It’s been over a year since theaters around the Bay Area shut their doors. Like much of the rest of our lives, art-making and performance have migrated online or outside. Last Saturday, FACT/SF’s newest work, “Diffusion”, brought me for the first time to San Francisco’s Glen Canyon Park. The show mapped a 45-minute loop into the canyon and back. Along our walk, dancers peopled the canyon walls, peaks, and pathways like open-armed invitations to notice. Notice the dancing, but also the canyon itself—the plants, animals, red stone and bright blue sky, and the many park goers with whom we shared the experience.
After the show, I got to chat with Charlie Slender-White, FACT/SF’s director (another novel feature of the covid-era dance show—small audience sizes that allow the artists to personally connect with everyone who comes!) He shared that although these outdoor spaces have always been available for dancing, it wasn’t until covid forced us outside that he felt drawn to create in them. “It always seemed too complicated,” he reflected. “What if someone walks through the piece? What if there’s another event that’s distracting? What if a dog won’t stop barking?”
Creating “Diffusion” has shown him that it really isn’t complicated at all. Instead, it’s felt like an opportunity to move with what’s available. As an audience member, this type of immersion in a public landscape feels vastly different than the tightly curated attention of a dark theater. My experience of the show was just as much about the dancing as about the landscape in which it took place. My reflection below responds to this holistic immersion and round awareness. I hope in reading it, you can share even a fraction of the pleasure I found in experiencing “Diffusion”.
I’m standing on the cement path at the mouth of Glen Canyon Park. It’s a piercing blue day. Clusters of smiling people lounge on the sunny field to my left. Shrieks of glee float from the playground to my right. Other dance-goers gather around me. Charlie, the director, wears a fuschia shirt and bright red socks. He greets us each by name, and checks us in on his phone. On the far side of the field, a raucous yell rises from a volleyball court as one player spikes the ball over a taut black net.
All of a sudden, six dancers take off at a run across the field. Fuschia shirts bob, red socks pump, in a perfect single file line. A family of picnickers look up from their sandwiches as the runners approach. The oldest picnicker (Dad?) chews slowly as he tracks the runners’ progress around their blanket. The three kids stare, jaws agape, as the runners close the loop and sprint towards the volleyball game. The family dog scoots towards the youngest child’s sandwich, but Dad swats Dog away before it can grab the big slab of bread and meat hanging limp in the child’s hands. The child just stares, hypnotized by the runners’ retreating backs.
The dancers continue to wind across the field, cutting curving paths like neon intestines. Now they come towards us, their official audience. “I have no idea what they’re doing,” a girl announces in a loud whisper behind me. The line of five bobs past her to climb the steep street bordering the park. “Whoa,” she says. We stream uphill in pursuit.
The street is steeper than it looks. I wonder if the dancers’ calves burn like mine.
“That donut may have gotten me,” a fellow audience member moans as we climb the sun-drenched pavement. He outlines his current dietary allowances to his friend as we turn onto a shady path. “Goat milk, sheep cheese, and RICE. I’m obsessed with rice.”
Six fuschia dancers stand on a grassy golden hill up ahead. Two move with crane-like swoops through the grass. Four stand like sentries on the wood and dirt staircase carved into the canyon wall. With their black masks and matching outfits, the dancers appear almost more archetypal than human. The sentries split, two of them sprinting up the stairs, and two leaping onto the path in front of us in clouds of dust. The pathway dancers swing like a Newton’s cradle, back and forth, back and forth, hips low to the ground.
“C’mon man, it’s a dance,” murmurs a passerby as he tries to coax his lumpy yellow dog past the dancers’ sweeping movements. But the dog winds, as if drunk, directly into the taller dancers’ feet. The dancer leaps with catlike precision over the dog’s bowed back, taking off at a run down the path. A jogger in neon yellow appears like a mirage to follow him. The crane dancers swoop off the hill to follow the jogger.
We keep moving up the path. Above, the climbing sentries reach the canyon’s jagged lip. They look barely larger than my index finger as they peer down. A pair of hawks soar above them in perfect unison.
Two dancers eat up space on a wooden bridge, spiraling as if hungry for sensation. Their feet scrape out a rhythmic soundtrack on the rocky path and hollow bridge wood. We pass through a tunnel of curly willow that echoes with birdsong. My skin buzzes with delight.
We emerge in a clearing dwarfed by a sharp grey peak jutting like teeth from the ground. Three fuschia dancers wave like synchronous windmills on top of the rocks. A hiker in head-to-toe blue pops out to join them. He whips out his phone with a practiced arm and films their airy movements.
Below them, a little girl in a light pink dress wanders across the scene. “Mommy,” she announces, “I forgot to tell you, this place has lots of pine nuts!”
“Cool,” her mom sighs as she huffs behind her up the path.
We all chuckle.
I crane my neck like a magnet to the sky as we retrace our steps through the willow tunnel. A hummingbird flits overhead. At the bridge, three dancers bathe us in the sounds of their feet dragging along the path as they make wide, arcing movements over the dirt. Three more dancers join them, balancing in utter silence atop the thin wooden ledge of a retaining wall. They move their arms with blade-like precision, opening and closing their chests as if carving out a novel dimension.
Three passersby stop to watch.
“You’re my best friend,” one professes to another as we follow the dancers’ retreat towards the mouth of the canyon.
We stop at a small lawn to witness three dancers hopping in perfect unison like birds on hot coals. Then we pass a woman who drops a very small piece of paper, bends to pick it up, and then drops it again. I don’t see if she ever manages to keep it in her pocket because a crowd of hikers in leggings and visors tromps between us.
Finally, we emerge at the field where we first gathered. The volleyball game is long over, but the family of picnickers is still there. Dad swats the dog away from the bag of chips slipping off the youngest child’s lap.
Above it all, four dancers climb a set of steep stairs backwards towards the street. They each wave a long streamer as if in farewell. A man at a picnic table on my right gazes wide-mouthed at the image, his neck snapping back and forth between us and the retreating dancers. “It’s a dance,” I consider explaining, but then decide against it. I’m part of this dance too, after all, and I’m pretty sure that’s not part of my role.
See this post on Life As A Modern Dancer.