writers on dancing


"something about a nightingale"

ODC Unplugged
an evening of dance work-in-progress
ODC Theater
San Francisco, California
September 20, 2004

By Ann Murphy
copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy
published October 4, 2004

After 28 years in San Francisco, Brenda Way has lost none of her intellectual glimmer or mordant, one-liner wit. She has a quick, wry humor that often takes her own vulnerabilities as material and offers them back to us to provoke, charm, and even seduce us. Yet what was most evident Monday evening two weeks ago as she took the mike and talked to her audience is that Ms. Way has matured over nearly three decades in San Francisco by crystallizing, the way metamorphic rock solidifies and strengthens under extreme geological pressure to produce such lovely stuff as marble. She has become the modern dance community's bedrock.

This is not to slight any of the other critical characters in the dance community who are crucial to its variety and wellbeing. I sincerely believe that, as in the sciences, each person working in the field potentially contributes to its advancement, even if his or her name never becomes a household word or is recognized as an inventor. But it is Brenda Way who has turned herself into the community's Google among an array of talented but less potent Jeeves.

What do I mean? I mean that during the varied and numerous crises that have ambushed the dance community through the decades—and there have been many, from the decline of funding, the devastation of AIDS, the growing demise of touring, and the profound and seemingly irrational enmity of the SF Chronicle's last full time dance critic to her company, not to mention personal tragedies of her own, Ms. Way has not only held firm. She has used adversity as a challenge. When disaster hits, this lady is someone we should want leading us into the trenches, and, in fact, that perhaps is what she is doing.

As dance space was devoured by the tech monsters, as good souls are taken over by zombies in "Shawn of the Dead," Ms. Way decided not merely to cling to the ODC space, but to enlarge it by 23,000 square feet by buying and refurbishing a warehouse across the road. She intends it as an arts center with six studios, 3 performance spaces, an office complex, a dance injury clinic, a Pilates training center and a café. It may do for the Bay Area what Dance Theater Workshop did for New York's modern dance scene, maybe more, although some fear it will be our Microsoft, annihilating competition, if only through its greater scale and power. Ms. Way has described the gestating ODC theater as a space that will anchor the future for young dancers who need a place not only to take class and see work, but also to be mentored or to gather in conversation where dance and issues that affect all art can be aired.

An anti-intuitive move in these harrowing, war-filled times? Yes, but visionary. Empire building, as some fear? Maybe. But as millions of progressive voters have learned in this election cycle, if you don't build a counterforce together, you have no foothold from which to fight for a vision of what you believe is good and right. Instead you become lost in the doomed business of what Freud so rightly called "the narcissism of petty differences," which is one of the dance community's greatest threats.

As most here know, Brenda Way is a brilliant business woman. Twenty years ago she was resented far and wide among middle level and grassroots dancemakers for having the know-how, and maybe the connections, the verbal suavity and the fearless ease among powerholders, to get goodies others didn't or couldn't get. I wasn't immune from those resentments, being the daughter of an IRA-supporting lover of the underdog. But business acumen alone can't keep a company alive as long as ODC. Ms. Way's secret is that she makes dances that celebrate the feminine and masculine in both men and women in their deeply sexy, intensely sensual interlock of squiggly, wormy, fiercely athletic movements where the pelvis is as important as the feet or arms. "nightingale" underscored this once again. Hers are dances filled with an air of communal bondedness and audiences identify with and love to watch them. Typically, they're deeply clever works that seduce from the outside, as last year's "Noir" did, with structural or intellectual subtleties subsumed in surface charm. It is dance that is accessible and sexy but very smart.

Most of us understand, living in the belly of capitalism, that businesses thrive as long as they remain either essential to day-to-day life (in ways tangible or intangible), or have the capacity to adapt to the changing needs of the market as that market evolves. Anyone who lived through the Reagan era and watched how the requirements of the marketplace were forced upon dance companies in a manner inconceivable in the early days of modern dance has to grasp that the art became inextricably bound with the economic structures of society as never before. In the visual arts, artists have been trying to subvert that Reaganesque bond for 20 years or more. But in dance, where physical space and human time have to be bought and the art is communal, not solitary, such anti-social subversion is exceedingly difficult to pull off.

And subversion isn't Ms. Way's point in any case. Ms. Way is one of those unusual dancemakers who has been able to take market demands, make them her own, and use the status quo to further her art, which she herself describes as a blend of high and low elements. It may not be radical. It may not change the art form. But what it has done is offer the modern dance scene here an indispensable counterforce to entropy. In a fragile artistic environment, where there is no longer a full-time dance critic writing for ANY of the daily newspapers and all but one of the weekly papers has given up dance coverage, that bulwark is a great gift.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Way presented one of her "showings" of a new work she entitles "something about a nightingale." I hadn't attended one of these informal viewings in years, largely because it isn't kosher to write about work that's still cooking, unless one is writing about the process of showing works in progress per se. But the internet changes the parameters of journalism. One can write musingly about ideas or issues that newspapers are uninterested in. One can keep a sort of diary, or one can explore something, even in an unfinished way, like this.

I wanted to glimpse the new work, but I also wanted to see what was up, more generally—who would show, what the mood was. I was impressed. The theater was packed, filled with supporters, family, dancers and some uninitiated dancegoers who were the most excited participants in the post question and answer period. The mood was festive. At the outset, Ms. Way took the mike and offered, first, a history of her own career from her early days as a bun-head at the School of American Ballet (New York City Ballet), to Oberlin College, to the present. Then she had her dancers demonstrate various ways in which modern dance has been and can be built, from the application of a task (fall down 6 times in 10 seconds), to the creation of gestures, on to ever more complex assemblages of movement based on something as banal as a cliché. The audience was rapt, and one could almost feel the physical pleasure the viewers got in seeing the mechanics of a dance under construction and then the way those mechanical elements could actually lead to a duet, a dance. I loved the poetry of it—the way delight can be wrung from the ordinary, what surprises can be conjured from the banal, and the constant vivid humanity of ODC's dancers-Brian Fischer, Yukie Fujimoto, Daniel Santos, Annie Zivolich, Andrea Flores, Private Freeman, Justin Flores, YakoiKambara, and Corey Brady.

The only thing to say about "nightingale" right now is that it has a fluttery, avian quality, beautiful men's work, and a great deal of movement based on interlocking limbs that first made me think of my kids' Lego constructions on the one hand and of chromosomes splitting on the other. I can't resist what nightingale conjures for me: the magical bird of fairy tale, the melodious male thrush that sings at night, and the heroic Florence Nightingale who was at the front lines of the Crimean War. The next Unplugged showcase is Monday, November 8, six days after the election.

Photo on front page:
Brenda Way, with KT Nelson, at the Izzies.  Photo:  Marty Sohl.
Volume 2, No. 37 October 4, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy


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last updated on September 20, 2004