Dance, Film, Drama: Three Intriguing April Picks

by Jean Schiffman

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet’s spring production, the eco-driven Green Film Festival and a taut drama by a Swedish/Tunisian playwright take center stage this month.

When choreographer Alonzo King of San Francisco’s LINES Ballet talks to his musical collaborators, their dialogue might sound, to anyone other than the participants, less like a practical planning session and more like poetry. For example, in developing this month’s Spring Season world premiere with jazz masters Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, King sent these initial suggestions, among others: “a soaring aspiration that’s interrupted by obstacle,” and “the idea of duality—with its urgency to transcend—being pulled down by earthiness.” Did the musicians get it? Absolutely, says King. Moran wrote back that he was working on something “minimal, stark and ecclesiastical.”

In a LINES production such as this, dance and music inhabit aphysical/sonic/visual/metaphorical world. At the other end of the artistic spectrum is film, especially documentary film, in which—as is the case with this month’s sixth annual environment-themed Green Film Festival—storytelling and activism are inextricably linked. Somewhere in-between, contemporary, text-based theater often mixes gritty realism with the surreal, as in Crowded Fire Theater’s West Coast premiere of “I Call My Brothers,” in which we enter the anxious mind of a Middle Easterner living in the West.

I Call My Brothers

This taut, compelling drama by Obie Award-winning Swedish/Tunisian playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri comprises 11 short scenes that take the form of cellphone calls, direct address to the audience and quasi-stream-of-consciousness. Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles and directed here by Evren Odcikin, it was written in 2010 in response to that year’s suicide bombing in Stockholm.

The play follows one fraught day in the life of the narrator, university student Amor (Shoresh Alaudini). “I call my brothers,” the play begins, “and say: Something really sick just happened. Have you heard? A man. A car. Two explosions…. No suspects. Not yet. I call my brothers and say: Now it begins.”

Amor is coming unhinged. His cousin phones, offering seemingly coded warnings from her newfound Buddhist mindset; an animal rights activist keeps ringing up; Amor is semi-stalking, by phone, a woman who firmly rejects him; at the same time he’s avoiding frantic voicemail messages from his best friend. Three actors (Denmo Ibrahim, Olivia Rosaldo and Mohammed Shehata) play the callers as well as a chorus of “Amplifiers” inside Amor’s head. Intense, swift-moving and often quite funny, this long-day’s journey takes the audience along for the ride.

“Jonas’ plays almost ask you to [stage] them like hip-hop storytelling plays,” observes Odcikin. “We’ll play with that rhythm, that music…. It’s not realistic, although it deals with a real situation. It puts you in the mind of one individual at a point where emotionally and mentally he’s pushed to the limit. It challenges your preconceived notions about how a person like him might go through life; it keeps you as the audience unbalanced—you’re pulled between judge and witness, between being on his side and questioning who he is and what he’s done.”

Odcikin, director of new plays at Golden Thread Productions and a busy new-plays director around town, understands the character, and he also understands the play’s implications of racial profiling in this terrorist age; he himself is a Turkish immigrant who identifies as Muslim. “Like all of us immigrants and especially Middle Easterners, I have a complicated relationship with my heritage and the way this country contextualizes that heritage,” he says.

“What I love about this play,” he continues, “is that Amor is not perfect. He’s quite disturbed… It’s very much about his personal experience growing up in [a European country], which, like most European countries, is very accepting in certain ways and quite racist in a very outward way.” Odcikin adapted the play to an American setting, to make sure audiences realize those attitudes exist here, too.

I Call My Brothers

April 4 -- 23

Crowded Fire Theater

Thick House, 1695 18th St.,
San Francisco

(415) 523-0034/

Green Film Festival

When Rachel Caplan, the Scottish-born founder/director of the Green Film Festival, was directing San Francisco’s Ocean Film Festival, she saw how many independent filmmakers were eager to screen works about a variety of environmental concerns and knew the Bay Area needed a comprehensive eco-focused film festival.

At this year’s event, which encompasses Earth Day and the centennial year of the National Park Service, approximately 100 filmmakers, panelists, activists and experts will converge for the 65 premieres (including some world premieres) by local, national and international filmmakers—documentaries, narrative features, shorts, animation—at eight different venues. They will participate in programs addressing a variety of environmental concerns. “All the films we show could find a home at other film festivals,” Caplan acknowledges—but it’s this festival that frames the issues in order to create a bridge between arts and activism.

An overarching theme is “Keep it wild.” “There’s been a lot of talk about mass extinction, the loss of wilderness, wanting to protect it,” says Caplan. “We wanted to celebrate that.”

Another cause for celebration: the 50th anniversary of “Born Free,” the story of Elsa the Lioness, the first mainstream Hollywood movie to deal with an environmental issue. At the screening, the festival will present Virginia McKenna, the film’s star and now a lion activist, with an Inspiring Lives award. “This film had an incredible impact on generations,” says Caplan.

The festival opens with Josh Fox’s “How to Let Go of the World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change),” which asks viewers to consider what climate change can’t destroy, and premiered recently at Sundance. The festival continues with such films as Jon Bowermaster’s “Dear President Obama,” about energy and climate change, produced and narrated by Mark Ruffalo. It closes with the world premiere of Mark Decena’s “Not Without Us,” following activists at the U.N. climate talks in Paris last December.

Perhaps this year’s most surprising entry: the world premiere of Vanessa LeMaire-Workman’s “An Acquired Taste.” “It’s about a group of teens concerned with factory farming, coming from a place of mindfulness, who want to connect with their food and learn to hunt,” says Caplan. “It’s pro-hunting and pro-gun, definitely an unexpected discovery for a green festival.” She foresees a heated discussion following the screening.

Other unusual offerings include a virtual reality workshop in which audiences can get close up to wildlife, followed by a discussion about using this new type of filmmaking in covering conservation topics.

Caplan says that themes of diversity and inclusion run throughout the festival, pointing to the centerpiece film, Andrew Adkins and George Potter’s “An American Ascent,” depicting nine African-Americans’ ascent of North America’s highest peak, Denali. The festival wants to inspire new generations of people of color: “Wild places should be for everyone,” Caplan observes.

Green Film Festival

April 14 -- 20

Castro Theatre, Roxie Theatre, Public Library Main Branch, Fest HQ, San Francisco; David Prower Center and U.C. Berkeley Suturdja Dai Hall, Berkeley

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet

“Working with Jason Moran was one of the highlights of my experience as a choreographer,” declares Alonzo King, who collaborated with the acclaimed pianist and composer on LINES’ “Refraction” in 2009. “A true collaboration is like tongue and groove. He’s so intuitive and so bright and has so much structure in that mind.

“It’s kind of a perfect combination of a steely mind with a big heart,” he adds, laughing.

This time, King—an award-winning, San Francisco-based choreographer who founded LINES in 1982, has collaborated with many high-profile musicians and other artists and has been commissioned to create ballets worldwide—is working not only with Moran but also with his colleague, pioneering saxophonist Charles Lloyd; Moran is a member of his New Charles Lloyd Quartet, and the pair recorded the 2013 album ”Hagar’s Song” together.

To add in Lloyd—who is several generations older than Moran and has worked with everyone from Ornette Coleman to the Beach Boys over the course of a stellar career—is, for King, a heaven-made match. “They’re both monsters, incredible artists, and when they’re together there is a chemistry and alchemy that is unbelievable,” he exults.

To work together on King’s new piece long-distance required much use of electronic media. King sent the musicians some descriptive text—textures, ideas—about the kind of world he wanted the piece to inhabit. “When we first met,” says King, “I said I’d like to hear some music that we can’t label…we can’t claim it with a style or moniker.

“With some composers, we need to say, ‘Let’s take this out,’ or ‘This gets too erratic here,’” he continues. “With Jason and Charles, it’s sublime—[they send] treasures to select from and move in.”

As the creative process went on, King sent videos of the dancers sketching out material, with notes saying things like, “This is what we’ve done with it thus far,” or
“We need five more minutes here.” At other times, he might ask for another theme, or a shift, or “Here I’d like to ride…like a surfer on a wave.”

The new piece (paired with King’s 2014 work set to four Shostakovich string quartets) was unnamed at press time—“It’s odd for me to name a baby that hasn’t been born yet,” King explains—and involves 12 dancers, with Moran and Lloyd playing onstage for the first few performances. Until then, as King says with great satisfaction, “The conversation continues.”

LINES Ballet Spring Season

April 21 -- 30

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

700 Howard St., San Francisco

(415) 978-2787/