Review: “‘We Are All Dragons In Drag” by Bandelion and Friends at the San Francisco International Arts Festival (****)

by Charles Kruger

Bandelion presents “We Are All Dragons in Drag” at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Photo Credit: TheatreStorm.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Bandelion is an ensemble within the Dandelion Dancetheater under the direction of Dandelion co-founder Eric Kupers. About 13 years ago, when Eric’s co-founder, Kimiko Guthrie, began to split some of her focus between founding a family and working with Dandelion, Eric doubled-down on his commitment, forming Bandelion as an ensemble group within the larger company to do what he describes as “very intensive work.”

As Bandelion enters its adolescence, the ensemble is reaping the benefits of that intensity.

In a recent interview, I learned from Kupers that for more than ten years, they have been meeting on a weekly basis, whether or not they are preparing for a specific performance. (In fact, some of the group have been working together for multiple decades.) The company treats this as a spiritual practice, as they work together to rehearse, explore, and create as a regular part of their lives.

What they present is a wonderfully intimate theatrical event. On opening night of their residency with the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the small audience was invited into the  house as the company were warming up and preparing the stage, practicing music, and arranging props and costumes. The feeling was that we were invited directly into the process. This intimacy was deepened when the director actually invited each of the audience members to introduce themselves by name, and the company members did likewise.

Then the lights changed, and two women in the audience wandered up on the stage, carrying on a private conversation. It took a few moments to realize the show had begun, as the women approached the back of the stage to open a trunk in which they found a large, mysterious-looking book, as well as some costume pieces and masks. As they began to read from the book, we were ushered into a magical world of myth.

“Long long ago. . .” they began. . . and their talk gave way to music as other members of the ensemble began playing upon a variety of instruments: a harmonium, a violin, drums, and—surprisingly—a sitar.

We heard of a time when souls existed but nobody knew what they looked like “because they had no eyes,” nor what their voices were like “because they had no ears,” nor could we know anything else about them because they had no way to touch, and could neither taste nor smell one another.  Still, in some mysterious way, we are told, we know they were here.

And then we are told that, “we must uncover the invisible dances.”

“We must uncover the invisible dances.” Photo Credit: TheatreStorm.

Gradually the naturalistic movements of the two young women who began the show give way to something between normal movement and dance, shifting between the two, so we can’t quite see where the dance begins and ends. The other company members set aside their instruments as they move over the stage, playing with masks and costumes, mysterious and distant, yet strangely close, too. We learn that these souls took on the forms of dragons.

We are reminded at some point, by the director, speaking to us directly, of two quotes that have inspired this piece: “We’re all born naked, and everything we put on after that is Drag” (RuPaul, Drag Superstar), and “We are all just God in Drag” (Stephen Levine, Meditation Teacher).

What follows is a series of movements, in which the company become what appear to be angels, then a group of dragons, then one dragon. At one point, a series of single performers engage in free form solos that both incorporate and reject traditional dance forms, sometimes graceful, other times naturalistic and even clumsy. One dancer (who also inhabits a large dragon mask) is confined to a  wheelchair, but his rapid serpentine movements about the stage could only  be described as dance. Limits are explored and expanded. The man in the wheelchair is not the only dancer presenting an unexpected physicality: there are older dancers (perhaps in their 60s?), very young dancers, one unusually tall and thin dancer, several chubby dancers (at least by mainstream dance standards), all of them completely committed to their physical expression.

In my notes taken as I watched the peformance,  I asked: “Is this a dance performance or some sort of witchy ritual?” At one point the dancers began a series of repeated chants that reminded me of chants heard at Wiccan ceremonies. At another, the performers began to roar at one another in what, presumably, were dragon voices, and the audience was encouraged to join in. Another invitation to join occurred when the dancers/dragons/drag queens (were they “getting their Drag On”?) began to vogue and audience members were encouraged to pick any company member and mirror their poses.

This was a highly unusual dance experience. Although there were many moments of professional level expertise, the overall impression of excellence grew out of the company’s stunning authenticity of feeling, rather than the precise execution of the choreography.

In a program note, we read this from the director: “I learn from how these artists use clothes, make-up, and imagination to bring forth powerful energies from within, allowing them to share beauty, empowererment, the world beyond gender binaries, lightness, humor, and fierce warrior-ship.”

By the end of the performance, I, too, could feel the powerful energies brought forth from within and felt a kinship with that fierceness. I imagine I am not the only one.

Rating: **** (for an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

“We Are All Dragons in Drag” by Bandelion and Friends. Director/Choreographer: Eric Kupers, in collaboration with the performers. Created and performed by Bandelion: Bruce Bierman, Dannia Ciolo, Chris Gallegos, Dawn Holtan, Corissa “Reese” Johnson, Nils Jorgenson, Eric Kupers, Amy Marie, Keith Penney, Frances Sedayao, and Deborah Trudell. Collaborators: Masa Fukuizumi, LEEP Taiko, Eden Aoba Taiko, Raven Malouf-Renning, and Jasprit Singh. Music by Bandelion, RuPaul, Masa Fukuizumi, and adaptations of Hindustani folk tunes. Masks: Chris Gallegos. Costumes: Eric Kupers and the performers, with hoods based on a design by Sandy Young-Cellilo.Text and Video Projection: Eric Kupers.

Dandelion/Bandelion Dancetheater will continue to perform the world premiere of ‘We Are All Dragons in Drag’ at The Firehouse at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture on Friday, June 1st (7 p.m.), Saturday, June 2nd (2 p.m.) and Sunday, June 3rd (7 p.m.)

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts these performances as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 24, 2018 to June 3, 2018. The Festival features more than 60 performances by close to 40 different artists, ensembles, and companies. Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows at the Festival by buying a Festival pass. More details HERE.

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