An Interview with Joan Lazarus
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT, PHOTOS BY JANE HU
The San Francisco Movement Arts Festival is a gathering of more than 250 dance artists who will come together to perform in Grace Cathedral on January 25th. Conceived and produced by Jim Tobin, a Bay Area dance advocate and enthusiast, the festival is an opportunity to see many performances at once through a series of rotating stations within the cathedral. Joan Lazarus, a longtime dancer/choreographer/presenter in the Bay Area, gladly jumped on board with Jim’s vision. Here, Joan describes the unique format of the festival and why she is more than happy to be a part.
Photo by Jane Hu
Can you tell me a little about the history of the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival and how you got involved?
The festival began to gear up during the time I was in Colorado from 2012 to 2015. I’ve known Jim Tobin for a long time, but I didn’t experience the festival myself until I came back to the Bay Area. Jim has had this very interesting history in the dance community of being everywhere all the time and seeing more dance than anyone I know. We’ve known each other for a while through West Wave and Summer Fest, which I presented in the past. But my experience with Jim as a producer/presenter is really young; I participated in the festival for the first time last year.
I have students in Marin and Berkeley who have taken class from me for decades, but I don’t have a company anymore, so when there is an opportunity to take my students one step beyond class into a performance setting, I jump at it. Jim’s festival is perfect for us. We’re not forming a company that exists throughout the year, but we like this as an opportunity. That’s one strand of our participation – it’s perfect timing and a good fit.
Then there’s another more personal strand for me. I was on the steering committee that founded National Dance Week in the Bay Area. Our commitment was to open people’s eyes to the fact that dance is everywhere. If you walk 50 feet one way or another, I’m willing to bet there’s a person, venue or event related to dance. The abundance is amazing. That feeling is how I began to look at the Movement Arts Festival in Grace Cathedral – it’s an unbelievable experience of abundance. Every 20 feet, there’s another station with six groups of artists presenting work in a rotating format all throughout the evening. It’s like going to the state fair.
I had that same visceral reaction to Jim’s idea of hosting the Movement Arts Festival in Grace Cathedral that I had to National Dance Week in the older days. The idea is to get people to have an experience that is wonderful and uplifting. It’s not about this kind of dance or that kind of dance; you bring what you do. I was looking for a place to include my students in a context of dance being everywhere. At the Movement Arts Festival, the person standing next to you might be dancing in 20 minutes. That set of ingredients is remarkable.
How is it structured?
The thing I love about how it’s structured is – and I really mean it – you bring a small piece of work – 4 to 5 minutes at the most. Then, Jim has located about 20 stations throughout Grace Cathedral. At each station, different choreographers and their groups of dancers are assigned. There are six groups per station, and we cycle through the rotation three times during the evening. That means there’s a chance to see almost everything.
Photo by Jane Hu
How does it work with sound and music?
One of the main problems is you can’t play music loudly. You just have to drop into the experience. It’s kind of like being at a state fair – you hear things from many directions. It’s a sensory overload but not horrible because we’re all trying to be polite to each other. There’s sound equipment at each station. You have to play your music loudly enough that your dancers and the people around can hear it, but you can’t just blast it, because there’s another station nearby.
There was a point last year when I was standing in one spot and there was percussion over here and ballet over there and a soloist speaking in another area. I allowed myself to feel attracted to different stations. That freedom is really wonderful. Some people sat in pews and watched the rotations around them, others (I was one of them) walked slowly around during the entire evening. It was like shopping.
Who can participate?
Jim goes to a lot of the small venues around town and sees dance. I’ve watched him go up to a choreographer after a program and ask if they know about the festival. Many of the new performers come via referrals from other choreographers in the festival. In addition, dancers who performed in a large dance company one year might ask to return bringing their own work the following year. Some artists volunteer to work the festival one year and then request to bring their work afterwards. In the end, the festival grows organically with the local artists. There’s no committees and no formal process. All choreographers are automatically invited back each year
One of the things I loved about West Wave was that artists saw the work of other artists who they had never heard of. The Movement Arts Festivals feels similar, like an open call.
Photo by Jane Hu
What are you bringing to the festival this year?
In July, I did a repertoire workshop in Berkeley. Whomever showed up, I made a piece on, and then we had an open showing. It took five hours to make the piece, and I had the Movement Arts Festival in mind. Jim came to the showing and said he hoped it was the piece I was bringing to Grace Cathedral. I’m using 20 to 30 dancers. Some are experienced and professional while others were just participants in the workshop who will be doing more minimalistic movement.
Everything washes over everything else in the festival so, having participated last year, I have a better idea of what will be best suited for the cathedral. My piece was technically trying last year; I created a contemporary ballet piece. This year my piece won’t have as many technical requirements.
How is the location at Grace Cathedral significant?
Dancers talk a lot about space as a visceral experience. When I walk into a cathedral, there’s something about the awesomeness and the silence. I can feel the structure coming out to meet me. That visceral reaction to space is similar for me as the visceral reaction to music. We as dancers train our bodies to be sensitive to that.
I am not religious, but what I love about the experience of religious spaces is that people who go there regularly are open to a certain kind of experience. You go there mindfully and purposefully. I find cathedrals to be alive spaces. Grace Cathedral in particular is so beautiful and welcoming.
Photo by Jane Hu
What kind of reactions has the festival received, especially given its unique viewing format?
Most people came to see a dancer they know perform. The kind of person who only came to see their girlfriend dance had an opening experience because the diverse amount of dance in the space blew their minds. The other people were a combination of those knowing a performer and who were also curious about the venue. For those people, Grace Cathedral itself was a draw. To be honest, the real experience was the performers’ experience. My dancers now want to dance in the festival every year if they can. None of us do our best dancing on a marble floor and when there’s another sound system ten feet away, but the experience is remarkable anyway.
Why is the festival important to the dance community?
There are ballet students from schools down the peninsula, there are people just out of college, and there are people in their 60s and 70s showing work. The fact that there are so many levels of experience coming together for a monster event doesn’t happen anymore. There were many opportunities to show work 20 years ago, but being in a venue is so expensive now. What Jim has said is: If you self-identify as a dancer, we have a home for you, and we’re all going to do it together. That kind of all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude is something I’ve missed. Things have gotten to be so out of range financially in San Francisco, it’s hard to be seen and present work. There are people in the festival who I haven’t seen perform in a long time. It’s non-threatening and inclusive. It’s really community.
Any other thoughts?
This isn’t a reviewed activity. When the festival is reviewed or evaluated, it is as a whole. That allows us as artists to participate in the whole event instead of worrying about ourselves. That’s a really nice gift.
Joan Lazarus, Photo by Lorelei Ghanizadeh
To learn more, visit www.sfmaf.org.
Jim Tobin, Photo by Jane Hu