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City Hall Opens Its Doors to Dance
NEW YORK TIMES

October 1, 2010

Since being rebuilt in 1915, San Francisco City Hall has been the site of many dramatic scenes.

The Beaux-Arts building with its colossal, gold-embellished dome rising 307.5 feet — the fifth-largest dome in the world — has been the site of the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, a city supervisor; the fire hosing of students protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee; the wedding of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and the ongoing battle to legalize same-sex marriage.

Movie directors have also taken advantage of the building’s majesty; the edifice has served as a backdrop for scenes in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Dirty Harry” and many other notable movies.

But despite the inherent theatricality of the building, public performing arts events inside its walls have been rare.

“It was a place where city business got done in rabbit warrens of back offices,” said Kary Schulman, director of Grants for the Arts, the city’s main cultural grant-giving body. “Performing arts groups didn’t look at it as a possible venue.”

But following the success in February of Erika Chong Shuch’s dance theater work about gay marriage (“Love Everywhere”), City Hall and San Francisco Grants for the Arts have joined forces with Dancers’ Group and World Arts West to create a new program of free, monthly lunchtime dance performances in City Hall. The Rotunda Dance Series kicks off Friday.

The series begins at noon with a 25-minute dance installation by Zaccho Dance Theater entitled “Sailing Away.” An excerpt from a larger site-specific work about the mass exodus of blacks from San Francisco in the 1850s, “Sailing Away” will be performed in full at different locations along Market Street from Oct. 7 to 10.

Over the next nine months, performances by the AXIS Dance Company, the Halau ’o Keikiali’i hula ensemble and other local groups will also grace City Hall. Organizers hope the program will introduce new audiences to dance, and help expand City Hall’s relationship with the public.

“The art happenings will hopefully make people think of City Hall as being more than a place you go to deal with taxes or yell at a supervisor,” said Wayne Hazzard, the executive director of Dancers’ Group.

Presenting art at City Hall comes with challenges. Producers have to deal with limitations on the availability of the space for performance and rehearsal, rules against tampering with the architecture to install lights and sets and poor acoustics.

“So many technical things were tough,” Ms. Shuch said about mounting “Love Everywhere.” “We never ran through the piece until the actual show.”

Yet the physical beauty of City Hall makes it a lovely stage. And the pivotal role it has played over the years in the history of San Francisco creates a powerful resonance for artists interested in conveying political or social messages through their work.

“Sailing Away” could make a particularly strong impact when presented within the confines of the city’s seat of power.

“These were prominent figures in San Francisco history, but many of them have been forgotten,” Joanna Haigood, the artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theater, said of the black figureheads portrayed in “Sailing Away.” “Bringing these characters to City Hall provides a wonderful opportunity for audiences to view them within the political context of the city.”

Officials have not shied from presenting politically charged work. For example, the San Francisco Art Commission has held photography exhibitions on women in the global economy and oil companies dumping waste in South Africa in its downstairs gallery. And Matt Gonzalez, who presented monthly art shows at his City Hall office throughout his tenure as a city supervisor from 2001 to 2004, once allowed the graffiti artist Barry McGee to paint “smash the state” on his office walls.

“We meet no resistance whatsoever for mounting exhibitions that highlight issues that are important to the building,” said Meg Shiffler, the director of the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery.

But Ms. Shiffler said the programming at City Hall was still evolving. “Someday I’d like to see Christo wrapping the dome and Diamanda Galás singing from the balcony,” she said. “The sky’s the limit when you work for the city, but you have to move slowly and carefully to gain support to build the public programs you want.”

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