Last night, on our way to see some live music at a local cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, my friends and I were stopped in our tracks by an unusual looking Women’s Building on 18th Street. This is saying something, as this building is far from ordinary in its normal state: wrapped in the Maestrapeace, a stunning mural honoring the healing power, wisdom and contributions of women throughout history, this multi-service center for women and girls is a roadside attraction on any given day.
Strobe lights beaming from the roof, ropes hanging from windows, loudspeakers on the sidewalk, and a throng of onlookers in curious anticipation, we knew something was up. Before we’d had time to get comfy on the curb, the lights dimmed and one of the most amazing public performance pieces I’ve ever seen was unfolding in front, or rather, ahead of us.
The lights went out and the opening act, set to haunting ambient breathing sounds, was a stunning dance up and down the fire escape, sandwiched between full body flexes on the metal balconies, conveying what seemed to be the pain and suffering of womanhood through eternity. I was so mesmerized, I couldn’t even take a photo.
Next up was the actual dancing on walls…
From fliers that were handed out we found out that this performance, entitled Singing Praises: Centennial Dances for The Women’s Building, was choreographed by Flyaway Productions, and their description of what it is they do says it better than I ever could:
WHAT WE DO
Perform off-the-ground dances that expose the range and power of female physicality. We experiment with height, speed and gravity, dancing on steel objects that are both architectural and fabricated. We place dancers anywhere from two to one hundred feet off the ground. The height at which we perform is as important to us as the integration of content into an apparatus-based vocabulary. We offer performance as a medium for social commentary and choose projects that advance female empowerment in the public realm. At its core, our work explores the female body– its tumultuous expressions of strength and fragility.
Then, the repelling dance:
At this point in the performance, let me ask you kind of a strange question: Does any of this strike you as particularly eco, green, sustainable or environmental?
Probably not at first sight, I would guess. No windmills or bicycle-powered speakers on site, nor any signs about this being a green event with zero waste or carbon offsets. There aren’t even any recycling bins.
What you do see, however, are locals lying on the sidewalk, being awed and inspired, and sharing an unexpected timeout from wherever it was they were planning to go.
I think too often in our modern world we think of solutions to the ecological imbalance on this planet in terms of checklists only: From MPG to LEED and from waste diversion rates to carbon footprints, we are so focused on the tangible that we tend to neglect the power of the sublime. Like the obsession with test scores to measure education, we often pay less attention to the actual process than the desired result. It takes a leap of faith to let go of our attachment to outcome…
Perhaps it’s because we live in such a male/left-brain dominated world that we keep thinking of “The Environment” as a thing that can be fixed. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time for surgery, and so many of the green technologies that our mighty brains are coming up with will be sorely needed in the transition to the age-of-not-so-much-fossil-fuel. What I’m talking about here though is healing, a healing of our exhausted bodies, battered hearts and wounded souls. After all, how can we expect the planet to heal if we don’t heal with her? If we only did half as much nurturing as we do carbon-counting we could really turn the corner…
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
– Albert Einstein
While the quest for energy efficiency, less waste and more eco-friendly materials in our lives is an important one, I think what often gets lost in green translation is how we actually want to live together. In fact, I’d say that a lot of the more technical questions about how to reduce our footprints are intrinsically linked to what it is that we actually value in life. If our biggest concern continues to be exclusively for how to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible — literally speeding by the wealth of sights along the way — then no matter how brilliant the alternative energy systems we come up with we humans are going to continue to chase our own tail while burning up our resources. But if we’re willing to slow down enough to marvel at what lies between Point A and Point B, all else follows.
That’s why art, inspiration and imagination are so vitally important in helping us humans align with the planet’s pulse, because they speak to the heart and make us stop at random times and appreciate the journey.
While I’ll never know the carbon footprint of these Centennial Dances, I do know that for about half an hour they spontaneously got people in the neighborhood to slow the pace, sit on the sidewalk, and imagine the impossible. It brought a tear to my eye and inspired me to share these pictures with you, which may inspire others to slow down at times and in places they ordinarily wouldn’t. How do you plug that into a formula or legislation?
Who better to evoke the nurturing spirit of Gaia and the fierce urgency of honoring and listening to the messages from the great Goddess than five women dancing on the walls of a sacred female space, “Singing Praises” to the noble goods of justice and equality?
And in the end, the dancer who had opened the night with a quivering requiem on the balcony, reappeared on top of the roof, proclaiming her (and perhaps all of our) rebirth, for the world (on the sidewalk below) to see and feel.
All else follows…
I guess if it’s more than one, it’s called a series: How street music is making the planet cooler
If you live in the Bay Area, Singing Praises: Centennial Dances for The Women’s Building will happen again this coming week, 3543 18th St. at Lapidge (btw. Valencia and Guerrero), on the following dates and times:
Thur. Sept. 16: 8pm and 9:30pm
Fri. Sept. 17: 10am Matinee
Fri. Sept. 17: 8pm and 9:30pm
Sat. Sept. 18: 8pm and 9:30pm
All shows are free but I highly recommend donating as much as you can to the amazing flying women.