Trolley Dances, a San Diego staple for more than 20 years, is back


Every year, Trolley Dances takes San Diegans on a unique journey.

Perhaps that’s what has made the event - occurring on consecutive weekends starting Saturday - a San Diego tradition that has continued for nearly two decades.

Audiences are introduced to new, site-specific dance performances at stops along the trolley line by a changing roster of choreographers.

Some are local, some travel from New York or Los Angeles.

They choose a site along the transit system and incorporate the natural surroundings to support their creative ideas.

In years past, for instance, dancers have frolicked in public fountains, executed seductive tango moves in a narrow alley and rolled down grassy slopes.

We get to see dance premieres in neighborhoods we might have never explored, and we are introduced to music, from African drumming to live chamber music, that we wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

The dancers and choreographers take a different journey, too, as they experience their own set of surprises. The performances are mostly outdoors, which adds an improvisational component.

The sun casts shadows across the dancers, a strong breeze flutters their costumes, or a car alarm goes off nearby.

It all becomes part of the scene and the theme of a dance meant to inspire us, make us laugh or to be moved to think differently.

Sometimes those surprises delight, but Trolley Dances founder Jean Isaacs has been challenged, too.

“It’s hard being outside,” she says. “And it can be hard on the dancers. You can come across a lot of resistance to the idea that dance can happen anywhere. Sometimes it’s so beautiful, it couldn’t happen anywhere else. But it would be so much easier if it happened on a stage.”

This year Isaacs, who also is a stage choreographer and the artistic director of San Diego Dance Theater, will introduce a text-based work inspired by the George Saunders’ historical novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.”

The novel is about the death of President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, and its themes about grief and the will to transcend enthralled Isaacs, who practices Buddhism and meditation.

In some teachings of Buddhism, the bardo is a state between life and death, a time where the soul is suspended, awaiting a rebirth.

“I’m a literature major, and I’ve always been attracted to work that’s original and poetic,” she said.

“Trolley Dances tends to be lighter and high energy, but this is definitely not light. I have eight dancers, and they are ghostlike and dressed all in white.”

This year’s choreographers include Los Angeles-based Rebecca Bruno, Debi Toth-Ward, Dave Massey and Ron “RJ” Davis.

Isaacs’ work will be presented inside the San Diego Central Library downtown, where escalators provide the perfect prop for a poignant dance about transitions.

“I think variety is important,” said Isaacs, who has made numerous choreographed works that address social issues, sexuality and the environment.

“One of my Trolley Dances was at the Monarch School for homeless kids. It has a two-story lobby, and the dancers were on the bottom while the Sacra/Profana choir sang “O Magnum Mysterium” on the second story. When they started singing, people started crying. It was the idea of what it meant to have a school for the homeless. A lot of people wrote to us afterwards and said, ‘I never would have gone on that block before. I would have avoided it.’ It’s part of our mission that people understand that a lot of places where the trolley travels to are not the richest neighborhoods. There is another part of life that they don’t see.”

Manna is a freelance writer.

San Diego Dance Theater’s Trolley Dances 2017

When: Two weekends: Sept. 30-Oct. 1 and Oct. 7-8. Tours leave every 45 minutes between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily.

Where: Will Call tickets at 750 E St., near Cool Down Coffee and the Bayfront/E Street Trolley Station, Chula Vista. Tours begin at Bayfront/E Street Trolley Station and end at the Downtown Central Library at 330 Park Blvd.

Tickets: $40 (general); $15 to $25 (students, seniors, military).

Phone: 619.225.1803