DANCE FESTIVAL : A Shore Thing : Low tide will mark an artistic high point as multimedia events and installations take over a Santa Barbara beach.

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This weekend, well past the tourist season, Santa Barbara beach-goers expecting the uncluttered expanse of sand at low tide might be caught unawares by Henry Childs' enormous, sinewy sculptures that seem to wriggle in the water, at the shoreline, and in the sand.

Towering like fanciful symbols of our primeval forebears above the high-spirited crowd gathered at the beach, the scene will be anything but a conventional low tide.

Many of us, of course, would probably write off low tide on principle, equating it on some metaphorical level with a bottoming out of the creative impulse.

But for environmental choreographer Robin Bisio, September's low tide presents a chance to explore artistic possibilities. For the last four years, she's been the official director and unofficial nurturing presence behind the Fifth Annual Outdoor Dance Festival.

This year's event includes an original multimedia "Sea Opera," as well as the 100-participant "Coastal Project," melding dance, poetry and the visual arts. Once again, the festival reclaims the tide pools at Santa Barbara's Leadbetter Beach.

Bisio originally founded the festival out of a fundamental fascination with the ocean and a desire to incorporate it into her art.

After watching a local dance performance in a conventional studio, Bisio was overheard to say, "I'll never work inside again." She laughs at the reminder, quickly pointing out that she never meant it as criticism.

"I keep setting my work in places up and down the coast, but it's a real tough challenge, much tougher than people realize," she said. "Conventional theater seems very easy to me in comparison. I guess what I do is about having something to say in the world--speaking for the land in dance. There's the pull of the sea, the pull of my own neighborhood--I live just across the street from the shoreline. In a way it's the pull of the place I've chosen to live, and I guess others who've made that same choice relate to it in some way."

In fact, the free event has grown far beyond the confines of its original concept as a small-scale outdoor dance performance. Last year more than 2,000 are estimated to have attended.

Even more are expected at this year's festival, which will involve more than 100 artists in performances and installations, including 22 visual artists, 15 dance groups, and a contingent of poets reading environmental verse led by Cynthia Anderson and Perie Longo.

Bisio is proud of the anticipated turnout, and of the involvement of the artists.

"So many artists participate in the 'Coastal Project,' and they do a really good job," she said. "It's very exciting to see artists taking the beach at our invitation--it's astonishing when I come down here and see what people have done."

Themes of the sea and nature help unify--loosely--the various presentations. This year's program will include the Santa Barbara Chamber Ballet, as well as multicultural works ranging from the Chumash Dolphin Dancers to hula dancing from Punahele o' Polynesia.

In a less traditional vein will be a collaboration between the dance troupe Improv Inc. and Santa Barbara City College sculpture instructor Ed Inks in what Bisio describes as a "rolling down to the sea installation involving an enormous mound of sand," to be constructed by Inks and his students. Another collaboration will join SBCC sculptor Wayne Krueger and choreographer Jacqui Coleman in a piece based on time.

UC Santa Barbara will be represented by its new Santa Barbara Dance Theatre, and by sculpture instructor Hiro Fukawa's class project, creating the ornamentation for his 10 arcs of steel rods. Mari Hulick, also from UCSB, will be creating an elaborate mosaic in the sand.

And watch out for performance artist Nadja Forest, who will roam the beach in the guise of a bag lady. But the centerpiece of this year's festival will be the ambitious "Sea Opera" Bisio herself has created in collaboration with six choreographers, using composer Michael Mortilla's original score for live chimes, flute and voice, and sculptor Henry Childs' suggestively organic shapes, which will preside over the entire festival. The one-hour piece will premiere on Saturday at 3 p.m. and close the festival Sunday at 4 p.m.

The opera, which examines our complex relationship to the sea from a feminine (i.e., psychological) rather than feminist (ideological) perspective, was conceived at the outset as environmental performance. The work extends throughout the roughly 60,000 square feet of triangular shoreline.

In commissioning the various sequences of "Sea Opera," Bisio tried to give her collaborators a free rein.

"I told the various people to come down to this particular beach and find out what the sea had to say to them, and we worked from there," she said.

It's an approach that shouldn't be mistaken for a free-for-all, Bisio points out. A great deal of work was spent in the integration stage.

"My job came in after I'd seen what people did and then put it together--made up a skeleton that people could sense as a whole."

To tie the diverse elements together, Bisio uses a long poem, Pablo Neruda's "Strangers on the Shore."

Surveying the work-in-progress at a recent rehearsal, Bisio was cautious but optimistic about keeping control over the far-flung parts of her opera.

"I hope it comes together," she said. "It's magic when it works. To me it's the way dance was meant to be--more in awe and in homage to nature."

* WHERE AND WHEN

The fifth Santa Barbara Outdoor Dance Festival will be held at Leadbetter Beach Saturday and Sunday. The "Sea Opera" will be performed twice, Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m, and the "Coastal Project" will be presented Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. All shows are free. Call 962-6945.

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