Celebrating 40 Years in Style

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Dance, Posts.

What began in 1971 as Oberlin Dance Collective—an energized,
innovative, post-1960s group of dancers and musicians—headed west to San
Francisco five years later and has since become a pivotal and influential
mainstay of that city’s vibrant dance scene. Soon renamed ODC/Dance, this
10-member ensemble has, since its inception, featured the choreography of three
women: Brenda Way, KT Nelson and Kimi Okada. This dynamic artistic triumvirate
remains at the helm today, even as the enterprise has greatly expanded and

Like Pilobolus, another feisty, inventive troupe reaching
the Big 4-0 this year, ODC was launched in academia. Way was a tenured faculty
member in Oberlin College’s dance and theater department. Nelson and Okada were
students in the department. “I had saved an old gym on the campus and converted
it to an interarts center, so I had plenty of space,” Way recalls recently by
phone. She took the fledgling troupe to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of
1971, where they earned academic credit while creating new works, building a
stage amid the sand dunes and living in tents.

The same can-do, enterprising spirit has marked ODC, which
performs next week at the Joyce Theater, ever since. In San Francisco, Way
says, “We got a space right away, and started a presenting series. Basically
everything I had done earlier I transposed to San Francisco, which was a rich
ground to inhabit.” After getting evicted from the space company members had
constructed and renovated themselves, Way decided, “We’re going to buy a
building, because we’re not going to be evicted again!” So in 1979, ODC became
the first modern dance company to own its home facility, a former hardware
store in the Mission District. “The beginning of that building—the
ownership—was really the beginning of the institution as it is now.” The space
quickly became a bustling hub as ODC launched its school there and welcomed
other dance artists for rehearsals, residencies and performances.

Today, that building is the ODC Theater, which was expanded
and renovated last year. In 1999, when “we were bursting our seams,” Way
overcame the board’s initial objections and ODC purchased a second,
23,000-square-foot space across the street. It opened in 2005 and is known as
ODC Commons. A bustling hub of activity, it houses the company’s artistic and
administrative facilities, as well as the bustling school, a gallery and
dancers’ health clinic. The school offers an amazing 250 classes weekly—from
hula to tap, flamenco to hip-hop—for professionals as well as absolute

ODC’s early repertory reflected the questioning experiments
of the Judson Dance Theater and the explorations of Contact Improvisation. “In
the very early days, I was interested in exploring the possibilities of various
forms, using a lot of improvisational structures that came from composer
friends at the Oberlin Conservatory,” Way says. “It really was not so much
about the product as it was, what else could you do if you didn’t want to just
do what you’ve been trained in the studio all those years? Eventually, a
language evolved. Also, I became interested in reflecting a broader world.” As
a mother of four, Way notes that her work has often reflected her “connection
to what’s going on, socially and culturally.”

The original three creative leaders have continually
replenished the company’s repertory while taking on varied ancillary duties.
Way is artistic director; Nelson, the co-artistic director, heads ODC’s youth
company and educational outreach programs; and Okada serves as associate choreographer and ODC school director. “I
think that having three of us gives us the latitude to make work when we have
something to say, and go fallow when we need to,” Way observes.

Okada is not represented this time at The Joyce, where ODC
last appeared in 2008. This year’s program includes two works by Way and one by
Nelson: Way’s Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance), which features a score by Bay Area composer/singer
Pamela Z incorporating text from
The Guide to Elegance, “a stunningly retrograde little 1963 volume about
dos and don’ts of being a proper woman. All of the text in the piece is
directly from the book—with no exaggeration, because you really don’t need
it!”; and
Investigating Grace,
from 1999, set to Glenn Gould’s 1955
Goldberg Variations recording and an ODC signature work.

Nelson’s 2006 Stomp a Waltz is a full-company work set to an original score by Brazilian composer
Marcel Zarvos. Way describes it as “emblematic ODC: rousing, athletic,
rhythmic, powerful.” Those are not bad adjectives to apply to this adventurous,
enterprising company, which clearly has plenty to celebrate.


Aug. 9–13, The Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave. (at W. 19th
St.), www.joyce.org; $10 .