Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Trolley Dance Tryouts: Picturing the Performance

by Joe Nalven
Every year for the past fourteen years, Jean Isaacs has championed the Trolley Dance performances in San Diego. Now, she is readying San Diego for its 15th Annual Trolley Dances.

If you haven't experienced a Trolley Dance performance, imagine being out and about in San Diego, somewhere along our trolley rail system. You are standing and waiting. Perhaps at a nearby foodstore near a trolley stop. Perhaps at a trolley stop itself. Perhaps in front of the San Diego County Administration building. So many places. AND THEN, the dance unfolds and the music helps you feast on an improbable cast of dances with an improbable choreography. One of those moveable feasts.

San Diego Trolley Dance / 2008 / At a condo pool
In 2008, I found myself at a poolside performance. An unlikely place to find a dance performance.

That is part of the magic of a San Diego kind of day.  The reverie:  'Who would have thought?'

And every year, Jean Isaacs and her cadre of choreographers and support staff start out anew. What trolley stops will feature the dance performances this year?  What local dancers will demonstrate their skills at the tryout and be selected to perform  a new and as yet unseen dance?

15th Annual Trolley Dance

September 28-29, 2013 / October 5-6, 2013

General Information /  619-225-1803 /
Media:   Toni Robin  /
Saturday Tour Times: 9:00, 9:45, 10:30, 11:15, 12:00, 12:30
Sunday Tour Times: 11:00, 11:45, 12:30, 1:15, 2:00, 2:30
Hop on board and visit 6 stop along the MTS line featuring site-specific dance.
This year we tour down town to several iconic San Diego buildings, including
the new Central Library and the Monarch School. New work to be performed
by 50 of San Diego’s most adventurous dancers!  Featuring choreography by
Jean Isaacs, Kyle Sorensen, Kate Watson-Wallace, Kim Epifano, 
and Khamla Somphanh.

Visualizing Dance as an Image
As a photographic artist, I've looked forward to these dances as a way to capture time-stop reflections - to photograph a dance.  The point of view is not from an audience watching performers on a stage, but from a place that one can pick in a dynamic situation. Sometimes, I've found myself in the middle of the dance (unexpected for me and for the dancers); sometimes I've had to skirt around a fence or column, or around others trying to find their own preferred spot. This is no easy challenge even for a street photographer who enjoys finding  the candid moment.

Warming Up / Trolley Dance Tryout
The happenstance lends itself to finding what the artist would never have imagined.  Painters have often told me, "I can paint anything I imagine."  I've responded, "But what is it you can imagine?" We all walk around with blinders and generally unaware of how those blinders limit our imagination.  One way out of the painter's dilemma is to allow the force of a social context to upset the blinders' effect. Street scenes are not totally random, and the photographer's gaze and selection is not totally random either. But the unexpected outruns the ability to anticipate when to stop the action; the camera awaits the photographer's decision to press the button.  The decisive moment is itself subject to many variables as many a photographer has discovered. (Thank you, Henri Cartier-Bresson.)

But the Trolley Dances is not simply a matter of capturing the unfolding of life. It presents a framework - part history, part choreography, part street environment, as well as the other considerations of light, how one uses one's camera, and the post-processing of the image with numerous additional possibilities of what the image might be. Becoming and becoming. 
Tne of the early photographers, who was immersed in this challenge was better known as a painter of dance and motion:  Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas.  Ultimately, the camera freed painters like himself from photorealism, but the photographic stop-motion reality was itself something to be desired.
So, the artist's goal of capturing the dance is subject to a number of decisions.
The Trolley Dances offers the artist/photographer some practical and vision challenges. This is more than "we are now in San Diego at the new library."  The choreographers set the stage and it becomes one of the givens that the photographer must work with.
Choreographer demonstrating the sense of the moment

This year I decided to engage the embryonic phase of the annual trolley dance.  Jean Isaacs allowed me to watch and photograph the tryouts.  Here, the choreographers were looking for those dancers that would work best in his or her piece.  Every dancer had to tryout - no one was guaranteed a spot.

Trolley Dance Tryout - Who will be selected?
Over 100 dancers gathered at the Truxton space in Liberty Station. I picked a place in the corner of the open space. I decided to use my digital infrared camera (best for the stop action motion capture) and a point and shoot camera with painting and panorama functions.  I allowed myself different channels from which to stop the action.

Here is a video snippet taken.  It gives more context to the rhythm of the dance, the spontaneity and unevenness of the tryout, the leadership of the choreographer in saying "this is what I will want you to do."

Possibilities and Context

Here are several images that I shot of another routine from the various sets of dancers performing this segment of the routine.  What might I capture as 2D flat art that would either take the viewer in the direction of "Aha, this captures the essence of that dance" or "Aha, that's a great composition, even tho' I have no idea of where, when or for purpose these individuals were engaged in that pose." It might be the dance itself, or it might be a flight of fancy that leaves the dance context to create something other than anyone might have thought until the image was processed.

The image below was taken from the oil painting video app immediately below it. The resulting image from the oil painting 'photo' was then post-processed in Photoshop.

The beginning of a dance / Painting app image

One benefit of attending the tryouts was that the choreographer repeated the same dance routine (a very abbreviated one) so that each of the many dancers could be evaluated. Thus, there were sets of about a dozen dancers repeating the same short session.  This allowed me to anticipate some of the movements and arrangement of dancers.  The sense of randomness was preserved since I knew more or less how the scene would evolve.  However, each set had different dancers - a point of focus that allowed me to deepen the sense of what was evolving.

The Digital Darkroom

Once I retreated to my digital darkroom - also known as Photoshop - I began a different adventure. What could I do with the source images?  I could document the tryouts or I could embellish them.

Maybe a collage?
Digital Collage
Maybe taking an image and pushing it into a painterly mode?
Painterly Mode
Or giving voice to the lights and darks of the space and dancers?
Light and Dark of Space and Dancers

Or pursuing a self-questioning about the 'goodness' of an image in an infrared versus a visible light sensibility?
The moment / infrared image
The moment / visible light image

The tryout itself became a source of visual enjoyment.  

What might the actual performances become when set at the new central library, the new mercado in Logan Heights, at the Monarch school?


  1. What these people are doing is a remarkable example of showing a holistic approach to photography and the whole art of dancing. Although many of the people that participate in these dances and tryouts may be part of different cultures, the fact that they're all doing this together as one creates their own culture. The Trolley Dance performances is definitely in particularity compared to something you see every day. The tryouts support its cultures core values. I feel that the photography definitely documents another awesome subculture of San Diego.

  2. I concur about the awesome subculture of San Diego for which we have many. I had never heard of the Trolley Dance before reading this article and the photographs paint quite the picture of what it is all about (Some literally). It is also a great thing to see when people play with the settings of their camera to get that "perfect shot" that only they can see in their minds and then bring it to everyone else. Many people thing it is just a point and click perspective, but they do not realize how many more aspects are in the pictures. I like how it was explained getting the perfect place and knowing when to shoot the photos especially with the amount of movement that is required for the Trolley Dance.

  3. I thing The Trolley Dancers are doing something amazing. They take aspects of different art and combine it in to one. They use choreography/dance with photography and everyday buildings and architect and kind of combine it in a way into one piece of art. As if they were combining the different cultures that the dancers might be from and creating their own culture within a culture. They take the simplest forms of art and create it into their own culture. I also like how you took photographs of the dancers and created even more art. The edited/Photoshop photographs shows that art has no limitations you can create it in however many different ways possible. The possibilities are limitless.

  4. I believe the trolley dancers are a highly motivated group of artists with varying abilities and a tremendous desire to suceed in their chosen endeavour.

    1. Thank you! It really means a lot to me that you feel so great about this :)

  5. I think this is great. What a fun thing to get involved in. I love to watch things like this. It was also interesting to see all the different ways the pictures could be manipulated. I really enjoyed the photo taken using the oil painting app. I cant believe this has been going on for so long and I have never heard of it. I hope this years Trolley Dance goes well. We need more of this kind of stuff.

  6. Dancing/performing has always caught my attention. The fact that they perform in unique places is quite intriguing. I love how you showed how much you can do with certain images and make them more expressive. I have never heard of the Trolley Dance before I read this article. Thank you for introducing me to a very interesting group of artists. Not only do they entertain people with their creativity, they have also educated them with a whole different culture. It is amazing what creativity, perseverance and discipline can create.

  7. In today's society it is amazing to see a group of people coming together to not only create and share the dance with themselves, family, and friends, but random strangers all around San Diego. People here are very closed to the idea of putting themselves in situations where they stand out in a crowd. Personally I love acting out the norm because its usually the other people around me who are uncomfortable.

  8. Very interesting article. All of the dance routines being photographed really shows how diverse in our cultures we are in San Diego. And all these cultures blend together to make one defined culture. It's a great connection that art can encompass dance and photography to work together. Of course you can view dance and photography separately, but this article brought them together in a way I have never thought of. When you're viewing dance by itself, it's quick; A slight graceful flailing of the arms is done and over with. But in incorporating photography, you can view images many times for as long as you need to let that moment sink in. Like in this article, you can manipulate using Photoshop to the photographs which can evoke different types of emotions and reactions.

    - Dina Chinchilla

  9. When I used to ride the often congested, mostly dilapidated trolley, I never would have imagined to witness something like this. The most entertaining thing I've seen on public transportaion usually when crackheads argue but its awesome to hear artists are conducting full-on performances. Its awesome to see how much time and energy goes into something like this. Everyone seems to take this seriously and that only translates into a better show. Maybe I'll have to switch up my commute one of these days.

  10. As a hip-hop/r&b dancer, I felt very proud of myself as I was reading this article. I liked how you captured the emotions and the action of the try-outs. It really breathes life into the overall theme. I find it very fascinating when someone is dancing, no matter what genre it may be. The "Choreographer demonstrating the sense of the moment" looks very nice and you can really get a feel of what the choreographer is trying to say; Is she excited or is she scared? On a side note, I catch myself dancing on campus sometimes and wonder what others might think when they see me practice my choreography.

  11. I think that this shows just how much culture is in San Diego and goes back to out class discussion about culture and race. I can feel the spirit of the dances from all of the picture and can tell that Ms.Isaacs puts a lot of effort into every event. I'm a strong believer that dance has no borders.

  12. I've never heard of the trolley dances in San Diego but it looks like a lot of fun! I personally would love to see people dancing on the trolley and other areas of the city as opposed to the normal trolley ride, which can be a whole different type of entertainment. It's great to see people in the dance culture of San Diego out having fun an involving others in their fun!

  13. I like the filters utilized in these videos. I can already sense the high motivation from the performers. It also expresses the diversity in arts and dance that exists throughout San Diego.

  14. I had not previously heard of the Trolley Dance performances in San Diego. However, I have seen videos in the past of similar behavior (flash mobs). I immediately compare the behavior of the performers to that of many cultures around the world who translate stories and beliefs into dance. These dances can stand the test of time and become a great way of looking into a certain cultures roots/beliefs. I entertain the idea of future people studying these dances in an attempt to better understand the early 21st century in San Diego. A.Solfrizzo

  15. This was a very intriguing article. I haven't seen it myself, but it sounds interesting to see people performing and dancing in one of many places that the trolley goes to. Dance is a beautiful form of art and such passion and feeling can be felt when watching someone perform. The pictures themselves that have been posted on this site show the passion and how hard the performers work to achieve their goal. The great thing about cameras is that it allows you to freeze a specific moment in time, in which you can view and forever look back at what defined that special moment. It's nice to combine different forms of art and culture to a performance that everyone can enjoy. I don't take the trolley much, but I'll be sure to follow up on this so I can be able to witness firsthand how amazing it is.

  16. I had never heard of the "Trolley dance" performance however, it seems very interesting. Although I m not a big fan of performing arts these images seem very interesting. I find it fascinating that the group acts as one opposed to having one standout individual to dance the performance out.

  17. After reading this article it made me want to attend a performance. The photos in the article helped shape the understandings that are involved in dance as in expression form. I am interested in viewing this one day, it just shows the different cultures that are involved in San Diego using dance. I think that the photos are a big help in understanding trolley dance and the tryouts because at first it was unclear.

  18. I've been taking trolley rides all my life, still it is interesting to find a seat with a friend and we observe the flood of bodies filling the spaces inside the metal behemoth. Maybe it's the gratifying feeling when I get a seat and feel "safe". But other times there's this profound, abstract realization that every single body aboard is disconnected to one another. Each person having his or her own life and culture that they bring with them everywhere. Yet the trolley links us together despite the detached anonymity we carry towards one another. I interpret the Trolley Dance as a reflection of this otherworldly feeling while strengthening it in a beautiful, dynamic expression of dance. Astoundingly, the photos taken illustrate our culture's timelessness while the experiences captured permeates into a viewer. It never ceases to impress me how different peoples can incorporate their individuality into a single culture in a place that is brimming with diversity.

  19. After watching some of these dancers performing, I am really looking forward to watching the trolley dances this year. As a previous dancer I enjoy all different type of interpretations of different music and I am also glad we are able to experience something so awesome and interesting here in San Diego

  20. The collaboration of two forms of art (photography and dance) is ingenious. The strength the pictures had were undeniable and the clash between movement and stillness were absolutely beautiful. You can almost hear the music through the gracefulness every picture depicts. What is most interesting about the trolley dance is that the dancers want nothing in return, nothing more that the opportunity to perform. That, itself, is amazing considering that times are changing. People are forgetting and blindly missing the beauty and essence of everything around them. The articles in this blog are great reminders of things we often tend to overlook.

  21. ******I think this is absolutely amazing, I wish there were more groups like this. I love how these photos have such a sense of warmth and relaxation. The dancers look so comfortable and careless, it's very moving. I think with the stresses of everyday life, we loose sight of the big picture. I think art is in any form is what we could all use more of, I would be super stoked to see these guys in action.*******Kimberly K.

  22. I have witnessed a trolley dance before and never really understood why people would dance around the trolley stations. I felt it portrayed an interesting subculture and it was very entertaining to see a spontaneous act. The fact that the dancers are satisfied with the joy of dancing and expect nothing in return really shows how passionate they are. Yiu dont really see people expressing themselves like that nowadays.


  23. i have never heard of trolley dance before I read this but I think it is a great way of entertainment and shows that they really love to dance. I would really enjoying watching one because it show compassion and meaning.