Don't call it a comeback: She's been here for years. Although celebrated dancer, choreographer, and teacher Sara Shelton Mann has been virtually absent from the local dance scene since 1996, when she disbanded Contraband, her legendary performance collective, she's back on her feet (literally) creating new styles of dance-theater that explore human relationships and emotions through passionate physical expression. Dance aficionados — fellow performers, choreographers, critics, and adoring fans — are breathing a collective sigh.
Mann was forced to abandon Contraband for financial reasons, after the group had influenced dancers for well over a decade. She spent several years teaching, repaying debt, and touring Mexico City as a performance artist, until funding from the New England Foundation for the Arts enabled her to return to choreography. Renowned for her untamed, forceful movements, fluid athleticism, and uninhibited spontaneity, Mann rejuvenated the dance community with her long-awaited return last year. Her artistic homecoming included a birthday tribute by Dance Mission and a triumphant evening-length work called Community Performance Extravaganza, culminating in the ultimate artistic nod of approval: a coveted Guggenheim fellowship for choreography.
Not one for small projects — her groundbreaking Mira Cycles, a complex trilogy, took seven years to create and won three Isadora Duncan Awards — Mann focuses her latest endeavor on the uniqueness of the city. As she explains it, “S.F. becomes a portal of different cultures and different ethnic communities coming together.” Mann sees the local scene as distinct from that of other communities: “The dance that comes out of here is quite different than [that of] other places, like New York. I'm trying to build a hybrid dance form … blending contact [improvisation] with my own vocabulary.”
Her work-in-progress showing this week, Survival/Phase 1, adapts some material from Community Extravaganza but also includes “a glimmer of something in the future,” she promises. In preparation for Mann's new dance cycle, Monk on the Mat — a trilogy about “the preciousness of life and a meditation on death,” scheduled to premiere in the fall of 2001 at ODC Theater — Survival juxtaposes text (including her original poetry, based on Buddhist philosophy) and physical movement. It incorporates acrobatics, contact, salsa, tango, modern, and ballet to “bring in the personal essence of different performers,” as Mann explains it.
What's it about? “The absolute fleetingness of interactions” — aka dating in San Francisco (OK, I made that last part up). The first section includes lightning-sharp transitions from one movement to the next, while the second section attempts to shower the audience with waves of continuous movement — or, as Mann puts it, “imprint a state in the audience, to create a block of energy through the dancers and through the music.” In characteristic Mann style, the piece is highly collaborative: It includes the pulsating sounds of the Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble, a video by Austin Forbord, and environmental lighting by Matthew De Gumbia.