From Contemporary Ballet to Theater: Five Standouts This Month

by Jean Schiffman

Amidst a hearty mix of home-grown arts and imports from elsewhere this month, these five attractions stand out.

LINES Ballet

Among local luminaries, San Francisco choreographer Alonzo King is a towering figure. Considered a visionary in the field, he has dedicated LINES, his contemporary ballet company, to diverse cultural influences and to classical techniques re-imagined for a new century.

He is also committed to creating new works in collaboration artists with such as jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the Shaolin monks of China. For his latest, unnamed world premiere, his collaborator is singer Lisa Fischer.

King was drawn to Fischer when he saw her in the Academy Award-winning documentary about backup singers, “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” Her “incredible compassion, uniqueness, humility” impressed him, as well as the beauty of her voice and her intention “not to be a star but to create something with people, and to feel that connection.”

Fischer has toured and recorded with music stars from Tina Turner to Laurie Anderson and won a Grammy for her 1991 hit single “How Can I Ease the Pain.”

To collaborate with a singer, says King, is no different than working with instrumentalists—Fischer’s instrument is her voice, in the same way that dancers are playing their bodies. “We’re in the same discipline and field, trying to make it into poetry at the highest level,” he declares. He compares the Romantic ideal of the individual (“so unique and profound, so involved with what we call our separate identities that we miss the larger connection”) with the Classical ideal (“what’s important is the whole, the entity; it’s about balance, structure, equanimity”). Fischer’s understanding of that Classical ideal drew him to her.

Early in the creative process, he and Fischer were at the stage of trading ideas back and forth, working in person whenever possible, with King’s dancers as well as with the music composer for the piece, JC Maillard, who is Fischer’s accompanist.

Nov. 6 → 15

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco

(415) 978-2787/

Opera Parallèle

A collaboration of an entirely different sort—between an opera company and a grade school—marks another world premiere, Opera Parallèle’s “Amazing Grace,” a project of the San Francisco company’s educational Hands-On-Opera program. Coordinated by Roma Olvera, Hands-On rehearses an original opera for eight weeks each year, integrating a group of children with several professional singers, and ultimately staging the work free to the public. This year, mutual friend Frederica von Stade made the match between Saint Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland and Opera Parallèle. All 25 of the school’s fourth and fifth graders sing in the 35-minute opera based on Mary Hoffman’s children’s book of the same name.

In “Amazing Grace,” Grace wants to play Peter Pan in the school play but is told she can’t because she’s a girl and she’s black. “This girl has a power about her that kids instantly relate to,” says Olvera, herself a lyric soprano; Olvera chose the book and wrote the libretto with Brian Staufenbiel. Chris Pratorius composed the music, conducted by David Gordon. Krista Wigle directs.

“Amazing Grace” is a story about diversity, Olvera explains,
making it a perfect match for this particular school. The librettists added an element that was not in Hoffman’s book: the true story of Janet Collins, the first African-American principal dancer at the Met. “We wanted something kids could relate to historically,” explains Olvera.

Opera Parallèle, under artistic director Nicole Paiement, continues to commission children’s operas
that are musically complex and accessible. “We want to build audiences by showing how relevant opera is, not by watering down great operas but by creating new experiences,” Olvera says. “We feel we’re changing 25 kids dramatically every single year.”

Nov. 12 & 14

African American Art & Culture Complex

762 Fulton St., San Francisco

Rude Mechs

Devised theater—original work created, at least in its early stages, by an ensemble—is the hallmark of the acclaimed Rude Mechs. In its first visit to the Bay Area, the company presents “The Method Gun,” which the Mechs have been staging in various locations since the late 2000s. It premiered in its final form at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

In it, the guru-like artistic director of a theater company mysteriously disappears, leaving her confused protegés to rehearse a long-in-development “special version” of “Streetcar Named Desire” on their own. She was a charismatic figure whose acting method, called the Approach, involved extreme risk-based rituals.

According to “The New York Times,” the play is both satirical and celebratory, exploring “ideas of togetherness and loss, the dynamics of being part of a tight-knit group and what it means to take care of one another.”

When the Rude Mechs were originally conceiving the play, they wondered, what would the most dangerous acting exercise in the world look like, explains co-artistic director Lana Lesley. What if actual physical danger were involved? They discussed concepts of lying and truth, of physical and emotional risk-taking.

And they set the play in the late 1970s, a period, says co-artistic director/script writer Kirk Lynn, both of wild experimentation in culture and of people seeking “the method”—that is, a singular direction. The play’s production values, in keeping with the era, are low tech, “intentionally raw and simple,” says Lesley. Directed by Shawn Sides, the script comprises interior monologues, “Streetcar” sequences (minus Tennessee Williams’ text) and fraught group interaction.

“Regardless of what field you’re in, everybody has some guru figure that they have a mixed reaction to,” Lynn comments, “someone cruel, larger than life, who inspired discipline or rigor.”

Nov. 11 → 14

Z Space

450 Florida St., San Francisco

(866) 811-4111/

Nov. 19 → 22


Zellerbach Playhouse, U.C. Berkeley

(510) 642-9988/

Contemporary Jewish Museum

A quietly compelling installation stands in a corner of the lobby of the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It is—along with an overhead installation called “Lamp of the Covenant”—part of CJM’s new effort to draw visitors into its zeitgeist the minute they enter the building.

The sculpture, “Pour Crever,” is the work of world-renowned, Seattle-based, German-born kinetic sculptor, sound artist and musician Gerhard Trimpin, known simply as Trimpin. Assembled partly of elements that resemble railroad tracks, it is a “fountain of memories.” The artist created it in 2010 to memorialize the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews in his hometown of Efringen-Kirchen to the detention camp Gurs in France. Now, it marks the 75th anniversary of that event.

Each time you step onto a platform facing the sculpture, you are cuing a hidden computer to activate a tank of water at the top, which then releases a single, shimmering cascade that slowly spells out the name of a Jewish family that was deported. One by one, you can read the family names of all 300 residents (which are also recorded in a book that sits on a stand in front of you) as they fall, illuminated, through space until they are swallowed up again in a tank at the bottom. The names are ineffably fleeting and effervescent.

The installation’s title is a quote from philosopher and Gurs survivor Hannah Arendt, who wrote that she and others had been shipped there “pour crever”—to die like animals.

Trimpin has said, “I cannot tell the whole story of Gurs, but I can tell a fragment.” With this fragment, he said, “I am saying, this is what happened. It can never be forgotten.”

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission St., San Francisco

(415) 655-7800/


“This past Saturday night we had eight different performances here!” exults artistic director Rob Ready, who, with his colleagues Dan Williams and Kevin Fink, opened PianoFight’s new venue (the old Original Joe’s) in December in the Tenderloin, the culmination of a five-year project. Ready says the neighborhood has been “incredibly welcoming” and feels close-knit.

PianoFight houses a lively restaurant/bar with a cabaret stage in front, where entertainment is always free, plus two black box theaters—45 seats and 95 seats—in the back and three rehearsal spaces. The organization’s mantra is “new work by new artists.” PianoFight itself produces some of the hundreds of shows on its stages, among them sketch comedy troupes like FORKING! (a choose-your-own-ending series) and the all-male, sometimes nude comedy revue Mission Control. PianoFight also coproduces with many small groups, providing them with some financial support, creative input, ticketing services and/or marketing strategies and more, and rents out space as well. Ready says the basic idea is to provide infrastructure to facilitate arts groups.

Among November’s extensive lineup: Phil Surtees, who’s an Elton John impersonator; FaultLine’s staged radio plays; “yacht rock” every Thursday from 5 to 6 in the bar (yes, on Thanksgiving, too); Hawaiian song and dance; comedy showcase every Saturday night at 11:59; Theatre Bay Area’s awards after-party Nov. 16, 9 p.m.; J. Raoul Brody playing his favorite Beatles songs every fourth Monday at 9:30; the long-running sketch comedy troupe Killing My Lobster and so on. Then there’s the pop-up entertainment on the cabaret stage; recently actor/singer Amy Lizardo brought her SF Playhouse castmates over for a drink after rehearsal and Lizardo ended up singing “Summertime” for the crowd. “You stumble into PianoFight for the night and depending on the artists there, you can get a free show,” marvels Ready. Already, the place is almost entirely booked up for 2016.

144 Taylor St., San Francisco

(415) 816-3691/