Site-specific Trolley Dances discovers new communities and audiences.

John Diaz and Zaquia Mahler Salinas in Trolley Dances

Free from the confines of a concert stage, Trolley Dances brings dance to unexpected places: swimming pools and grocery aisles, parking lots and historic parks, even the Mexican border fence. In its 17th year, the adventure created by San Diego’s pioneering choreographer Jean Isaacs is a community tradition, but it didn’t start out that way.

“I couldn’t afford a theater and wanted to pay my dancers,” Isaacs says. “Site-specific dance was an alternative. I partnered with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. We go to different communities every year.”

Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater holds open auditions and hires about 50 dancers. They’ll dance six times daily along an expanding light-rail system over two weekends.

“We start at the new Waterfront Park next to the County Administration building,” she says. “Tour guides lead groups on the trolley to the Santa Fe Depot. For the first time, we’ll ride new Rapid buses and have sites in Balboa Park. It’s the park’s Centennial Celebration. Each dance is by a different choreographer responding to a physical environment.”

One of those choreographers in the park is Stephan Koplowitz, dean of the School of Dance at CalArts who has made site-specific work for decades. “I love the water-park fountain design,” he says, “how it invites the public to get wet. I’ll have 10 dancers to match the huge scale of the site and give the audience a different perspective.”

Along with Isaacs and Koplowitz, choreographers include Seattle’s Mark Haim (recently in San Diego with This Land is Your Land) and San Diegans Liv Isaacs-Nollet, Anne Gehman and Suzanne Forbes-Vierling.

As part of the event, Isaacs started Kids-on-Board 10 years ago, an outreach program that brings 550 students and teachers to Trolley Dances for free. “Magic happens when we take dance out of the theater,” Isaacs says. “It’s a field trip they won’t forget.” Before the performances (September 25 this year), schools host a residency program with San Diego Dance Theater on creating site-specific dance, and the dance created is performed for the entire school at an assembly.

The popularity of Trolley Dances has inspired spin-offs in San Francisco and more recently the city of Riverside. It takes place September 26–27 and October 3–4 in San Diego this year, with 3,000 people expected to attend. DT

Kris Eitland writes about dance and the performing arts from San Diego to San Francisco.

Photo by Manny Rotenberg, courtesy of San Diego Dance Theater