Each June, a unique cultural event returns to the Palace of Fine Arts for a three-weekend, nine-performance run that embraces virtually every ethnic group found in Northern California. This year, Friday through Sunday from June 9 to June 25, the Ethnic Dance Festival presents 28 dance companies and soloists. Each weekend boasts a different lineup, with nine to 10 acts taking the stage in a show lasting up to 2 1/2 hours, which still leaves each group an average of a mere 10 minutes to perform. A single evening might feature dancers from eight or nine different cultures, all radiantly costumed. Half of the companies provide their own live music.
Almost a third of this year's acts are new to the festival, including the Maharlika Cultural Troupe, appearing this weekend. Like many groups, its members are primarily young and American-born, but highly skilled from years of training with a teacher who learned her art in the Philippines. The Maharlika Cultural Troupe is headed by Polly Herrera, a former principal dancer for Bayanihan, a national company from the Philippines that tours worldwide. This weekend, Maharlika performs ceremonial wedding dances from Mindanao, the predominantly Muslim island in the southern part of the country. Most of Maharlika's dancers are East Bay teenagers of non-Muslim background, attesting to both the troupe's and the festival's vision of keeping traditional arts vital and fostering their growth around the world.
Some companies have as many as 40 dancers and musicians, which means there's often a short wait between performances. But the festival turns this potentially dead time to its advantage, telling stories about each group just before it hits the stage. This year's narrator is Benny Sato Ambush, a well-known theater director formerly with the Oakland Ensemble Theater and ACT.
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., at the Palace of Fine Arts, Bay & Lyon streets, S.F. Individual tickets are $15-25, with discounts for three-weekend passes; call City Box Office at 392-4400 or check out www.worldartswest.org.