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Mass Movement: Trolley Dances in Riverside

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A row of people sit on metal seats built into a low wall in downtown Riverside, waiting for a bus. Some of them crane their heads to see if the bus is coming; others look bored; one cracks open a newspaper. Then a woman slowly, sinuously, slithers off her seat onto the ground. Another sits non-chalantly on the lap of the stranger beside her. Another grabs the paper from the man's hands and rips it in half. Soon the pedestrian mall is a frenzy of movement, bodies and paper flying everywhere.

This is no normal bus stop. This is a rehearsal for choreographer Julie Satow Freeman's contribution to Trolley Dances Riverside, a multi-site, site-specific performance event that comes to Riverside October 20.

Riverside is the latest stop on the Trolley Dances circuit. Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater initiated Trolley Dances in 1997 after Isaacs envisioned a series of site-specific dances along the San Diego Trolley Line. In 2004, Isaacs brought Trolley Dances to San Francisco, where it continues to be a vibrant annual event around the iconic trolleys. The James Irvine Foundation granted Isaacs funding and encouraged her to take Trolley Dances inland, where she might reach more underserved audiences, especially the Latino community. She debuted Trolley Dances in Stockton in 2011 and then set her sights on Riverside.

As in every host city, Trolley Dances Riverside features local choreographers and performers (with the exception of Jean Isaacs and her dancers who put their stamp on each new Trolley town, and guest choreographer John Pennington, director of the Pennington Dance Group and ARC Pasadena, who travels to Riverside from LA.) The three Riverside-based choreographers this year, Julie Satow Freeman, April MacLean and Rosa Rodriguez Frazier, all attended UCR, but the 26 dancers cast for the performance are drawn from several campuses in the area, as well as from the community.

"I love how Trolley is bridging different dance communities and introducing modern dance to a more mainstream audience," says Freeman.

Organizer Sue Roginski agrees. "We're bringing the Riverside dance community together," she says. "It's usually hard for studios to engage with each other when they're working so hard to make ends meet." Roginski, a dancer and choreographer, appeared in the first Trolly Dance San Francisco as a disheveled bride on Maiden Lane, a street known for its wedding shops. She writes a dance column for, and has made it a personal goal to meet a new dance artist in the Riverside area every week. "People have told me that's unreasonable," she says, "but by going around and talking to people about Trolley, I'm doing it!" She dreams about starting an online resource site for the local dance community and ultimately buying a communal dance space where a variety of artists could run workshops, rehearsals and performances.

In the meantime, Roginski and Freeman have co-founded P.L.A.C.E. Performance, a non-profit dance collective dedicated to bringing dance to non-traditional venues -- a perfect fit with the Trolley Dance ethos. P.L.A.C.E., which stands for Possibility Location Artistry Collaboration Evolving. P.L.A.C.E. is co-producing Trolley Dances Riverside along with Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater and Riverside City College Dance, in partnership with the Riverside Transit Authority.

Trolley Dances Riverside follows the RTA's Route 1 bus line. After viewing Freeman's choreography outside the Culver Center for the Arts, audience members will board the trolley and travel to the space between the Math & Science and Nursing buildings at Riverside City College, where dancers will perform April MacLean's work. Next, the trolley heads back downtown, where John Pennington's ensemble will perform under the breezeway at City Hall. The trolley will then carry the audience to the University Village shopping center near UC Riverside for Rosa Rodriguez Frazier's piece, before it loops back to the Main Terminal downtown where the audience will disembark and walk to the grounds of Tio's Tacos to view the final dance of the evening, choreographed by Trolley Dances founder, Jean Isaacs.

"We're making dance accessible," says Freeman. "Ten dollars for a trolley ride and five dances is a great deal." Two trolleys will run at a time to minimize crowding, with tours beginning at 11am, noon, 1, 2 and 3pm.

The dancers are excited to bring modern dance to a wider audience; they're also excited to see how each audience will impact their performance.

"When you're doing work like this, anything can happen," says dancer Megan Fowler during a break in rehearsal. "It's new and fresh every single time, not just for the audience, but for the performers, and that creates this really nice exchange."

Dancer Tracy Tom-Hoon agrees. "I love the unpredictability of it."

The people milling around the pedestrian mall help illustrate the improvisational nature of site-specific performance. A scruffy-haired man in a Las Vegas Bail Bonds shirt grills Freeman about her iPad as she uses it to record the rehearsal, and he tries to talk to the dancers while they're in the middle of the choreography. Later, a woman who has been sitting under a tree wanders over and slurs "If someone gets sick, lemme know. I can do that. I can do alla that." The dancers roll with it as gracefully as they roll over one another on the concrete.

The choreographers have had to be equally flexible. Permitting issues led to a couple of late site changes, forcing choreographers to scramble to figure out how to engage with the new spaces.

"They've had to look at things in a new way," says Roginski, "but that's what we want to do with Trolley--help people see Riverside, and see dance in Riverside, in a whole new way, too."

Trolley Dances Riverside
3834 Main Street, Riverside, CA 92501
Saturday, October 20 at 11 a.m., noon, 1, 2 and 3 p.m.
Admission: $10.00, includes performance and Trolley pass

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