ONLY IN SAN FRANCISCO? Homegrown trends and traditions (2005)

Observations and projections by Keith Hennessy, guest performance curator Bay Area Now 2005.
Written for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Bay Area Now 2005 catalogue

• Burlesque, sideshow, circus, fire arts and a return to artists who entertain.

For the past decade there’s been a steady increase in aerial acrobats, fire spinning and sculpting, nostalgic & campy burlesque, and the word circus being used to describe just about everything from the entire genre of Tom Waits meets gypsy/Roma music to the Schwartznegger election. After years of deconstructing the spectacle, entertainment is back. For a few years anyone who could spin fire or climb 25 feet of fabric earned respect but that moment is over and for a few dancers, aerialists, contortionists, fire sculptors and spinners, and even hula-hoopists, it’s all about quality now, pushing craft and performance and obsessive training to the next level. It used to be that half of the adventurous contemporary dancers in SF were working as strippers and erotic masseuses, dividing their time between sex work and art. Now the sex work is art, whores R us, and all the straight people are talking publicly about butt sex and SM.
(Harlem Shake, Velocity, Vau de Vire, Devilettes, Xeno, Mystic Family Circus, Jade-blue Eclipse, The Lollies, Flaming Lotus Girls, Diamond Daggers, SF Circus Center, Odeon Bar, Frank Olivier, Fairy Butch, Va Va Voom, Big Burlesque/Fat Bottom Revue, Circo Zero)

Then there’s the almost high art cousin of all this entertainment: Aerial Dance. From annual festivals in SF, Boulder, and Boston to a plethora of suspended dancers everywhere from Vegas (Soleil) to off-Broadway (de la Guarda), from Half Dome (Bandaloop) to Islais Creek (Flyaway), aerial dance may be on the rise in the US and beyond but the Bay will always be seen as the source (Motivity, Zaccho...)

• Youth Speaks-inspired slam and spoken word.

Yes the hip hop generation has been around for years and slams are almost as ancient, but until you’ve been to the Living Word Fest or an event organized by Youth Speaks you haven’t seen the dynamo future of the word performed. Youth Speaks has mentored, inspired, incited and reclaimed urban youth voices that dare to break social taboos of hip coolness with intensity, intimacy, and wild honesty.
Of course we’ve still got the world’s most abundantly queer and kinky lit scene with half the authors in pervy anthologies around the English world coming from our libertine Bay. Performance venues range from bathhouse (Smegma at Eros) to STD testing site (Smack Dab at Magnet), with specialty events for any and all kinds of erotica (Blacksheets, Good Vibes, SF in Exile, Center for Sex & Culture).

• Trannybois and gender queers of the Mission-based dyke/post-dyke world.

SF has always been among the gayest, the queerest, the most feminist of art and performance communities, participating in a homegrown, Wild West meeting of art and politics, experimentation and evolution of art practices that’s as old as the first Gold Rush brothels. Today’s tranny fags, drag kings, and gender queer rappers, strippers, choreographers, writers and actors are appearing in many of the clubs, galleries, theaters, and art spaces around the Bay.
And then there are the new faces and voices of Hip Hop, which seem to branch into and out of both gender queer and progressive spoken word scenes. The folks in this list don’t even know each other, but they’re all pulling and pushing the squarest tendencies of hip hop mass culture where the kids just know it has to go. (Katastrophe, Bamuthi, Deep Dick Collective, Aya de Leon, Sisterz of the Underground, JenRO, Skorpio, New Style Motherlode, and Micaya’s annual Hip Hop Fest)

• Burning Man-inspired participatory art happenings.

These ubiquitous events (Bunny Jam anyone?) defy boundaries between club cultures and street arts, folk arts and Situationist interventions, kitsch and eco-art, mixing money with arte povera, from East Oakland and Hunters’ Point warehouses to the Commonwealth Club. Burning man is all kinds of things to all kinds of people but despite the way too many rowdy drunks hooting at bare flesh while showing none of their own, it remains one of the world’s biggest participatory art festivals, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on making interactive sculpture, installation, architecture, vehicles and performances. Even the biggest gossip and political debate re: B’man is about the quality & control of the art. (

• The ladyboys, faux queens, drag & genderfuck superstars of Trannyshack

Nine years ago, just when we thought avant-drag had atrophied or calcified, long before the Cockettes movie reminded us that SF is all about genderfuck and glam anarchy, Hecklina started Trannyshack, SF’s best and cheapest site for weekly performance art. Yes I miss some of the crazy shit that happened there in the early years (now you’ll start reminiscing about Uranus and Fiend) but where else can a bio-girl named Fauxnique play a man playing a girl and win a drag queen contest with a conceptually fierce lipsynch performance and a chorus of modern dancers? Only in SF. Go now cuz Hecklina’s thinking to shut down the T’shack when it hits 10. Queens still hate to age!

• A fierce renewal of DIY anarcho culture

From the activist runway of excess (Gay Shame) to pay-what-you-can warehouse events in Oakland (it’s been too long since Studio Four, Diesel Cathedral, and other SF warehomes!), from anti-capitalist fashion recycling in the middle of Ellis Street (In the Streets/Luggage Store) to daytime punk shows and late-night open mics at 16th & 24th St. BART, the newest breed of activist artists continues a long tradition of enriching the abandoned sites of city, body and imagination. (Kudos to whoever wraps/knits the dead bikes and locks of the Mission)

• Art about torture and war at home and around the world

From Ferlinghetti to Mattilda, from Extra Action to Brass Liberation Orchestra, from Dance Brigade to Campo Santo, the dance studios, theaters, bookstores, house parties and streets of the Bay are alive with political inquiry, protest art, community fundraisers, strategic mobilizations and poetic terrorism. Whether it’s the air we breathe, the ground we march & skate on, or the waves we surf on, San Francisco, & it’s Nor Cal surrounds, flaunt an unbroken lineage of weaving art with politics and spirituality that’s tough to recognize anywhere else.

The best next thing: a return to body art & body-based performance. Part of an international renewal from China to art school kids studying Ana Mendieta, Karen Finley, and others as the new canon. Maybe it’s part of the same late 70’s/early 80’s revival that brings us disco-inspired electro. I don’t care. Just keep finding new ways to get naked, push limits of belief and comprehension, obsessively leak or contain body fluids, and use your body to reframe alarming social contexts.

There’s a missing paragraph about dance, the work that’s closest to my own trends and traditions. When I get to it, I’ll mention Leslie Seiters’ little known dance company, Scott Wells, Erika Shuck Performance Project, Navarette x Kajiyama, Jess Curtis/Gravity, Lauren Steiner/Eat Cake, Lizz Roman taking over the ceiling of Cellspace, the weekly contact jams at 848 (soon to be CounterPULSE) in SF and 8th St in Berkeley, Inkboat and the East Bay scene that weaves butoh, art punk rock, Action Theater, and more...
And probably something about how Dance Brigade, Joe Goode, Sara Shelton Mann/Contraband, Zaccho, and others continue to be relevant, even from an ‘underground’ point of view... something about the inability for 99% of dance to remain outside of mainstream cultures.