ODC/Dance Downtown 2017
"Giant" "Blink of an Eye" "Walk Back the Cat" "What We Carry, What We Keep"
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
March 23, April 1, 2017
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano 2017
In its 46tth season each of ODC Dance's two programs featured a reprise and a world premier. Both showed first rate performances that proved once more that the dancers are at their best when they work together on a daily basis. Yet this dying practice also raised questions about programming. How many ways can you work with all-company pieces even if you subdivide the group? Do you really need everyone on stage in every work? Last year's programs included a solo; it was so refreshing. Last year ODC also started what promises to be an ongoing relationship with Kate Weare when she choreographed "Giant" on the dancers. So, perhaps, changes are in the wings even though, admittedly, one of ODC's great assets is to see how its primary choreographers, Brenda Way and KT Nelson, are evolving. (The third member of this trinity, Kimi Okada, unfortunately, only rarely produces work for the professional company.)
Private Freeman and Tegan Schwab in "Giant." Photo Andrew Weeks
In the new fast-paced, but sometimes baffling "Blink of an Eye" Nelson used a number of props. The work seemed focused on Jeremy Smith. We first see him kneeling, keeling over and, in what looked desperation, grabbing his head. Private Freeman repeatedly engaged him, stepping into his space, almost insisting on partnering, nuzzling Smith's head, or riding him like an incubus. He often looked like Smith's smaller self. At another point, Smith became the focal point of a circle dance and was carried aloft. Was he being celebrated or mourned?
The dancers had walked in with flashlights, candles for the apron, an old-fashioned lantern and a spotlight on wheels. They proposed a non-stable space. The lights also directed our gaze. To dress up the working clothes, the ensemble then donned (and exchanged) pieces of costume -- a jabot, lacy cuffs, a collar, a cap, a hoop skirt. Do we carry the past in our body or does what people wear define our perception of them? Choreographically, speaking, I didn't quite see the point. "Blink's" energy looked grounded in urban life. Yet its verticality and repeated upward glances suggested something else. A multi-level work, "Blink" puzzled as much as it elucidated.
A second viewing can be a gift; Weare's "Giant" was. The performance also highlighted the company's wondrous openness to new ideas. They engaged with Weare's pronounced formal bent with grace and confidence. Mirror images, canons, lines, parallels that break up or stress symmetry became powerful because of the purposefulness with which they were performed.
Josie G. Sadan is on maternity leave so Smith partnered the eloquent Tegan Schwab in the stark opening. Stepping ceremonially out of a doorway that then grew, they peeled off into opposite directions, creating another type of opening. It was an invitation for the rest of the ensemble. Straight arms, twisting shoulders, kicking legs, half turns and pirouettes competed with "misplaced" limbs and shaking torsos. They all spoke a language rich on its terms. With its insistence on physical presence in the moment, "Giant" had a sense of solidity much the way a sculpture might. Jay Cloidt's fascinating sound design seemed like an outsider's comment.
The second weekend was given over to two Way works, a brilliant reprise of last year's "Walk Back the Cat" and the premiere of the incident-rich "What We Carry we keep", inspired by questions of hanging on and letting go -- objects, memories, relationships. The serviceable score included Max Richter, the Brooklyn Riders and a ticking clock. With the dancers in plaids, my first reaction was to let go of those but, fortunately, there was more to this rambunctious look at choices made and avoided. "What" is packed with arrested momentum, fleeting connections, duets (Smith and Teegan), solos (Adorlee Johnson) and flying limbs and hair by newcomer Keon Saghari. Despite instances of loneliness and confusion, "What" pleases with its essential embrace of our humanity, silly and messed up that we sometimes are. Splendidly performed, "What" looks at issues of the choices we confront with a generous spirit, a sense of humor and an ongoing belief in the potential of dance as telling us something about ourselves.
"What" opens with the dancers exploding in unisons, escaping from a storm of falling paper. As we will see, they liberated themselves from rules, habits and conventions. Torn paper may not exactly be the most sophisticated metaphor but the stage quickly fills with dance, lusty and athletic, a cornucopia of incidents. As the dancers split into individual encounters, it becomes clear that permanence is as rare as avoiding a pickpocket. Neither is making good choices. Throwing yourself into a lover's arms may turn you upside down. In switching partners you maybe end up where you started, echoes of "La Ronde." A playful ring-around-the-rosie turned into being chained. People connect head to head while attached to someone else. You can also get belly-bumped as a manner of being denied. I am sure they were some sections of sharing which, escaped me. Oddly enough, "What" cut off quite unexpectedly. Maybe it kept trying to make the right decision after the curtain came down.
Despite its confusing title, there is nothing confusing about Way's 2016 "Walking Back the Cat." The title refers to looking at the back-story of a complex event. The source of this piece is Thomas Hart Benton's painting "Middle America" which is a peon to his vision of the country. Way opened it with shadowy figures of dancers and ended it with a splendid Saturday night on the town. A brilliant idea, Paul Dresher's jazz-inflected score sent the trumpet onto the stage to start the celebration. The choreography, brought to life by the angled poses, distorted perspective and dynamic thrust of Benton art. I didn't think that a work so closely inspired by visual art could be stand so strongly on its own two feet. Last year, I said of "Walking" that the piece was "imaginatively conceived, intricately structured, clearly realized and beautifully finished." It's still true.