For most dancer makers, the stage is the site of performance. For Robin Bisio, it’s just as often a sand dune or a lawn, a windswept beach, or a meadow studded with wildflowers. Bisio does more than set her dances in the natural world; she gives it a starring role.
This Saturday, October 19, Bisio will present “Anemone Ball,” a site-specific dance staged on the beach below Shoreline Park. Free and open to the public, the work will feature professional dancers and live classical music. Beach chairs and blankets will take the place of theater seats, and instead of curtains, audience members will gaze out at the undulating Pacific.
Since the late 1970s, the choreographer and dance filmmaker has lived on the Santa Barbara Mesa. Across the street from her house, a winding flight of stairs leads down the coastal cliffs to the sandy beach below. Perched as she is on the edge of the continent, Bisio says she can’t help but feel the influence of the ocean. “It’s a special thing to be able to breathe the sea air and to see how the sea constantly changes,” she notes. “It’s really interesting to have that be the slate that you work your life around.”
Much of Bisio’s oeuvre consists of outdoor dances and films set in nature, generally featuring one or more female dancers. Her performers are nearly always barefoot, their feet planted in leaves, sand, or dirt. Often, they wear tutus or dresses, retaining an echo of the dance stage even as they roll in the grass or leap between boulders.
“Anemone Ball” differs from much of Bisio’s recent work in that it features a male dancer, Kyle Castillo, whose presence Bisio says lends a certain formality to dance partnering. It was from watching him lifting and supporting female dancers that she first had the image of a formal ball — a vision from which “Anemone Ball” was born. Dancers Weslie Ching, Monica Ford, Cybil Gilbertson, and Kaita Lepore Mrazek will join Castillo for a dance Bisio says emerged organically through rehearsals both in the studio and on site.
Designer Anaya Cullen has crafted costumes that strike a balance between evening wear and the underwater world, and though there’s no dress code for audience members (“They’re welcome to wear bikinis if they want to,” Bisio quips), the choreographer admits she likes the juxtaposition of formal clothes and natural setting. That juxtaposition will be echoed in the sound: Nicole McKenzie will play violin against a background of crashing waves and crying gulls.
Dancing on the beach introduces challenges, among them a surging tide, curious dogs, uneven footing, and the region’s ubiquitous beach tar. Bisio says her cast is tough and has tackled these issues and others cheerfully and creatively. “They get completely sandy and wet and happy,” she says.
The premiere of “Anemone Ball” happens to coincide with the release of a new book based on Bisio’s work. Your Flesh Shall Be a Poem will be published this month by New York’s Nauset Press; copies will be available at the event. The book features photographs and still film images from the last few decades of Bisio’s oeuvre, as well as a selection of poems that served as creative inspiration. Publisher Karyn Kloumann, whose sister Erika is among Bisio’s longtime dancers, said she was drawn to the project after meeting Bisio on a visit to Santa Barbara.
“Robin inhabits a world of optimism, beauty, and emotion, and the natural world is as important in her dances as the dancers,” Kloumann notes, adding, “Site-specific dance is a unique subject for a dance book, and I was especially thrilled that the photographic documentation was so stunning.”
Don’t be late to the ball: The beach is located at the base of the steps leading down from the middle of Shoreline Park, topped by a wooden arch. Bisio suggests audience members park either at the park’s lower lot or on adjacent streets and leave ample time to find the right spot.
Though donations will be accepted, you don’t need an invitation — or a ticket — to attend.
“It feels like giving a present to the beach and to the people of Santa Barbara,” Bisio says.
“Anemone Ball” takes place on the beach at the base of Shoreline Park on Saturday, October 19, at 4 p.m. To learn more, call (805) 895-4359 or visit robinbisiodance.com.