Dance Redefined, Page 2

An Oberlin Genesis

The seeds of those qualities had been evident from the very beginning, when Way arrived at Oberlin as a dance teacher in 1970. She had been to Oberlin earlier, as a student in the 1960s, and before that had studied in New York with George Balanchine at the School of American Ballet.

“I worked in street theater and guerrilla dance events in downtown New York, and I was really interested in breaking down the separation between art and life,” Way, 59, recalls from ODC’s warren of administrative offices one floor above the performance theater. Light fills the high-ceilinged, narrow room, where Way sits back-to-back with ODC General Manager Lori Laqua. “It wasn’t just about performing in theaters, but about performance as a way of communicating to people at large.

“I used Oberlin as a place to explore those ideas further, so that my students could create works and perform them in Tappan Square. We had a wonderful event in the new gymnasium, with eight different theatrical events going on in those squash courts at the same time and the audience walking along the bridge.”

Way also helped create an inter-arts program with faculty from the Conservatory and the art, theater, and dance departments. Warner Gymnasium was slated for demolition, but Way and her colleagues persuaded then-President Robert Fuller to help them save the space. Her previous New York experience as a Democratic committeewoman, neighborhood organizer, and feminist informed her work both in and out of the dance studio. “Organizing was one of the things that I did,” she says. “So the dancers in my program were as good at getting together a position paper as they were at creating a dance. It was an article of faith that we could do anything. If you wanted something to happen, you had to be part of making it happen.”

A Golden Age bloomed in Warner, with students like actor/clown Bill Irwin ’73, Broadway’s Julie Taymor ’74, and playwright Eric Bogosian ’76, among many others. “People were rehearsing in the lobby and the halls. Every room was filled. It was totally active and inventive and creative,” says Way. Part of that vibrant mix were Nelson and Okada, two of Way’s students who would later become founding members of ODC.
Nelson, an engaging woman with an intent gaze and slightly husky voice, recalls how she had taken accelerated science courses at her Los Angeles high school and found herself “completely bored” by her first-semester science classes at Oberlin. “I got completely un-bored when I hit the dance floor,” she says.

“Brenda came in like a house afire and completely opened up the definitions of dance,” says Okada, Oberlin’s first theater/dance major. (The dance department had moved from the physical education department to join the theater department.) “She brought in the most remarkable people at the time—Twyla [Tharp], Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainier—everybody who was doing anything interesting.”

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