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SF Ethnic Dance fest lights up War Memorial

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Glenisha Alexander, left, and Metzi Henriquez appeared with Fogo Na Roupa Performing Company in the first weekend of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival; performances with other troupes continue this weekend at the War Memorial Opera House. (Courtesy RJ Muna)

The title of the San Francisco Dance Festival’s 39th anniversary program “Uniting Us Through Dance” couldn’t be more appropriate.

In its first time on the massive War Memorial Opera House stage, Weekend One of the show (previously at the Palace of Fine Arts) filled the big room with inspirational world music and movement, serving up a powerful, uplifting contrast to the current divisive political climate.

Eight troupes gorgeously and effectively accompanied by live musicians made up the juried program, presented by World Arts West, a nonprofit supporting local artists “sustaining world dance and music traditions.”

They all were mesmerizing, from the swirling Academy of Danse Libre couples displaying Polish, Czech, German and Russian social dances of the 19th century (accompanied by a 10-piece ensemble with piano, flute, horns, strings and percussion) who opened, to the closing festivities of Fogo Na Roupa Performing Company, which colorfully re-enacted an Afro-Brazilian coronation of the king and queen of the Congo. (Program notes called the performance of the rite from Brazil’s colonial era “a celebration of resistance to tyranny and racism, past and present.”)

Several compelling acts made their first appearance with the festival: Antonia Minnecola, a soloist in North Indian Kathak, danced to beats of tabla master Zakir Hussain, in a lively improvisational conversation.

Percussionist John Santos and his Latin band provided the sounds for the Alayo Dance Company’s world-premiere “Festejos Caribenos,” an infectious, contemporary Cuban street party (that began in the aisle and made its way to the stage) that showed off the troupe’s salsa, rumba and Afro-Cuban modern skills.

San Francisco Awakko Ren performed a traditional Japanese dance, “Awa Odori,” associated for centuries with a festival of the same name in Tokushima, a prefecture of Japan on Shikoku island. Despite its connections to history and farming, the colorful piece — dancers were in red and blue robes, wearing hats and carrying fans and lanterns — had an appealing, jazzy feel. Musicians playing replicas of instruments used in Japan provided the syncopated sounds.

Likewise, LIKHA-Pilipino Folk Ensemble’s thrilling “Birds in Flight” was inspired by nature; some of the dancers, wearing eye-catching arm pieces, evoked the lawin, the Philippines’ national bird of prey with its huge wingspan.

De Rompe y Raja, representing Peru, danced a lively premiere with not immediately obvious political themes. Set to a famous Afro-Peruvian song, the hybrid dance began with a solo exemplifying oppression and survival of Afro-Peruvians, then segued into a minuet section, mocking Spanish conquerors’ colonial traditions. It was fascinating and fetching, notwithstanding the complicated back story.

Festival favorite, the Hawaiian troupe Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, offered a two part contribution that began with a lovely hula, danced to soprano Maya Kherani and countertenor Cortez Mitchell gorgeously singing the famed duet from Delibes’ opera “Lakme,” followed by a contrasting strident piece depicting Hawaii’s resistance to being annexed by the U.S. in the 19th century.

Saturday’s performance also included a tribute to Naomi Diouf, director of the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company.

While the aforementioned dancers — mostly amateur, but one wouldn’t know it — won’t be appearing in Weekend Two performances, the upcoming show also looks promising.

The lineup includes Ballet Afsaneh, Ballet Folklórico México Danza, BITEZO BIA KONGO, Gurus of Dance, an Aditya Patel Company, Mahealani Uchiyama, Natya at Berkeley, Te Mana O Te Ra; Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco, YaoYong Dance and Zena Carlota, representing everything from traditional Congolese, to contemporary Persian, to Bollywood and Zimbabwean mbira.

San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. July 15, 2 p.m. July 16
Tickets: $25 to $45
Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.sfethnicdancefestival.org

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