Trolley Dances: Jean Isaacs Turns A Trolley Ride into A Dance Adventure

By Eitland, Kris | TheatreForum, Summer/Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Trolley Dances: Jean Isaacs Turns A Trolley Ride into A Dance Adventure


Eitland, Kris, TheatreForum


It was necessity and desperation that led Jean Isaacs to create Trolley Dances. As the director of San Diego Dance Theater she conceived an annual production of unpredictable site-specific work set in unexpected urban places.

Those urban places are diverse neighborhoods in the San Diego area connected by a 50-mile trolley system. Over the past 10 years, Isaacs has invited cutting edge choreographers to set work in unlikely places along the trolley lines from fountains to freeway underpasses. Each year Trolley Dances showcases about 50 dancers and attracts thousands of paid viewers and passersby.

Isaacs's necessity and desperation followed 12 successful years in the company Isaacs-McCaleb. Isaacs and Nancy McCaleb parted ways. They split up in the middle of a season and each adopted a non-profit company. McCaleb took over a group of musicians. Isaacs took control of San Diego Dance Theater from fellow dancer and long time friend George Willis (Isaacs). But there was a catch: to get public funds, a non-profit has to be running for three years. Despite her lengthy track record, Isaacs says the City, County, and State told her "to start over."

We could still get private donations, but we couldn't get any public money. I needed to keep producing work, and I thought of Trolley Dances; what really kills you in our business are the theatre and tech costs. I knew if I could avoid all that, we could make it work and I'd always wanted to do site-specific work. That's really where it started.

Isaacs was further inspired by a little white bus. "I'd spent a lot of time teaching in Bern, Switzerland," she said, "and some friends were part of this unusual tour. They had this little white tour bus for the city of Bern. Official guides, dressed formally with little hats and gloves, would take about 30 people on a tour of the city. They'd often have an actor hiding amongst the crowd who'd start doing very strange things!"

The bus drove all over the city. The guides directed people into various places and never hinted at what the people might see. "One time we crammed into this 400-year-old apartment," Isaacs said, "and dancers hanging from the ceiling made crêpes. Everybody got a fresh crêpe. We went on a rooftop to see a man and woman dancing to a very weird sound, like a cow mooing, bellowing." The authence laughed and total strangers interacted with each other. Moreover, the crowd marveled at the wondrous places they'd discovered. Isaacs was smitten. "That tour helped me discover different neighborhoods that I'd never known," Isaacs exclaimed, "and hey, one time we went to a nudist colony!"

She was determined to try a similar production in San Diego, not on a bus, but on a red trolley. The San Diego trolley system was a fairly new installation and she wanted to make a positive statement about public transportation. Secretly, she thought if she increased awareness and the number of riders, perhaps they'd extend a trolley line to her neighborhood. (Ironically, the trolley still doesn't come anywhere near her home.) San Diego's Metropolitan Transit Development Board wanted to promote its new system, so after several meetings, Trolley Dances was born.

The first Trolley Dances snaked through the busy corridor of Mission Valley filled with shopping malls and hotels. It was 1999. Cell phones and walkie-talkies were not readily available so communication was patchy. Isaacs and her team hadn't worked out all of the kinks. "We were so ambitious!" Isaacs laughed. "We started at Qualcomm Stadium and had some very cool dances, but we forgot that people had to come back! We didn't plan it as a round trip. Our tour guides never made it back for the next tour!" Back at the starting point, Isaacs and other coordinators frantically recruited innocent friends to fill in as guides, even though they didn't know where to lead the tour. That first year was hard on the dancers too. They performed 26 times in two days. …

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