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Flyaway Celebrates Women Laborers In Performace
Date 09/07/03/15:46

"The Ballad of Polly Ann"

FIVE YEARS ago, as local dancer/choreographer Jo Kreiter rocked her baby while gazing out her window at the Bay Bridge and listening to Bruce Springsteen's folk album, "The Seeger Sessions," she was struck by a particular line in the traditional American song "John Henry": "Polly drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord/Polly drove that steel like a man."

Kreiter had been searching for a story about women laborers--something new, not Rosie the Riveter--for Flyaway Productions, her award-winning, apparatus-based dance company that uses spinning, flying and suspension to illuminate social and political issues.

She'd also been hording a 2004 calendar featuring photos--taken by labor photographer Joseph A. Blum--of women workers who recently helped build the new Carquinez Bridge in the East Bay, now renamed the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge.

"It was something about the quiet state I was in," says Kreiter, "that those three things found the right confluence in my brain." She decided to create a dance about women bridge builders.

Since Kreiter founded Flyaway in 1996, the company has danced on three-story fire escapes, chandeliers, a crane and a billboard--to name just a few of its offbeat sites--so her first thought was to dance on the bridge itself, or under it or on part of it, but she quickly realized she'd never get official permission for that. The most feasible scenario was to build aspects of a bridge to scale, with the ceiling of SOMArts, the performing venue, as structural support. The resulting apparatus includes a six-by-eight-foot structure featuring a heavy "hanging deck," or road, which is mechanically lowered and raised, with dancers sometimes 20 to 40 feet off the ground, sometimes just a foot off the ground, sometimes grounded.

Kreiter made several vital connections to bring the project to fruition as part of July's LaborFest. One was to partner with Tradeswomen, Inc., which matched her up with five women bridge workers of various ages, ethnicities and skill sets. Another was with San Francisco labor historian Harvey Schwartz, curator of the ILWU Library's Oral History Collection. Yet another was to commission experimental composer and audio artist Pamela Z to create a soundscore.

"We're working with new apparatus, and when that happens, there's a long period of research and investigation," reports Kreiter, six weeks before the opening. "What can the body do with these suspended objects? You get tired; you use the same muscle groups over and over. It's more arduous than working on the ground…. You get hit in the head and shoulder, your arms get twisted … We're nearly through that process now and onto the subtlety of layering emotional content into the images."

As historian Schwartz discovered when interviewing the women for "The Ballad

of Polly Ann"--an ironworker, a pile driver, a general laborer, a carpenter and a crane operator, plus pioneer pile driver Heather Gher, whom Schwartz had interviewed previously--their stories don't lack for emotional content. Starting in the 1970s, women (some of these and others like them) made the first major, post-World War II inroads into the trades and faced male hostility; one interviewee said that when she first started, a male co-worker urinated in her lunch bucket. "Everybody's got a story about the danger, the men, the work," says Schwartz. "It can be a rough-and-tumble workplace.

It requires strength, skill, getting dirty."

"It's quite a crowd--tomboy women, tough women, a great range, really fun," says Kreiter, who introduced workers and dancers to one another. "The oral histories drove the piece completely." The dance has 10 sections, each either inspired by a narrative story or by a description of a working process. For example, Kreiter and dancer Alayna Stroud created a solo--"so risky and so emotional," says Kreiter--after listening to crane operator Kristi Tuemmler's description of her fear of the crane tipping over, and the responsibility of keeping everyone alive.

Not every section is that dramatic. Kreiter and dancer Melissa Caywood created a solo around a wallet, a tiny but significant object that represents the first time a woman received "man pay"--equal pay for equal work. "That wallet weighs less than a pound, so that piece has less spectacle in it than the big hanging road, but to me they're all equally important," says Kreiter.

For Pamela Z, who, like Schwartz, has worked with Kreiter previously, the collaboration is appealingly quirky. "Her work is really political, which is interesting, because my work is usually not," Z says. "But I work a lot with text, and I'm as interested in the sound of language as in the meaning." Z and Kreiter create independently of each other--Kreiter usually choreographs without music--and when Z shows up with her score, miraculously, with a little tweaking, it all fits together.

For "Polly Ann," Kreiter gave Z the tapes Schwartz had made, and Z started sampling some of the phrases. For one section, to re-create the sound of scary, heavy machinery described by Tuemmler, Z recorded the freight elevator in her Mission District live-work space and added it to the layered mix. Kreiter also asked her to write a ballad of steel-drivin' Polly Ann, described in the song as John Henry's "woman." "Pamela's not a folksong writer, so I know she's going to do something I can't even imagine," says Kreiter. "Whatever she does will push the choreography in a way I can't anticipate, and I love that."

"What I'm thinking about a lot," says Z, "is industrialness, because it's about these massive structures being built by human hands--awesome heights, dangerous equipment and emotional content; the isolation these women felt, the way they were mistreated by male co-workers, and overcoming that." Those ideas are influencing her during the composition process more than the fact that the work is apparatus-based.

Does Kreiter feel an affinity for these tradeswomen who are not performers but who share some of her and her dancers' physical attributes--strength, adventurousness,fearlessness? "That was one of the things that drew me to the project," says Kreiter. "As dancers and tradeswomen, we both have a really defined kind of physical strength to do what we do. We also--not all of the women, but some--have a love of heights, a love of being outdoors and exposed in that environment. We have a whole solo around the rush that gives you.

"But there are places where we diverge. We work in a female-dominated form and are not subject to ongoing harassment like they are." As Schwartz observes of the bridge-building women, "They know they're part of a labor force that has to fight for its place in the sun."

"The Ballad of Polly Ann" runs July 14-25, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in
conjunction with LaborFest, SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St. (800) 838-3006.

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