A lot has changed -- and too much has stayed the same -- in the three years since Austin Forbord and Shelley Trott began making the first film ever to chronicle the development of modern dance in San Francisco. Rehearsal and performance spaces are still far too few, but with the recent loss of Dance Mission and Dancer's Group Theater, they're disappearing faster than ever. "We thought showing people the foundation of this incredible scene would only make it stronger," producer and co-director Forbord says sadly. "Now I worry this film may come to represent a historical document."
Of course we're all pulling for the happy ending. And fortunately, Artists in Exile: A Story of Modern Dance in San Francisco is as much an inspiring tale as it is a compelling record. The 84-minute film, premiering Sunday through Tuesday at the Roxie, began as a series of casual interviews to satisfy the curiosity of two young Southern California transplants who felt uninformed about the roots of Bay Area dance.
"A lot of the early process was educating ourselves," says Forbord, who met wife and collaborator Trott while training at the San Francisco Circus School. "We had only been in San Francisco a couple of years and we felt we didn't know which choreographers were really important." Forty-three interviews later, Artists follows the maverick careers of eight influential choreographers or collectives -- Anna Halprin, Joe Goode, Margaret Jenkins, ODC, Mangrove, Tumbleweed, Dance Brigade, and Contraband. The performance shots are arresting, the archival footage fascinating, the conversations shoot-from-the-hip.
And the film's irreverent attitude toward the Big Apple is persistent. "As a dancer it's the question you always get asked: "When are you going to New York?'" says Trott, who grew up on the East Coast and harbors no dreams of returning. "All the choreographers we focused on had spent a lot of time in New York. And so one of the questions we asked all of them was, "So why did you come here and what about New York didn't fulfill you?'"
Politically charged choreographers like Dance Brigade's Krissy Keefer say they missed the activism of the San Francisco art scene. Contact Improvisation pioneers like Mangrove cite an openness to new ideas. Forbord and Trott, as co-directors of the dance company RAPT Performance Group, relate to that emotion. "There's a sense here that being a young person you can come and start choreographing and throw it out there and not have to apprentice in another company," Forbord says. "A lot of it may suck but art sucks everywhere. And a lot of it is truly great. We only hope people see the film so they'll know there is an amazing scene here that is in serious jeopardy."