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Thursday, July 17, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Getting To The Point -- The Yawning Spaces Of The Old Navy Base Get Artists' Creative Juices Flowing

Seattle Times Theater Critic

The ink is barely dry on the Seattle City Council's amended plan for the civilian use of the former Naval Station Puget Sound at Sand Point. And the sheltered swath of lakeside property does not transfer entirely into city hands for several months at least.

But such formalities are not cramping the creativity of artists eager to experiment in wide-open spaces. Sand Point offers a 151-acre parcel of unspoiled land and more than 40 industrial-strength military buildings, and some intrepid arts practitioners are already transforming them into grand stage sets and epic canvases.

In one wing of the cavernous Building 2 at Sand Point, a former Coast Guard hangar, choreographer Jeff Bickford and his Zen Fred troupe are readying a new "post-industrial fairy tale." Titled "Into the Tumbling Ocean" and produced by On the Boards, this archetypal blend of dance, design, puppetry and storytelling opens a two-week run at Sand Point tonight.

On Saturday night, a troupe of incendiary "fire artists" will commandeer a Sand Point parking lot for "Burningpoint," a display of flaming wonders. Sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Art, the blaze-o-rama runs one performance only.

More public art comes to Sand Point in September, when the Seattle Arts Commission presents a series of installations there in various media.

These upcoming events are not the first post-conversion arts at Sand Point. The complex has also housed play rehearsals and film

shoots. And paving the way for live performances this spring was the multimedia detective play "Djinn," which drew rave reviews and full houses in Sand Point's Building 5-C.

Seattle artist Dan Corson, creator of the eye-popping design for the Annex Theatre-House of Dames show, says the success of "Djinn" helped spark interest in Sand Point among other artists. They are clamoring to create new works at the complex now, says Corson, "because being there just takes your imagination and rips it apart."

"There's such dramatic, raw spaces there that had previously been sealed off to the public," concurs On the Boards director Mark Murphy. "And nothing inspires an artist more than a big, empty space."

The city planner fielding these unsolicited, often unorthodox proposals is clearly receptive to them. "Because it's an unanticipated demand, we don't have systems in place for dealing with it," says Layne Cubell, who oversees special events at Sand Point. "So we're just reacting to them one at a time, as they come in. And they've been wonderful."

"Artists love the drama and romance of this industrial space and unusual location," adds Sabrina Prielada, executive director of the new nonprofit coalition, Sand Point Arts and Culture Exchange (SPACE). "It's so nice when someone calls me to be able to say, `That's a great idea! Let's see how I can help you do it.' "

But the anything-goes sense of possibility at Sand Point may not last. Finalized last month after heated City Council debate and public input, the officially adopted Sand Point Reuse Plan spells out a specific future agenda for the former naval station.

The elements include an expansion of adjacent Magnuson Park, space for other recreational uses and scientific activities, conversion of some former military abodes into 200 units of transitional housing for the homeless, and areas set aside for the University of Washington and other education providers.

The document also earmarks 12 acres for arts, culture and community uses. At this point, the arts component has not been mapped out in detail. Prielada says that SPACE, one of the arts groups working closely with the city on the process, wants to help turn several buildings into permanent arts venues.

The group is already talking with several performing organizations - including the Civic Light Opera, the Northwest Puppet Center - about renovating structures and becoming "anchor" arts tenants at Sand Point.

"We hope eventually to have a broad range of performing, meeting, rehearsal, classroom and screening areas here, for anchor tenants and temporary ones," says Prielaida. She points to San Francisco's Fort Mason Center as a prototype for the conversion of military facilities to cultural purposes.

The grand scheme will probably take years, however. Just renovating Building 30, a naval office building wrapped around a 20,000-square-foot hangar, could cost more than $7 million - money yet to be raised from private and public sources. "In the meantime we need to establish an image of Sand Point as a cultural destination," Prieleida says. "We shouldn't just lock up these buildings until we have the money to renovate them."

The dramatic interplay of light and shadow, film and live action, smoke and sound that made "Djinn" such a memorable experience showed that even on a shoestring budget, talented local artists can work imagistic miracles in the big, empty Sand Point structures.

Bickford has similar but idiosyncratic plans for "Into the Tumbling Ocean," part of his ongoing series of dance-theater pieces in public locales. (A companion Bickford piece, "Twilight and the Grove," will be seen outdoors at Discovery Park, Aug. 7-10.)

The north hangar of Building 2 allows Bickford great freedom of movement and visualization. Stripped of its military props, the 100-foot-by-160-foot canyon is a little spooky and very funky, with 30-foot ceilings, concrete floors and banks of high, narrow windows. "It's huge," Bickford notes approvingly. "The glass is sort of filthy so it looks frosted, and kind of glows."

Like all the "pioneer" artists working at Sand Point in this phase, Bickford had to secure fire and use permits, rent portable toilets and truck in all other needed equipment - lighting, stage materials, etc.

"The buildings are available only in as-is condition," says city planner Cubell, "and they're best for artists with a lot of vision."

Bickford's vision led him to construct "this sort of children's storybook mountain that has a series of steps going up to 12 feet. We brought in several tilted platforms, too, and a small grove of alder trunks to create a forest."

Even more grateful to secure space at Sand Point is Astrid Larsen, artistic director of "Burningpoint." After looking "long and hard" for an outdoor arena to accommodate "the first urban fire performance event in the United States," Larsen finally got a quick go-ahead from Cubell to use a Sand Point parking area for the pyrotechnic event.

"It's not just the only location available to us in the entire city, it's our dream location," says Larsen, a member of the Fremont-based performance troupe Fire Drake. "It's the size of two football fields, it's completely concrete, and there are water hydrants right there."

Participants in "Burningpoint" will range from "avowed science geek" Peter Toms, co-creator of something called a fire organ, to Toronto-explosives artist Steve Rife, to Bay Area performer Magneta, who dances with a huge lit candelabra balanced on her head. "We have a city fire permit and we use no explosives, no particulates, and only certain kinds of materials . . .," assures Larsen. "We'll also have 15 fire monitors, and lots of extinguishing equipment."

Such an extravaganza, with such precautions, would be unimaginable for a low-budget group indoors.

After the city's use plan is fully implemented, several years down the road, will such off-the-wall exhibitions still be welcome at Sand Point? These artists hope so.

"I think it's an incredible thing to keep available," observes Bickford. "I'd love to come back to the space I'm in and make a new piece, and there's all kinds of other really interesting places for installations and performances."

Corson wants the city to keep most of the arts space at Sand Point fluid and flexible. He thinks carving out traditional "black box" theaters there squanders an opportunity.

"Sand Point is not about a black box experience," Corson suggests. "It's about exploring these unique, cavernous spaces and this wonderful natural environment. I say, keep them raw. As soon as you get a little state-of-the-art theater in there, it's going to be just like everywhere else."

---------------- Sand Point shows ----------------

"Into the Tumbling Ocean" by Jeff Bickford and Zen Fred, with music by Amy Denio, opens today at 8:30 p.m. in Building 2, North Hangar, at the former Naval Station Puget Sound at Sand Point. $15. It runs Thursday-Sunday through July 27. Reservations recommended: 206-325-7901.

"Burningpoint," a regional showcase of fire performance, occurs Saturday only at 8:30 p.m. at Sand Point. Reservations are required, and exact location will be revealed to advance ticketholders only. $11-13. Information: 206-728-1980.

Published Correction Date: 07/22/97 - Sabrina Prielaida Is Director Of The Sand Point Arts And Cultural Exchange. Her Name Was Misspelled In A This Story.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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