The 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco is one of the defining events in California's cultural history -- magnifying the sense that we're all living on the edge. But as the 100th anniversary approaches, on April 18, we're struggling with the difference between commemoration and celebration.
In San Francisco and throughout the Bay Area, performances, exhibits and other public events are tackling the disaster and recovery from many points of view. Some are somber, while others veer toward entertainment.
"There is literally an explosion of events and exhibitions," says Stephen Becker, executive director of the California Historical Society. He's involved in two of them: an exhibit of Jack London's disaster photographs and writings, and a concert that will recall opera singer Enrico Caruso's performance the night before the 1906 quake.
The Contra Costa Wind Symphony will premiere a symphony by Steven Reineke, "New Day Rising," that will include the tune of a hymn sung among San Francisco earthquake survivors in a refugee camp. Walnut Creek's Diablo Ballet has created "Earthquake" for a San Francisco premiere, and promises it's not about buildings falling and people perishing.
Chanticleer, the 12-man vocal ensemble, is reaching back five centuries for an "Earthquake Mass" with a text that describes the earth moving at Christ's resurrection. The San Francisco Ballet, at the other extreme, plans a solo dance performance to the beat of seismic data transmitted live from the Hayward Fault.
On the screen, the 1936 Hollywood movie "San Francisco," with the earthquake as its dramatic climax, can be seen. But so can dramatic newsreel of the real thing -- the ruins, if not the earthquake and fire -- photographed on the real streets of San Francisco in 1906.
"In one sense, it's the primordial disaster -- the first historical event that has significant motion picture coverage, and large-scale photo coverage," says Steve Lavoie, librarian in the Oakland Public Library's history room. The library holds a major collection of images taken of the disaster by a photographer who fled to Oakland. Many are posted on the library's Web site.
About a half-hour of film shot in the ruined city, from the collection of the Library of Congress, will be shown at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive. Among the scenes: the ruins of the Palace Hotel, a building being demolished, refugees in a city park, Army troops arriving on horseback.
"The footage shows the most abject destruction," says PFA curator Steve Seid. "It looks as if the world is just frozen in this destruction, but the camera pans across one destroyed building after another and, eventually, a car drives by. You realize there is still life, and things go on."
PFA programs won't all be grim. The archive will also show "Earthquake," the 1974 movie with bone-rattling "Super Sensurround" sound. Also scheduled is "Flame of the Barbary Coast," with John Wayne.
"The earthquake is like a moral judgment," Seid says of the plot. "Then the world can begin anew."
Two of the major works commissioned to mark the earthquake anniversary will be performed by groups based in Contra Costa County -- although Diablo Ballet's "Earthquake" premieres in San Francisco before its Walnut Creek run.
The work was commissioned by Berkeley-based Computers & Structures Inc., which develops structural and earthquake engineering computer software. Its founder and president is Ashraf Habibullah, a longtime Diablo Ballet board member.
Choreographer Nikolai Kabaniaev, who is creating the 20-minute piece for its debut on the eve of the earthquake anniversary, says Habibullah, "did not want to underwrite a ballet with people dead at the end. That was not my idea, either. I decided it would be a very energetic dance that would reflect on the energy of natural events, rather than tragedy and devastation."