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Mary Sano keeps Isadora Duncan’s art, spirit alive

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Mary Sano appears with her company in two programs at ODC on Sept. 7-8. (Courtesy photo)

Mary Sano, upon celebrating the 20th anniversary of her South of Market studio devoted to teaching and performing the unconventional work of late San Francisco choreographer Isadora Duncan, is feeling a little overwhelmed, yet settled at the same time.

With her dedicated small troupe and live musicians, the teacher and third-generation disciple of Duncan (who died in a scarf-related motor accident in 1927), is excited to present two different, and comprehensive, programs this weekend at ODC in the Mission.

“To show the scope of Duncan’s work, it’s impossible to fit it into one day,” says Sano, describing ”Dancing Dreaming Isadora: Reflections on the Past, Visions of the Future.”

On Friday, the performance’s first half features pianist Eriko Tokaji playing Chopin and Scriabin accompanying the dancers to pieces created by Duncan; on Saturday, pianists Mutsuko Dohi and Hiroko Mizuno play Brahms duets. (“This is choreography I’ve been building on for 35 years,” says Sano, who got a master’s degree in dance from Mills College in 1991 after beginning study in the Bay Area with Mignon Garland, founder of the Isadora Duncan Heritage Society, in 1979.)

On both days, the programs’ second half showcases contemporary, Duncan-inspired dances by Sano, created in collaboration with her son, composer-pianist Tony Sano Chapman, with whom she’s been working for about a decade.

The performances mark a contrast to her memorable 10th anniversary show, which filled the big Cowell Theater in Fort Mason in 2008, and to more regular smaller offerings from her Fifth Street studio, in which audiences are quite close to the action.

“It’s my temple,” says Sano, describing The Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing, which opened to the public in November 1997.

Sano, who today divides her time between The City and her native Japan, owns the live-work unit, has no plans to sell and is feeling “set.”

Even though the neighborhood has changed through the decades, what hasn’t is Sano’s compulsion and need to express herself through movement — to feel her surroundings and the natural environment and become one with music — in the way Duncan did.

“Dance history went to a different place after Isadora Duncan appeared,” says Sano, describing how Duncan “understood the rhythm of the human body.”

Sano discovered Duncan during a period when she was feeling unhappy and searching for her true self. Unfulfilled with a successful modeling career, and living a fast-paced life in Tokyo, she was visiting San Francisco when she stumbled on a Duncan workshop after trying all kinds of dance (even tap) and not liking it.

But something about Duncan’s “improvisational” technique — which is very different from classical ballet and something that can “take a long time to get” — struck Sano, who kept coming back to it.

As she performs alongside, and remains “quite involved” with her six-member troupe (all have been studying with her for more than 10 years), Sano doesn’t know exactly what the future will bring, but plans on continuing to teach and keep Duncan’s spirit alive.

“We will keep moving on. I want to give children and adult dancers their freedom of movement,” she says, to help them not feel constricted. “It’s about expressing yourself,” she says, “in the basic things you do in life, not just dance class.”

IF YOU GO
Mary Sano and her Duncan Dancers
Where: ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 7-8
Tickets: $25 to $40
Contact: (415) 863-9834, www.odc.dance/dreamingisadora, www.duncandance.org

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