Berkeley’s Lawton dance studio to present ‘The Farallonites’
By Lou Fancher
On its face, hauling whale oil up a steep hill in the middle of the night during an ocean-driven rainstorm has little to do with the crisp choreography and graceful machinations of dancers in Berkeley-based Dana Lawton Dances.
Nonetheless, led by Artistic Director Dana Lawton, the unlikely association between lighthouse keepers on the Farallon Islands in the mid-1800s and dancers in 2022 swirling, spinning, cavorting and counter-balancing is made clear with “The Farallonites,” showing Sept. 16-18 at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco’s Fort Mason (visit danalawtondances.org online for tickets and more details).
The company’s first live production since before the pandemic, “The Farallonites” is an evening-length multidisciplinary performance piece featuring Lawton’s choreography largely inspired by Jennifer Kulbeck’s poems about the Farallons, an original score by Thomas Edler, stage design and an exhibit curated by Jon Altemus, and 11 dancers ranging in age from 23 to 67. Emerging after a rare, four-year research-and-development period and originally scheduled to premiere in March 2020, then postponed to November of that year, Lawton said in an interview that the long incubation is a gift.
“To let this dance marinate meant I could rework sections and resequence sections,” Lawton said. “One section I’d been working on for four years still wasn’t working. We had a showing recently, and I asked a friend, and she said, ‘Cut it.’ I did, and you know what? She was right. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity if we’d not had this amount of time to trust the process and recognize something doesn’t fit.”
During the early days of the pandemic, the dancers hunkered down in isolation, but once the lockdown lifted, they met outdoors. On the beach in Alameda, not far from Lawton’s home in Oakland’s Laurel district; or at Moraga Commons Park near Saint Mary’s College, where she is a tenured professor of dance, “Farallonites” continued to mature. Lawton said the preciousness of dancing together — still masked, but after months physically apart — added intimacy and raised the level of trust.
“Personally, I felt incredible gratitude for my dancers. As a choreographer, It allowed me to be more comfortable than ever before,” she said.
Lawton, 56, grew up in Santa Barbara and had been interested in California’s Gold Rush period since childhood.
“My mom was a huge pioneer buff. When my brother and I were kids, she pulled us out of school for a trip. We went up to Gold Country and camped and looked at gold mines and Gold Rush towns.”
Lawton recalled being fascinated with people willing to move out of their comfort zones and enter unknown environments to improve their lives. In her own family, her great-grandfather moved from Boston to the Bay Area, uprooting his wife and their five daughters for what he saw might be a better life. Lawton’s great-grandmother died of scarlet fever shortly after the move.
“I would imagine that was heartbreaking, to lose his wife. But practically, he didn’t have time to sit and mourn and fall apart. He found a nanny to do the daily routine of caring for his young daughters. That was pragmatism, tenacity.”
Similarly, the lighthouse keepers and their families who lived in isolation on the Farallon Islands, a formidable archipelago 26 miles off the coast of San Francisco, were willing to be uncomfortable. They led arduous lives filed with hard and often dangerous physical labor, intense environmental conditions and repetitious days that could lead to boredom, fatigue or depression.
“And yet they had tenacity, hope and a sense of duty to keep the light shining and ships safe,” said Lawton. “I read their letters, which personalized it. I could imagine being a man or a woman carrying whale oil for the lighthouse lantern up a hill. They became human people to me, not dates and names and names of towns.”
Lawton said in her home she has a surveyor’s map showing the city of Oakland in 1849.
“I look at the actual streets and see the same streets and creeks I can see on my phone. It connects me to this place and with the people of 100 years ago. What was important for them to document, to map? History helps me understand my sense of place in my own community.”
While “mapping” the history and lifestyles of the Farallon people with choreography, Lawton structured the dance in three sections.
“The first introduces ideas of duty, tasks and tenacity. They had a job to do; we have a job to do. The second section has a duet that’s tender and playful. It’s a father with his daughters. He moves away from robotic movements I’ve given to the men in other sections to represent the machinery of the lighthouse. Here, the movements are based on cleaning windows, carrying whale oil, sweeping, everyday personal gestures. The father and daughters play patty-cake, waltz, move with fluidity.”
There is also a joyful square dance with all the dancers onstage that includes lifting each other, performing daisy-chains, audibly laughing and speaking. A third section is less narrative, with evocative, abstract movements drawn from birds or the elemental aspects of the island: wind, waves, moonlight, coolness.
“They’re no longer costumed in Victorian clothing and instead wear unitards with flowing drapery. It’s about how the humans are dissipating and becoming a part of the island.”
For the score, composer Edler explored the U.S. National Archives and selected the most popular music from 1850 to 1865. Transcribing original piano rolls, he rewrote melodies for violin or guitar — or removed the lyrics for some songs and performed the melody on a banjo. Poet Kulbeck’s words often foreshadow the choreography and sequence intentionally with the dance, music and lighting to create a cohesive, kinetic, audio-visual experience.
Solo dances are meant to be tightly timed and compelling; duets call attention to the space between two dancers; ensemble sections “let me flex my muscles for patterning, phrasing, musicality,” Lawton said.
An exhibit in the lobby introduces the production with archival photos of the original lighthouse keepers, their homes, the island, and original poetry, news clippings, art and period-specific ephemera. Lawton said in her ideal world, all bodies dance and make dances. In Lawton language, lighthouse keepers and modern dancers and each body in motion offers abundant opportunity for timeless, universal, accessible and highly physical storytelling.