Dancer Andrew Wass as Joshua Norton


If you find yourself intrigued by your neighborhood crazy—you know, the one who sips espresso dressed as a pirate, or the 12 Galaxies guy who attends every street fair in the city holding his nonsensical picket sign—ODC’s show on Saturday and Sunday is for you.

The Improbable Reign of Norton I, Emperor of the United States is a dance theater piece that explores the tumultuous lives of San Francisco eccentrics of the 1800s, reminding us that edgy oddballs have always been a part of our city’s unique culture.

“Those characters who are borderline crazy and borderline genius have a place here in the San Francisco community,” said Norton‘s choreographer Catherine Galasso.

Premiering this Friday at ODC, the piece centers on Joshua Norton, a beloved pillar of the San Francisco community during the 1800s who went insane and declared himself  “Emperor of the United States.” The piece is an abstract interpretation of what his life would’ve resembled surrounded by four other eccentrics from the same time period—Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance and a violent drunk; Joaquin Murrieta, the Latino Robinhood; Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who dressed as a man, was a volunteer firefighter and is responsible for Coit Tower; and Frederick Coombs, who resembled George Washington so much that he adopted the persona—wig and all.

A Mission District resident, Galasso did most of the research for the characters using books from the Mission Library. But rest assured, this performance piece is no history lesson and offers only a minimal amount of narration. Although it’s not critical to the enjoyment of the piece, it is recommended that you become familiar with the characters by looking at the show’s blog.

Trained in documentary film, theater and modern dance, Galasso has found a way to capture the awkward and sometimes frantic movements of eccentrics. The choreography involves five dancers walking in circles and talking to themselves as they are struck by spasms, twitches, nervousness, and bursts of shouting. The movements are so unrestrained it has a sense of not being a dance show at all.

The heart of the performance lies in the emotion the dancers’ facial expressions evoke. During rehearsals, they practiced repeatedly in front of mirrors. Practice works. Their ability to pull us into the feelings of shock, fear, desperation, and pleasure makes the viewer identify with even the most avant-garde characters.

Galasso hopes her unique style will make the piece accessible to an audience that is usually turned off by traditional elements of modern dance.

The show is 45 minutes of unconventional entertainment that will leave you wanting to know more about your city and the people within it.

The Improbable Reign of Norton I, Emperor of the United States
Sat., May 9, 8pm; and Sun., May 10, 7pm. $15-$18. ODC Dance Commons, 351 Shotwell St. 415.863.9834.

The Improbable Reign of Norton I, Trailer 2009 from Catherine Galasso on Vimeo.

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