Mass-Transit Prance

'A wall provides three dimensions. When we're on a stage, we just get the floor. If there's a wall there, you can balance against it, lean on it, run up it, push a dancer against it -- walls provide an architectural opportunity," says Jean Isaacs, artistic director for the San Diego Dance Theater. Isaacs is the originator of Trolley Dances -- choreographed dances performed at a handful of trolley stations. Over the next two weekends (September 24 and 25 and October 1 and 2), Isaacs's production of Trolley Dances will see its seventh year. "You look at the place and you see what the original intention of the site is and what it's like when the light changes throughout the day," Isaacs says.

"Yolande Snaith did a piece in the Mission Valley Library on a balcony that looks out over Mission Valley. The light during the day changed dramatically, with blocks of light which moved throughout the day depending on where the sun was," Isaacs remembers. "The piece looked so different from one showing to the next because the light was moving. [Yolande] knew exactly where [the light] was going to be at every time of the day and utilized it. Dancers used books in an inventive way [linking the square shape of the books with the square spots of sunlight]."

Each year Isaacs works with employees from the Metropolitan Transit System to select which part of the trolley's route will be used. Then she brings the choreographers to view each of the stops. "One year [the trolley employees] wanted us to go out through the new east trolley line through Euclid because ridership was not up on that part of the line," says Isaacs. "We avoided using the line to Mexico until last year because it was used so much, but then we just decided that we had to do it."

For the piece at the border, choreographer Jorge Dominguez had to go through a lot of red tape to gain permission to use the border wall. When the day came to perform, Dominguez was stopped on a technicality -- he had seven dancers, but the paperwork only approved six. "They wouldn't let him do it," Isaacs recalls. "He scrambled around and found a messy warehouse place and made costumes for the dancers out of magazines. He had the dancers hidden amid cartons and papers. I went up and said, 'Where are the dancers?' and then the papers began to move. The space was much more interesting than the border wall."

This was not the first time choreographers were forced to improvise at the last minute. One year, while setting up to perform at Thirteenth Street and Imperial, Isaacs had to move her dancers because "somebody peed on the wall and the ammonia smell was overwhelming to the dancers."

One of the most memorable pieces for Isaacs was choreographed by Kim Epifano from the Bay Area and performed along the San Diego River in Mission Valley. "She assembled a group of people who were good at speaking as well as dancing. A percussionist played on those big yellow drums that sit under the freeway. He hung chimes in the trees and played those." Performers spoke as they danced. "They led people through the traveling site where they saw the river, saw some of the trash, saw the beauty. [Performers] talked about the homeless. They worked for a months on the site and came to know the people [who lived there.] It wasn't just a dance, it was a piece that had a real goal, which was to make people understand the value of the river."

For the first Trolley Dances, seven years ago, there was a mixed ability stage set up at Qualcomm Stadium. "We had two wheelchair dancers, a dancer on a skateboard, and two dancers on bicycles as part of the 'wheel site.' It was a way of acknowledging the trolley itself through symbolism. This year both of my wheelchair dancers have left town. I am looking for more," says Isaacs.

About a third of the audience is families and seniors. Last year 1956 people attended 24 guided tours, or about 80 to 90 people per tour. Dancers perform six times a day.

Choreographer Wendy Rogers is planning a piece without auditory aid. "Wendy is going to do hers in silence in the tunnel at San Diego State. The tunnel is full of different sounds," says Isaacs, adding that when she was there to see the rehearsal, she heard "some little ticking sound" in addition to the echoing noise of the trains. Each of the other sites will have music, which will be pumped through a sound system specially built for each location. Regarding the cost of hiring auditory engineers, Isaacs says, "Let's just say it's pretty expensive." -- Barbarella

Trolley Dances 2005 September 24 and 25; October 1 and 2 Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., performances every hour Sundays, 10 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., performances every 45 minutes Grantville Trolley Station Mission Valley Cost: $20 general admission; $15 seniors; $10 students (free for children in strollers and people in wheelchairs) Info: 858-484-7791 or www.sandiegodancetheater.org

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