It’s easy to find fault with San Diego’s trolley system, even its name. More light rail than trolley, it lacks the charm of historic street cars in San Francisco, and it’s incomplete. So what if it transports more than 90,000 people a week? It doesn’t go to the airport and may never chug anywhere near your neighborhood.
But we have to love the trolley because of Trolley Dances. In its 16th year, the dance trip created by Jean Isaacs and her San Diego Dance Theater is a balance of artistry and logistics, a journey that feeds the mind, body, and soul.
There are no dances inside the trolley. Instead, the trolley is a moving lobby that transports wide-eyed travelers to view site specific dance in unexpected places.
Over the years, there have been surprise dances in swimming pools and fountains, grocery stores and parking lots, and along riverbeds and forgotten neighborhoods. There is great pleasure in watching dance where it’s not supposed to be, and watching bystanders respond, or trying to ignore the action. There’s a sense of rebellion and breaking the rules.
For the next two weekends (Sept 27-28; Oct. 4-5), Isaacs and four exceptional choreographers present very different dances that require stamina and timing.
#1 Carefree co-eds in brilliant neon colors tumble down a grassy knoll, to start the dance by Terry Wilson. On the campus of City College, they toss their backpacks and leap into splits and cartwheels, and pair up arm-in-arm and do it all over again. The dancing snap shot of youth is a playful flashback that includes a game of tag tour jete.
#2 Follow your guides to the stairwell of the Arts & Humanities Building to find a sensuous and gripping duet created by Jean Isaacs. Dancers Ariana Siegel and Jedi Taylor are trapped there, confined to a small space, pressed against a wall that overflows with symbolism. In handstands and intertwined, the young couple crawl on strained limbs and feet like spiders trying to hide. They become an exotic Romeo and Juliet trapped in a bomb shelter. Costumes and music suggest a Middle Eastern area. The sexual tension leaves you breathless, and the political symbolism is explosive. Each time he climbs over her, she slips from his grasp, yet she is desperate for his protection. It’s all the more intense because you are trapped together with them in the small space.
#3 Blythe Barton selects an expansive stairway for her dance that mirrors the curves and edges of the Arts and Humanities building. Men and women seem to float down the stairs, like gods and goddesses who’ve flown down to inspect the massive new construction on the campus. At times they freeze and conjure Greek sculptures. In their flowing blue costumes, they appear as wisps of sky. Their expressions are serious though, and on a hot sunny day, you’ll swear they’re on a mission to make it rain.
#4 Hop aboard the red trolley and jump off at 12th and Imperial for a thrilling dance study in geometry and architecture. Michael Mizerany is known for his dangerous partnering, and he gives dancers of San Diego Dance Theater a workout under the clock tower. Erica Ruse spends much of the dance in the air, leaping into the arms of others or falling back from the granite structure. Dancers build a staircase with their hands and she walks over them. For a moment you might imagine the dancers swinging their legs onto horses and riding away, and watch for hints of folk dancing echoing those who lived on the site a century ago. Just when you think it’s winding down, Mizerany shifts into overdrive to the future. A squealing score of “Welcome to the Jungle” played by cellos drives even more pendulum swings and faster footwork and rebounds.
Four more stops on the Orange Line pass through auto repair shops along Commercial Street and cut right through a cemetery. It’s a good time to reflect on what you saw and your mortality. What if I had stayed home today and missed this unique dance adventure? And what will happen next?
#5 How about a dance that depicts an ancient Cuban ritual snake killing? Arrive at Market Creek Plaza and Isaacs’ piece stops you in your tracks at the bridge. Dancers appear as warriors of every skin color that glistens in bright sunlight. They stomp on big legs before attacking a tall man and slicing him up with frightening realism. He is singled out and it’s terrifying – there’s a sense of doom much like Pina Bausch’s “Rite of Spring.” Powerful gestures such as hands cupped under the chin suggest poison words. Every crouched down step tap becomes more violent and thrilling, and you’ll completely forget that you’re in a picnic area.
#6 The finale at the amphitheater by grace shinhae jun offers profound hope for future generations, real confidence that we are a single tribe of many colors. With no fear of knee scrapes, men and women in bright colored party clothes hip hop on the terrace and down the concrete steps. Looking down from the top, Jesse Mills plucks electric guitar. Poet Ant Black speaks of wanting black boys to fly. With muscles flexed, dancers raise sharp elbows and spin in agreement, then kick and punch in unison. It’s remarkably loose yet they all end exactly on point.
On your slow ride back to City College, you’ll be glad to sit down for a while. Trolley Dances is a moving production. You’ll get your exercise. (If you go, wear sturdy shoes, and pack water, snacks, and sunscreen). Isaacs and her team – it’s more like a large tribe – have taken great pains to plan everything for you. Just climb on and follow your guides.
Days afterward, your mind will be racing. That’s normal. Unlike dance in a theater, site-specific dance is created in response to a place and its architecture, history and current use. Using that model, Trolley Dances is a journey that takes time to sink in. It stays with you. When you see the trolley, you’ll wonder where it’s going; if you ever pass one of the dance sites it may seem empty, because you’ll remember it with dancers and music.