This Saturday and Sunday mark the second weekend of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival auditions at the Palace of Fine Arts. Think of it like a local, multicultural version of “So You Think You Can Dance” auditions, minus the hot tamale train.

The Festival has a strong and rich Bay Area history. Founded in 1978, the Festival was the U.S.’s first multicultural, city-sponsored ethnic dance festival. Coordinated by World Arts West, the Festival seeks “work that is based on traditions with cultural origins. This includes dance genres that are rooted in ethnic, traditional, national, religious and/or cultural communities.” It’s interested in showcasing “dances that reflect all aspects of culture, including sacred or spiritual dances, social dance, secular or vernacular dance, dances from life cycle events, and new work based on traditional roots.” It also aims “to present traditional forms of dance, as well as artists who are developing innovative pieces deeply rooted in cultural traditions.”

Late last year, individual artists and companies submitted applications for this summer’s festival, and now comes the hard part of the selection process: the in-person audition. Auditioners come from all corners and crevices of Northern California. Last weekend, over 65 entrants performed in front of the panel, and this weekend, the final 70 take the stage. Julie Mushet, World Arts West’s Executive Director, is entering her eighth season overseeing (along with three artistic directors: Carlos Carvajal, Maria Cheng, and CK Ladzekpo) the Festival. Mushet is enthusiastic about this year’s pool of auditioning companies, referring to them as “inspiring and talented artists.”

One of the coolest things about this process is that the auditions are open to the general public! For just $10 a day(those 16 and under get in FREE), you get an around-the-world cultural tour without having to shell out $4,000, traipse through airport security, and cram yourselves into a stale-air giant people mover.

Mushet describes the audience process in details. “The artists have up to 10 minutes to present their dance.” This is what the audience this weekend will see. “Then the nine-member panel of dance experts evaluates their [the auditioners’] work and ranks all 130+ auditions. After all of the auditions are finished, each panelist selects their “TOP 20,” and these nine “TOP 20″ lists are merged and given to the Artistic Directors to program the four shows for June [the Festival itself]. Each weekend in June will have a different line-up of artists–usually about 500-600 dancers and musicians are selected. This is 34-40 [different performing] groups.”

This year, auditioners include, but are not limited to, companies performing Filipino folk dance, Scottish country dance, Serbian folk dance (kolo), contemporary Tahitian dance, Appalachian dance incorporating European and African Diaspora styles (I really didn’t make this one up), Turkish belly dance, breakdancing, hula, and Bharatha Natyam.

Shreelata Suresh‘s Vishwa Shanthi Dance Academy is auditioning for the festival this year. Suresh participated in the festival last year as a soloist, and her school has performed in the past as well. Last weekend, ten of her younger students, ages 11-15, auditioned a fast-paced dance, the tillana, which stems from Bharatha Natyam, a classical South Indian dance form. Suresh says, “Bharata Natyam… has changed over the years from being the visual aid created by the divine himself to understand the great scriptures, the vedas, to being one of the 16 modes of worship in the temples, to means of entertainment on the stage, to being a strong medium for social issues, Bharatha Natyam has been used many a times for many occasions. To me personally, Bharatha Natyam still remains as a form of worship of the divine.

She goes on to say that the auditioners are “so varied in terms of type of dance, performers of various age groups and levels of seniority,” and that the “[t]he audience is very appreciative and expressive. They look like they are having a lot of fun enjoying every dance that is being presented.” Mushat concurs, saying, “The audience loves the behind-the-scenes nature of the auditions. It is much less formal than the June Festival. People can come and go after each audition. They keep track of their favorites and compare their choices to the final line-up. It is such fun. Many people watch all four days of auditions- that’s 40 hours of dance!”

What: San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival Auditions
When: Jan. 23-24, 2010
Where: Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco
Tickets: Adults/$10 cash admission (pay at the door); 16 years and under/Free. General seating with in/out privileges all day.

Photo by RJ Muna.

the author

Becca Klarin writes about dance. Her first stage role was at the age of four, where she dressed in a brightly colored bumble bee tutu and black patent leather taps shoes. She remembers bright lights and spinning in circles with her eleven other bees, but nothing more. Becca also has an affinity for things beginning with the letter "P", including Pizzetta 211, Fort Point, pilates, parsvakonasana, and plies.

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