Dance Redefined, Page 4

Growing Pains

Buying the building ushered in great changes for ODC/San Francisco, not all of them easy. Many of the original company members left. A professional staff was hired for the first time. And the structure of the company changed from a pure collective to its current, more hierarchical one.

“We realized as we got bigger that the full collective participation was too cumbersome,” Way says. “A day-long meeting once a week to decide what you’re doing the other four days ceased to work.” Says Nelson, “We tried to be equal; we weren’t. Now we’re equally valued; we don’t have equal power.”

ODC’s dancing style evolved as well. “Our original artistic inclinations were almost entirely based around thinking rather than, say, dancing,” Way says. “It was about art-making. We were not very interested in technical virtuosity or elegance or refinement. It wasn’t so interesting to point your toes. People had been doing it for hundreds of years.” But as ODC developed its kinetic vocabulary, the company began daily training in modern dance and ballet. Dance critic Monica Segal responded to this trend by suggesting it was America’s first post-postmodern dance company.

The founding members’ commitment to the company allowed them to weather change and stay artistically vital. “ODC is a tremendous group,” says Professor of Music Composition and Music Theory Randolph Coleman, who worked closely with ODC at Oberlin in the 1970s and now chairs the Conservatory composition department and directs its contemporary music division. “The numbers of dance companies that have started and failed in the last 30 years are legion. ODC is a community, interlaced with relationships with filmmakers, theater people, musicians. Brenda is the vortex of the whole thing. She’s bright, committed, one of the best fundraisers on the West Coast, and has a huge amount of energy.

“But one of her real strengths is that she doesn’t overpower the company with her own energy,” notes Coleman. “If others are as motivated as she is, she gives them room. Brenda develops her own pieces, and others do their pieces. It’s unusual for a company to function that openly. Brenda excels in constituting that environment, which is not predetermined ideologically. That has been the identity of ODC—their ability to morph, based on the continuity of those three people [Way, Nelson, and Okada.]”

Way likens this three-decade partnership to an old marriage. “The continuity allows you to speak shorthand, to continue to evolve your value structure together, because you share the experience,” she says. “You don’t need to keep re-inventing the beginnings. I think of families who have strong feelings about family. It’s not that they agree on everything, but they are committed to that notion, and I feel the same way about this. We’re committed to a common notion, and then we battle it out as we go along, but we never question that fundamental commitment.”

Building a Future Together

At 30, ODC’s vision for the future is like its dancing—both grounded and expansive. The company is in the midst of buying the building next door, allowing it to double floor space, add five new studios, an additional theater, café, Pilates studio, and dance injury prevention clinic. The larger digs will also enable them to expand their own programs and provide rental space for other dance groups.

“I want to make Art Town,” says Way. “I think art is about values, and I think we can have a contemporary institution that represents that in a hundred different ways. I want the flow to be complex, like the community. We’re very isolated, artists. The struggle is too hard, and it brings out the most fear in people.”

Does Way hope to re-create the heady atmosphere of ODC’s early days in Warner Gym, with creative work literally flowing out into the halls? “Yes, I do,” she says. “Only a more complex, urban version of it. I think that’s what we’ve always been trying to do. I imagine people coming out of class when there’s a showing, and you just walk in—and then you go to the café, and you talk to people who are working on another piece next door. I guess I’m still an idealist.”

ODC is cultivating that idealism in a new generation. Nelson, who just three years ago retired from dancing in the company, continues to direct ODC’s education program and seven years ago founded the ODC Dance Jam, a children’s dance ensemble. Because the Dance Jam members are growing up and will soon move on, a new group of 9- and 10-year-olds called the Jellies began rehearsals this fall.

“Some of the kids are gravitating toward ballet, because they’re at a time in their lives where a lot of things are changing, and they just want to lock onto something secure,” says Nelson. “But this is not how the world works. I want to say, ‘Know yourself in Messy-Land. Know yourself when you’re not in control and trying to find a solution that’s not clear.’ The nature of making art is to reveal new territories, new visions and perspectives. And in order to do that, in some ways, nothing can be the same.”
Okada agrees. Today, she co-directs the Dance Jam and is director of the ODC School, which offers classes for both children and adults. “All those things that we believed in during our 20s—creating community, being an ensemble, being individuals, appreciating training, seeing other people perform—we’re building that right in for kids who are starting at age 6.”

Like so much of ODC’s vision, this idealism is not just about dancing, or even art-making. It’s about learning to revel in ambiguity, to savor its taste, and employ it. As ODC ripens into life after 30, and uncertainty becomes ever more abundant, that can only be a sign of hope.

Elizabeth Chur works in communications for a homeless service agency in San Francisco. She studied development of free press in Eastern Europe as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, and has also written for The Chicago Tribune, The Seattle Times, and

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