The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is 39 years old, but after decades at the Palace of Fine Arts theater, the annual event made its San Francisco Opera House debut on Saturday night. It's a delight to report that the evening was a smashing success, an unexpectedly delightful match of venue and skillful local dancers, smoothly staged by Carlos Carvajal and CK Ladzekpo, and beautifully lit by Patty Ann Farrell. Even the amplified sound by design Calvin LL Jones was decent rather than overbearing, which was a relief because the real surprise was how great the onstage live musicians were in all eight segments.
Except for the opening act by the Academy of Danse Libre specializing in 19th Century Central European Social Dances, the music was mostly percussion-based and it was fascinating to hear both the similarities and differences between cultural traditions that included Peru, Hawaii, Cuba, North India, Japan, the Philippines, and Brazil. Famous musicians like tabla master Zakir Hussain and the John Santos Sextet were featured, but the musical level throughout was extraordinary, including the improvised percussion jam sessions covering transitions to a new set. There was even a live performance by soprano Maya Kherani and countertenor Cortez Mitchell of the Flower Duet from Delibes' opera Lakme accompanying the opening section of the Nā Lei Hulu troupe before they embarked on a percussive protest of the American annexation of Hawaii. (Pictured above are members of Leung's White Crane Lion & Dragon Dance Association from San Francisco's Chinatown, who performed in front of the Opera House before the onstage show.)
The festival featuring the best of Northern California dance companies has always been explicitly geared towards multiculturalism as a tool for understanding in the world, so the protests against historical and current injustice had a special charge in this year of Fortress America.
The reigning emotion all evening, though, was joy. Performing on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House is a very big deal, and there was a palpable excitement emanating from the performers, most of them amateurs with day jobs. They fully deserved to be up there, and did themselves proud. There is a second program this weekend and the tickets are very reasonable (click here to check it out). You won't be disappointed. (Pictured above in yellow is the West African dancer/choreographer Naomi Diouf who received the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award.)