For the last two months, RAWdance has been openly developing and rehearsing its not-so-secret new show, LOVING STILL, at 836M’s storefront gallery in Jackson Square. While most artists prefer to keep their work under wraps until the big reveal, the award-winning dance company’s cofounders and artistic directors, Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith, told 48hills that they prefer exploring their creative process publicly.
“For many people, contemporary dance performances can feel unwelcoming, and the dance itself can feel impossible ‘to get,’” says Rein. “So we’re all about bringing dance at all points of the creation process out of the theater or studio and into nontraditional public spaces. It’s always easier to appreciate any art form when you understand the work that goes into it—the creativity, the technique, the thought process, the practice.”
The pair is eager to unveil their finished 45-minute piece—peeling back the curtain on a century of what English poet/Oscar Wilde paramour Lord Alfred Douglas termed “the love that dare not speak its name.” Five free-to-attend performances at 836M run from Fri/8 through Sun/10.
RAWdance, founded in San Francisco in 2004, drew inspiration for its latest project from Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell’s 2020 picture book, Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s -1950s.
Rein and Smith used a fair amount of poetic license in creating backstories for four of the anonymous couples featured in the book, which they explore via four duets. The dancers will perform to an original score by composer Joel St. Julien in costumes designed by Mary Domenico to mirror clothing worn in the photos.
To set the scene, 836M will display select portraits from Loving in its gallery as well as a historical map of San Francisco’s original gayborhood—the Barbary Coast—from the guides behind Unspeakable Vice. Before watching the show and for added context, attendees are encouraged to take the independent tour company’s 30-minute queer history excursion.
I spoke to RAWdance’s Rein and Smith about Loving Still, the importance of queer visibility, and the necessity of filling holes in gay history.
48HILLS How does it feel to close your residency at 836M? What were some of the highlights, and what were some of the challenges?
WENDY REIN It feels bittersweet to be ending our residency. Usually, we create new work in dance studios, where it’s just us artists in the room. Or for site-specific work, we make the dances on site, in parks, or in other public places where there’s constant navigation between all of us sharing space. Our time in the gallery has been a beautiful hybrid. We have all the comforts of a warm, safe space in which to create but it’s also completely public in that anyone walking by can watch the development process either through the windows or by coming into the gallery and watching during open hours. It feels fluid and safe in a way that I wish we had access to more often to keep opening up the artistic process and demystifying contemporary dance.
RYAN T. SMITH We’re also going to miss the dancers. It’s our first time working with many of the performers, and it’s been magical getting to know how each of them works. And the process behind each duet has been unique; even from a process perspective, each pair has had its own personality. It has also been a rare, lovely experience to be in the studio with so many other queer men.
48HILLS When you first encountered Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love, 1850s -1950s, what spurred you to create a performance around it? How did you translate these images into dance?
RYAN T. SMITH My husband introduced me to the book when it was first released. He used to work with Neal Treadwell, one of the collectors behind the book, and ordered a copy simply to support a friend. His copy came, and we both immediately realized how special the book was.
WENDY REIN Duets have always been central to our work with RAWdance, and we’re always looking for new sources of inspiration and perspectives on relationships. So many of the images in Loving Still immediately sparked mini-narratives. We selected four images, each serving as a launching point for a duet. We gave ourselves creative license with each couple’s story, but the duets all incorporate a moment when the dancers physically recreate their photo, bringing to life that frozen second in time.
48HILLS Why is a book like this important in 2023?
WENDY REIN We’re saturated with images of queer love and sex these days, from TV to ads to music videos. But our visual history only goes back to the mid-1900s, and even then, it’s often centered around violent political moments. We know that queer folk have existed since humans have existed, but having a visual record stretching way further back than most of us has experienced somehow makes it more real.
And seeing these images in particular—personal snapshots meant for mantles and wallets, not newspapers—helps us realize that love and romance have been as much a part of our history as struggle.
RYAN T. SMITH The political landscape in recent years has shown us that however much progress we’ve made, there is still the looming risk that we’ll take several steps backward. This book highlights how lucky we are while also reminding us that love will be present and persevere.
48HILLS What stood out about the four photos you selected for the duets?
WENDY REIN There are so many beautiful images. Narrowing them down was the hardest part of the project! The ones that jumped out to us as choreographers were the ones that felt like there was some physical connection that we could build on, such as slyly intertwined legs. As storytellers, we were drawn to images where we could see (or imagine) a clear narrative. And then thinking about the full arc of the piece, we tried to find some diversity within the set of four images—across social class, time period, race, and more. But four is a small number compared to the hundreds in the book. At some point, we just had to trust our instincts.
48HILLS How does the walking tour complement the art and dance show? What are the highlights?
RYAN T. SMITH Yes, we have taken the full-length Unspeakable Vice tour and highly recommend it to anyone interested in San Francisco history or queer history. It can be hard to escape our modern sensibilities when reflecting on the past. The costuming and historical images can set the scene, but the tour helps bring to life the historical context of the duets. We’re hoping to create a sense that some of these duets could’ve happened right in Jackson Square—maybe even on that block—many generations ago.
WENDY REIN We’re both notorious power walkers, always quickly hustling from place to place. And I love that this tour spotlights some of the spaces we flash by, like the old Hippodrome or Black Cat Cafe.
48HILLS What do you hope attendees take away from the experience?
WENDY REIN I’d love to think that some leave inspired, that they see themselves somewhere in the piece, that maybe they learn about the queer history that stretches back in the Bay way earlier than they knew, or even that folks go through their own collections of family photos and think about the body language in a new way. Maybe they haven’t seen this kind of partnering between men before and think about their own comfort zones. There’s no right or wrong or best reaction. But if someone decides to go out and get their partner flowers after the show, that would be lovely!
RYAN T. SMITH I hope people start questioning what else is missing from our histories and legacies and start filling those gaps.
48HILLS What’s next for RAWdance?
WENDY REIN 2024 is RAWdance’s 20th anniversary. You’ll find us at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival in the summer, at ODC Theater in October, and making a brief return appearance atop Salesforce Tower toward the end of the year. We will also continue carving out the company’s second home in the Hudson Valley.
RAWDANCE, LOVING STILL Fri/8-Sun/10, 836M, SF. Free with RSVP. Tickets and more info here. Note: Optional free Unspeakable Vice neighborhood tours will begin from the gallery one hour before each performance. Registration and more info here.