To celebrate ODC’s 40 years of dance-making and community building, we’ve asked founder and artistic director, Brenda Way, and co-artistic directors, KT Nelson and Kimi Okada, to share their thoughts on this milestone.
The idea of constellations allows a cluster of influences to explain trends and phenomena in the cultural landscape. A focus on the context, the legacies within which we become specific and particular, allows us to envision a history that is described and understood by accumulation. ODC’s first decade was characterized by a dynamic wash of talent.
The Oberlin constellation, 1969-1976, represents a seminal moment in American contemporary performance. Pluralistic, improvisational, playful, irreverent, intense, inventive, formal and conceptual. Within the space of six years, Kai Takei, Meredith Monk, Ping Chong, Twyla Tharp, Sarah Rudner, Dana Reitz, Wendy Perron, Wendy Rogers, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Nancy Stark Smith, Herb Blau, Bill Irwin, Sharon Ott, Julie Taymor, Eric Begosian, Randolph Coleman, Morton Feldman, Mauricio Kagel, Athena Tacha, Doug Baxter, and of course Kimi, KT and I breathed the same small town air and crossed the same small town square.
At Oberlin I had the space to explore and question the grain of contemporary choreographic fashion, abandoning totally unscripted “happenings” but holding to the possibility of improvisation and participation, rejecting the story-line but maintaining an interest in narrative. To Yvonne Rainer’s forceful and prickly “No Manifesto,” that brief statement in which she rejects eighteen different aspects of the possibilities of performance including spectacle and virtuosity, I was inclined to hold out “yes to moving and being moved.” What Oberlin itself brought to the project was an unexpected wealth of resources, history, landscape and the student talent that would become the company. Sixteen artistic thinker-movers, musicians, filmmakers, composers, and visual artists which we called, in an effort to expand the meaning of the term “dance,” the Oberlin Dance Collective.
We took ourselves off to Martha’s Vineyard that first summer, 1971, and fashioned a stage in the sand dunes, living in tents and dutifully taking class early every morning. We made new work and elaborate job charts, we made trips to the dump for furniture, we made nightly fires and dinner for twenty and we made endless trips to the Black Dog in Edgartown. Somehow we enticed Boston Globe critic, Laura, to make the trip down for our first season. The game was on.
The following few years, while we still called Oberlin home, we spent summers and school breaks traveling coast to coast in our “customized” yellow school bus. All the while, Oberlin new music composers from the Conservatory of Music and their artistic visitors continued to propose new perceptions and pathways to choreography. The elegance of numerical systems offered provocative physical constraints. How could a Fibonacci series be realized in movement? The results of problem solving and the unmediated nature of people in motion exploded our imaginations.
The extensive available physical space–indoors and outdoors–inspired pieces in open fields, river beds, courtyards and on building facades, in the squash courts, the boiler room and the locker room; No permits, no obstructions, no union crews. These unorthodox spaces elicited a different set of movement responses and transformed our relationship to the audience. Someone sitting two feet from your face requires a reconsideration of performance focus! We resonated with the entire minimalist experiment, with Ortega Y Gasset’s classic argument in favor of aesthetic distance, but also a multi-leveled perceptual engagement. Nothing is as simple as it seems. We wanted to occupy the middle ground between the life of the mind and the noise of the street.
Six years later, the lure of California and an increasing desire to participate in an urban setting prompted us to set out from Ohio for the last time. The hermetic years were over. San Francisco, when we arrived, had everything: artists, dancers, newspapers, cultural institutions, patrons, space, energy. Most importantly, we found a wealth of enthusiasm about dance that spurred our efforts and framed our art. We built more space, learned to dance, published a magazine, purchased land, renovated some more and headed into the decades. And everything keeps changing.
The overall shape of that time stands out in the fading light of my memory, a constellation somewhat blurred at the edges, it included bright stars and lesser lights, displayed patterns that could be distinguished or then again, re-imagined in different forms. The beginning was a generative phenomenon that circled for a few moments and then expanded or exploded into the atmosphere. The pieces continue to fall to the ground. I imagine myself walking backwards into the future, as the Romans conceived, continuing to pull the various threads of that time into the warp of a contemporary fabric.
Brenda Way is Founder and Artistic Director of ODC Dance, and creator of the ODC Theater and ODC Dance Commons, a community performance venue and new training facility in San Francisco’s Mission District. Way launched ODC and an inter-arts department at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music in the late ’60s before relocating to the Bay Area in 1976. She has choreographed some 76 pieces over the last 35 years. Way is a national spokesperson for dance, has published widely, and has received numerous awards and 30 years of support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Way holds a PhD in aesthetics and is the mother of four children.
Occasionally I am dumbfounded when I realize I’ve been working with the same people for over 35 years.
How did this happen? The truth is ODC has been a life, not a career. What I do today is not what I did in 1980 or 2000. Yes we have grown but more significantly we keep transforming. We change when one of us is taken by an idea, the rest become inspired and we go with it. This change has never been easy. Yet over the last 40 years perhaps what I find most outstanding, is our ability to change together, to continue to create a place for each other and others to engage in dancing or dance making.
Brenda got us started in the ’70s at Oberlin. Our collective spirit was: creation not necessarily dancing, production not necessarily staged, being a team (sharing, challenging, and sometimes lending a hand), mentoring the participation of others, as well as making one’s work. She changed our lives when we purchased our first building. In the ’80s most of the original members left, a few of us stayed to run a company of hired dancers and more. We collaborated with SF Performances, The Museum of Modern Art, went on a State Department Tour of Asia, and a five-week tour of Russia when the Berlin Wall came down. I was a dancer back then–it was a spiritual life in a way–a time when sweat, grips, touch and endless energy was shared with others and yet moments performing alone refueled me profoundly. I had a son and created a work called The Velveteen Rabbit which became one of two annual seasons and laid down a new vein of interest in youth and mentoring. Today, Kimi runs a thoroughly stellar dance youth program along with an adult school, Open Door series, our Pilot program, and our new Sand Box series.
In the late ’90s I created these strange and unusual outreach projects with a variety of partners. Recently Brenda has exploded with this “happening” called Toe to Toe and now her Women and Creativity Symposium. These projects come from our continual need to realize an idea. Some of our artistic experiments become part of our institution, others are part of our self-realization, and still others die but resurface years later in a new form. All of us have contributed immeasurably but none of this would have happened without Brenda.
Today I see our dancers as the beacon of ODC. They are imperfect people who wake up each morning and work their damnedest to do the best that they can; they are our most intimate and constant collaborators; they are experts in their craft and artistry, yet each day they reach outside their comfort zone to consider another view; they are unbelievably generous ambassadors of their art form; and most moving is how each comes from a different walk of life, carries a different cultural song in their body; and through truly hard work have contributed their singular vision and made something greater than each of us.
KT Nelson (co-artistic director) joined ODC in 1976 while attending Oberlin College. She danced with the Company from 1976 to 1997. Since 1976, Nelson has choreographed more that 60 works as well as composing and commissioning numerous sound scores. In 1986, she created and directed ODC’s first full-length family production, The Velveteen Rabbit, which has since toured across the country reaching an audience of over 350,000. She founded ODC’s youth company, the ODC Dance Jam and is a critical player in the development of ODC’s Educational Outreach Program.
My first memory of Brenda at Oberlin was her whirling into the dance studio like a tornado, blonde braids flying, a bundle of irrepressible energy with endless ideas springing from her head. I remember thinking “Wow, this is a force to be reckoned with!”–little knowing that our lives would be inextricably linked for the next 41 years. A few years later, I met KT Nelson, another blonde dynamo, at a San Francisco Aikido Dojo and told her she should check out Oberlin. In 1976 we three found ourselves together in San Francisco with 10 other Oberlin Dance Collective members embarking on an adventure that is still unfolding. I continue to marvel that my oldest friends are my colleagues, critics, champions, and provocateurs, and that we still share a vision that has held strong through years of redefinition, reinvention, and refinement. Through it all we managed to hold onto our own idiosyncratic personal and artistic identities without losing our common heartbeat. Our history is not just about a dance collective and what we became, it is also about how each of us forged a life that deeply values art, family, community, and engagement.
As in the early collective days, I still wear many hats and multi-task at a fast clip. I am the ODC School Director, the ODC Associate Choreographer, a teacher, and a Co-Director of our teen company, the ODC Dance Jam. And, I still take perverse pleasure in the mundane tasks–cleaning out the Commons refrigerator, dropping off the mail every morning, and cooking lunches for meetings. I shift gears constantly, but do so gladly, as this is the life we created. My 19-year-old daughter grew up with ODC as a framework and I am so grateful she has been given the example of strong women inspired by possibility and unafraid to take a risk.
I love the thriving culture of the Dance Commons. It is what we always believed in–accessibility, exposure, expertise, opportunity, and passion. I feel a great responsibility to anchor this increasingly rich but complex organism so that the next generations will continue to experience and embrace our vision. This is what we will leave behind.
40 years, what?! My entire adult life? It doesn’t seem that long. I guess it’s flown by because it has never been a dull ride and there has always been room to grow–on one’s own as well as together. And we’re still moving forward, still growing, after forty years–we’re still here…
Kimi Okada, Associate Choreographer and ODC School Director, is a founding member of ODC and has choreographed over 20 company works. Ms. Okada has choreographed for theater, opera, film, television, and circus across the country. She is Co-Director of the teen dance company, the ODC Dance Jam.
This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of In Dance.