Dance Evokes Another SoMa

by Jean Schiffman

Choreographer/P.U.S.H. artistic director Amy Lewis is making it her mission to offer a glimpse of the world from an unfamiliar perspective.

SoMa-the strip of San Francisco between Market Street and the Mission District-has gone through many changes since it was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, from industrial wasteland to leather bar mecca. Now, as the technology industry transforms the city, the area is experiencing yet another evolution.

One SoMa neighborhood reveals some of its secrets, and takes on an unexpected resonance, in "SoMa Now and Then," a guided walking tour/dance-based performance produced by Push Up Something Hidden (P.U.S.H.), a local dance company. Here, towering blocks of new condos-built to house employees of the booming tech industry-sit alongside blue-collar workplaces and the few remaining leather bars that once filled the area. Cranes dot the skyline; the architecture in some of the hidden alleys is an eclectic mix of the old
and the new.

It is the ghosts of leather bars and bathhouses, and the men who once cruised these streets, pre-AIDS, that "SoMa Now and Then" aims to evoke. The piece itself presages the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' designation of this neighborhood-Folsom Street from 12th to 3rd streets-as an LGBTQ Social Historical Special Use District; the Bay Area Reporter wrote, during the summer, that the project is expected to begin in 2017.

This performance/tour is the second in a series created by choreographer/P.U.S.H. artistic director Amy Lewis, each to focus on a different, steadily transforming San Francisco neighborhood. Lewis was curious about SoMa, aware that its history was getting lost; when she began to research the area, she was struck by how many times it had been reinvented since 1906: structures demolished to build the Bay Bridge, retrofitting after the Loma Prieta earthquake, people dislocated when Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Moscone Center were created. When she joined forces with dancer/choreographer/producer Joe Landini, who runs the performing arts space SAFEHouse, the two decided to narrow the focus to "the leatherman story." It is a story Landini, who has lived in the Bay Area for 25 years and has run three theater organizations in the area, is specially qualified to tell.

And tell it-and dance it-he does.

Audiences amble down Folsom and Harrison streets for the hour-long event, headsets attached to cellphones as Lewis livestreams audio from her computer. Proceeding from dance site to dance site, five in all, you pause at each site for five minutes or so to watch Landini, casual in jeans and t-shirt, translate personal history into silent, abstract movement. All the while you're listening to his recorded narration interspersed with period-appropriate music.

Landini's story, distilled from an interview with Lewis that took place over an inhibition-releasing bottle of wine a few years ago when they began to work on the project, is a candid telling of his own coming out, his family background, his sex life in the leatherman community, his memories of this place decades ago. (Note: for mature audiences only.) Landini says he didn't realize Lewis was going to actually use that no-holds-barred interview for the piece's sound score, and the first few times he listened to it, he was mortified. But, "Because I'm getting older [he's 52] and closer to the last chapter of my dance career, I made a conscious choice to go outside my comfort zone as a dancer," he confesses. Says Lewis, "Joe allowed himself to be extremely vulnerable."

To create the choreography, he improvised movement to go with the recorded narration, which juxtaposes two stories: Landini's personal life and his public life. "A word would trigger a movement," he explains. "I probably use 20 different motifs, or actions, or tasks that relate to a word or sentence in the narration. Then we mixed it up, collaging-we didn't want it to be literal, or pantomime." To move the piece from a stage context (an early showing was at ODC) to the mean streets meant making only vertical choices-rolling and gesturing on the ground in an inner-city alley was not an appealing option. And because the tour takes place during the day (at 3 p.m. on weekends), with no lighting design, it's up to Landini to create the kind of focus that a lighting designer would ordinarily offer. In addition, Landini can't hear the narration-it's in the audience's headsets-so he relies on muscle memory, imagining himself on the ODC stage, to know where to be, physically, at any point. "I have to be bigger [than in a theater]," he explains, "and I don't have the luxury of slowing down and letting the lights focus on my hands. It's labor-intensive." Within set parameters, each performance is somewhat improvised.

As you follow the path from its starting point-in front of the iconic and still operational bar the Eagle-to its finale at the sex club Blow Buddies (where, on the sidewalk, audiences create a maze within which Landini dances), the panorama of present-day SoMa seems like a palimpsest. For example, at Brush Place, where many gay men lived in the '70s, the faded signage on an old brick garment factory is visible on the back wall of what has now become a condo complex. On a side street near 6th, you're standing next to a chain-link fence surrounding a parking lot, but you're under an overpass leading to the impressive new incarnation of the Bay Bridge. "Aesthetically, although I can't give you a reason why, this [locale] works for me," says Lewis.

Lewis wants audiences, male and female of any sexual persuasion, to experience, viscerally, the spaces where a very particular culture unfolded for a short time. Her mission, she says, is always to share a glimpse of the world from an unfamiliar perspective.

SoMa Now and Then

Nov. 12 → Dec. 4

Eagle Tavern, 398 12th St.,
San Francisco

(800) 838-3006/