It was hard to park near The Presidio Theatre, not necessarily because there was limited parking, but because I had no idea where to find it. I found a spot right behind the theater in front of what seemed to be a construction zone. I asked a man I found pacing and smoking outside whether he thought I’d be towed. He said he didn’t think so, and when I said, “I’ll risk it,” he said, “Merde.” “Are you one of the dancers?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Then merde to you too.”
Walking along the perimeter of the building to the entrance, I took in the surrounding forest of eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and Monterey cypress. This was my first official business as the new ODC Writer-in-Residence and I wanted to take in every detail for this, my first post, on this, the newly named Dancing Room Only blog.
I picked up my ticket from Will Call and asked an usher to point me in the direction of the restrooms. After a skip down an art deco carpeted staircase, I found my destination, pushed open the door and entered a gleaming white space. “Fancy,” I exclaimed, possibly out loud. Back upstairs, folks young and old chatted in the lobby and outside until ODC/Dance choreographer KT Nelson invited us to gather in front of the entrance to the newly restored theater.
As we huddled in the chill air, Nelson gave us the backstory to Path of Miracles, the work we were about to witness. Holding a cardboard cutout of a hummingbird attached to a long stick (bamboo?), she explained that she dragged her husband Doug on the 5-week, 500-mile pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago after hearing Joby Talbot’s score “Path of Miracles.” She thought that walking the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela (Spain) might offer choreographic insight into the music she found too intimidating to make a dance to.
A chorus of shushes whipped through the crowd until it was quiet enough to hear Nelson recap her adventure — how, over the course of weeks marching along the way, determination, excitement, and anxiety gave way to self-doubt, self-pity, and boredom, which devolved into full mental and physical breakdown until a final transfiguration into giddy community. Nelson thinks of the four sections of Path of Miracles as reflective of the geo-emotional aspects of the pilgrimage, moving from a long traveling line to a square space of equilibrium to the tight enclosure of despair to the plaza — the space of communal celebration.
We were invited to follow a guide of our choice (there were five) depending on how quickly or slowly we wanted to move, whether we preferred to sit or stand, get up close and personal or hang back in the shadows. We were told dancers might invite us into the work and that we could respectfully decline the invitation. I appreciated these options. They acknowledged and respected any invisible disabilities in the crowd.
Path of Miracles was created in collaboration with San Francisco’s vocal ensemble, Volti. Conducted by Robert Geary, the work was originally performed in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and retooled to highlight the structures of the new Presidio Theatre.
I followed Joseph Copley, ODC/Dance Associate Director of Artistic Planning, onto the Presidio stage. I took a cocktail table-height chair in the upstage left corner of the stage, audience members beside me, behind me, out in the audience seats, and sitting on the downstage corners of the stage on pillows. I sat right on the edge of the vocal ensemble, the one singer/instrumentalist (she had a series of bells before her) within nudging distance of my elbow. I got to watch the dance from behind, immersed in the sound. My perspective had an onstage and backstage feel, voyeuristic in that the spectacle felt like it was for the people in the traditional theater seats. I watched the conductor embody the rhythm, pacing, and cues of the music, which showed the ways the choreography broke with that structure. I caught glimpses of dancers in the aisles; they appeared to come out of nowhere and return just as quickly. Dancers invited audience members to stand and move, musicians into and out of the “dance space.” These were my favorite moments, the pedestrian handholding, the lifting singers as they sang.
We walked through the green room to the second part held outside in a large square courtyard. It was chilly and I cursed myself for not brining a warmer jacket, though I got some heat from my neighbors. Again, the musicians moved in and out of the dancing and this sometimes made it hard to attend to the dancing itself. Choreographically I recognized supplication, benediction, and possibly a dash of excommunication. I was in a Catholic zone and no amount of abstraction could take me out of it.
Section three brought the audience, musicians, and dancers back inside the theater. This time performers inhabited different spaces — lobbies, staircases, elevator banks — dancing solos, duets, and trios. I leaned over a glass partition to look down on the musicians singing on the stairs that lead to the restrooms. I could hear the music everywhere I went, faintly, loudly, a constant moving walkway along which the dancers danced. I sat very close to Miche Wong as she danced a solo that felt like a prayer, not because there were prayer gestures (there seemed to be one, a sort of shaking steeple fingers gesture), but because of the internal intimacy, the labor and strength of what looked like a full-bodied appeal to a higher power.
I don’t want to say that there was a particular higher power that the dancers were supplicating, but given the Catholic context, I got to thinking about Jesus and St. James (patron saint of Spain and also, according to only one website — so unverifiable — of arthritis). I felt that structure of the work as a whole and, in some instances, the choreography itself served two functions: to represent (abstractly) images from Christian stories, art, and rites, and to be itself a performative image of the actual pilgrimage.
The final section took place back in the theater, the stage still unadorned and brightly lit, audience members clumped on the downstage corners of the stage as well as in the traditional seating area. This had the effect of dropping in on a rehearsal. Once again, I caught sight of dancers in alcoves, like activated reliquary statues, surprising and a bit haunting. The dancers, as they had done in the first section, moved bird-like, twitchy and sharp, and I thought about what it asks of a dancer to move that way, rather than worrying about the symbolism of birds. A duet near the end of the work between a dancer and a singer — the singer gently nudging the dancer’s limbs at the fold of their joints, knees, elbows, hips, something concert dance goers have seen many, many times — broke my heart for its simplicity, the kindness and tenderness of the gestures, a practice of care. The singer in her jeans, button down shirt, and glasses, the dancer in white and earth tones, the everyday, the stylized together. As Nelson said during her pre-show talk, “Miracles are in the mundane.”
The music began to sound like a Meredith Monk piece and once again, I was hit by the performativity of the work — a work not only of but about contemporary Western concert dance, a work not only about but of pilgrimage. At the end of the performance, the dancers and musicians exit through the audience and came to a stop in our midst. The conductor wound up right in front of my seat and turned to shake my hand and thank me for coming. We had reached Santiago de Compostela together.
Back at home after the performance, I googled Talbot and learned that the he had dedicated the score to the memory of his father, Vincent Talbot. As I moved through the spaces of the theatre, nearly brushing limbs with dancers and musicians, I felt spectral. When the couple of people I knew greeted me at the show, I thought, “You can see me?” I’m still grieving the loss of local dance great, Frank Shawl, and ever since I heard that his spirit left his body on October 4, I’ve felt it in mine. Path of Miracles was an apt journey for the two of us.
In part because I’m a dancer and in part because I have a degree in performance studies, when I watch dance, I don’t think about meaning. I pay attention to the doing and to what the doing makes me think about. I look forward to attending to doing and thinking about dancing with you.