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Lost History

Despite what Fox News wants the rest of the United States to believe about a “doom loop” in San Francisco, the reality in many of the city’s neighborhoods refuses to fit the media spin. Jackson Square is one of these stubbornly beautiful neighborhoods, approximately eight blocks of lovingly preserved nineteenth-century buildings nestled between the TransAmerica Pyramid, North Beach, and the Embarcadero waterfront. Walking these stately streets, you feel history reaching back to the 1849 Gold Rush. Less obvious is the history of gay counterculture, rooted here decades before the Castro District at venues like the Black Cat Café, the Gay ‘N Frisky, and the Hippodrome. This is the history that RAWdance chose to bring to life at the Jackson Square gallery 836M in “Loving Still,” a series of steamy and tender up-close duets that drew shy giggles and warm applause.

Performance

RAWdance: “Loving Still”

Place

836M, San Francisco, CA, December 8-10, 2023

Words

Rachel Howard

Ryan T. Smith and Yebel Gallegos. Photograph by Helena Palazzi

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RAWdance was founded nearly 20 years ago by co-artistic directors Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, platonic dance partners with a wonderfully extroverted impulse to weave dance into civic and social life. At their twice annual “‘Concept” series of works in progress, Rein and Smith even jump from dancing to handing out free popcorn and beverages to the audience, chattering away like consummate party hosts. Rein moved to upstate New York’s Hudson Valley four years ago, but fortunately for the San Francisco dance community, RAWdance carries on a bi-coastal commitment. For this 836M residency, the company spent two months working in full view of Jackson Street passersby, crafting dances that proclaim loving intimacy can be private, but it should never be shameful.

The inspiration: photos gathered by collectors Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell and published in the book Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s-1950s. Four of these photos, which Nini and Treadwell found in antique alleys and thrift shops around the world, hung in enlarged reproductions within the small space, ringed by folding chairs for “Loving Still’s” free premiere.

Photographs courtesy of the Nini-Treadwell Collection

Recorded voiceover narration set the context, proclaiming historical milestones like “1922 . . . Cecil B. DeMille’s Manslaughter shows the first gay kiss captured on film.” That kiss was just a glimpse in the movie’s background, but as Smith and Yebel Gallegos entered the gallery for the first duet, we got much more—we got a strip tease. Off came the page boy cap, the overcoat, the trousers, in a stream of big, inventive lifts, until Smith poured his drink down Gallegos’ heaving chest, and at last the viewer next to me, who until then seemed to be shielding his eyes, laughed and relaxed.

Where to go from such a peak of eroticism? The next duet, danced by Brandon Graham and Kyle Limin, took us to 1940, the men lying on a white sheet in boxers, tanks, and sock garters, Graham reading a pulp magazine, Limin teasing him with little swats, then wrapping Graham in the sheet as though to dress him for a drag show. In a nice surprise, Graham then picked up a pile of fabric that turned out to be a beautiful dress, prancing for Limin’s admiration—until a siren sounded. This was the strongest of the four duets, with the most texture and spontaneity.

Duet #3 took us to 1951. The inspiration: a photo of two Black men in Army dress, smiling in a studio shot, one man held on the other’s lap. As their live embodiments, Juan L. Ruiz carried in Calvin L. Thomas Jr. Between coupling, they marched, and saluted, and ultimately Thomas Jr. seemed only a ghostly memory, leaving behind his Army cap for Ruiz to mournfully pick up. Ruiz and Thomas danced beautifully in passages of whirling passion (and in technically tricky turns that looked amazingly seamless even close up). But this was the least interesting duet, more predictable in its implied narrative.

Ryan T. Smith and Yebel Gallegos. Photographs by Helena Palazzi

The final duet transported us back again, breaking chronology to deliver us to 1871. McKay Elwood strode in wearing top hat, cravat and tails, singing like an angel. (No surprise to discover he is a formally trained vocal coach.) What elegance! Nick Wagner joined him, also tall and cool, and the chemistry sweetened as they burst out in a little soft shoe number, ending with a kiss behind the tall hat, and then the hat tossed away.

The performances throughout were refined, confident, and charismatic. Mary Domenico’s costumes were integral. If there was a weak link, it was the recorded score by San Francisco-based composer Joel St. Julien, whose music felt sweetly serviceable. Or maybe it’s a critic’s habit to imagine beyond what was perfectly lovely to what could have been—a few sections using music of the time, with contemporary music between for contrast? More vocalizations, since Elwood’s brought such magic? If a viewer can’t help but speculate on possible expansions, it’s because the portal open to lost history by “Loving Still” is just so marvelous.  

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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