiwan’s HORSE Dance Theatre, Christine Germain and Dancers, Christine Bonansea, project agora and Katerina Wong all offer world premieres in June.

Among the American premieres, Russian-born German resident Olga Kosterina performs a solo piece, “Dilemma Part One,” which she describes as “trying to find a harmony between… different sides of everyday life and my own place in this life”—a balance between her inner and outer world.

Trained in acting (although this piece has no text—“It has its own language of images and metaphors, but understandable for the heart,” she says) and in contemporary dance, acrobatics and circus skills, Kosterina was guided in creating the piece, as she has been her entire professional life, by director Nikita Belyakov; “Dilemma Part One,” which was called in one review an “extraordinary dance solo through turmoil and grace,” integrates pantomime and circus and uses minimal props and costumes. “It’s like a children’s game,” she says, “[where] even using a simple piece of tissue [creates] a fascinating story, full of images.” (Fleet, May 29-31)

County Cork’s Croi Glan Integrated Dance Company (croi glan means “clear heart” in Irish) is new to the Festival, but its artistic director, Tara Brandel, was codirector of 848 Community Space in San Francisco in the early 2000s. On the phone from rural Ireland, where she lives, Brandel discusses the U.S. premiere of her 17-minute solo piece, “Gawky and Awkward.” It is based on her experiences with a “hidden disability,” dyslexia and dyspraxia (in which the brain fails to process information properly). She and her director, Caroline Bowditch, created imagery to represent “how [the condition] feels in my brain, how it affects movement and anything to do with coordination…. You need huge amounts of mental energy to keep the left and right hemispheres working together; there’s a point where your brain stops working.” In the piece, she re-creates the sense of completely blanking out, which has happened to her while performing. Voiceover text describes the scientific side of dyslexia and also expresses some of Brandel’s own feelings, such as knowing exactly what to do, starting out—and then not remembering how to begin. Original music is by Englishwoman Charlotte White, whose arms are partially paralyzed and who uses sound beam technology to compose.

In her half-hour piece “On the Wall,” Brandel and dancers present three personal stories, woven together: Mary Nugent’s struggle to learn to walk at age eight; Dawn Mulloy’s battle with shyness; Brandel’s experiences as the only out lesbian in dance school. (Firehouse, May 22-24)

The music section of the Festival, curated by Elektra Schmidt, takes place at the Chapel in upper Fort Mason and in Festival Central, Bldg. A, which is also the venue for late-night dancing. May offerings are culturally diverse, including new Balkan music from La Pêche (May 22); Persian singing by Iranians Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat (May 23); Armenian liturgical chants with master singer Murat Íçlinalça from Istanbul and others (May 27); “Wong Wei’s Gamble,” a 90-minute, four-movement work by Francis Wong that features shamisen player Tatsu Aoki and dancer/choreographer Lenora Lee (May 30).

Check website for various residencies and educational activities, and to confirm show times.

May 21 → June 7

Fort Mason