An iconoclast who has performed to great acclaim and inspired others for decades
GOLDIES In 1979, Sara Shelton Mann — the farm girl from the wilds of Tennessee who ended up studying with such greats as Alwin Nikolais, Erick Hawkins, and Merce Cunningham — moved to San Francisco. Earthquake country. And did she ever shake up the place. With Contraband, the collective of performers she directed until 1996, she reconfigured what the dancing body can be. Their aim, she has said, was to "make bold live theater with an aggressive, lyric physicality."
But why San Francisco? "I was lonely in those cold winters in Nova Scotia," she recalls; she'd been working there with a support of a Canadian arts support program. So she jumped at the chance when Mangrove (the all-male troupe that grew into Mixed Bag Productions) invited her to join it. It was here where she translated concepts like "improv-based," "collaborative," "interdisciplinary," and "dance theater" into vital, raucous, and highly effective performances that inspired a whole generation of artists to wander into unknown territory. The Bay Area would not be as welcoming and supportive of experimentation in dance were it not for the ongoing presence of Sara Shelton Mann.
With Contraband, she staged pieces in theaters, warehouses, the pit of a former apartment building, an abandoned public housing project, under bridges, and on the streets, both in this country and abroad. The troupe described itself as wanting to "manifest joyous creation — reclaiming the flight of the imagination, laughter, love, truth, and evolutionary impulse."
The works were irresistible because of the daring, the force, and the integrity of the processes that made them possible. "We believed that art could change the world," Shelton Mann says. At the height of the AIDS crisis, Evol turned the concept of love inside out. Religare honored the people who died or became homeless after the 1975 arson fire that gutted the Mission District's Gartland Apartments. Oracle was a painful examination of the burdens of the past. The Mira Cycles and Monk at the Met dug deep into spirituality, both individual and communal.
Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover
"I had only one rule," she explains. "Everybody does personal inquiry, everybody does contact, everybody sings, everybody dances, everybody writes, everybody makes images, everybody works outdoors."
This process encouraged individual voices to emerge, allowing members of the group to go on to substantial careers of their own. Besides designers and musicians, there were, among others, Rinde Eckert; Jess Curtis ("Contraband was an amazing laboratory of group process and collaboration, always with Sara at the center," he says); Keith Hennessey ("Working with Sara revealed me to myself, and revealed me to the worlds around me"); Nina Haft ("I like to think my work is better for having been part of that wild soup of training in the '80s. Sara still amazes me with what she does"); and Kim Epifano ("We learned from each other as we created with Sara's thrust of topic and mastery of metaphor. It was a place where gender did not define the physicality but a common ground of athletic love").
Indeed, in addition to her formidable reach as an artist, Shelton Mann's role as a teacher has been immense. The latest wave of artists to find Shelton Mann and the rare degree of mutual inspiration she offers includes many of the most persuasive dance makers in the Bay Area.