“International” can be an elastic concept. Major League Baseball is ostensibly international in that one of its 30 teams comes from Canada. The International Art Museum of America on Market and Sixth streets is a bizarre, almost cultish gallery space devoted largely to a Pasadena man named H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III, who claims to be the incarnation of a deity.
But the San Francisco International Arts Festival does more than squeak past the line. It’s a genuinely global endeavor that covers enough of the world’s cultures to be humanity in microcosm. If we ever audition to join a Star Trek-like Federation of Planets, this could be our sizzle reel to prove to the galaxy’s sentient species what Homo sapiens is really made of.
Spanning two full weekends — May 25 – June 4 — SFIAF covers dance, theater and performance art, visual art, and music, with more than 100 artists across all genres. Apropos of the political convulsions shaking the world, yet still full of optimism, this year’s theme is “In the Dark Times, will there also be Singing?” The answer is yes, and there will be plenty else, too.
Choreography is high on the list, with the Japanese trio Scarabe performing Sell Our Body, described as “an intimate piece that employs swift development at close range” to provoke strong audience reactions. Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s own media-savvy STEAMROLLER Dance Company performs Siamese Dream, a take on the classic musical The King and I that’s filtered through Hong Kong kung fu action flicks, questioning constructions of Asian American identity.
If you haven’t experienced much of the percussion-centric Indonesian orchestral ensembles known as gamelan, you have a chance with the Balinese Gamelan Sekar Jaya, which stages the world premiere of In Visible Light with American Larry Reed’s ShadowLight. A borderline-acrobatic performance about an evil king warring for control against a powerful goddess, it’s a myth few Americans know, but it’s as vivid as any thunderbolt from Zeus. American Joe Landini’s theater-video-dance hybrid production (IT WILL BE LOUD) brings the noise — but mostly the heat and light — as the troupe moves about a stage illuminated by a single, handheld beam. And there’s plenty of flamenco, capoeira, and ballet from across Europe and the Middle East.
Musically, things get a little more political. Voodoo Cabaret World Music’s Rise Above Racism — which, at two hours, runs longer than the typical SFIAF program — tackles the religious underpinnings of the music of the African diaspora, from the syncretic spiritual traditions of Haiti and the American South to hymns dedicated to the Catholic icon known as the Black Madonna. Puerto Rico’s Latin Rhythm Boys play a 90-minute show that starts with salsa and ends on Jíbaro, a reference to the culture of the indigenous people who inhabited the island’s mountainous interior, holding out against colonization longer than the coasts could.
Less overtly socially conscious and far more sensuous is Argentine Pablo Estigarribia’s Tango for Piano, an ode to Buenos Aires nightlife and the Teatro Colón that melds jazz harmony with the dance’s otherwise rigidly imposed structure. (Tangos for Piano won a Gardel Prize, Argentina’s equivalent to the Grammys.) And world music can’t embody it’s something-for-everyone ethos better than in the form of Serbia’s Trio Balkan Springs, who combine asymmetrical rhythms with Romani Swing, yielding a guitar-focused performance that’s as classic as it is avant-garde.
Theater at SFIAF is really theater in the expanded field, as the festival includes opera, performance art, readings, and “prose-based events” under the heading. Start hyperlocal with Shaping San Francisco’s The Hidden Histories of Fort Mason, Black Point, and the North Shore, a walking tour that goes deep into the facility’s military origins, including lost lagoons and traces of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition. Then stay for the U.S. debut of Steroptik’s Dark Circus, an anti-Cirque du Soleil performance that takes the sinister side of the carnival and runs with it.
And the theater of Blackness vaults to center stage in a revival of Brian Copeland’s 2004 Not a Genuine Black Man, which looks at the dramatic integration of San Leandro, Calif., in 1971, and Rotimi Agbabiaka’s 2016 theater-on-theater solo show, Type/Cast, about the travails of getting selected for roles when one is neither white nor heterosexual.
With 15 countries apart from the U.S. represented, the San Francisco International Arts Festival earns its name. (It could fill every seat on the UN Security Council, in fact.) And it seems there will be singing in the darkness, for 11 straight days and nights.
San Francisco International Arts Festival, May 25 – June 4, at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, $12-$35, 415-399-9554 or sfiaf.org