RAWdance roars into the future

San Francisco contemporary troupe RAWdance is happily marking a momentous anniversary with a big new show and a new collaborator.

“It’s a mix. There’s a huge amount of excitement — to make it 15 years is a pretty incredible feat, we feel super proud of that — but also we’re very tired,” says company co-founder Wendy Rein, busily rehearsing for the company’s triple bill performance this week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“Being tired isn’t related to the 15 years,” chimes in Ryan T. Smith, who established the group with Rein in 2004 and is pleased to look back at accomplishments and change for the future.

‘We’ve built a semblance of an institution that can support artists,” he says, pointing to the recent addition of Katerina Wong as RAWdance’s first associate artistic director.

All three San Francisco dancer-choreographers are contributing to the YBCA show, which opens with a reprise of Rein and Smith’s 30-minute “Brilliant Alarm,” a well-received 2017 piece with music by Surabhi Saraf about the prevalence of anti-intellectual rhetoric throughout history that takes place on a stage covered with hundreds of blue hard-cover books.

“It felt relevant after the presidential election, and it really resonated with audiences,” says Rein, who calls it an ultimately comforting and inspiring piece even though it’s based on “depressing” research about rebellion and suppression in the past 100 years throughout the world.

“All the problems we’re facing today aren’t new. We can find ways to work through, and we can learn from the past,” she adds.

Wong’s premiere on the program also has political themes: “14,” her debut with the company, looks at how much the equal protection and citizenship clauses of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment have influenced civil rights.

“Ideally, we want to push in the direction of more equality,” says Wong, who appears in the work with four dancers.

The 15-minute piece, with a set and sound score that includes news bites, panel discussion and podcasts, takes a “broad stroke,” Wong says, adding that it’s meant to spark interest rather than controversy.

Rounding out the program is Rein and Smith’s glittery premiere “Roar,” with a 1920s-themed score by Joel St. Julien.

Ryan T. Smith in “Roar.” (Courtesy Elena Zhukova)

“We’re peeling away the glitz and glam of the Jazz Age,” says Rein, to expose the reality of the era’s dramatic economic divide and increasing social divisiveness.

Rein calls their research for the piece, particularly Warren Harding’s presidential speeches on “America first” that are “startlingly” like what we’re hearing today, “mind-blowing.” She adds that the dance has taken on a feminist focus as it’s developed, as well.

Smith, who appears in the dance with five women and has been testing gold paint on his body, says, “We’ve never before done a work this extreme in gender dynamic; this sexist cabaret humor is worth exploring.”

Katerina Wong in “Roar.” (Courtesy Elena Zhukova)

Rein says the three dances on the program overlap: “They’re all about finding and using your voice – and what happens when you don’t.”

As they move forward together (with collaborators Chad Owens on set design and Allen Wilner on lighting), all of the dance makers, originally from the East Coast and graduates of Ivy League schools with strong academic interests, claim their geek status.

“We are proud nerds,” says Smith, adding, “Whatever work we’re doing — it has to have intellectual and emotional curiosity.”

Rein says, simply: “It has to be about something.”

While Wong is honored to join the group after a five-year association — “it feels natural and organic, like a true progression” — Rein and Smith are pleased to welcome a new voice and assist an up-and-coming artist.

“It’s harder and harder for younger choreographers to find a way to survive,” says Smith, who’s taken advantage of rent control since his 2003 arrival, with Rein, to the Bay Area.

Pleased to be able to provide a platform for others, Smith and Rein will continue to do that as well with RAWdance’s Concept Series, a casual forum for dance in a purposely cozy, relaxed atmosphere.

“We started it in 2007 for our company to test works and bring back works only performed once,” says Rein, while Smith adds, “It’s grown beyond what we could have imagined.”

There’s no tryouts or vetting; choreographers of all styles are invited to participate, and in the program’s 11 years, more than 100 have done so.

“It’s an open invitation; the only thing we ask is that they let us know if it’s going to be kid-friendly,” says Rein.

RAWdance 15th Anniversary Season
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 24-26
Tickets: $25 to $40
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org
Note: Concept Series 25 runs April 5-6 in the Green Room, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.; suggested donation is $10-$20.

Leslie Katz
Published by
Leslie Katz

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