A Sampling of This Year’s SF International Arts Festival

By Jean Schiffman

Festival founder/director Andrew Wood chose “The Path to Democracy” as this year’s umbrella theme.

The San Francisco International Arts Festival opens in late May at Fort Mason with an indoor/outdoor, site-specific concert that explores, through music and narrative, the multifaceted concept of diaspora.

The concert—a world premiere by Tokyo-based composer/multidisciplinary artist Tomoko Momiyama—is one among dozens of presentations that comprise this year’s festival; genres include music, dance, theater, spoken word, comedy/improv and performance art. The 50 participating artists and ensembles come from Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Tuva, South Korea, Spain, Syria and Taiwan.

Founder/director Andrew Wood chose “The Path to Democracy” as this year’s umbrella theme for the festival.

Kyoko Yoshida of the San Francisco nonprofit U.S./Japan Cultural Trade Network, which commissioned Momiyama’s work, suggested that the composer include local communities in her piece, so Momiyama began by talking to Japanese women in San Francisco about their experiences as immigrants. She visited an elder-care center for Japanese-Americans and met San Francisco’s Theatre of Yugen founder Yuriko Doi, who is translating into English her memoir about sailing to the Pacific Islands. Along with those influences, Momiyama was introduced to a Berkeley-based Japanese seed specialist and found herself thinking about migration in its many iterations. An idea for a concert began to form, one that would, as Wood has written, conjure, for the audience, “a state of mind where one is more in harmony with the elements and other life forms.”

Describing her plans for the concert via Skype during the development phase, Momiyama said she was thinking about the fact that seeds travel for survival—and so do species. An auditory and visual narrative was emerging, one that would involve community participants in the performance: Doi reading excerpts from her book; possibly a band or a chorus of schoolchildren; koto-player Shoko Hikage; maybe an interactive talk by local biologists and geologists; perhaps the sounds of surrounding migrating birds and water creatures. Ultimately, she explained, it’s about the journeys of seeds and species, with all their inherent existential challenges.

May 23, 25, 26 at the Firehouse.

Diaspora is also the subject of Syrian playwright Mudar Alhaggi’s metatheatrical drama “Your Love Is Fire,” a North American premiere performed in Arabic (with supertitles) by Collective Ma’louba, Alhaggi’s ensemble of Syrian theater artists. Some members live in Paris; others, like Alhaggi, in Germany, where the ensemble is in residence at a theater in Mülheim. In the four-actor play, which is based on Alhaggi’s own experiences, a refugee playwright in Europe creates three characters trapped in Damascus in the midst of war. Of the two women friends, one wants to flee Syria; the other, devastated at the potential loss of her friend but in love with a Syrian soldier, wants to stay. From his secure position in Europe, the playwright manipulates their fates, leaving them in what Wood describes as “an almost surreal state of limbo.”

Alhaggi, a playwright, script writer and dramaturg, first wrote “Your Love Is Fire” while living in Damascus in 2012; then, it was a simple story about a couple in love in wartime. “But the process of writing was not easy because things were becoming more dangerous,” he says via Skype from Berlin, where he eventually sought asylum. Once there, he realized that the real story was his own, about writing the play. “Your Love Is Fire” has been recast into a mix of fiction and documentary, he says, based on his, and his actors’, experiences; the characters are drawn from people in his own life. “We have the story of the play and the bigger story of every artist and every Syrian,” he says.

The title refers to an old Egyptian song, evoking romance; for Alhaggi, a conflation of love and fire is what the play is about. “I wrote my own experience and maybe I needed to write it just to be able to see it from outside and understand it,” he says. “Maybe it can help me to think about my future.… it was not easy, because it’s talking about a part of my life that is full of pain.”

May 30, 31, June 1, at Southside
Theater, Bldg. D.

On the comical end of the festival spectrum is local actor/clown/aerialist Felicity Hesed’s “Cara Vita: A Clown Concerto,” a world premiere. Initially a clown act in which two people fall in love, Hesed developed it into a quasi-solo piece in which she chooses an audience volunteer as the object of her desire and ends up encapsulating the ups and downs of love, loss and more in mere minutes, she says. She started out storyboarding, thinking, writing, and then teamed up with clown/playwright/director Jeff Raz to get the show on its feet. It’s a bit risky working with audience volunteers, she concedes. But as in a real-life marriage or relationship, “You just have to go there with the person you’ve chosen.”

“I don’t wear a red nose or dress super-silly,” she adds, “but going through part of a life in 20 minutes is something only a clown could do—going to the fullest regions of the emotional life of a person. In the clown world, a doll can be a baby. It involves leaps of the imagination, the use of metaphors.” It also involves circus skills like juggling, acrobatics and stage magic; for the soundtrack, Hesed plays the violin.

The title has a double meaning: cara vita, or “dear life” in Italian, could refer to this precious life of ours, but also to hanging on for dear life—“struggling to be a parent and an artist and just being an adult.”

“Cara Vita” is on a double bill with another world premiere, Irish dancer/choreographer Tara Brandel’s “Circus,” in which she embodies various characters “on a journey through gender stereotypes,” interwoven with video projections of Nigerian street dancer Nicholas Nwosa.

Nwosa cannot appear in person because, as an asylum-seeker in Ireland, he cannot currently travel, explains Brandel on Skype from Ireland. “He dances beautifully, this mixture of twerking, hip-hop and other street dance forms,” she says, “and talks about his experiences as an asylum seeker” under Ireland’s draconian Direct Provision program, which has been called inhumane—asylum seekers can be held in limbo, in a hostel, for seven to nine years, she explains, with 20 euros a week to live on, unable to get work. Amnesty International has called for an end to the system.

One of Brandel’s longtime objectives has been to encourage diverse cultural representation in Irish dance; in Ireland, she says, dancers are mostly white, and “River Dance is what gets shown as Irish dance.” Her last piece was a response to the refugee crisis, which was when Nwosa contacted her.

Her part of the show emerged from her experiences with “toxic masculinity and #MeToo,” she says, “and although I’m a contemporary dancer and 51, I went [to learn pole dancing] as a joke and got completely hooked. I have a pole right here!” She points across her room. “I don’t get sexy, I don’t use it that way, but it’s a kind of symbol. At one point I’m in male drag. I play with female stereotypes. I do contact improvisation with it. It’s a reprieve from the intensity of the stereotypes. It’s playful, it’s my happy place, where I’m not objectified as a female dancer.”

May 30, 31, June 1 at the Firehouse.

May 23 → June 2

San Francisco International Arts Festival

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture