Year of dance in review: the most inspiring pandemic pivots of 2021

Maggie Carey and Ian Buchanan of Smuin Contemporary Ballet perform “(I love you) for sentimental reasons” at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda on May 9th. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

If you’re looking for hope in these uncertain days, you might find it in the resilience of the Bay Area dancers and choreographers on display throughout 2021.

As soon as gathering for live performances became possible in midsummer, the dance scene was back, albeit with a masked and socially distanced audience. All of this isolated artistic creation means that we are now working on a glut of dance films, with at least one project in every live performance it seems.

But the adaptations to the pandemic have had their benefits. Many companies and presenters ended the year leaving viewers with a choice between theater attendance and digital broadcasting options. UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances even offers a free streaming video of Caleb Teicher’s December show, The Tap Phenomenon, as part of his Cal Performances at Home series.

On a darker note, the local dance world has lost two larger-than-life champions of artistic daring this year. Anna Halprin, one of the oldest and most courageous instigators of postmodern dance, died at the age of 100 in May, when Ronn Guidi, who brought revolutionary (and colorful) lost classics of Ballets Russes back to life during Oakland Ballet’s heights of the 1980s and 1990s, died aged 85 earlier this month.

But as those greats passed away and businesses suffered financially, new life has managed to emerge on the Bay Area dance scene. Here is a chronological list of the most inspiring observations from The Chronicle.

Ballet22, the first and only dance company composed of male, transgender and non-binary artists dancing en pointe. Photo: Ballet22

Ballet22 celebrates men in pointe

Roberto Vega Ortiz is a transplant from Puerto Rico to the bay area with powerful feet. As pandemic isolation set in, he donned his spikes and took to social media with the hashtag #maleballerinas. Thus was born Ballet22, a troupe of male ballerinas dancing in pointe, but not in drag. A collaboration with Executive Director Theresa Knudson, the company debuted online in December 2020 but grew stronger throughout 2021, featuring rare 19th-century classics and bold new works by choreographers like Omar Román. de Jesús, both digitally and on tour.

Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company was among eight soloists and eight companies from across the country appearing in this year’s Dance in Revolt (ing) Times festival, produced by Dance Mission. Photo: Yoran Savion

Dance Mission Theater digs into the DIRT

Channeling social justice through dance since the late 1990s, Dance Mission Theater put its work online in March, calling on Afro-Haitian teacher Adia Tamar Whitaker and Destiny Arts co-founder Sarah Crowell to co-organize the DIRT Dance in revolt(in) Time Fsummer under the theme “Transforming towards a radically imagined black future”. With a national program of dance creators young and old, the festival was a space for speaking the truth, interconnecting and reclaiming joy.

Dancer and choreographer Myles Thatcher poses for a portrait with Olafur Eliasson’s “One-Way Color Tunnel” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on February 11. Thatcher shot his piece “Colorforms” for the San Francisco Ballet digital season at SFMOMA. Photo credit: Léa Suzuki / La Chronique

Myles Thatcher Has Fun Through SFMOMA

The San Francisco Ballet’s all-digital spring season would have been a lot darker without the premiere of Myles Thatcher’s “Colorforms” in February. Young, playful and breathtaking, the dance film also introduced a wider audience to the charisma of Jasmine Jimison, who was promoted from corps de ballet to soloist shortly after.

Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet was also filmed inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2021, with a stunning new duet featuring Adji Cissoko premiering at the company’s online gala.

Josie Garthwaite Sadan in a performance of KT Nelson’s “Dead Reckoning”, screened at ODC’s “Drinks & a Dance” on February 12th. Photo: ODC / Dance

ODC serves “drinks and a dance”

The city’s most ‘established’ modern dance company, ODC / Dance has moved with agility to support its online fan community, with monthly digital screenings of past ODC works, live Q&A and cocktails delivered to viewers. In August, the troupe bounced back again with the premiere of director Brenda Way’s dance film, “Up for Air / Decameron,” and the creation of ODC Connect, a dance streaming platform, fitness and more.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs “Revelations” at Wave Hill as part of the Cal Performances at Home streaming. Photo: Travis Magee

Alvin Ailey returns (digitally) to Cal Performances

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has visited Cal Performances almost every year since the company was founded in 1968, and he wasn’t about to let go of his connection to his worshiping Bay Area audience. For its digital offerings in June, the company offered a Cal Performances co-commission from resident choreographer Jamar Roberts, as well as a 50th anniversary tribute to Ailey’s iconic solo “Cry” and a beautifully filmed version of “Revelations.” Overall, the experience almost matched the power of a live performance.

Charlotte Moraga, artistic director of the Chitresh Das Institute, dances the kathak. Photo: RJ Muna

Chitresh Das’ dance legacy lives on

Exuberant, charming and innovative, Chitresh Das was a master of Indian classical kathak dance and had a national audience. Six years after his death, two companies have filled the Bay Area with their complex rhythms.

In October, the Chitresh Das Institute, led by his widow, Céline Schein Das, and principal dancer Charlotte Moraga, shone the spotlight on a new generation of Das disciples in “Mantram”, with a stunning new score by the sarod master Ali Akbar Khan. A month earlier, Leela Dance Collective had taken to the streets of Oakland and San Francisco for a kathak pop-up, featuring young people and her own group of Das followers.

Tessa Barbour and Ricardo Dyer perform “The Man I Love” as the Smuin Contemporary Ballet performs live at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda on May 9th. Photo: Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

Smuin Contemporary Ballet goes outdoors

The crowd-pleasing ballet company led the estate in returning to the show with an outdoor afternoon of mostly sweet songs at Orinda’s California Shakespeare Theater in May. “The world is a beautiful place,” by Smuin dancer Maggie Carey, to a poem by the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti, heralded a promising choreographic talent.

Robert Moses’ Kin Residence “Vital Heart of SF” at the Flood Building. Photo: Steve Disenhof

Robert Moses’ Kin enters the Gap

Retail has struggled to rebound in Union Square in San Francisco this summer. So Robert Moses’ modern dance company Kin stepped in, creating a new dance in the rotunda-shaped space formerly occupied by the Gap as passers-by stood speechless.

The San Francisco Ballet performs “Serenade” on August 13th during “Starry Nights: SF Ballet’s Return to the Stage” at the Frost Amphitheater in Stanford. Photo: Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

The San Francisco Ballet is back in great shape

Eighteen months after the pandemic shut down its “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Ballet took the stage for two nights in August in front of a loving open-air audience at Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater for “Starry Nights ”. Always technically dazzling, always graceful, Frances Chung presided over an inspired interpretation of the eternal “Serenade” by George Balanchine. Chung dazzled again in December when the company finally brought back its “The Nutcracker” in front of a euphoric Opera House crowd.

Gerald Casel (left), Styles Alexander, Cauveri Suresh (back) and Karla Quintero in “Not About Race Dance” at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography. Photo: Chris Cameron / Gerald Casel Dance

GeraldCaselDance Rocks CounterPulse

Indispensable to the experimental dance scene, the Tenderloin CounterPulse venue brought back live performances with thought-provoking and site-specific works by Charles Slender-White and Flyaway Productions by Jo Kreiter. Then, in December, former Stephen Petronio dancer Gerald Casel took over CounterPulse’s main theater and blew up the sociological “white space” of postmodern dance with his “Not About Race Dance”. The cast – Karla Quintero, Styles Alexander, Audrey Johnson and Cauveri Suresh – could not have been more fascinating. Certainly watch for Casel’s work in 2022.