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Back in the '80s, Terry Sendgraff, an early practitioner of the dance form known as aerial choreography, submitted a press release to be listed in the Chronicle's Datebook. They didn't list it. "When I called I was told, 'That's not dance. That's flying trapeze stuff,'" Sendgraff said recently at the end of a sweltering rehearsal, settling in to a bleacher seat after unhooking her dancers from the bungee apparatuses that, alongside the trapeze, are the foundation of her works.
Of course now, in the age of Cirque du Soleil and extreme sports, the perceived legitimacy of Sendgraff's peculiar brand of artistry has increased -- but not by much. One of Sendgraff's greatest triumphs came when a local critic, who knew her work only by reputation, saw her in performance and described her as "the real deal."
"I guess he had heard of me and thought I wouldn't be real," Sendgraff said, wrinkling her remarkably well-preserved 67-year-old brow. "So you see what I've been up against."
But these days Sendgraff has, if not popular appeal, then at least the force of a bona fide movement behind her. Hundreds of students have studied under Sendgraff in Oakland and Berkeley, learning a technique she calls "motivity." And this week more than a dozen aerial choreographers and companies, working with everything from tightropes to rappelling stakes, will gather for Dance Mission's Sky Dancers festival, spread over two weekends. For many of the participants, Sendgraff is a matron saint.
The Sky Dancers festival is the creation of Krissy Keefer, who founded Dance Mission's relatively new theater after Brady Street, the dance venue she ran for two years, went under in 1998. Already, Keefer's displacement has proved surprisingly fruitful: Eight of this year's Isadora Duncan Award nominations, announced last month, went to Dance Mission productions. Most resulted from the Gay and Lesbian Dance Festival Keefer organized; three nominations, including Best Performance, went to Keefer's own work, Queen of Sheba.
"I was stunned because we're a small space and we've only been around a year, so it was a virtual sweep," said Keefer, taking a rare rest on a thrift store-caliber couch in the lobby of her new, decidedly funky, home base. Keefer's first and only other Sky Dancers festival took place in 1997, at Brady Street, gathering many of the same companies that appear this year, including Project Bandaloop, Jo Kreiter, and Suzanne Gallo. "I know everybody, so it's really easy to gather a scene," Keefer said. "It's an interesting mix of the modern dance, circus, and athletic communities."
Project Bandaloop, for instance, is a company of hard-core outdoor enthusiasts who use rock climbing equipment as the basis for their dances. Flyaway Productions, meanwhile, is more circus-based and will perform a T-bar duet. Joanna Haigood, on the other hand, wouldn't normally label herself an aerial choreographer. She'll be presenting a solo somehow involving a chair mounted on a wall.
But many of the performers, especially Sendgraff, mesh a multitude of experiences. Sendgraff claims a background in modern dance, ballet, gymnastics, ice skating, and trampolining. When she left her position teaching dance at Arizona State and came to the Bay Area in the mid-'70s, she studied under three improvisation teachers -- one in theater, one in movement, and one in gesture theory. "I didn't want to do what had already been done," she says. "I wanted to create a new form. I knew I wanted to do a dance that worked for me and my body and my soul."
Then she remembered her modest circus training, and the treading-water quality of sustained suspension. "I thought it would be lovely if we did slow, fluid movement," she says. "I wanted to feel work and feel shape and feel oneself moving through space. And I thought, 'This is my life's work.'"
Like most of the festival performers' works, Sendgraff's dances have never been especially flashy, or particularly dangerous. Many of her pieces are instead highly emotional, drawing upon her study of clinical psychology and opening her up to another form of disparagement: When not written off as circus fluff, her works are often dismissed as therapy dance.
Touchy-feely it is: A lot of Sendgraff's teaching involves meditation. At the end of every rehearsal, she gives each performer a long, gentle hug and a kiss. "My thing isn't about pushing people," she says. "How can you make people hurt, or watch them work when they're sick? I have a lot of friends in the circus arts who are stretched to the limits, and this isn't like that. I'm interested in the whole person. It's important to me to not only teach the physical but to reach the emotional."
Sky Dancers: A Feast of Aerial Dance runs April 14-16 and 21-23 at Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St. (at Mission), S.F. Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at the door; call 826-4401.
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