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A Showcase of Ethnic Dancing at a Bargain Price

January 7, 2011

For fans of Bharata Natyam (Southern India), Chaoxian (China), Jalisco (Mexico) and other traditional dance styles, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is a must-see event.

About 11,000 dance lovers attend the annual festival, a sensually overpowering riot of whirling costumes, beating drums and intricate footwork that presents dances by around 40 local companies over four weekends in June and July.

But you don’t have to wait until summer to get your fix.

This weekend and next, not 40, but 126 groups and solo artists will audition at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley before a panel of judges — and a paying audience — for a chance to win a slot in this year’s festival. Each troupe or artist will perform a 10-minute work with full costumes, props and, in some cases, a live musical accompaniment.

The auditions, arguably, are just as important an event on the cultural calendar as the festival itself. Though the performances are shorter, the diversity of styles on display makes the auditions a kaleidoscopic vista on the richness of the Bay Area dance scene.

For starters, the Tahitian dance company Hui Tama Nui is staging a piece inspired by the fight for same-sex marriage rights and a Tahitian legend about being trapped inside an eggshell. The work involves 80 dancers, four costume changes and live and recorded music.

“We only have 10 minutes to show the panel what we can do,” said Aaron Sencil, the company’s artistic director. “So we are focusing on balancing entertainment with accuracy to the culture we are portraying.”

Gamelan Sekar Jaya, a Balinese performing arts company based in Oakland, will perform a work involving a female dancer playing the role of a young man going through wild mood swings.

Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Hui Tama Nui are regulars at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, but this year they will face stiff competition. Over the past decade, the number of competing companies has grown to around 130 from 100.

“There is a general increased interest in dance,” said Julie Mushet, the executive director of World Arts West, the organization that produces the festival. The enthusiasm is, in part, “a result of all of the dance on television lately,” Ms. Mushet said. “And with Internet technology, audience members who want to dance can now easily connect with dance teachers and dance companies.”

The size of the audience at the auditions has similarly risen. More than 5,000 spectators attended the tryouts in 2009 and 2010, up from 3,300 in 2005. The seating capacity of just over 2,000 at Zellerbach Hall is more than double that of the Palace of Fine Arts, the festival’s previous home.

The relatively low ticket price and casual setup of the auditions have also been a big draw. For $10 a day, dance lovers can watch performances by about 30 Northern Californian companies.

The first hour and a half of Saturday’s lineup features dances from India, Java, Iran, West and South Africa, Armenia, Egypt and Mexico. Audience members can come and go as they please, and children under 12 can attend free.

“Where else can you see all these companies for $10?” asked David Lei, a longtime audition attendee. “It’s a bargain.”

The auditions also serve as a showcase for the dancers. Cirque du Soleil hired Tara Catherine Pandeya, a Central Asian dance practitioner, after seeing her audition last year. A Chinese presenter recently booked the Mexican dance troupe Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco and the Murphy Irish Dancers for a tour of China based on those companies’ auditioning skills.

Dancing before the public is another plus for the performers. “Dancing in front of a live audience is a much better experience than dancing to a room full of empty seats,” Ms. Mushet said. And “it provides the artists much needed exposure to members outside of their immediate communities.”

This last point is particularly relevant to groups like Ballet Afsaneh, a company specializing in Central Asian forms.

“Since we represent the positive face of often-misunderstood communities such as Iran and Afghanistan, any chance that we have to reach out to fellow artists and the general public is a wonderful opportunity to fulfill our mission as cultural ambassadors,” said Sharlyn Sawyer, the artistic director of Ballet Afsaneh.

For the judges, evaluating dances from numerous countries over four days while thousands of audience members traipse in and out of the auditorium is a challenge. Each of the eight panelists, selected for their expertise in one or more culturally specific dance forms, must recommend 20 performances to the festival’s co-artistic directors, Carlos Carvajal and CK Ladzekpo, who make the final decisions.

“The number of participants is overwhelming,” Ramya Harishankar, an Indian dance expert who has served on the audition panel four times, said. “I do hope that we can remember all of them at the end of the two weekends.”



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