From “High Jinx” to Scrap: December Picks

by Jean Schiffman

With an affectionate nod to the city’s annual holiday favorites—American Conservatory Theater’s “A Christmas Carol,” ODC’s “The Velveteen Rabbit,” San Francisco Ballet’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and other traditional delights—we present a few lesser-known events of the season in the genres of theater, dance, circus, music and crafts.

Holiday High Jinx: Bums, Broads and Broadway Word for Word, the treasured local theater troupe that has been staging literary works verbatim, and with elegant theatricality, since 1993, chose two short stories and a couple of essays with Depression-era, Christmassy, New York themes, for its holiday show: Damon Runyon’s “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” Joseph Mitchell’s “The Cave Dwellers” and E.B. White’s “Christmas and Relative Pronouns” and “Notes and Comments” (from The New Yorker). “New York is a fascinating character in this evening of stories,” says director Sheila Balter, a Word charter member. She and the others picked through some of their favorite holiday tales and ended up with three quite different pieces, which, taken together, evoke a time, a place and a season. Runyon’s story, says Balter, “is so specifically written; he had an incredible ear. His voice is urban. ‘Dancing Dan’ is an energetic piece; it has a flow and energy, compared to Mitchell’s story, which is much slower.” Mitchell’s “The Cave Dwellers,” which was published in The New Yorker in 1938 under a different title, is about a destitute pair living in a cave in Central Park. “It’s so timely today!” observes Balter. Leafing through old editions of The New Yorker, company members also picked a few essays by then-“Talk of the Town” editor and ever-witty doyen of English grammar E.B. White, published in the December 1932 issue. Balter studied photographer Berenice Abbott’s photographs of New York in the 1930s and John Dos Passos’ novel “Manhattan Transfer” to immerse herself in the flavor of life in that time and place. To link the three pieces dramatically, Balter is adding a character: a newsboy hawking papers and speaking some of the lines of text. “All these writers were journalists first,” she points out. “Newspapers were so important then. That’s something I’m a little bit nostalgic for. “The holidays,” she adds, “are complicated. It’s complicated to give and to receive [Mitchell’s cave dwellers actually refuse an offer of help] and to try to feel good.” These three pieces explore that conundrum. Through Dec. 24 Z Below 470 Florida St., San Francisco (866) 811-4111/ Mbongui Square “I wanted a place where everyone could come together and I wanted to see dance, music, visual arts and spoken word on one stage, with people from all racial backgrounds,” says Byb Chanel Bibene, the Republic of Congo-born founder of Mbongui Square, an annual festival since 2012. Bibene, the artistic director of the city’s Kiandanda Dance Theater, which produces the festival, is a dancer and choreographer who has been working in the city since 2009 with many different companies and collaborators. He has also toured and lived abroad, forming connections in Europe as well as in Africa and the United States. He says the racial diversity of San Francisco inspired him to create this festival, for which he and curator Tebogo MaDhlamini have gathered local performers and others from afar. During the two-day festival dozens of performers take the stage in the 160-seat house for 10-minute cameos, a veritable smorgasbord of entertainment. Bibene points to a few in particular: Dana Lawton, a choreographer at St. Mary’s College (“one of my first supporters when I moved here”); Oakland-based hard-of-hearing American dancer Antoine Hunter; Kinetech Arts (“visual arts, using technology and movement,” says Bibene); Christina Braun, a butoh performer, with Tom Nunn, a local musician who invents instruments; spoken word artist Joy Elan; dancer Ange Aoussou from Germany; Florent Mahoukou from France. Others come from Congo, India, Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe and elsewhere stateside. “Dance is everywhere in Congo on weekends,” comments Bibene, whose training was in both contemporary and traditional dance. “I never had to pay for a dance class or a studio.” It’s different here, and that was big change for him: “This is a society with a structure,” he says. “It’s what makes the economy work.” “Mbongui” means gathering, according to Bibene. Thus the festival includes food (Congolese) and drink (“homemade cocktails straight from Congo!”). “It’s not only to enjoy art,” says Bibene, “but to eat and drink. That’s a good way to make people talk, form collaborations and keep the memory of what you’ve seen.” Dec. 12 & 13 Zaccho Studio 1777 Yosemite St., San Francisco Mittens and Mistletoe: A Winter Circus Cabaret Although Sweet Can Productions, a particularly charming local circus troupe, has been presenting a family-friendly “Mittens and Mistletoe” show for the past six Decembers, each year’s show is different. This seventh edition features some brand new acts, says Natasha Kaluza, who, with her clown partner, Jamie Coventry, directs the show. The 65- to 70-minute performance has a little bit of a narrative arc, she says, to do with “the real meaning of holidays: family, generosity.” Essentially, though, it’s a circus cabaret, as advertised. New acts include Luke Brechtelsbauer, a musician who’s coming from New Orleans to play the pedal harp (a harp with a pedal, like a piano) and Eulalie Blanc from Switzerland, who does a lyra act (an aerial hoop). Another “Mittens” newcomer, Jeremy Vik, performs a chair-balancing act and juggles. Among the regulars, Beth Clarke (a Sweet Can founder, along with Kerri Kresinski and Daniela Steiner) is getting back up on the slack rope for the first time since having a baby, and Jasper Patterson brings in a new-to-“Mittens” character. Kaluza and Coventry are performing one of their acts, never before seen as part of “Mittens,” which starts as a musical number and rapidly devolves into comedy in which they’re grandma and grandpa characters, Mr. and Mrs. Legume. Kaluza will also demonstrate her world-class hula hoop act. A special adult performance (Dec. 26 at 10 p.m.) features some adult language. Sweet Can is about performers as everyday people connecting to the audience in an intimate way, explains Kaluza. “I feel like it’s a tradition that will continue for 30 years,” she says. Dec. 18 → 27 Dance Mission Theater 3316 24th St., San Francisco (415) 225-7281/ Windham Hill Winter Solstice Concert Scheduled to coincide with the winter solstice, SFJazz brings locally based multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter Barbara Higbie and others from the Windham Hill label for a holiday concert for the third time. Windham Hill’s Winter Solstice series, produced regularly since 1985, has sold eight million copies, says Higbie. For the concerts, the musicians do “fresh takes on seasonal music from all traditions, not only Christian, and quite a few originals,” she notes. It’s a varied show that this year features different combinations: duos, trios, quartets, all six musicians. Higbie is on piano, violin, guitar and vocals; Grammy-nominated finger-style guitarist Alex de Grassi (“He invented a lot of the music that became important to Windham Hill,” says Higbie) plays acoustic steel string guitar; composer Lisa Lynne is on Celtic harp, bouzouki, bass and percussion; Aryeh Frankfurter plays the Swedish nyckelharpa, violin and guitar; George Tortorelli, from Florida, plays flutes and percussion; and Alex Kelly is the cellist. Higbie herself has performed on more than 65 albums, including Carlos Santana’s 2007 release. Higbie praises the pristine sound at SFJazz, in which, she says, “You can really hear how beautiful the acoustic instruments are.” No promises as to what’s on the lineup this year, but a listing of Windham Hill Solstice Concert tracks includes such familiar titles as “Greensleeves,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and others, less well known. Dec. 19 SFJazz 201 Franklin St., San Francisco (866) 920-5299/ SCRAP: A Source for the Resourceful “This is a circle cutter—I’m not sure what it’s meant to cut,” says Ben Delaney, executive director of SCRAP, a nonprofit creative re-use center and workshop. He’s examining an unfamiliar object that he picked up as we wander through the 500-square-foot warehouse wonderland, which on this particular day is ringing with the excited babble of 23 grade-schoolers on a field trip, not to mention the 15 staffers plus volunteers from the community. A small workshop area in a corner is full of kids making things. SCRAP, founded in 1976 and housed in this Bayview district building, owned by the San Francisco School District, for the past 15 years, diverts 200 to 300 tons of stuff from landfill every year—reusable materials that are donated and which SCRAP then resells for minimal cost, using the funds for free events and educational outreach. Every shelf, display case and available square inch is packed with everything from toys to glassware to—well, the list seems infinite. The space is loosely organized into sections: art supplies, toys, office supplies, sewing notions (rolls of three to four yards of fabric go for $5 each; hundreds of thousands of buttons) and more. Delaney says his favorite section is hardware and gadgets. What else? There’s an almost-anatomically-correct male mannequin, ancient-looking ice skates, skis, vintage dolls, picture frames, a witch in a glass snow globe, architectural samples, a wooden protractor… A special Christmas corner will feature antiques, ephemera, semi-precious jewelry, collectibles, wrapping paper, boxes. “This is a great place for makers,” says Delaney. “You can build almost anything with stuff here. This place is very popular with Burners.” Other patrons are teachers, parents, artists and organizations. “It’s a madhouse,” he notes cheerfully, as workers bustle about sorting, shifting and carrying. “But it’s our madhouse.” Mon.-Sat., 10-6 pm (5 pm on Sat.) 801 Toland St., San Francisco (415) 647-1746/