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CounterPulse Celebrates 30 Years

By Heather Desaulniers

In a recent review I remarked that in 2020 the term pandemic has become a part of our everyday vocabulary. I think that’s also true with another ‘p’ word: postpone. And not just in the artistic climate. So many celebrations, plans and gatherings have been put off for the time being. Who knows for how long?

Yet there are entities, especially in the performing arts ecosystem, that are well beyond postponing. Groups that have been quick to adapt to social distancing protocols and COVID-safe practices so that they can still bring cutting-edge, urgently thematic work to the public. Because they know that innovative, experimental art is worth the time and effort – it nourishes creators and nurtures the community. It is more important than ever.

CounterPulse, currently located at 80 Turk Street in the Tenderloin, is most definitely one such body. And in 2021, they mark their 30th birthday! Significant festivities are being planned, the first of which will be held on December 19th at 6:00pm. Dubbed Flashback Futures, the live-streamed event will feature DJs, poetry, virtual docent-led art exhibitions, archival performances as well as a preview of CounterPulse’s upcoming spring season, which runs January through June. “We are holding Flashback Futures very close to the Solstice, at a time where the veil is thin between past, present and future,” notes Artistic and Executive Director Julie E. Phelps, “it’s an ideal moment to look back, close out 2020 and take stock of what we’ve achieved as we simultaneously embark on our third decade.”

Though the program for Flashback Futures is still being finalized, the team knows that the evening will highlight their Artist Residency Commissioning Program, a longtime anchor at CounterPulse. "In 2005, CounterPulse launched our flagship Artist Residency and Commissioning (ARC) program,” relays Justin Ebrahemi, Director of Communications and Advancement, “over the past 15 years, ARC has expanded from one to three residency tracks, spanning contemporary dance, experimental culturally-specific performance, and technologically engaged choreography.” True to its title, the two-pronged ARC fosters both residencies and commissions, and over the years, they estimate that more than 250 artists have participated. “As Flashback Futures reminisces over what we accomplished during our teens and twenties, there will be a fair bit of nostalgia – honoring the work of many former ARC artists as well as remembering our previous home on Mission Street in SoMa,” Phelps shares.

As for looking forward, CounterPulse is excited about what they have in store for audiences over the next six months. “We are confident in CounterPulse’s agility; our spring season is sure to happen,” states Phelps. At the centerpiece of the spring season is the CounterPulse Festival in May, a collection of groundbreaking performances and new work from makers based all over the world. The hope is that here in the San Francisco/Bay Area, drier, warmer weather at that time of the year may even facilitate some outdoor events (in line with safety recommendations, of course). During this festival, CounterPulse will also officially celebrate their milestone birthday, and a spectacular party is in the cards! In addition, the spring calendar features work from the cohort of artists currently in ‘Combustible,’ one of ARC’s three distinct tracks. “Combustible brings cutting-edge tech arts to risk-taking dance,” Phelps describes, “with San Francisco being a tech center, it’s important to provide a space for these two artistic communities to collaborate, and for us to reconcile technology and the body.”

This is not to say that postponing hasn’t been part of the CounterPulse story this year – they did have to delay 2020’s spring season. And COVID’s realities has certainly meant a re-imagining and reinvention of multiple projects and works-in-progress. But forging forward is part of their DNA. Alongside an array of streamed performances, they have ventured outside, holding live happenings in Golden Gate Park. And events like Flashback Futures were planned after COVID struck so they were designed from the start within allowable parameters.

While the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the performing arts and so many other industries, there have been moments of surprise too. Especially around accessibility, which is an integral part of CounterPulse’s mission. “We have worked diligently to make our programming economically and physically accessible to viewers and artists, but now with abundant livestreaming and online offerings, we see that we can be geographically accessible too,” explains Phelps. They’ve been overwhelmed at the countless messages they’ve received from enthusiastic fans, some no longer in the Bay Area, who have been able to tune in virtually and see what CounterPulse is up to. “Audiences have been dedicated to this center for thirty years; they know they are witnessing an unbroken, grass roots organization, that somehow, has always managed to weather difficult circumstances,” Phelps adds.

CounterPulse

Captions: Ronja Ver (Movement + Voice) & Kal Spelletich (Robots + Sound). Photo by Robbie Sweeny; CounterPulse adapted Edge 2020 showcase in Golden Gate Park; 2019 Gala

Heather Desaulniers
Heather Desaulniers
Heather is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, a contributor to DanceTabs, In Dance and several other dance-focused publications.
Heather is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, a contributor to DanceTabs, In Dance and several other dance-focused publications.
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