Museums, music & more: Besties arts: a winning year in local culture for 2023

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday October 24, 2023
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Katrina Lauren McGraw as Glinda in A.C.T.'s 'The Wizard of Oz.' (photo: Kevin Berne)
Katrina Lauren McGraw as Glinda in A.C.T.'s 'The Wizard of Oz.' (photo: Kevin Berne)

Almost all of the grumpy national news about San Francisco forgets to mention the fantastic array of arts institutions that the folks who live here get to enjoy. Bay Area Reporter readers know better, making regular use of our print features and online arts calendar to explore dozens of enriching opportunities every week, and then speaking their minds in the Besties once a year. Here's what they have to say this go-round.

A.C.T.'s "Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical" (photo: Kevin Berne)  

Best Theatre Company: American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.)
Runners up: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre Center
A.C.T. produced a remarkable variety of work this year, starting with local playwright Christopher Chen's film noir-influenced "The Headlands" and moving on to the anxiously awaited "Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2," a dizzily different "Wizard of Oz," and the exultant Broadway-bound "Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical." None of these shows was perfect, but all of them were fascinating. Every one of them benefitted from a brilliant syncing of script and set design.

ODC Dance (photo: ODC Dance)  

Best Modern Dance Company: ODC Dance
Runners up: Sean Dorsey Dance, Joe Goode Performance Group
Highlighted by the premiere of founder Brenda Way's "Collision Collapse and a Coda," which offers the solace to be found in personal relationships during times of distressing global upheaval, ODC Dance's 2023 found the company's Mission campus becoming an ever-more important hub for San Francisco's dance community as a whole. Runners-up Sean Dorsey and Joe Goode also offered communal balms in their profound and uplifting works centered on trans and elder folks.

San Francisco Ballet (photo: Erik Tomasson)  

Best Ballet Dance Company: San Francisco Ballet
Runners up: Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Oakland Ballet
The SF Ballet ushered in its 90th season with its diverse and ambitious next @ 90 festival of nine world premieres, including works by two gay choreographers, Val Caniparoli and Nicolas Blanc.

In addition to sterling productions of the classic "Giselle," "Cinderella," and "Romeo and Juliet," the season's included stunning contemporary pieces, including the stage premiere of Myles Thacher's "Colorforms," first created as a dance film during the pandemic; and William Forsythe's suite set to songs by avant-pop recording artist James Blake.

Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco (photo: Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco)  

Best Ethnic/International Dance Company: Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco
Runners up: Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, Likha Pilipino Folk Ensemble
In a triumphant return after three painful years of pandemic dormancy, Theatre Flamenco took the stage of the Herbst Theater this past May with a thrilling evening-length debut inspired by artistic director Carola Zertuche's visit to the Jordanian desert Wadi Rum. Featuring an innovative hybrid of traditional flamenco with electronic music, "Transitar por un Mundo sin Tiempo" set a high bar for bringing fresh perspectives to enduring art forms.

Just weeks after the premiere of "Ritual," by hula company Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, its artistic director Patrick Makuakane, a gay man, was named a 2023 MacArthur Fellow, a stunning achievement that should help the company further build its devoted local following.

Fox Theatre, Oakland (photo: Fox Theatre Instagram)  

Best Live Music Venue: Fox Theatre, Oakland
Runners up: The Fillmore, SF Jazz
Going to see a show at the Fox always feels like a special event. Beyond the opportunity to enjoy a favorite band with great sound and sightlines, there's the grandeur of the 1928 hall itself, a fantastic amalgam of Indian, Moorish, and Ali Baban design flourishes that underwent a $75 million restoration in 2009.

Nota bene kvetchy queers: the glorious Fox is operated and lovingly tended to by Another Planet Entertainment, who, following all-to-much rigamarole, are now at the helm of our beloved Castro Theatre. For some glittery gay vibes, hit the Oakland landmark on November 17, when queer wunderkind Jake Wesley Rogers returns to the Bay Area to open for Kesha.

El Rio (photo: Steven Underhill)  

Best Small Music Venue: El Rio
Runners up: Café du Nord, The New Parish
Who doesn't love El Rio? For queerdo dancing with crazy drag and killer DJs, the Mission staple can't be beat. But we want to throw some extra love at first runner-up Café du Nord, because a category misnomer distracted from our goal of celebrating small spots to hear live music.

Sure, El Rio hosts the occasional live gig from the likes of Fatty Cakes and the Puff Pastries; but night after night, Café du Nord presents an eclectic array of concerts that run from electronica to Americana to hip-hop to straight-up rock in their intimate subterranean digs. Not to miss on the upcoming CDN schedule: Two nights with the irresistibly artsy-fartsy Lemon Twigs on December 11 and 12.

Davies Symphony Hall (photo: Drew Altizer)  

Best Classical Music Venue: Davies Symphony Hall
Runners up: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, War Memorial Opera House
No surprises here, but make note of a few upcoming shows. At Davies on November 29, Broadway's Audra McDonald joins the San Francisco Symphony; on December 15, the orchestra's "Holiday Gaiety" guests include Bianca del Rio, Dylan Mulvaney and the boys from Baloney. At the SF Conservatory, there's a regular slate of free first-class recitals, the city's best ongoing arts bargain. And at the War Memorial Opera House, 2023 Pulitzer-winning opera "Omar" by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels plays six performances in November.

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus (photo: Stefan Cohen)  

Best Choral Group: San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus
Runners up: Queer Chorus of San Francisco, Chanticleer
The SF Gay Men's Chorus began a successful new chapter this year under the leadership of conductor/artistic director Jacob Stensberg. Their holiday spectacular concert will tour the Bay Area in December, with shows in Sonoma and Berkeley as well as the Sydney Goldstein and Castro Theatres in the city.

The year ahead will feature programs built around movie music and love songs, not to mention the chorus' development campaign for a new headquarters at the Pansy L. Chan and Terrence D. Chan National Queer Arts Center

Kehinde Wiley's "An Archaeology of Silence," at the de Young Museum  

Best Art Museum: de Young Museum
Runners up: SFMOMA, GLBT Historical Society Museum
"An Archaeology of Silence," the heartbreaking yet awe-inspiring exhibition of sculpture and painting by Black gay artist Kehinde Wiley, was without a doubt the highlight of the deYoung's offerings this year. Through January 7, the second triennial DeYoung Open showcases 883 works by Bay Area artists chosen from submissions to an open call. And next spring brings a major retrospective of Irving Penn's influential 20th-century photography.

While not exactly an art-centric institution, it's great to see the outpouring of voter support for the GLBT Historical Society Museum, which is currently featuring an exhibit on legendary San Francisco queen Doris Fish and the social impact of drag.

And then there's SFMOMA, which is currently promoting "Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Love" as if it's a sprawling blockbuster. Gallery-goers beware: You will stand in line for considerably longer than the six minutes you'll then be permitted to spend with the exhibit's two Insta-bait installations and the sparse information accompanying them. It's an anti-intellectual fiasco, deceptively marketed.

California Academy of Sciences  

Best Nature/Science Museum: California Academy of Sciences
Runners up: Exploratorium, San Francisco Botanical Garden
Pro tip: One of these institutions is not like the others. Which is to say that, since 2022, the San Francisco Botanical Garden has offered free admission to city residents every day. Meanwhile, the California Academy of Sciences and the Exploratorium remain generally pricey propositions, with adult ticket starting at around $36. But you do get to see giant dinosaurs, and both venues host frequent 21+ and also kid-friendly events.

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