“ODC Downtown,” held for the past decade at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Novellus Theater, has become the high water mark for members of an Oberlin College dance department who commandeered a school bus, and drove it across country to San Francisco, where they staked their claim as that city’s modern dance company, now known as ODC/Dance, and known by that name the world over. Under the direction of Brenda Way, it has acted as the mother ship for several spinoff companies who danced their way out of the womb of ODC’s Mission-based compound at Shotwell and 17th Streets and into seasons, tours and accolades of their own: Robert Moses’ KIN, Jacinta Vlach’s Liberation Dance Theater and LEVYDance, are among them. This season, ODC presents two programs. I saw the three pieces in Program 1 on opening night.
Transit, a world premiere, is billed as a collaboration between “Choreographer KT Nelson and the Dancers,” to music composed by Nico Huhly. On a set built to suggest an urban street scene, including a bench that also serves as a bicycle built for two (designed by Max Chen), hipster types in street clothes move swiftly through their interchanges and read the newspaper during and between them, accompanied by water dripping, and staccato lyrics in languages other than English. Two feral kids grab a clueless dad, and jerk him out of the tableau, setting off a chain reaction of snapping newspaper pages. The signature “run fast and stop short” steps that slide into home in many ODC pieces, are very much in evidence, but earlier generations of male company members didn’t get as winded when executing them. Overall, Transit creates a recognizable place, but the dancers, while mostly a spirited lot, seem to lack the spitfire facility of their predecessors, and here I am thinking of Shannon D. Mitchell, Robert Moses, Brian Fisher, Kevin Ware, KT Nelson and Yukie Fujimoto, a vanished comet of former ODC stars. Ann Zivolich is an exception. She is a well-trained, self-possessed, fearless but focused dancer, whose mere promenade raises the stakes. Daniel Santos, who is leaving the company, is similarly gifted. But in the context of a workshop-to-stage piece, where personality gets buried under the counts, we are left wanting to admire the way a head or an eye responds, or a hand, even when it is knocked out of place, and instead we get dancers dragged about by partners, short poses with flailing runs, or lifts that are so athletic and fast that they are indistinguishable from jumps. It’s not that these categories are immutable, but when they lose definition they risk also forsaking their impact.
Raking Light is a 1999 piece by Brenda Way. It opens to strange sounds and men in gym clothes from that period laboring under the burden of carrying women across their shoulders or on their backs. There is a square-ish, pleated hanging above their heads. As the women assume their rightful places on the floor with the men and move across it, every so often a dancer will fall, and then the accompaniment changes from random sounds to a metronome’s tic-tock. Dogs bark, dancers spring to and fro, and a pas de deux of mostly leaning and swinging adds a focal point. Surprisingly, the score slightly overwhelms the dancing, as the dancers seem overcome by the data it imparts. This is remedied by a series of impulse-propelled steps and a vaudevillian “You do this, so I do that” dialogue cum contact improv. In Jay Cloidt’s score there’s fiddling, washboards, brakes (violins) squealing and enough water dripping to raise drought concerns. Fast lifts end in feet peddling instead of pointing, with contrasting legato movement, showing women in dark shadow. It’s a rich selection of movement, and the strongest offering of the evening.
The world premiere of Brenda Way’s Breathing Underwater, opens with bass violinist Zoe Keating, stunningly long-limbed, and possessed of a face that you think you’ve seen in a Roman Polansky film. She is lit, while the remainder of the Magik Magik Orchestra is not (lighting design by Matthew Antaky), as she plays a long solo. Dancer Natasha Adorlee Johnson then sings a “The Weaver’s Bonny,” to the orchestra’s accompaniment, after which she joins three other dancers wearing bell-shaped pastel shifts in movement that captures the kinds of relationships girls leading unencumbered kinds of lives often have, a complex of loyalty, jealousy, competition, intuited moves and countermoves, a framework for life before it is fully eclipsed by adolescence. Zivolich confers exploration by pawing the ground with rond de jambes á terre and there are trios doing quick jumps, followed by girly contretemps, as two couple-cliques form, face off, and dissolve, and the iconic pajama party peopled by girls of a certain age (and class) celebrates a brief ensemble moment.
ODC Downtown runs from March 15-25, Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco, CA. Tickets: $20-$70; $15, students. Phone: 415-978-2727.