Legendary local dance company celebrates 50 years of modern movement | Culture

“Like a racehorse out of the gate” is how the Brenda Way describes the members of her ODC/Dance company as they take the stage and perform. “Beautiful when running, and so exciting,” she elaborates.

Local audiences will be able to see ODC in motion — in a live San Francisco setting, for the first time since the pandemic began — when the company presents its 2022 “Dance Downtown” shows and marks 50-plus years of contemporary dance-making. The occasion celebates the high-energy and community-focused dance that ODC is known for.

Performances take place Thursday, March 31 through Sunday, April 10 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. A fundraising gala is set for Friday, April 1.

“I made the right choice,” says Way, who, despite receiving lots of dance training during childhood didn’t initially see dance as her vocation.

Her mother, a dance teacher, enrolled her in classes when she was pint-sized and she went on to study under ballet giant George Balanchine. Way thought she’d pursue politics and even considered running for the New York State Senate. But a faculty offer came from Oberlin College, in Ohio, diverting her back to her mother’s field. There, the classically trained Way, always one to pave her own path, embraced what she calls the “dark side” — modern dance.

Ballet in the 1960s was more rigid than now, she says, noting that instruction was largely “about the French steps.” Modern and contemporary dance allowed her to be more inventive and create work reflective of a larger range of human movement.

Way founded ODC/Dance — originally the Oberlin Dance Collective — in 1971. She has remained its artistic director all these years, becoming a noted choreographer who produces work that is athletic (“ODC is both dance and sports,” says Way), joyful , emotional, community-involving and concerned with the issues of the day (climate change was the subject of one of her talked-about pieces).

Since arriving in the Bay Area in 1976 on a yellow school bus during the post-hippie period, the entirely women-founded ODC/Dance company has performed for more than 2 million people worldwide. The ODC site in the Mission District — which, in addition to the dance company, contains a theater, a dance school, a dance community clinic and other components — has become a major contemporary dance center and a place-to-be for artists.

Way, meanwhile, has choreographed more than 85 works over ODC’s 50-plus years, for both ODC and other institutions, including Stanford Lively Arts, San Francisco Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“Dancing Downtown,” ODC’s annual spring performance, “has two main ideas this year,” Way says, “coming back and looking back.”

Program A, “On Renewal,” embraces the pandemic-age experience of joining the world again. Program B, “On Reflection,” remembers personal challenges and explores inner thoughts and feelings. Each program contains one new piece by an award-winning guest choreographer, and one seminal work choreographed by Way.

Program A features the world premiere of “Vamonos” (“Let’s Go” in Spanish), choreographed by Dexandro Montalvo, former director of Dance Theater of San Francisco. Way describes Montalvo as a “talented, spirited, connected artist” who has created a “highly physical, exciting, full-company piece with hip hop, ballet and contemporary dance.”

Completing Program A is Way’s “Speaking Volumes,” an invigorating 2005 piece that illustrates how a single idea can bloom into vital community action. As the work progresses, the number of performers increases to 30, with ODC alumni and Dance Jam and community members among the mix. Jay Cloidt composed the music.

Program B, “On Reflection,” includes the world premiere of “No Alibi,” choreographed by Amy Seiwert, artistic director of the locally based contemporary ballet company Imagery. Danced to the music of Leonard Cohen — sung by Cohen and artists such as Roberta Flack and Nina Simone — the dynamic, full-company dance explores the gamut of emotions in Cohen’s songs. “It’s very interior and reflective,” says Way of Seiwert’s work. “There’s sadness in Leonard Cohen’s work.”

Seiwert’s piece is paired with Way’s “Investigating Grace” (1999), a personal dance about the unpredictability of life. Way created this work after her grown son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Performed to pianist Glenn Gould’s recording of JS Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and named a masterpiece by the National Endowment for the Arts, the dance is about a mother’s love, trauma and hope. It might also be seen as a COVID-era look at coping with dark uncertainty.

Looking back, Way remains thankful that she chose art over politics, the latter of which has gotten unbearably ugly in recent years. She says dance has made her richer on the inside.

Way fondly recalls the post-1960s counterculture days when she and her ODC cohorts traveled from Ohio to the Bay Area on that yellow school bus. No, “it didn’t have flowers painted on the side,” she says. But it did say “Dancing” in large Helvetica type.

Back then, Way says, the local climate was more dance-friendly than today’s. More small dance companies were operating in the Bay Area. More funding sources existed. She attributes the current scenario in large part to the loss of newspapers, which has resulted in a dearth of dance criticism. Dance journalism got people interested and invested, she says. “Critics keep the conversation going.”

For the present, Way is excited about ODC’s upcoming return to the live stage. An Internet presence, while important during a pandemic, isn’t enough, she says. “Online, people have their own little tunnel.”

Looking forward, Way is keeping the ODC flame vital and continues to believe in how dance can affect people. “People are inspired to act when their emotions are stirred,” she says. “Art can do that.”

“All we can do is what we think is important and hope it will fire up a new generation.”

IF YOU GO:

“Dancing Downtown

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Blue Shield of California Theater, 700 Howard St., SF

When: March 31 to April 10; April 1 is 50+ Anniversary Gallery.

Admission: Tickets start at $25

Contact: (415) 863-9834 or odc.dance/downtown

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