Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 2003

You’ve heard The Trolley Song. But have you seen The Trolley Dances?

This is the fifth year of the acclaimed and unique moveable dance-feast presented by Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater. The 2000 installment won a local dance Tommy Award for “Special Achievement in Artistry.”

Isaacs, who’s been dancing and choreographing in San Diego for more than three decades, originally got the idea in Bern, Switzerland, where she teaches every year, in addition to her regular ‘gig’ at UCSD. “They had these little white tourist buses,” Isaacs recalls. “And they took people to various locations — the stairway of an old building, a nudist colony — and presented dance, theater and music at each stop.” Isaacs never forgot that experience, and when the San Diego trolley became an ever-expanding reality, so did her Trolley Dances.

The first year, the route was from Qualcomm stadium to the Gaslamp area. “But that one was way too ambitious,” Isaacs admits. “Too many stops, too many performances. The first year, we had 13 performances a day. Now it’ll be streamlined, down to 8 or 9, each lasting about 7-8 minutes. We’ve learned a lot since the beginning.”

Given the popularity of the event, this year it will be spread over two weekends (instead of one) and there will be more than one performance at each stop, to simplify the complex logistics. There will be four stops and seven performances, created by six of the region’s most celebrated choreographers. You buy your $18 ticket in advance or at the first stop (at the Hancock St. trolley station in Old Town). And then the fun begins. A tour guide escorts a group of 40-50 spectators every 1/2 hour. Audience/riders can get off and on at will, to see the dance performances at each stop, and there may even be someone dancing on the trolley.

The first showpiece is at the starting location; other stops are at Hazard Center and Fashion Valley, where there will be a “Car Dance” in a parking lot, and another presentation on the river bank, or maybe even in the river (details weren’t firm at press time). The final stop is Mission Valley, with three performances in and around the new branch Library.

Isaacs herself is choreographing a site-specific piece for the Old Town location (six dancers on the back-to-back benches) and another in the Children’s Reading Room of the Mission Valley Library, where actor and fellow UCSD faculty member Jim Winker will read the 7th chapter of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (you know, the one with the hookah-smoking caterpillar who repeatedly asks “Whoooo are you?”) while Isaacs’ company of eight cavorts.

Most of the other choreographers are new to the project, except for Faith Jensen-Ismay, who’s been dancing with Isaacs for 17 years, performing in all her groups — Three’s Company, Isaacs-McCaleb & Dancers and Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater. Since 1991, Jensen-Ismay has directed the Mojalet Dance Collective, but for Trolley Dances 2003, she’ll create a piece for the Tijuana-based Grupo de Danza Minerva Tapia, whose Cuban/classical dancers have appeared throughout Mexico and Southern California.

Acclaimed New York choreographer and visual artist Allyson Green will add her company (Allyson Green Dance) to the Trolley mix. Green, who originally came to the area to join the faculty of San Diego State University, recently moved over to UCSD. Joining Green will be Yolande Snaith, British choreographer for the BBC and new Head of Dance at UCSD. Green’s group, which has performed worldwide, from Brazil to Macedonia, has been praised for its “intelligent dances… that test traditional boundaries.”

Speaking of GROUP, that’s the name of a post-modern collective that will be joined at the river by newly relocated San Francisco-based choreographer Kim Epifano, who fills the dance faculty slot at SDSU this fall.

Highly praised Los Angeles choreographer Victor Marks will also contribute to the event. Marks created the award-winning film, “Outside In” for the mixed-ability, London-based dance collective Candoco. In her work, which frequently involves differently-abled dancers, Marks is committed to redressing stereotypes and challenging taboos.

All told, about 50 dancers will perform in the moving event, and 1000-2000 people are expected to attend. Most of the $60,000 budget came from County Supervisor Pam Slater, who’s a major supporter of the arts and public transportation.

“I’ve always wanted to do site-specific work,” says Isaacs. “People who wouldn’t normally see dance see it just because they’re there in the area. And we try to match the dance to the locale. It’s a great program for families, for kids. And great for young men, the toughest audience for dance companies to attract. It also gets people to ride the trolley. Eighty percent of our audiences have never been on the trolley before.

“What I most want to do is increase the accessibility of dance. I love cross-cultural collaboration,” says the bilingual Isaacs. “I like giving something back to the community and celebrating our city. Trolley Dances does all of that.”

©2003 Patté Productions Inc.