CounterPulse: New Home, Same Transformative Experience

by Jean Schiffman

CounterPulse opens its doors to the public this month with two new performances.

Joining other performing arts spaces popping up in the mid-Market area,
CounterPulse opens its new, renovated facility this month with an assurance born of
a modest but continual growth trajectory over its lifespan.

The nonprofit arts organization offers workshop and performance space, resources and full productions for emerging artists and innovators, particularly in the dance and movement disciplines. It also maintains off-site community arts programs.

Its new home at 80 Turk Street was built in the 1920s as a gambling hall. From there it became a burlesque house and then a porn theater before lying fallow for a few years until CounterPulse’s arrival in 2014. (Pre-renovation, CounterPulse staged various pop-up performances there to get a feel for the building.) Situated in the heart of an expanding theater district, the new facility is around the corner from Cutting Ball, on the other side of a wall and across Eddy Street from the Exit Theatre, right behind the Warfield, across the street from PianoFight’s back exit and a block away from American Conservatory Theater’s newly opened Strand. Compared to its previous digs in SOMA—where CounterPulse had been since 2005, when it evolved from a merger between 848 Community Space and Bay Area Center for Art and Technology—80 Turk boasts various improved amenities. The theater offers 115 seats (20 more than its previous space) on the ground floor; dressing rooms and shower in the basement plus a studio for visual artists and a unisex public bathroom; and, upstairs, a dance studio, an office for artists-in-residence, a staff office, a bathroom and an apartment with full bathroom, kitchen and small office (the first dedicated living space in an arts building allocated for visiting artists). An elevator, in a newly constructed shaft, connects all three levels. Since the space already had the bones of a theater, the main work involved gutting it.

The elevator, and two wheelchair seating options (at the top of the risers or on ground level), are among the amenities that speak to the company’s ongoing “level of commitment to whoever and whatever physical and economic abilities,” says artistic director Julie Phelps. She adds, “We wanted intimacy and slow growth.” During her seven years heading the organization, she has initiated various programs, including those for low-income neighboring residents, and instigated cross-cultural exchanges abroad. A dancer who has toured extensively and is deeply committed to cultural exchange, she says, “It’s been scary to build something bigger than myself, and a huge privilege.”

CounterPulse moved when its lease on Mission Street expired. The company was pondering, says Phelps, “what kind of facility we needed to continue to the next iteration of ourselves, to continue to serve the community and support artists,” when the opportunity arose, thanks to the establishment of the newly formed Community Arts Stabilization Trust (a nonprofit committed to seeking affordable permanent space for arts groups), to lease 80 Turk for seven to ten years with an option to buy. Phelps attributes the company’s growth to its commitment to programming that’s relevant to local artists and audiences; the latter contingent is largely under 35 and includes the LGBTQ and people of color communities, plus adventurous first-time theatergoers. “We are always a live wire… a hub where people can have transformative experiences,” says Phelps. She also attributes the small organization’s success to a diversified financial model that does not rely on any one source of income. Now, with additional space for rehearsals, performances and housing, she can expand the cultural exchanges and create long-term residencies in addition to short-term ones.

The artist residency commissioning program is CounterPulse’s signature program, with four lead artists a year chosen to develop new work, which is staged at the culmination of the residency. The opening lineup in the new space includes two productions created, respectively, by two of those commissioned artists: Emily Hoffman, whose Affinity Project, which was formed in 2012, presents “When you read a novel it all seems trite and obvious, but when you’re in love yourself you see that no one knows anything and we all have to settle things for ourselves”; and Liz Tenuto, premiering “This Year is Different: An Absurdist Musical About Self-Help.”

Hoffman says her group’s devised projects “hover at the intersection of performance art, traditional and experimental theater and contemporary dance”; she prefers to label it simply “performance” rather than “dance-theater.” The actors—Beatrice Basso, Nora el Samahy and Atosa Babaoff—have movement skills (director Hoffman is a critic and poet) and all four share a penchant for choreographic structure, abstraction and gesture. The non-narrative “When you read a novel”—its title taken from a quote in Anton Chekhov’s luminous play “Three Sisters”—was inspired by, and framed somewhat along the lines of, “Sleep,” a haunting short story by Haruki Murakami about a Japanese housewife who stays up night after night reading “Anna Karenina.” The book provides escape and infuses her life with meaning. “When you read” is about “how you fall into a routine and how you escape from it,” says Hoffman. The piece contains some text from “Three Sisters” (none from “Sleep”), “embroidered in all sorts of ways, not in a literal way,” and gestural and sculptural sequences.
“It follows the logic of dance that Pina Bausch might use,” Hoffman elaborates, “where the logic
is dreamlike, and there’s not really a story [or characters per se] but you get a sort of rich sequence of images and actions.” Great texts, like those by Chekhov or Tolstoy, live in the body, Hoffman suggests; they remain as a trace or a ghost.

Choreographer/dancer Liz Tenuto was inspired to create this new musical, about how and why people change, when she began to consider her own well-being as an artist in San Francisco’s challenging and changing urban environment. Her performers—Esme Kundanis-Grow, Atosa Babaoff, Courtney Russell and Rebecca Siegel—all sing, dance and act; the piece includes text and songs by Tenuto and the performers (based on ideas instigated by Tenuto) and also songs by composer Ben Juodvalkis.

A loose narrative comprising several different scenes, in a style described as “maximalist surrealist,” the piece involves four strangers who meet at a self-help conference; each goes off on her own surreal journey through a personal landscape. “Meeting each other helps them get to their next stage of consciousness to transform,” Tenuto explains. The characters are more “dialed-up realistic” than exaggerated caricature; in fact, the performers began by creating personalized character profiles based on a version of their own experiences and from there developed signature dance moves evolving from the characters’ visions of freeing themselves. For research Tenuto read books by Barbara Ehrenreich, Moshe Feldenkreis, even actress Eva Le Gallienne and novelist Shirley Jackson.

Presented within a vintage tropical ambience—slide guitar, vibraphone, a “surfy, tropical feel”—it explores work, transformation and healing. “When I do meditation or healing work,” comments Tenuto, “it often happens in a very imaginary realm [like this] within my mind and body.”

Both Hoffman and Tenuto were chosen for the artist residency program, says Phelps, because they were ready to benefit from a launching pad like CounterPulse, and both were looking at themes of transformation that felt relevant to CounterPulse’s own physical transition. “Bricks and mortar are quite concrete,” acknowledges Phelps, “but also the facility represents a more metaphorical transformation for the organization as well.” She envisions this new beginning as an “inspiring canvas for the imagination of artists and audiences alike in this changing city.”

Nov. 13 → 15

“This Year Is Different:
An Absurdist Musical About Self-Help”

Nov. 20 → 22

“When you read a novel it all seems trite and obvious, but when you’re in love yourself you see that no one knows anything and we all have to settle things for ourselves”


80 Turk St., San Francisco