When Art + Soul was founded by executive producer Samee Roberts fifteen years ago, the then-humble festival that is now an Oakland summer staple featured one small stage dedicated to dance. Still, it was a novelty that a music festival should have a full stage solely intended to showcase the eclectic movement arts of the East Bay. Since then, the festival's commitment to highlighting dance has grown along with every other aspect of the weekend-long gathering. This year, the festival (which is co-sponsored by the Express) will take place in its usual location on and around Clay Street between 16th and 11th Streets in downtown Oakland on August 1 and 2, and will offer the most dance performances to date. Aside from the main music stages featuring headliners such as Sheila E. and Lenny Williams, three stages will host ongoing dance acts — one of them on the face of City Hall.
Carla Service of Oakland's Dance-A-Vision, a longtime merger of the East Bay's diverse dance communities, curated the dance stage for the first Art + Soul festival, and has been doing so ever since. Each year, her program differs a little from the last, but it's always colorfully well rounded. This weekend, Service's "Oakland! Let's Dance Stage," will feature a range of styles that represent the sprawling East Bay dance landscape, including traditional Mien dance, Lindy Hop, Congalese, and hip-hop. Those performances will take place in front of City Hall between 12:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. on Sunday.
On Saturday, the popular YAK to the Bay dance battle will take over Frank Ogawa Plaza, offering a $1,000 prize to the dancer with the best chops. The competition is organized by YAK Films, a local production company that focuses on filming turf dancers and has played a crucial role in putting the Oakland dance form on the national stage. This year will be its second appearance at Art + Soul. Teeming with energy, the "all styles" dance battle rejects a traditional stage, and instead uses the floor of the plaza's amphitheater, with a circular crowd cheering the dancers on from above. The rousing competition pays homage to the roots of YAK Films and the styles of dance being shown off, such as turf dancing, b-boying, animation dance, and waacking. "We appreciate the battle format because it's the way YAK came up in the dance scene worldwide, by filming dance competitions, big and small, over the years," said YAK Films co-founder Yoram Savion, in an email. "We believe it is a valuable experience within hip-hop culture for young people to come together, share, and compete in a healthy and safe environment."
Last year's thrilling finale featured the tall and limber Krow and Intricate versus the tiny but awesomely talented Dem Bague Boyz, two brothers who looked to be about nine years old at the time. On Saturday, eight dancers from the public will be chosen in the preliminary battle starting at 12:30 p.m. Those winners will then take on the invited dancers — Krow, Bboy JamX, Eninja and Johnny5 among them — at 3:30 p.m.
Between dance battles, audiences will have the chance to tilt their chins up to see Bandaloop performing another Oakland-grown but drastically different type of dance at 3 p.m. Bandaloop, which is based in West Oakland, is internationally famous for its unique aerial dancing in which performers in harnesses leap and flip from the sides of buildings while suspended horizontally. For this year's Art + Soul, they'll be spinning off the face of City Hall, performing three full pieces from five stories up. Until recently, Bandaloop has been better known in big cities across the globe than in Oakland because the company is constantly traveling internationally. But within the last year, Bandaloop has been strengthening its local ties by building partnerships with events such as Art + Soul. "We're really making an investment in both teaching and performing locally and sharing our space here in Oakland," said founder and artistic director Amelia Rudolph in a recent interview. "We're trying to make a really concerted effort to affirm our presence here and share what we do with people here." Bandaloop performed at Art + Soul for the first time last year, but this year's performance will be nearly twice as long. Bandaloop will likely continue to be a part of Art + Soul for years to come, said Rudolph.