Finding Inspiration: ODC Forges New Partnerships

By Mary Ellen Hunt


1. A point is that which has no part.
2. A line is breadthless length.
3. The ends of a line are points.
4. A straight line is a line which lies evenly with the points on itself.

So begins Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, the 4th century B.C. volume of mathematics, which has been called one of the most influential texts ever written. A treatise on the definitions of space and dimension, Euclid’s methods for describing shape and form are so embedded in our everyday thinking that we scarcely even notice them. It’s the perfect springboard for ODC’s latest work, Triangulating Euclid—one of three premieres to be featured when ODC/Dance opens their 42nd spring season at Yerba Buena Center’s Lam Research Theater this month.

Pictured: ODC/Dance Photo by RJ Muna
Pictured: ODC/Dance
Photo by RJ Muna

In a departure from the usual, Triangulating Euclid will be a collaborative effort from Brenda Way, KT Nelson and New-York-based choreographer Kate Weare.

“I was at a place where I just wanted to change how I work,” Nelson explains. “So I said to Brenda, do you want to collaborate? We’ve done projects together like Toe-to-Toe before, but usually somebody’s in charge and the other person facilitates.”

Way agreed, and proposed an idea based on a paper titled “Triangulating Euclid,” written by conservator Karen Zucker about three perspectives on a rare volume of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. As a third member of the team, Way suggested Weare, well known to both from her seasons presenting work at ODC.

“We had actually been discussing broadly a way to venture into [the] studio together and this came up,” Weare remembers. “The opportunity to work with other choreographers is extremely rare. In general, we’re solo birds, and this is a chance to work with women that I really admire.”

Central to the inspiration for the piece is Erhardt Ratdolt’s landmark 1482 edition of Euclid—perhaps the first scientific book to be printed on a press and a gem among incunabula. Its production heralded a new era in which the knowledge contained in books could become accessible to anyone, enabling a scientific revolution and renaissance.

As she scrolls through a few photos of pages from the book, Way enthuses over the remarkably delicate illustrations of point, line and shape that contrast with florid illuminated letters and gothic text.

“The emotionality of it is interesting, you know?” Way says. “I mean, it’s a book about numbers—how emotional can you get? But I honestly think it has a richness in the history, the mathematical purity, the Renaissance innovation, and the material obsession. I think the Gutenberg Bible and this—they’re comparable to Steve Jobs and the internet. This shows us a moment when the world turned, and that’s so exciting.”

“Brenda actually saw the book,” Nelson notes, recounting that when she went to Zukor’s shop she wasn’t able to see it, but rather interviewed the conservator, absorbing her enthusiasm and love for the book. “What I came away with is that we have these beautiful ideas, Euclidean ideas, but it’s her, or whoever’s, obsession with it that brings it life. The human being’s relationship to art is what makes it come alive.”

If Way saw the austere beauty of the ideas and Nelson was intrigued by the relationships of people to the book, for her part, Weare says her interest in Euclid lies in the ways in which his ideas about math and geometry have resonated through centuries of art-making and the fundamental transformations the book engendered.

“I was brought up in that world, so I’m interested in how visual artists create space and accuracy in pictorial space,” she explains. “It speaks to me as a dance maker about the ongoing conversation about where meaning comes from in the work and form itself. How much comes from form? How much form can evoke and pull meaning to the surface from visual reality of the eye. To put it more bluntly, how emotional can abstraction be?”

Bay Area native Weare has her own seven-year old company now in New York, but says she has been a fan of ODC from a young age.

“I grew up watching KT Nelson and idolizing her. She was an extraordinary mover and I adored her as a teenager,” she recalls. “We are at very different stages in our careers and development. Brenda and KT have been naturally mentoring me—they’ve been able to advise me on the challenges of having a kid, how you go about being a serious choreographer and running a company while maintaining a family connection. I’m looking to them for wisdom and guidance about maintaining a choreographic voice.”

But if she is intimidated by the task at hand, Weare doesn’t show it. Earlier in January, Way and Nelson arrived in New York with a few dancers to attend the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ 2013 conference and had a few hours in the studio with Weare, who says that she’s excited to see what will emerge from their three-way conversation.

“I come from the Bay Area, but I’ve been in New York soaking up the artistic values and priorities of this scene,” she notes. “I think that I’ve been in my own artistic bubble for a long time working intensely with dancers I have a lot of history with. There are many things I take for granted and my particular voice is full of very distinct details, so this will be a different approach.”

“We’ve never done anything like this before,” declares Way, who adds that the process is intentionally shaking up their working styles to see what happens. “But I think when you’ve been in the field for a long time, you really become more brazen about what you’re willing to try.”

“As with any new work I think you hope to put yourself in a position where you don’t have your predictable response—I think you want to keep being fresh and finding out new things,” says Way, who will premiere another new work, Lifesaving Maneuvers, during the Dancing Downtown season. “It’s a new experiment—we are trying to set up a different circumstance to respond to. And it may fail like any scientific experiment fails. But I think it will for us succeed insofar as the attempt to communicate in different ways is going to bring out something interesting.”

Okada premiere

ODC Associate Choreographer Kimi Okada will also be trying out something a little new with her new duet, Two if by Sea, for ODC company members Jeremy Smith and Vanessa Thiessen. Okada observes that larger group pieces have been her métier, but she had a hankering to create a smaller work for the company.

“It’s a chance to work with two great, inventive dancers who have rhythmic capacity, fast feet and deeply physical bodies. I chose Jeremy and Vanessa because they are tap dancers,” says Okada, “not that it’s a tap dance, but because the concept of the piece is exploring secret language that a couple develops through the intimacy of being with each other for a long time. There are these secret signals you have with a partner, a secret language that other people don’t understand.”

Okada, who says that she also used to be a tap dancer, elaborates that she was interested in setting those ideas against the context of coding in a larger sense.

“I’ve always been fascinated by symbols. I love solving messages and codes, trying to figure out things,” she says, “I’m a huge baseball fan, and one of my favorite things is watching the third base coach signaling the runner what to do—it’s an amazing gestural dance.”

As she’s creating the duet, Okada says she’s been struck by the myriad ways of creating understanding without words –everything from the tapping of Morse code to the beat of talking drums to semaphore.

“There are all kinds of physical and audible code systems and lexicons that are meant to convey secret language,” she notes. “I’m interested in looking at how you physicalize that.”

Transit transitions

Nelson has also been fine-tuning Transit, which the company premiered last year and which will be on the program when ODC performs in the Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco’s City Hall on March 1. The dancers will still ride the sculptural bicycles by Max Chen in the restive choreography of modern urban life, set to Nico Mulhy’s score, but when Transit: Next Stop hits the Yerba Buena Center stage, it will also boast hand-drawn, animated video backdrops by Barry Steele.

“That’s how I originally wanted it,” Nelson notes, “It’s all hand-painted because I wanted the idea of low technology mixed with high, of showing the human side inside our urban lives.”

If the new film component offers a contextual change for the Yerba Buena season, the Rotunda series show offers a situational shift for the ballet. True to its title, this is a piece that has always been in transit—from performances outside the San Francisco Main Library to impromptu rehearsing on BART trains to the City Hall show, and each iteration has revealed fresh stories and necessitated new approaches to the choreography.

“That is the life of Transit –finding ourselves in different public spaces or settings, and allowing it to be transformed,” Nelson observes. “You take the dance language or vocabulary we developed for the piece, and put it in a different context, and just the dancer feeling that different context changes how they approach the movement. I hope that the spirit of Transit is to show that private life can be in public space. That our public spaces are really for people, not just to show that we have a cityscape that beautiful, but that it’s for people to use and be in and collect in.

“So what will happen in the Rotunda?” she continues, “I don’t know. But it will change their experience of the piece, the phrasing of it, the attitude behind it. From the very beginning I think the setup with which I built Transit was to constantly let the city change it.”

ODC/Dance Downtown 2013, Thu-Sun, Mar 14-24, Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF, for program information visit

Since going to press, ODC has announced that Kimi Okada’s piece “Two if By Sea” will not debut during the 2013 ODC/Dance Downtown season.

This article appeared in the March 2013 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.