It was my first visit to the Dance Commons, home of ODC/Dance nestled in San Francisco’s Mission District. Brenda Way, artistic director of ODC, looking summery on this Friday morning despite a bandaged ankle (nothing serious, routine dancer injury), met me in the foyer and took me on a tour.
Spread over two buildings, the Dance Commons comprises eight large, bright dance studios; each packed to the rafters at the moment we passed by. Says Way pointing to the wooden beams and barn door of one ballet studio, “the architecture was inspired by Jacob’s Pillow.” She cracks the door adjacent, and it’s a different scene—the studio is jumping with Latin rhythms and people shimmying, sweating, smiling. “That’s Rhythm & Motion,” she explains already moving on, “we keep the noisy classes on the upstairs level.”
The Commons also headquarters ODC School, the Pilates Training Centre, and the Healthy Dancer’s Clinic, a free clinic operated by volunteers (all licensed practitioners). The foyer doubles as a gallery space, with striking images of dance covering the walls. On the corner is the ODC Theater, an intimate 180-seat red brick performance space and cafe.
As we move into the administration wing, Way nods to the outdoor deck. “It was built by the dancers,” she says, “we had to have something which was kind of sixties.” A birthday party is currently underway. The D-I-Y ethos on which the company was founded in 1971 lives on, in this lovely, lively, fully-functioning ecosystem of dance.
Dance is for everybody
Way studied ballet at the School of American Ballet under George Balanchine in New York. She didn’t, however, quite identify with ‘the Muse.’ “Ballet as a quest for perfection as embodied by someone else; that was a real limitation,” she says.
By contrast, modern dance as a way of “inventing a language, as opposed to receiving it” appealed. “It was a place to be intellectual in dance,” Way, who holds a PhD in Aesthetics and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College, adds.
“It had to do with the agenda of the field—Balanchine was very intellectual; but it wasn’t the culture of talking and thinking. If you were a dancer you weren’t necessarily part of the investigative work.”
While teaching dance at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio, Way pulled together an inter-arts program from the Music, Art, Theatre and Dance departments—the foundation for what would become the Oberlin Dance Collective. In 1971, the troupe travelled to Martha’s Vineyard to give their first performance season, where they lived in tents, performed in each other’s work, even built a floor together (handy construction experience for years to come).
When the collective first started, Way says she had in mind a group that would grow old dancing together. But she also had ambition—she envisioned a professional company, paying annual artistic salaries, and a permanent home, as opposed to touring. The dancers changed, the collective transitioned into a company, and by 1986, Way was named artistic director, KT Nelson as co-artistic director and Kimi Okada, now director of ODC School, a founding member and choreographer. Their leadership was recently expanded to include a fourth woman, Kate Weare, resident choreographer.
Brenda’s Best Moves
It starts with the space, because as Way aptly says, “you cannot dance without space.”
When the collective first arrived in San Francisco in 1976, travelling in the proverbial yellow bus, “drawn to the Bay Area’s history of exploration, irreverence for convention and open space,” writes Way—two of them had boyfriends there, also not incidental—they set up shop in the Potrero Hill neighbourhood.
They rolled up their sleeves and renovated the 17th Street property, creating a studio and performance space, which quickly became a hub for artists from across the country. The landlord, equally impressed by their improvements, evicted them, and raised the rent.
Way recalls, “I thought, I am not going to be kicked out again, so we decided to buy the place on the corner,” which was to become the ODC Theater. When the building adjacent became available, the Dance Commons blossomed. “It was felicitous,” she says, “I never had in mind what this is now; it was really just putting one foot in front of the other.”
“A big factor ” Way adds, “was being able to develop an interesting and interested board of directors who really bought in to what I was talking about.” ODC has attracted the dedication of some of the Bay Area’s most ardent, and affluent, supporters of dance. The updated Lincoln Kirstein is a woman, who is serious about dance that “expands the idea of what we could be as physical beings; women would be strong, men would also be poetic.”
On that, Way notes, there’s nothing commercial about raising capital; “it’s personal.” She recounts the story of how she met Laurene Powell Jobs, long time supporter of the company and board member. “It was at a dinner party, and Laurene had a very young baby,” Way recalls. Way, a mother of four children, took care of the infant for the evening, freeing up Jobs for the dinner. “And we’re still friends to this day,” she smiles.
Then, there was the partnership with Rhythm & Motion, the high-energy dance program founded by Consuelo Faust. When she heard the group had lost their building, Way saw an opportunity. “I was really from the sixties believing that everybody should dance. Instead of starting our own recreational program, we went into partnership with them, and within a month we had 8,000 people coming through this building.
“It was held in great suspicion when we first did this, because people thought we were lowering the tone. It was the kind of high and low art divide; and that was definitely the intellectual mood, so it went against the grain.”
Way adds, “As a political statement, I thought it was a really important move. Everyone can move, everybody can dance—some people are very good at it, some people do it for joy.”
The company rehearses all afternoon, with a break for lunch. I sit in on this afternoon’s rehearsal in the ODC Theater, where four dancers are nutting out “Format II,” one of Way’s early formalist pieces from the 70s. It will be on stage in less than three weeks as part of the Summer Sampler season.
In the lead up to the company’s 50th anniversary, Way is doing something she rarely does—look back. “Just in general, I move on,” she says. Nonetheless, “it’s very fun to look back; and these dancers are completely game.”
In 2020 the company will celebrate their 50th anniversary. In the lead up, the Summer Sampler will present two new works made fairly quickly, “more experimental,” alongside a formative piece of repertory. This year, it features a world premiere by Nelson in collaboration with Korean choreographer Na Hoon Park, a new work by Okada, and the fiendish “Format II.”
Originally part of a six-piece series, “Format II” is an improvisational work based on variables from music translated into dance. It’s day three—as Way reminds the dancers often as they work to pin down the sequences. “It’s based on steps that have no logic. They’re skills we don’t have anymore,” Way says.
It goes like this, or something like this: There are two dancers performing, and two ‘timekeepers’ who act like a baseball catcher, giving secret signals to their dancer, cuing which sequence the dancer must perform. Each sequence has discreet timing, 8 seconds, 11 seconds, 30 seconds, and the timekeeper tracks them with the click of a (working) stopwatch. The dancer is not aware in advance which section she’ll be cued to perform, and as an extra complication, the timekeepers must run exchanging places with one another in the ‘triangle’ sections of the work. Ah, and each dancer must be able to dance either role, performer or timekeeper. Phew. It’s even difficult to write about. Brenda, what were you thinking? “It’s so sixties, in a way,” she says breezily.
Way, who has created more 85 works over 45 years (her “Investigating Grace” was named an NEA American Masterpiece in 2011), notes the arc of her choreography from formalist to narrative pieces. Dance critic Janice Ross writes, “Her impetus for art making, choreography, has always seemed to spring from a deep sense of moral and social responsibility to the world.” For Way, her work appears “task-oriented” which could be part of the same thing.
I’m pleased to be sitting in the chair watching the juicy movement unfold, collapse into giggles, restart. Eagle-eyed Way gives specific notes—could that explosion be more minimal? We need to adjust the tension in the body, etc. She gives the dancers an encouraging “good eye” when they tune into a detail that changes the look of everything, as well as mock-bemoaning the lack of discipline. The amount of sheer whole-body concentration it requires is phenomenal; if the dancers break out of it from time to time, it’s only to reset.
Her dancers are not your typical studio rats; they are mountaineers, painters, poets, and puppeteers. With a preference for more mature dancers, Ways says “I value life experience; they have more to bring.” Private Freeman, a veteran of the company, recently rejoined ODC after taking an artistic hiatus, as did the charismatic Daniel Santos, a gifted dancer, with a passion for the great outdoors.
“There,” Way nods at dancer Tegan Schwab, who luxuriously melts into the floor, “see the way she went down? To me, that’s beautiful.” Schwab, who started her career as a dancer/marionettist, has an uncanny sense of movement. When you watch her, someone seems to be pulling the strings, and it’s thrilling and mesmerising.
Lani Yamanaka, an apprentice dancer, executes the perfect belly flop; everyone has a go but she still wins. Her clowning is adorable, but she’s no lightweight. With BFAs in performance and choreography, and A-grade training, when she explains the subtle differences between two near-identical looking tap steps; the rest of the cast take note.
There’s no formula for attracting this calibre of dancer, Way says, it’s a bit like dating. “It’s all about chemistry.” And, “When people remember each individual on stage, I think that’s a good sign.”
Creation and Collaboration
“When you look at the tapes of what we did, you can see the roots for everything that we do now. And that’s great,” Way says.
Her favourite, and most important collaborators are the dancers, she says without hesitation. But her artistic field of vision is broad and often finding inspiration in other artforms.
In 2014, Way and Nelson choreographed “Boulders and Bones,” working together with award-winning British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, renowned for his works of art that transform nature.
“We talked endlessly about what mattered in art. His works are time pieces that blow away or collapse or disintegrate with time,” Way explains. “For ‘Boulders,’ he made something like Stonehenge. I said, Andy, the whole point was that your work is ephemeral, dance is ephemeral, now you’re making Stonehenge?!”
Instead of using the sculpture, photographer and fim-maker RJ Muna created a visual time-lapse sequence. Way explains, “KT and I mirrored his process, from chaos and noise to stillness. The piece he made is quiet all year until the rain comes through; so it gave us a dynamic form for the work.”
“Boulders” also features avant cellist Zoë Keating, who uses live looping to create the score while on stage. “What I love about that is there’ll be a crescendo in the music where it’s just a transition step for me, and suddenly you see the transition as this important thing, so it changes the weight, and it changes both of them.” “Boulders and Bones” makes its New York premiere at BAM’s Next Wave festival in the fall.
On the forefront of the past
Reflecting on a career spanning five decades, Way notes the changes in the dance landscape. “We live in a pluralist age—everything is up for grabs.” Adding, “There isn’t the rub against the norm, and the tendency is for dance to drift off into separate worlds.”
As an outspoken proponent of dance criticism, Way considers, “The difficulty of writing about work has increased because of this pluralism; how do you evaluate something when people are not doing anything you recognise?”
Critical feedback, she says, “allowed the audience to have a language to talk about our field; and more than just I like it or I don’t like it—that is so sad for the artform. How can we have an art if no one can talk about it?
“And if you’re not part of the language, you’re not part of the world. The critic is our link.”
The biggest challenge facing dance is of course funding, with an ever-shrinking public purse under the current political climes. “Not just funding, but helping dance keep its place in the body politic and the civic culture,” she pauses, “that’s your job.”