When does a trolley station transform into performance art?

Once a year the San Diego Dance Theater stages pieces in and around different stations in partnership with the MTS. The San Diego Dance Theater calls the event, “A one-of-kind ride to see site-specific dance.” Last Sunday, in the midst of the first performance, Chargers sports fans on the way to a Sunday afternoon game, wandered in and out of the station, looking baffled at the music and movement. It was an inspired juxtaposition that has been going on since 1999.

Trolley Dances is nothing like the flash mobs that have been sprouting up in public spaces around the world. This year, the thirteenth of the event, over 50 dancers from both sides of the border have worked tirelessly for months to conquer uneven floors, rough ledges and unexpected changes. Founder and artistic director Jean Isaacs, John Diaz, New York’s Paz Tanjuaquio, UCSD’s Allyson Green and Tijuana’s, Minerva Tapia, chose to choreograph around six stops beginning at the Grantville Station.

Grantville Trolley Dance

Photo Dave Rudie

Wildly colored, the opening dance troupe began Present Junction and beckoned the audience to follow them as they climbed, spun and ran around the station. It was demanding and a bit scattered, but a great introduction to site specific performance.

As the audience turned towards the center of the station, the familiar beat of Dave Brubeck’s, Take Five, was cut with subway rumblings and sirens. The troupe began Parallel Groove for 8 dressed in red and black.

Trolley Dances

Photo Dave Rudie

Long red straps descended from upstairs platforms and were stretched to dissect the central courtyard. The dancers echoed the diagonal lines with their syncopated movements.

After a quick applause, flag bearing guides hustled the crowd upstairs to catch the next trolley. At the cavernous SDSU metro stop, the group filed out into the sunshine to stand on an overpass overlooking a deeply stepped amphitheater. On the opposite side of the space, silent and still, a tight knit group of dancers stood. Each was wearing a bright orange shirt and yellow construction helmet.

Trolley dances

Photo Dave Rudie

Sharply choreographed to a score reminiscent of Bolero, the group moved in crisp unison in and around the space. The music built to a crescendo until the dancers, in small groups, then singly slipped to the asphalt and laid still.

The final dances were at the end of the trolley line in Santee. It was a long ride and the audience enthusiasm cooled as unfortunately, the fourth performance had suffered an impromptu change of venue. The audience shared rumors that the  Toyota of El Cajon showroom was none too happy with the earlier premier crowd and had withdrawn their site permission just the day before.

At the Santee Trolley square Town Center, the audience followed the flag bearers into an empty storefront. Facing a long stainless steel counter, The International Cooking School performance began.

Trolley dances international cooking school

Photo Elaine Masters

As much theater as dance, each performer embodied a different foodie aesthetic and the space was soon full of delighted laughter as the ‘cooks’ spoke of their preferences in short bursts, spun and then wrestled in, on and around the space.

Afterwards the hungry crowd wandered out and across the trolley tracks to a vacant cul de sac where a small group of dancers waited. The Last Stop was a “collage of themes and text from TV and Film Westerns.” The sky became apart of the dance, its unimpeded blue bowed over the performance and was acknowledged by one performer who ran into the brush across the street to emerge dressed as a white airplane wheeling along the edge of the road.

Bus stop Trolley Dances

Photo Elaine Masters

Dancers transformed into different characters, mimicked lyrics and interacted with the audience. At one point a family of bicyclists unwittingly became part of the performance as they sped along the sidewalk on their way to the mall.

The final dance, Sandieguito 30-125 rescheduled from the El Cajon space, didn’t disappoint and revolved around the experience of riding mass transit. Each of the dancers slipped in and out of poses as they dodged spouting water on a circular platform, twirled into the seating area to join the observers and worked several wheeled props.

Their actions mirrored the boredom and diversions transit riders often fall prey too. The audience was anything but bored and applauded vigorously for the spirited troupe who conquered the change of venue masterfully and pointed the way back to the trolley.

Trolley Dances

Photo Elaine Masters

The dances repeat the weekend of October 1st. If you miss those, new opportunities are planned for the future when the the San Diego Dance Theater’s Trolley Dances is modeling  similar events in San Francisco, Stockton and Riverside.

Elaine Masters, 2011

Travel writer, Yoga teacher and Trip Wellness Specialist