By Joseph Geha
By Jonathan Kiefer
By Katie Tandy
By Mollie McWilliams
By Jennifer Baires
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
Summerfest/dance has a reputation for being a hit-or-miss affair, whether you're evaluating it from program to program or season to season. With three weeks of works -- 75 percent of them premieres -- by more than 25 mostly emerging choreographers, how could it be otherwise? And yet while the festival's basic formula hasn't shifted over the last nine years, the balance of hits and misses, recently, has. The difference here, as often, lies in material circumstances: Even hastily completed dances can look leagues better on a proscenium stage, such as Summerfest acquired last year when it relocated to the Cowell Theater, and the improved lighting that attends such a move lends the roughest of works a sheen of professionalism.
But that's all a matter of presentation - and precipitation, for deeper rewards to come this season in phase two: more applicants, a slightly more selective number of participants, a smattering of higher-profile choreographers (Deborah Slater, Mel Wong, Mark Foehringer) interested in working in a flattering venue. All of which should mean more unpolished gems and -- heretofore unimagined -- better box office.
Credit for these unbelievable new possibilities belongs to Joan Lazarus, among innumerable other things a former executive director of Oakland Ballet whose first experience of Summerfest was a decided miss. "I participated as a choreographer in 1995 and was very disconcerted with the way it was run, and I told the organizers [so]," Lazarus says.
It happened she was in a position to do more than complain. "I had just ripped my Achilles' tendon and had gone back to school in accounting and some other subjects," she says. "And I said, 'I'd like to take Summerfest on as my school project if you'd let me.'"
But what Lazarus hoped to accomplish, even from the outset, was a refinement, not an overhaul. "Summerfest is going to stay what it is for a long time," she said recently, resting her petite, age-impervious figure in one of the 437 seats she hopes to fill. She served on the board for three years and then last year supplanted founder Cathleen McCarthy as director. The move to the Cowell Theater, which Lazarus formerly managed, was an unusually well-calculated one within the world of dance. "We've been very careful," Lazarus says. "Our goal was to first build up a cash reserve to cover one full season. It gave us the chance to bomb here, and we didn't, but we did nibble at the reserve a little."
But financial survival isn't the chief motivation behind Lazarus' cautious reforms. Having danced in works by everyone from Alonzo King to Krissy Keefer and run two low-budget series (New and Nearly New and All Dance, No Tech) of her own, she allies herself squarely with Summerfest's choreographers. She sees Summerfest as a kind of no-risk debut system for choreographers who have come up through the channels of small, low-to-no-tech theaters, an arena she knows intimately.
At Dance Mission and ODC Gallery and the soon-to-be-defunct Dancers' Group Studio Theater, "there's the core audience and you just rotate a quarter each week to the stage according to who's performing and add in a few people you know," Lazarus says. "If the choreographers use Summerfest correctly we think the audience a company originally draws on can be quadrupled. And it's remarkable the difference it makes when people see you on the Cowell stage. They see you differently."
Reviewing more than 100 Summerfest hopefuls every year, Lazarus herself sees just about everything. "There's always what is referred to as mainstream, which people take as a negative but I don't," she says. "Then there's always that undercurrent of people who train and then work with a company and apprentice and then begin their own work. And then there's the roller coaster ride of trends and new investigations."
The overexposure has given Lazarus a decidedly realistic perspective. "The apprentice step of training with another company is missing for most people these days," she says. "In San Francisco people have such wonderful examples in Sara Shelton Mann doing contact improvisation and Joe Goode in text that we have a lot of people who work in those veins. And if you look at Sara and Joe they did all the steps: training, apprenticeship, then making their own statements. But a lot of choreographers age 30 or so aren't taking those same steps. And some of them will hit a brick wall and that will be it. But that happens throughout history."
Still, the chance to make a discovery -- like last year's overwhelming favorite, Lea Wolf, who leads off this Thursday's opening program -- is always there. "Every once in a while you say: 'I'm going to say I knew her when she first started,'" Lazarus says. "'I'm going to say I produced her first work.'"
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