Serendipity and Serious Fun—It’s “Trolley Dances”

Trolley Dances never fails to entertain. You discover intriguing pockets of San Diego where you’ve never been, watch imaginative dances (brief enough for kid attention spans) in real-world settings, and get to ride between performance sites on the red cars of the San Diego Trolley. This year’s show opened last weekend and continues this Saturday and Sunday.

At its best, Trolley Dances, now in its 18th year, is serious fun, delivering some dances of real substance. On this year’s six-dance program, “Follow Us Here” and “Finding Center” are standouts in that regard. And a serendipitous match of dance and location occurs in the sleek, stylish “attempts to define.”

Patricia Sandback in "Follow Us Here."

Patricia Sandback in “Follow Us Here.” Photo by Manny Rotenberg

In “Follow Us Here,” choreographed by Jess Humphrey, 14 women spread through the lobby of the San Diego Continuing Education Center César E. Chavez campus. In constantly morphing groups, they play off one another, speak or sing, and highlight architectural features of the airy lobby—for instance, a round platform beneath a stairway that becomes a stage. There’s no fixed point where the “performance” happens; viewers roam, focusing on a trio here, a solo dancer there.

There’s an improvisational feel to this, and watching improvisation can be like watching grass grow. But Humphrey provides sufficient underlying structure to make the piece continually fascinating. And her multi-generational dream cast ranges from teenage members of TranscenDANCE to Patricia Sandback, who at somewhere north of 70 remains one of the most elegant movers in town. Seeing her extend winglike arms as if measuring space, is witnessing a master. And it’s a joy to watch long-limbed, elastic Sandra Ruiz, vivid in a yellow dress.

Another master—in fact, he’s performed as “Crutch Master”—is Bill Shannon. An internationally known artist based in Pittsburgh, Shannon is the choreographer and solo performer in “Finding Center” at the America Plaza. Wielding crutches wrapped in lime green tape and riding a skateboard, Shannon executes ooh- and aah-inducing balances, daredevil turns, and jumps where he catches all of his weight on his crutches—my armpits hurt, watching. He amps up the sense of risk with a few big falls. By the way, the crutches aren’t just Shannon’s prop of choice; he uses them because he has a degenerative hip disease.

Bill Shannon, aka Crutch Master

Bill Shannon, aka Crutch Master Photo by Manny Rotenberg

The performance of “Finding Center” that I saw featured one of those magical Trolley Dances movements: Shannon was zooming toward us, to the sound of the amplified whiz of his skateboard wheels, and in a direct line behind him, a trolley was coming into the station.

In Zaquia Mahler Salinas’s “attempts to define,” eight dancers, all of them gorgeous movers, slither through a “forest” of twisted rebar at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. The setting, an installation by artist Ruben Ochoa, is a 70-foot long space containing 11 sculptures made of rebar and shipping pallets, which perch in the rebar branches like post-apocalyptic treehouses. The piece is called “Watching, Waiting, Commiserating,” and the dancers seem to do that, sometimes speaking in response to prompts such as “Remember. Forget.”

Some of the dancers carry mobile devices that play music, just loudly enough that you strain to hear … which seems intentional but feels unnecessary in a dance that already contains a lot of ideas. Curiously, this piece was planned for another gallery, but having to switch to Ochoa’s installation seems like a very happy accident.

The rest of this year’s lineup goes for humor—and achieves it. None of these three pieces, however, will make my list of all-time Trolley Dance faves.

San Diego Dance Theater company members in "Tonight's game"

San Diego Dance Theater members in “Tonight’s game” Photo by Manny Rotenberg

Monica Bill Barnes turns the San Diego Dance Theater company members into a sports team in “Tonight’s game,” at Fault Line Park. The “players” strut as each one is announced, some do calisthenics while others “coach” them by yelling to keep it up, and there’s lively unison running to Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.”

Barnes, a major New York-based artist with San Diego roots (and a frequent Trolley Dances choreographer), has developed a rich body of work exploring what it means to perform. And, as part of a larger piece, I can see “Tonight’s game” having more resonance than it did on its own.

San Diego Dance Theater artistic director Jean Isaacs contributes two dances each year, often one that’s sheer fun and another that’s juicy and memorable. This time around, both of Isaacs’ dances are frothy. “Me and My Car” (created with Minaqua McPherson and JT Magee) features four dancers and, yes, their cars, which match their characters—blond California girl, redneck, etc.—and takes place in the parking structure where the tour begins. “Up a Creek with Ten Paddles,” which spoofs a television ad, has the dancers “paddling” down a hillside at Fault Line Park … to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

"Me and My Car"

“Me and My Car” Photo by Manny Rotenberg

Pure silliness, but “Me and My Car” did give me one of those charmed Trolley Dances moments. Standing on the fourth floor of the parking structure, waiting for the piece to begin, I looked over the wall and saw a procession of classic cars going down the street below. That’s the genius of Trolley Dances, helping us see the art in everyday life.

The starting point for the roughly two-hour tour is the parking structure at the San Diego Continuing Education Center César E. Chavez campus, 1902 National Ave. (You can park there for free). For more details, see the website.







  1. Paul Engel on October 8, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Thanks Janice! Another great review!

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