San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin can often be a street theater of sorts — a scrum of humanity in frenetic pursuits of survival.
But above the din of the neighborhood’s streets, the exterior walls of the historic Cadillac Hotel have become their own theatrical stage as a troupe of acrobatic performers twirl, pirouette and soar far above the streets.
The artistic dance troupe Flyaway Productions is staging aerial performances this week and next in a unique homage to the attributes of the ‘Loin — often overshadowed by its seedy underbelly.
In a series of dance vignettes set some three flights up, dancers pay tribute to the neighborhood’s scrappy spirit.
“So we’re really using a deep physicality and a deep push against gravity in our effort to honor political activism,” said Jo Kreiter, Flyaway Production’s founder and artistic director.
After days of rehearsals that drew upward gazes from the neighborhood’s residents, the troupe launched its run on Thursday night in a performance titled “Tender.”
A trio of women working on a trapeze-like bar symbolized the Tenderloin’s early days in 1917 when working-class people flocked to the neighborhood and women began to venture out unaccompanied.
A second act takes place with two women performing aerial maneuvers on a boat-like structure in tribute to the Vietnamese immigrants who flocked to the neighborhood in the seventies and had a heavy influence on the neighborhood’s culture.
“We’re dancing on a boat that we constructed,” Kreiter said, “looking at the experience of the boat people coming from Vietnam.”
In another piece, a transgender performer gyrates on a fire escape while a drag queen applies her makeup in front of a mirror. The vignette pays homage to the Compton Cafeteria riots, a clash between transgender women and police in 1966 that helped advance the rights of transgender people.
“I hope that this piece will make people feel as though their story is being told,” said dancer Honey Mahogny who plays the drag queen. “That they’ll see themselves in some of these stories.”
The dance troupe is teaming-up with the Tenderloin Museum which occupies a corner of the Cadillac Hotel, which was purchased by Leroy and Kathy Looper in 1977 and turned into the city’s first non-profit SRO. Leroy Looper died several years ago and the performance also honors Kathy Looper who still runs the hotel. The museum, which is marking its three-year anniversary, chronicles the neighborhood’s long and colorful history through a series of exhibits.
“So by an extension of that, Tender is our exhibits come to life on the side of the building,” said museum director Katie Conry.
The unexpected aerial dances, complete with colorful lighting and soundtracks have drawn diverse crowds, surprised to stumble on the unusual performance. During a dress-rehearsal Wednesday night, neighbor Coquese Coleman stared upward, transfixed by a trapeze artist swinging outside the building as another dancer gyrated on a mattress in reference to the city’s housing crisis.
“It’s amazing to do that,” marveled Coleman. “Just to do that and to have the heart to hang around and dance and float — takes a lot of heart.”
The performances have drawn a melting pot of people as tech workers cluster alongside the homeless people and Tenderloin SRO residents to watch the spectacle. Kreiter said the free performances are aimed at bringing art to a wide audience.
“Because a lot of people in the Tenderloin are low income, barely holding on, they can’t afford to go out to see the opera, the ballet,” Kreiter said, “so we’re trying to bring that caliber of art here.”
Following a Friday matinee, the building will host a performance Friday night at 8:30pm, and on Saturday at 8:30pm and 9:30 pm.
There will be a second run of performances on June 14th - 16th as well.