John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
A modern dance from San Francisco.
If you recently saw a person driving a park bench through the streets of San Francisco, don't worry – you're not crazy, and neither is the rider. The bench-on-wheels is simply a prop for a performance called "Transit: Next Stop," which happens to involve classically trained dancers gliding around on stage atop heavily modded bicycles.
"Transit" began as a short performance outside the San Francisco Public Library and now has made it to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where artists from the Oberlin Dance Collective enacted its strange whirls and promenades this past weekend. The audience pedaled in and were aided by a bicycle valet. The Frankenbikes, designed by mad mechanic Max Chen, included not just the park bench but a cafe table as well, with seating for four. They were meant to invoke the pleasant feeling of kickin' back in the city, says the dance's creator, KT Nelson, rather than driving out of town on the force of gallons of flaming fossil fuels.
I recently chatted with Nelson about "Transit," which is at least the second "bicycle ballet" in San Francisco. (The above video is from a performance last year.) If you missed this weekend's performance, she'll soon be mounting a production municipal street-sweeping vehicles grinding over the stage of the San Francisco Ballet. Kidding. The next move is to try to take "Transit" on tour. Here's Nelson:
Where'd this idea come from?
Mostly it came from a desire to create a positive image of our urban cities. For a lot of people, a city can be alienating: They see it not as being full of individuals, but masses of people. I wanted to try to bring a feeling of private life into the city.
So what happens in "Transit"?
I tried to describe a day, with [themes like] early morning coffee, the commute, lunch, afternoon, evening. The dancers include a sexy yuppy couple, a working family with two kids, a young punk couple, two working guys and single woman. I tried to identify people in the city, or what I see when I travel around the city.
I have to say I have an agenda. I feel climate change is a huge thing, and I hope we start tolerating the use of bikes in our cities and using more public transportation.... I think as we get more and more bikes in our cities, we need to develop a tolerance of high and low technology and of different kinds of pacing. Some people just go slower than others depending on what kind of transportation they use. In China for example, in the subway everybody walks at a medium pace. There's no way to be fast like in New York. You just have to go with it.
What were some of the challenges of working with wheels, gears, etc.? Were dancers slipping all over chain oil?
When we first started, we had to keep taking the bikes back to Max because there were things that would hurt us. We might cut ourselves when we roll off a bike. It was also pretty physical. We'd abuse the bikes in certain ways, like spin them around – it's called a promenade in dance, where you rotate it around on one point. Max sometimes had to reinforce the bikes.
Are you a biker?
I am. I bike to the BART station from Oakland. It can take me an hour and half to get to the city in my car, but just 20 minutes on BART. I have the most bland bike you can possibly imagine so nobody will steal it.
Here's the first run of "Transit" outside a public library:
Photos courtesy of Margo Moritz.