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Dance Downtown

One might easily mistake the prevailing mood as light-hearted, heading into intermission after two premieres by Brenda Way and Kimi Okada for ODC/Dance’s annual Dance Downtown season. Maybe this is just what we need to counter world events, you may think. But there is much more to consider beneath the high production values of this beautifully wrought program. Okada, for instance, folds a dark message into her cartoon inspired “Inkwell.” And KT Nelson’s “Dead Reckoning” from 2015 reminds us the outlook for climate change looms ever large.

Performance

ODC/Dance: “A Brief History of Up and Down” by Brenda Way / “Inkwell” by Kimi Okada / “Dead Reckoning” by KT Nelson

Place

Yerba Buena Dance Center, San Francisco, CA, March 30, 2024

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Colton Wall holds Miche Wong in “A Brief History of Up and Down” by Brenda Way. Photograph by Shawna Sarnowski

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Brenda Way’s “A Brief History of Up and Down” begins with a series of questions tapped out with the clack-clacking keys of a manual typewriter and projected onto the rear wall. The dancers wear street clothes in varying shades of white, and saunter in winding patterns with a bit of fashion show runway stride. “When does walking become dancing?” Does form make it art?” Does rhythm seen feel different from rhythm heard?” The questions are intriguing for a dance audience—I can feel the heightened attention around me. After the question, “Can we see better in silence,” Rachel Furst strikes a balance on one leg and holds it in silence so long her muscles tremble.

Eventually, the walkers tighten their cluster. A few women are lifted like poptarts from a toaster, flipped upside down, then raised to sit astride their partner’s shoulders. When two men engage in a unison duet, Furst interrupts by rolling onto the stage. The men lift and pass her between them. She smirks as she straddles one’s shoulder. Jenna Marie is a spark of energy when she enters for a solo, her turns spiraling like a corkscrew, while two men behind her stand still with a head on each other’s shoulder.

Way founded ODC in 1971. With “The History of Up and Down,” she calls our attention to the shift in post-modern dance values from a preference in the ’60s for non-trained pedestrian movement to the kind of breath-taking virtuosity characteristic of ODC/Dance today. As if any ODC dancer could ever appear untrained: even while walking, their impeccable posture and stage presence is far from the ragtag group of rebels who experimented at Judson Church back in the day. (I can almost hear Way saying, my point exactly!)

“A Brief History of Up and Down” by Brenda Way. Photograph by Shawna Sarnowski

The work is full of playful energy, accompanied by classical violin. Performed barefoot, “History” has the feel of a chamber ballet. The lighting is the bright blue-white of happiness. The dancers gradually discard their white streetwear for dance clothes in the same ice-blue shade, all revealing a flash of red flowered undergarments—the kind of red rose popular in tattoo parlors—designed by Kyo Yohena.

The music becomes more somber and the lighting turns briefly golden as seven dancers line up at the back wall. Colton Wall and Miche Wong have a gorgeous pas de deux that ends with Wong appearing to swim atop Wall’s back. Those in the back row melt one by one to the ground, then together roll downstage, where Wall and Wong melt to join them. The lighting reverts to bright and the music goes lively once again as the full company runs onstage. Private Freeman makes a surprise comic entrance by bounding over the orchestra pit as if late for the show. Running, leaping, sliding ensues, with near misses. Exuberance is the flavor of the day.

Brandon Private Freeman as the Demagogue in “Inkwell” by Kimi Okada. Photograph by Shawna Sarnowski

Christian Squires as the Human catches Jenna Marie in “Inkwell” by Kimi Okada. Photograph by Shawna Sarnowski

Inspired by cartoon work of Max Fleischer, known for creating Betty Boop, Kimi Okada’s “Inkwell” is a terrific vaudevillian romp with costuming by Maya Okada Erickson and a compelling animation projected by Yuki Izumihara. Private Freeman is the bad guy—a trickster character in a gray plaid waist coat, with two bowlers stacked on his head. He is a puppet master pulling the strings of the townspeople. Christian Squires is the rube, an innocent outsider who is lured in by what seems a glamorous lifestyle. Eight ensemble dancers are the townspeople, dressed in retro black and white ruffles, polka dots, and checkerboard whimsy, who at first charm and then seduce/drug/rob Squires. We know what’s coming but we’re having so much fun watching the shenanigans that it’s a surprise at the end to see Squires has become indoctrinated, a puppet, stripped down to his black and white skivvies, brilliant yet empty smile on his face. Okada spins the great unifying element of humor as she effectively takes on a dark theme from current culture. We leave for intermission still chuckling, even as we recognize with a chill that, yes, we too are that gullible kid.

Jenna Marie in “Dead Reckoning” by KT Nelson. Photograph by Shawna Sarnowski

It is from this state, that we enter the more overtly fierce and tribal world of KT Nelson’s “Dead Reckoning” a work for ten dancers, with a commissioned score from cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. A major set element is the “snow concept” created by Yayoi Kambara. But this snow looks more like golden confetti that sparkles as it floats down from the light boom, beginning lightly and gradually taking over the full stage. Is Nelson’s snow both weather and a symbol of power that makes it appear as gold? I kept wanting to call the drifting confetti, flower petals. There’s a lot of it. Throughout the piece Nelson asks the audience to choose between watching two compelling activities taking place at once, yet separated by a wide space. It’s impossible to take in both. We look back and forth—similar to the way we may desire to save the environment, yet at the same time continue our energy wasting ways.

A magnetic pair of dancers, Allie Heal and Jenna Marie, capture my eye as they take up a unison section. First one shadows the other, then they come together as partners. Heal uses her foot to move Marie in a sexy and provocative way. At the same time, Christian Squires begins dancing beneath the snowfall across the stage, vying for my attention. Three women make a pilgrimage, side stepping with their backs to the audience. Each carries a pile of snow that I half expect them to toss in the air. Instead they set their piles on the ground and walk away. A recurring motif echoes the shoulder straddling from earlier in Way’s piece. But here, when a dancer is hoisted to straddle the shoulder of another, it gives the impression of trekking with a camel in the desert.

With the snow piling up on the ground, the dancers do a section of slip and sliding across it. We hear a crackling, and a crashing sound seeps through from the Jeanrenaud score. The sound of ice breaking. The dancers scoop the snow up from the floor, then lift a partner and let them drop, catching them before they completely fall. Nelson has created an exquisite visual poem—beauty and danger. A man lifts a woman in a lyrical arabesque, and they circle in place as if they are music box figurines inside a snow globe. We are dancing in the face of our greatest peril. Nelson made this work nearly ten years ago, which might as well have been yesterday.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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