September 12, 2008
The Little Dance Company That Could, Still Does
By Ann Murphy
There is a little-known story about a dance studio on the Berkeley/Oakland border, the kind of story that one day will be immortalized by dance historians, but for now is knowledge held by a small but devoted pool of dance lovers.The studio is called Shawl-Anderson, named for the two trim, septuagenarian modern dancers, Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson, who set up shop a little up from College Avenue on Alcatraz 50 years ago. Both dancers had recently concluded their careers in May O'Donnell's company in New York City and they packed up and headed toward the Pacific Ocean. It was 1958, they landed in Berkeley, and then quickly got down to work.
Now, a half-century later, Shawl-Anderson as the studio is generally known, is a multifaceted center that blends dance studio, performance space and ad hoc gathering place. Since its inception it has been rooted in the ethos that has fueled the work of their mentor, May O'Donnell, an early principal dancer with Martha Graham.
How that philosophy translates is: warm-hearted independence mixed with a profound commitment to the group as it strives for always-elusive beauty, hard-to-nail truth and the body's fragile perfection. These are modern dancers for whom kindness is inseparable from hard work, and that makes them an unusual pair.
Back in the day, Shawl and Anderson began across the street, over a liquor store still in operation, before doing what so many dance studios did then -- move into a house where the living room, dining room and bedrooms all became open spaces filled with the panting breaths of sweaty, aspiring artists ranging from kindergarten on up. Those may have been quiet days in dance in the East Bay, but a lot still happened as the '50s rolled into the '60s.
Much of that activity was abetted by the shy Anderson and the ebullient Shawl, two wise men of counterbalanced temperaments. Renowned performers appeared at the studio to offer master classes. Charles Weidman was among them. He was the spirit who made modern dance safe for antic expression while his cohort, Doris Humphrey, pushed modern movement into stunning naturalistic abstractions. Such luminaries as Alwin Nikolai, Lucas Hoving and Bella Lewitzky, among others, also dropped in or stayed for a time to teach.
"If it hadn't been for Shawl-Anderson," French-Canadian choreographer Sonya Delwaide wrote in an e-mail, "I would never have found my place as a choreographer in the Bay Area dance community (when I arrived)."
"Frank invited me to teach at the studio, and he came to my first concert at the Bay Area Dance Series, even co-sponsoring me so I could apply for grants. "... When no one knows you, it is important to have one person who believes in you, and Frank was that person for me. "
Shawl, the extrovert, still has a capacity to draw talented young choreographers to him, to give them a perch as teachers, then a launching pad as choreographers. Rehearsal space has always been available at a reasonable price, and both Anderson's and Shawl's perceptive and knowledgeable eyes remain open to artists interested in being mentored.
It is quite a legacy, and this month, to honor the studio's 50 years, Shawl-Anderson's coterie of devoted studio-goers is sponsoring two salons. The first is at 7 and 9 p.m. Sept. 19, with performances by dancers and studio teachers, including past artists in residence. At 5 p.m. Sept. 20, the studio will throw a fundraising bash down the street at St. John's Presbyterian Church, where live performance will commingle with silent auctions, music and dinner.
Details: 50th Anniversary Salon, Sept. 19, 7 and 9 p.m. Sept. 19, Shawl-Anderson Dance Studio, 2704 Alcatraz Ave., Berkeley; $15. Gala Benefit, 5 p.m. Sept. 20, St. Johns Presbyterian Church, 2727 College Ave., Berkeley; $75-$125; 510-654-5921, www.shawl- anderson.org.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco will present Robert Moses' Kin's staging of choreographer Moses' latest work, "Toward September," Thursday through Sept. 20. At press time, it still is being developed as the company gains access to the theater space. Moses, who has long mined social and spiritual concepts in a language of lush, often ferocious intensity, is letting the space bring shape to this season's premiere.
Chance historically has played a minor role in his work, but now, as the father of two young children and as an artist who likes to challenge his own tried-and-true solutions to making dance, he is letting in serendipity. "It's not much to give you," Moses said recently by phone, "but this time I'm not collaborating. I have ideas and I'm going into the space and will see what happens."
Details: Robert Moses' Kin, 8 p.m. Thursday through Sept. 20, Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.; $25-$30; 415-978-2787, www.ybca.org.
Contact Ann Murphy at writing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published by Ann Murphy, Contra Costa Times contributor.
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