Dancing Back to Life

Site-specific performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company spotlights redevelopment progress in Richmond.

The city of Richmond hasn’t garnered much national attention since the days of Rosie the Riveter — at least not the kind it wants. While media focus on the high crime rate has soured perceptions of the city, recent milestones in the revitalization of this Bay Area linchpin have gone largely unnoticed. An unprecedented performance by the celebrated Merce Cunningham Dance Company on Sunday, November 9 in a converted factory on the city’s south side may help change that. The 517,000 square-foot site is known as Ford Point, and it’s one of the most promising signs that renewal efforts in Richmond — once a national destination for the arts — may be taking hold.

Home to the largest auto assembly plant on the West Coast during the 1930s, Ford Point sits on a spit of land where Harbour Way emerges from Richmond’s Iron Triangle and dead-ends into San Francisco Bay. At the west end of the sprawling brick development lies a hangar-like space where Cunningham’s 14-member company will make modern dance history in Craneway Event, a one-day-only performance created specifically for the site. A giant crane used for hoisting cars to an adjacent railway once occupied the room, which has since been converted to an events center by owner Orton Development of Emeryville. President Eddie Orton is a former board member at Cal Performances, the presenting organization at UC Berkeley that’s producing the event. When Ford Point was still under renovation, Orton invited Cal Performances Director Robert Cole to see the Craneway. “I immediately thought of Merce,” says Cole. Cunningham’s penchant for unusual performance spaces sparked the connection. In addition to nearly 200 works for the stage, the choreographer has made dances for sites ranging from train stations to galleries, beaches to ancient amphitheaters.

Cole arranged for Cunningham — now 89 and confined to a wheelchair — to visit Ford Point earlier this year. Also present was visual artist Tacita Dean, who will film the creation of the piece and present the finished work to Cunningham on his 90th birthday in April. “Merce and Tacita both were totally taken with the space — and the location — which is just wonderful with views of the bay all around,” says Cole. Hundreds of windows line the walls on three sides of the Craneway, designed by renowned industrial architect Albert Kahn to flood the original factory floor with sunlight. No doubt the sweeping vista of San Francisco will compete for audiences’ attention Sunday, but this isn’t likely to concern Cunningham. The iconoclastic choreographer is famous for giving his audience choices, sometimes extending to the movement material the dancers perform and the musical accompaniment. Viewers won’t weigh in on the sound score, which will include both composed works and improvisation performed live, but they are invited to wander among three stages erected for the dancers so as to view the piece from different angles. The performance will also make use of Cunningham’s signature chance techniques, which have influenced the way an entire generation of modern dance artists thinks about dance as a performance art.

Ford Point made its own lasting mark on a generation during WWII. When the war broke out, the Richmond plant was converted to one of three main tank depots in the country. Thousands of workers streamed to the site, which mass produced Jeeps and other armored vehicles bound for the Pacific Theater. After the war, the plant returned to making civilian autos, but eventually outgrew the site. In 1955 Ford sold it to UC Berkeley, which used it as a book depository for the next two decades. During that time, the building deteriorated alongside much of Richmond’s infrastructure as industry pulled out of the city. When the Richmond Redevelopment Agency bought the space in 1975, it had a hard time attracting business and eventually invited bids from private developers. Orton finally beat out its competition in 2004 after several failed attempts.

Today the development houses a mix of industrial, retail, restaurant, and residential tenants, including the solar technology giant SunPower. Plans are underway for relocating the visitor center for the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park into the Craneway, although stalled funding has delayed the move. A shuttle now runs between Ford Point and the Richmond BART Station, and Orton hopes to reinstate ferry service to San Francisco within the next two years. Beyond these contributions to Richmond’s infrastructure, however, Ford Point stands to impact the city in a more important way. “People from all over the world are flying out to see this,” says Craneway Manager James Madsen of the Cunningham event, “and it’s changing people’s perception of Richmond.”

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