ODC’s Kaleidoscope of Outreach

By Mary Ellen Hunt

November 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

When I sat down to talk about outreach with ODC artistic director KT Nelson, school director Kimi Okada, and outreach coordinator Annie Jupiter-Jones on a sunny morning at ODC’s Shotwell St. studios, I was all set to draw a neat diagram and map out the organization’s various community programs. As they began rattling off programs, describing them in kaleidoscopic detail, it quickly became clear that mere paper could not contain their dizzying array of educational efforts.

Keeping track of so many varied programs, they all agree, is a challenge. Both the teenaged Dance Jam company, as well as Buddies for Bunnies bring thousands of public school kids to see ODC’s beloved Velveteen Rabbit holiday show. There’s also the in-depth “Four Part Program” which engages kids directly in the process of dance-making, plus a myriad of special projects like: the Rites of Passage event that ODC created at Everett Middle School with San Francisco Mime Troupe and the San Francisco Writers’ Union, not to mention their work with at-risk youth of Edgewood Center for Children and Families. With tendrils that reach out to children, adults, families, dancers, non-dancers, students and audience, ODC’s community programs have evolved organically and are less systematic than systemic. And the founders don’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to box them into convenient hierarchies and flowcharts.

“One of the really great things is that each of the programs is really custom-built,” says Jupiter-Jones, who coordinates with a wide range of public and private schools for everything from a one-day afternoon hip hop class to a year-long course integrated with the school’s curriculum. “We’re not trying to force a model onto them. There’s fluidity to create a program that will be the most successful for that school.”

The company of highly trained professional dancers and creative staff can do just that, creating successfully specific programs for each school. The ODC school faculty is equipped to offer expertise in an enormous variety of dance styles, to a wide range of ability-levels, and as an organization, is particularly primed to be able to serve any age group of kids, any occasion, just about any population in the larger community. All that said, their particular interest lies in forging partnerships.

“We actually prefer to send our teachers into the core curriculum of a school during the day,” explains Okada, “because for one thing, there’s a commitment, we know the kids are going to be there, and there’s a relationship we can build with the teacher, who can help us respond to their curriculum. One of the great relationships we have is with the Nueva School. This is our seventh year going in there. Our teachers meet with them prior to the school year and talk about the overall integrated curriculum. If Pre-K kids are learning about spineless animals, maybe we’ll do slug dances. Now of course, it’s a luxury, to be able to plan like that—that’s not always possible, of course. Basically we try to accommodate where there’s a need and put in the right kind of class. Each school is looked at for what they need and the right teacher to go in.”

“Everything is custom,” says Nelson, who notes that for many years, the essential details and structure of their outreach programs were largely stored in their heads. “That’s why everything is complex. But we made that decision philosophically back in the early ’80s when we realized that your effectiveness is only to the degree that you can relate to your constituency. We didn’t want to go in and do a shtick for 800 people but have no lasting effect. We want to really connect.”

“That’s why we prefer to teach courses,” interjects Okada, “because you have a better experience than just a one-off master class for an hour. We want them to have something where they see a sequence, a progression, and results and see how it fits into a bigger picture.”

Jupiter-Jones also explains that where possible, they like to bring the kids into the ODC studios as well.

“The June Jordan School is a wonderful example,” nods Okada, “Their math teacher called me and said we just lost our PE program, we have no art, no physical education, is there any way they can come to take dance classes? So we figured out how they could take six classes in different styles—African, hip hop, bhangra—and they get to see the world of dance in such a different way than if we went to them.”

As the conversation with this inspired threesome continued, words and ideas tumbled out, each woman adding and commenting to each others’ recollections. I can’t help but feel that this must have been the way ODC’s outreach efforts—indeed most of their programs—came into existence, through brainstorming and a fluid and ongoing exchange of ideas.

“And,” adds Nelson, “it fits with one of our core philosophies, which is you come to our home, we go to yours. We find that a powerful recipe for exchange.”

“Back in the early collective days, one of the things we always wanted was the creation of community,” says Okada, “It’s one of the deep beliefs that has taken us through over forty years of existence. We need to have relationships with people—that’s the way we communicate through art, and that’s the way we have meaningful lives.”

Nelson adds, “I also think community is context, which is probably the most powerful educating tool there is. If you throw somebody in a rich context, they will grow and transform and choose their evolution. They’ll pick up something here, they’ll learn from that teacher.”

Although in its early days the company had engaged in numerous outreach events, their efforts really took off with the creation of Nelson’s perennial favorite, The Velveteen Rabbit. Nelson conceived of a Children’s Chorus of ten kids, whom they recruit wherever Rabbit is being performed, even while on tour. The kids spend 8-10 weeks in rehearsal with the company, and perform onstage being partnered by the professional dancers. “I think it is a transforming experience,” she says thoughtfully, “But it’s not about learning about how to dance, it’s about all of us coming together to make something happen.”

This led into another undertaking, which they’ve dubbed “Four Part Outreach,” a brainchild of artistic director Brenda Way, now a full program developed by Nelson.

“It came from the insight about trading homes,” says Nelson, “We go to you, you come to us and I think Brenda understood that that was an important way to break barriers.”

For the first part of the four steps, Nelson goes into second, third and fourth grade classrooms, offering the kids an interactive presentation about the collaborative process that went into making The Velveteen Rabbit. Then the kids come to the ODC studios to work with the dancers, a technique class, or create compositions around “rabbit” ideas, all before attending a free performance of the show. Finally, Nelson returns to their classrooms for a debriefing of the experience and to take a closer, more critical look at the whole process.

“I talk about what it means to be transformed, what is magic,” Nelson says, “ I try to get at the core values of the concept. My whole point when I do this is, I am an artist, I made these choices when I made this piece—what choices might you make? What kind of music would you use, what would you pick?”

“That’s really our goal in outreach,” chimes in Okada, “especially for young people, is to offer an open window to the immense possibility and transformative powers of art in general. That this could be meaningful and significant to your life, you could do it.”

The fact that teachers and creative staff that participate in these outreach efforts are themselves working artists adds a subtle dimension as well.

“Art is a journey of exploring yourself, the world and ideas,” Nelson declares, “My class will change, my outreach will change according to what is interesting to me now. It’s alive for them to respond to. It’s the same when they’re dancing with the ODC dancers in the studio and being lifted and pulled, they are feeling a kind of expertise, phrasing, commitment to movement, ideas. They might not know that that’s happening, but they’re right up against it.”

In fact, for the artists of ODC, part of the very point is what they gain as professionals while working with audiences and kids.

“Effective outreach is when the mentor is equally as affected as the mentee. We are both moved and changed by the activity,” says Nelson emphatically. “All of this doesn’t come from a place of trying to ‘do good’—that’s not why we do this. We do ‘do good,’ but it is through the art that we believe that we have some way for you all to participate, to experience yourself, experience the world, share ideas with us and with each other. That actually feeds me artistically, I know it will feed my dancers, and I know it will make a more interesting conversation for all of us.”

See this year’s performance of The Velveteen Rabbit at YBCA, Nov 27-Dec 13. For more information on this event and others visit odcdance.org.

This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of In Dance.

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.