Brenda Way and Kimi Okada in studio, 1976.
Photo by Doug Winter

Dance Redefined
by Elizabeth Chur '92

Clad in top hats and baggy coats, dancers march like hurried marionettes under the commanding hands of a dictatorial puppeteer. Another performer’s angular, pensive solo is followed by waltzing pairs staggering like drunken bears, oblivious to her presence. All the performers then fall repeatedly as if hurled, ricocheting like waves of hailing basketballs. Finally, one dancer peels and eats a banana, the other eight holding phantom bananas and mirroring his every swallow like an animated Andy Warhol film. The evening’s work, titled Sauce for the Goose, is a remounting of a piece that Associate Choreographer Kimi Okada ’73 created in 1988. “It’s set in a vaudeville atmosphere, but has an essentially dark core,” she says. “It’s funny in the way that Beckett is funny.”

Over the past 30 years, ODC/San Francisco dancers have rolled in bubble-wrap suits, swung on platforms, and created a whimsical retelling of The Velveteen Rabbit. Their dances are about the tension, exuberance, and ambivalence of human relationships; isolation; the fragile balance in the midst of random violence. The company’s trio of choreographers, Artistic Director Brenda Way, Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson, and Okada, met at Oberlin in the 1970s. During ODC’s evolution they have become mothers (and in Way’s case, a grandmother) and together have created more than 100 dances, a full-time dance company of 10 men and women, a permanent home, and an artistic community.

Bringing back Sauce for the Goose was not so much a nostalgic impulse, but a deepening of ODC’s continuing exploration of the uneasy balance points between individual and group identities, explains Way. Listening raptly is a sold-out audience of 200, including a line of children sitting cross-legged on the floor in the front row. “Sauce for the Goose still has a flavor and zest about community,” Way says. “It’s one of my major passions—what is community, and how are we in it? How do we identify with each other, and how do we not identify with each other?”

The evening embodies so many of the values that form the through-lines of ODC’s three-decade history: creating and expanding the circle of community, hard work, and a spirit of unflagging joy. These values are also what have kept ODC going for so long—“Longer than most marriages!” as Way later jokes.

Okada offers a pre-performance lecture outlining a brief history of postmodern dance: its rejection of technical training, dramatic narrative, and emotional content, and its embrace of formalism and structure. It has also stripped movement down to its essential elements, rooting itself in everyday “pedestrian” motions like sleeping, walking, waiting for a bus. “I can see you getting worried that this piece is going to be really boring!” Okada laughs, revealing to the audience the radiant expression she wore in photos of ODC’s early days. Company dancers illustrate how a pedestrian motion such as falling evolved through ever-more abstracted versions (falling; falling in big, slow motion; two people falling in big, slow motion) into the dance vocabulary of Sauce.

Much of ODC’s choreography starts from this interest in pedestrian movement, using the discipline of a formalist approach to generate raw material, but then incorporating narrative elements (albeit often nonlinear), and animating them with dazzling technique and a vigorous sense of humor. The San Francisco Examiner characterized ODC’s style as “a return to what modern dancing is all about—exuberant repertory…daredevil intensity and considerable emotional candor."

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