This year’s 29th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is as loud and colorful as ever. The regular audience already knows what to expect: men beating the drums and women shaking their coconut shells. For newcomers, here is a guide to the festival, which runs weekends through June 24 at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Each weekend offers its own program that delicately balances East with West, soloists with groups, and live guitarists with recorded beats. Although the performers are a very diverse group — diversity being the single most important idea that underlies both the ingenuity and the triviality of the concept behind this festival — all of them are from Northern California. Many have appeared in the festival before, but some are newbies.
Shabnam, a distinguished belly dancer from Oakland, made her first appearance at the festival’s opening last weekend. Swirling with her fiery red scarf and shaking her hips, Shabnam was the most cheered performer of the night and is sure to come back to future festivals. Also dancing for the first time are highly sought out Palestinian ensemble Al Juthoor and Tajik soloist Tara Catherine Pandeya, accompanied by a famous Uzbek musician on a doira drum.
Those looking for a break from strictly traditional moves have a chance to see a few pieces of original choreography. San Francisco-based Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company is known for combining traditional Chinese and contemporary American dance techniques. In the festival’s final weekend, Cai, who was a principal dancer at the Shanghai Opera, will present a fun new piece about the spirit of village girls in modern China.
Charya Burt Cambodian Dance Company, performing this weekend, is another unique work of choreography to look out for. While most Cambodian folk dancers died during the communist rule in the 1970s, Burt continues the tradition as an American immigrant. In her new work, “Blue Roses,” a princess conceals her unhappiness by surrounding herself with familiar things; Burt draws a parallel between Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” and the fate of Cambodian women.
Although this is a dance festival, the music is often just as important as the dancing, with live musicians sparking up the stage presence of the featured performers.
But when the dancing itself stands out behind all the feathers, masks and full skirts, it is because it reveals the amazing things the body can do and the mind can create.
San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival
Where: Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon St., San Francisco
When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 24
Tickets: $22 to $36