San Francisco

Tenderloin Museum celebrates third anniversary with aerial dance troupe

A series of aerial dance performances this month will celebrate the Tenderloin’s history and the role immigrants continue to play in shaping the neighborhood.

According to Flyaway Productions artistic director Jo Kreiter, suspended dancers on the walls of the Cadillac Hotel will perform routines inspired by the neighborhood's evolution, including stories of Vietnamese immigrants who made a place for themselves despite waves of gentrification.

The performances are funded largely through a Kenneth Rainin Foundation Open Spaces Program grant, which was awarded to Flyaway Productions and the Tenderloin Museum, a production partner that's also celebrating its third anniversary this weekend.

Randy Shaw’s book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco, helped frame the dance pieces that make up the performances, titled, "Tender (n.): A Person Who Takes Charge," said Kreiter. 

The performances on the Cadillac are intended to use art to bring a sense of safety to the streets by increasing foot traffic and visibility and creating a safe community — without displacing neighborhood residents.

Flyaway Productions, a self-described "apparatus-based" dance troupe, is an ensemble that performs on steel structures and buildings. Founded by Kreiter in 1996, the company also supports Girlfly, a summer arts and activism program for young women between 14 and 19.

Megan Lowe performing in "Tender."

When artists enter a neighborhood in force, it often signals “the beginning of the end in terms of gentrification,” Kreiter said. "Tender," on the other hand, brings art into the neighborhood without threatening its status quo, she added.

The exhibits in the museum were also informed by Shaw’s book, so it will be exciting to see them brought to life, said Tenderloin Museum executive director Katie Conry. 

There will be four main dance sets spanning 30 minutes, each set in a specific point in time, but the pieces won’t be performed in chronological order. Dancers will appear in costumes designed by Jamielyn Dugan.

"Uptown Tenderloin," set in 1917, represents the freedom some women felt at the time, when madams advocated for fairer wages and exhibitionism was encouraged in some circles.

The first performance reflects a time when women began feeling less restricted in the early 1900s.

"Nine Ladies Dancing" will be performed over Leavenworth Street to two songs that were popular in 1918, Kreiter said. 

Fast-forward to 1979 when dancers appear in "This Boat," which reflects the community’s initial arrival to the neighborhood, followed by life in the Tenderloin and how the immigrants developed their new home, Kreiter said. 

The third dance, "The Queen's Wave," reflects the Tenderloin’s transgender activism in the 1960’s, which culminated in the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966. The riot was the topic of an interactive experience conceived of by Conry and Mark Nasser, written Collette LeGrande, Mark Nassar, and Donna Personna, and directed by Aejay Mitchell,  which the Tenderloin Museum hosted at a local cafeteria.

Bianca Cabrera performing in "Tender."

Honey Mahogany will perform in drag with two other dancers that will have costumes that exaggerate their femininity, Kreiter said. 

Finally, "Kathy's Dance," which takes place in the light well between the hotel's towers, is an homage to the Cadillac's owner and the role she and her husband played in supporting residents of the hotel and shaping the Tenderloin.

Kathy and Leroy Looper bought the hotel in 1977. Although Leroy passed away in 2011, Kathy is still very involved as a member of the hotel’s board of directors, Kreiter said.

The sound score, which will play behind a performance set in a bedroom with a window that matches the hotel’s decorative accents, will include words of current hotel residents about Kathy and her importance in the community.

The fourth dance will occur in a 'bedroom' scene between the two towers of the Cadillac. | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline

Cadillac Hotel was built the year following the 1906 earthquake and is the first non-profit single-room occupancy hotel to begin operations in San Francisco. It offers supportive housing for about 160 tenants within its 180 units.  

There will be matinee performances at 12:30 p.m., just after lunch is served at nearby shelters on Friday, June 8 and Thursday, June 16.

“There is a whole different set of community members on the streets in the middle of the day than in the evenings,” Conry said. 

The event team is made entirely of students at Code Tenderloin, to offer them intensive training and references to help boost their resumes for pursuing future work, Kreiter said. 

The event will be followed by a month-long dance and activism program at CounterPulse Theater. Girlfly hired 20 young women to conduct and transcribe oral histories which they will perform and adapt for posters that will be exhibited at the Tenderloin Museum later this year. 

Other partners include the Asian Art Museum and Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center, along with Flyaway's set designer, Sean Riley, and lighting designer David Robertson.

The worldwide debut of "Tender" is on Thursday, June 7th at 8:30pm, and there will be several chances to see the performances over the next two weeks.

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