Dancers rehearse choreographer Alyssa Mitchel’s “Here. Now.” outside the Exploratorium in San Francisco. (Photo/Kyle Adler)
Dancers rehearse choreographer Alyssa Mitchel’s “Here. Now.” outside the Exploratorium in San Francisco. (Photo/Kyle Adler)

Ready, set, play! Bay Area in-person performances mark a step back to normal.

“Cultured” is a new column by Culture Editor Andrew Esensten with his recommendations of new and noteworthy events in the community.

According to my calendar, the last theatrical performance I attended in person was on Feb. 14, 2020 at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley. It was a production of “Tell Tale Hearts,” a mashup of beatboxing, freestyle rapping and storytelling featuring Berkeley playwright and musician Dan Wolf. I sat in the front row of the Aurora’s small — and packed — black box space, happily nodding along to the beats, oblivious of what was to come.

A month later, the Aurora would go dark, along with theaters around the country. Throughout the pandemic, I have longed to be part of an in-the-flesh audience once again. Yes, I “attended” my fair share of Zoom performances, though I did so more out of a sense of obligation (i.e. to support specific creators and arts organizations) than genuine interest. Artists have certainly displayed remarkable mettle and creativity during a very challenging time. But even many of them would admit that virtual performances are simply not as engaging or satisfying as in-person ones.

Now, finally, theaters and other venues are opening up. To help us ease back into the show-going experience, many performances are being held outdoors and for free. If you, like me, have yet to fully exit your Covid cocoon and are ready to do so, here are three community shows you may want to check out.

JCCSF rolls out the ball

For its first Arts & Ideas event of the year, the JCC of San Francisco will present a “ball passing” show by Garrett + Moulton Productions that was initially booked in 2019. Described by choreographer Charles Moulton as “both a game and a dance,” ball passing involves three or more people passing multicolored foam balls to each other in intricate patterns.

An ensemble of 18 dancers will perform “Roll Out” in the airy atrium of the JCCSF. After each of the four daytime performances over two days, the dancers will lead a workshop for audience members to test their own ball-passing skills.

“It’s a celebration of being back to life and back to some kind of physical community,” said Stephanie Singer, JCCSF’s director of Arts & Ideas. She said attendees will be encouraged to walk around the atrium and up the stairs to take in the show from different perspectives.

Following the Nov. 5 performance, there will be a candlelighting ceremony to welcome Shabbat. “It’s very challenging to do in-person stuff again,” Singer admitted. “It’s like starting over again from when we first opened. I can’t tell you how many hours have gone into planning for ‘Roll Out.’”

“Roll Out,” Nov. 4 at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and Nov. 5 at 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. Free, registration not required. Proof of vaccination required for 12 and older, masks required for all.

Escaping solitude through meditation

San Francisco choreographer Alyssa Mitchel has been meditating for nearly five years, and her new dance project was inspired by that daily practice. A group of 10 dancers will perform the six pieces that compose “Here. Now.” in the plaza in front of the Exploratorium at San Francisco’s Pier 15. Audience members can scan a QR code and learn more about the dances and their connections to different aspects of meditation.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that meditation allows you to have better connections and experiences with other people in the world around you,” Mitchel, 28, said. “So many people have experienced isolation [during the pandemic], and this performance is really about bringing people together.”

Choreographer Alyssa Mitchel
Choreographer Alyssa Mitchel. (Photo/Kyle Adler)

A former student at Marin Dance Theatre, a classical ballet training center in San Rafael, Mitchel choreographed the first section of “Here. Now.” in late 2019. After taking some time off at the beginning of the pandemic, she rededicated herself to the project in the summer of 2020. Musician Julian Drucker composed original music for the show, which includes a range of dance styles, from ballet to shuffling, a type of hip-hop dancing.

Mitchel, who is Jewish and also works as a math tutor, said she is thrilled that the dancers in her show will have an opportunity to once again perform in front of a live audience, including any passersby on the Embarcadero. “Human connection, and being able to share our art form, are really what bring dancers joy,” she said.

“Here. Now.,” Nov. 6 and 13 at 12 p.m., and Nov. 7 and 14 at 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Pier 15, S.F. Free.

Jewish artist incubator gets ‘weird’

“Fun and a little weird” is how LABA East Bay’s Elissa Strauss described past LABAlive events, in which artists who are participating in the organization’s incubator and study program present their works in progress to the public.

The upcoming LABAlive at JCC East Bay may be weirder than most, and not just because everyone will be masked and social distancing. One of the fellows, performance artist Avital Meshi of San Jose, will be walking around the JCC courtyard in her “wearable artificial intelligence” piece that announces the emotional state of anyone who looks into the camera mounted on her forehead.

Avital Meshi's "Structures of Emotion" is a piece of "wearable artificial intelligence" that analyzes human faces. (Photo/Kyle Adler)
Avital Meshi’s “Structures of Emotion” is a piece of “wearable artificial intelligence” that analyzes human faces. (Photo/Kyle Adler)

“It can recognize the emotions happy, sad, angry, fearful, surprised, disgusted and neutral,” Meshi said of her “Structures of Emotion” piece, which she developed with collaborator Treyden Chiaravalloti. “The performance itself is about me becoming some sort of a cyborg entity.” (She said she recently did a test performance of the piece in downtown Santa Cruz, and “some people were looking at us strangely.”)

Other fellows will be presenting works that touch on the fellowship’s theme of chosenness. Rebecca Roudman and Jason Eckl of San Francisco Yiddish Combo will perform new music. Ava Sayaka Rosen will be giving tarot readings using Jewish ecological tarot cards she created. Visual artists Kyle Adler, Hagit Cohen and Naomie Kremer will also show new pieces.

“There’s no substitute for art and culture in person,” said Strauss, LABA East Bay’s artistic director. “The community is really excited to get back together. We’re trying to encourage people to get tickets soon because they will sell out.”

“LABAlive,” Nov. 7 at 4 p.m. JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. $18 suggested donation. Proof of vaccination and masks required.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.