At first glance, hauling whale oil up a steep hill in the middle of the night during an ocean-driven rainstorm has nothing to do with the crisp choreography and graceful machinations of the dancers at Dana Lawton Dances. , based in Berkeley.
Nonetheless, under the direction of Artistic Director Dana Lawton, the unlikely association between the lighthouse keepers of the Farallon Islands in the mid-1800s and the dancers in 2022 whirling, spinning, cavorting and counterbalancing is brought into sharp relief with “The Farallonites “, screened on September 16. -18 at the Cowell Theater of Fort Mason in San Francisco (visit danalawtondances.org online for tickets and more details).
The company’s first live production since before the pandemic, “The Farallonites” is an evening-long multidisciplinary performance featuring Lawton’s choreography largely inspired by Jennifer Kulbeck’s poems about the Farallons, an original score by Thomas Edler, a scenography and an exhibition organized by Jon Altemus and 11 dancers aged 23 to 67. Emerging after a rare four-year research and development period that was originally scheduled to premiere in March 2020 and then postponed to November of the same year, Lawton said in an interview that the long incubation is a gift.
“Marking that dance meant I could rework sections and resequence sections,” Lawton said. “A section I had been working on for four years was still not working. We had a screening recently, and I asked a friend, and she was like, ‘Cut it. I did, and you know what? She was right. I wouldn’t have had this opportunity if we hadn’t had so much time to trust the process and recognize that something is wrong.
During the early days of the pandemic, the dancers isolated themselves, but once the lockdown was lifted they met outside. On Alameda Beach, not far from Lawton’s house in the Laurel neighborhood of Oakland; or at Moraga Commons Park near Saint Mary’s College, where she is a full professor of dance, the “Farallonites” have continued to mature. Lawton said the preciousness of dancing together – still in masks, but after months physically separated – added intimacy and raised the level of trust.
“Personally, I felt incredible gratitude for my dancers. As a choreographer, it made me feel more comfortable than ever before,” she said.
Lawton, 56, grew up in Santa Barbara and has been interested in California’s gold rush era since childhood.
“My mother was a great pioneer enthusiast. When my brother and I were kids, she took us out of school for a trip. We went to Gold Country and camped and watched the gold mines and gold rush towns.
Lawton remembers being fascinated by people willing to step out of their comfort zone and into unfamiliar environments to improve their lives. In his own family, his great-grandfather moved from Boston to the Bay Area, uprooting his wife and their five daughters for what he saw could be a better life. Lawton’s great-grandmother died of scarlet fever shortly after the move.
“I imagine it was heartbreaking to lose his wife. But practically, he didn’t have time to sit down and cry and break down. He found a nanny to do his daily routine. caring for his young daughters was pragmatism, tenacity.
Likewise, lighthouse keepers and their families who lived isolated on the Farallon Islands, a formidable archipelago 26 miles off San Francisco, were prepared to be uneasy. They led strenuous lives filled with hard and often dangerous physical labor, intense environmental conditions, and repetitive days that could lead to boredom, fatigue, or depression.
“And yet they had tenacity, hope and a sense of duty to keep the light shining and the ships safe,” Lawton said. “I read their letters, which personalized it. I could imagine being a man or woman carrying whale oil for the lighthouse lantern up a hill. They became human beings to me, not dates and names and town names.
Lawton said she had a surveyor’s map at home showing the city of Oakland in 1849.
“I look at the actual streets and I see the same streets and streams that I can see on my phone. It connects me to this place and the people of 100 years ago. What was important to them to documenting, mapping?History helps me understand my sense of belonging to my own community.
While “mapping” the history and ways of life of the Farallon people with choreography, Lawton structured the dance into three sections.
“The first introduces the notions of duty, tasks and tenacity. They had a job to do; we have a job to do. The second section presents a tender and playful duet. He is a father with his daughters. It strays from the robotic movements I’ve given the men in other sections to represent the machinery of the lighthouse. Here, the movements are based on cleaning windows, transporting whale oil, sweeping, personal everyday gestures. The father and the daughters are playing patty-cake, waltzing, moving fluidly.
There is also a joyous square dance with all the dancers on stage which consists of lifting each other up, performing garlands, laughing and talking audibly. A third section is less narrative, with evocative and abstract movements drawn from the birds or the elemental aspects of the island: wind, waves, moonlight, freshness.
“They are no longer costumed in Victorian clothes and instead wear unitards with flowing draperies. It’s about how humans dissipate and become part of the island.
For the score, composer Edler scoured the United States National Archives and selected the most popular music from 1850 to 1865. Transcribing original piano rolls, he rewrote melodies for violin or guitar – or deleted lyrics of some songs and performed the melody on a banjo. Poet Kulbeck’s words often foreshadow the choreography and sequence intentionally with dance, music and lighting to create a cohesive and kinetic audio-visual experience.
Solo dances are meant to be timed and compelling; duets draw attention to the space between two dancers; Ensemble sections “let me flex my muscles for structuring, phrasing, musicality,” Lawton said.
A lobby exhibit showcases the production with archival photos of the original lighthouse keepers, their homes, the island, and original poetry, clippings, art, and ephemera specific to the period. Lawton said that in his ideal world, all bodies dance and dance. In Lawton’s language, lighthouse keepers and modern dancers and every moving body offer many storytelling possibilities that are timeless, universal, accessible and highly physical.
Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected]