Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company is a favorite at the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival. (Courtesy Robin Fadtke)

Dancing women light up Grace Cathedral

SF Movement Arts Festival hosts hundreds of local artists in majestic church

Jim Tobin, founder and director of the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival, won’t name a favorite among the hundreds of artists who have filled Grace Cathedral at the extraordinary event through the years.

“I love them all,” says Tobin, adding, “I’m very proud that, from day one, we’ve been dedicated to local artists from the Bay Area.”

That will be the case again on Friday evening, when more than 300 performers in dozens of groups, 95 percent women, appear in four-minute dance or performance art pieces at 12 specially designated stations throughout the majestic church.

With each spot hosting six groups, Tobin says, “We tease that the audience gets 12 mixed rep shows for the price of one.”

Advance tickets quickly sold out, but Tobin says that, as in previous years, some $40 cash only tickets will be available at the door “because the cathedral gets bombarded” with requests. He says he tries to limit the audience to 1,200 to accommodate a positive and pleasant viewing experience for all.

The church became the location of the festival in 2016 (it was held in other locations before) when Tobin mounted a slow-motion performance art piece with men in boxer shorts and T-shirts called “Washing of Jesus Body as a fallen US Soldier.”

Formerly working in tech in the Silicon Valley, with a background in ballroom dancing and an avid participant in the local dance scene, Tobin had been thinking about the piece for 20 years, but didn’t know of a place where it could be done.

While mentoring a dancer at Grace Cathedral in 2015, he found it. And after he got the OK to do the piece on the main altar, he sent word out, inviting people who wanted to do site-specific dance to fill out rest of the cathedral.

“Droves” — more than 100 women — responded, prompting the idea to set up the activities like a farmers market. The public loved it.

Admitting that logistics are complex and that “it’s a lot of work” to organize, Tobin says, “The first year, I ran it like a military operation without telling the dancers. And every year, we get better and better.”

Mariana Sobral CV Performing Arts appeared at the 2019 festival. (Courtesy Kyle Adler)

With a staff of 40-50 people helping on performance day, Tobin is the one who determines who gets to perform. He prioritizes those who already have appeared, who have been recommended and who have been volunteer workers over those who have done nothing for the festival.

While musical accompaniment has been a challenge in the past — speakers at too high volumes were disruptive — this year, singers and acoustic musicians playing quietly are allowed at most stations.

Tobin himself is in charge of the station at the labyrinth, which he calls the heart of cathedral.

“It’s my baby; it’s where people come first and where we get the best photos and the best videos. Those are what have allowed our festival to grow with speed and strength we never could have imagined.”

In 2019, Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company — which Tobin calls “the best dance company in the West” — stood out in its labyrinth showcase.

Yet Tobin emphasizes that the festival is not strictly about professional dancers. Although some choreographers take the opportunity to envision a new dance at the festival, and others extract excerpts from bigger pieces for it, the event is for everybody, with performers ranging from age 6 to over 60, and of all shapes and sizes. Alluding to long established troupes with big ticket prices, he says, “We don’t really give a darn about those big companies. We see the real imagination down here on the local level.”

While the festival dictates nothing about what the performers present, Tobin says the only thing they have to do is show basic respect for the church’s sacred space.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Movement Arts Festival

Where: Grace Cathedral, 1110 California St., S.F.

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24

Tickets: $40 cash at door

Contact: sfmaf.org

Dance

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