Author: odcsf

ODC Stories: Chuck Wilt

chuck wiltAs ODC Theater wrapped up its season exploring home and displacement with Rosy Simas Danse, former ODC Youth & Teen student Chuck Wilt had his own homecoming as a professional choreographer.  Chuck returned with his dance company Una Projects to present Rodeo and Ships and Salsa at ODC Theater.

“ODC was my first home for dance and I still carry it with me everywhere.” – Chuck Wilt

As a member of the teen company, the Dance Jam, from 2007-2009, Chuck danced 20+ hours a week, honing not only his technique and performance skills, but also learning the ins and outs of producing dance. Chuck shared, “Not only was I opened up to new ways of thinking and dancing at ODC, but I was surrounded by a warm, encouraging, and supportive family.”

Chuck graduated from Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Dance in 2013. He was selected to study abroad at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance (SEAD), was awarded a scholarship to Jacob’s Pillow Contemporary Program, and attended Hofesh Shechter’s intensive in London. He has also studied Ohad Naharin’s movement language, Gaga, in New York City, San Francisco, and Tel Aviv for several years.

Then and now: Chuck Wilt as a student at ODC and as a dancer today.

In a Q&A after this month’s performances, Chuck shared that he appreciates being able to come back to San Francisco where there is more space for artistic exploration. For Chuck, the fast pace of life in New York City, coupled with the pressure to succeed, can squash the creative process. Check reflected that “every time I come back to San Francisco, it feels like I can breathe, think and process.”

Another benefit of coming home is that Chuck can spend time with his artistic mentor and former teacher, ODC Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson. When in New York, he sends her videos of his work and KT sends feedback via email and Skype. Nelson shared, “Chuck has serious talent as a performer, choreographer and dance film maker. I look forward to seeing how his vision develops over the next decade and I am privileged to be his mentor.”

Chuck mentioned that with his work, he seeks to encourage dancers’ individuality and humanity, rather than emphasizing a more presentational style. This perhaps is a legacy of his artistic upbringing at ODC.

chuck wilts work_video

A video highlighting Chuck Wilt’s choreography for Una Projects

One of the most poignant moments of Chuck’s return to his dance home was the opportunity to give back and teach the next generation of Dance Jammers in a master class. Now, he is a professional dancer, teacher, and artistic director. We’re so proud of Chuck’s accomplishments and can’t wait to see where his art will take him next!

Mission Local’s profile of Chuck Wilt


Welcome new dancer Katherine Wells to ODC/Dance!

As we are about to embark on our annual ODC/Dance Downtown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, we are thrilled to share with you this close-up portrait of our newest company dancer, Katherine Wells.

Prior to joining the company last September, Katherine performed for over 10 years, working with the Colorado Ballet, Amy Seiwert and Robert Moses’ KIN among others. A highly versatile dancer, she morphs through varied intensities and textures with a mesmerizing integrity and fluidity. In a recent conversation during a rehearsal break, she mentioned that the essence of her investigation as an artist is “to get down to the distilled idea, or the base human emotion of a piece.” In any of the roles that she performs, she moves beyond technique and musicality, digging for the roots of a movement or an emotion, thereby accessing a captivating level of depth. Watching her perform, it is as if one was peeking into the vast landscape of her soul and the journey is both thrilling and enthralling.

Talking to Next Moves students last summer, Katherine shared what she looks for in a choreographer: “I always wants to work with someone who is going to provide a framework where I will have room to do my own work… Also someone who is going to challenge me and give me space to challenge myself.” Katherine recalls that on her first day with the company, dancers were given the task to create movements based on quotes by Ai Weiwei for the making of Brenda Way’s The Invention of Wings. This explorative process happened in silence and was a new way of working for her, as she had previously always relied on sound or a given movement phrase to create material. The challenge of navigating a wider avenue of creative possibilities led to self-discovery and new modes of making.

Beyond contributing to her growth as an artist, joining the company has given Katherine the stability of a steady income. When asked what the major learning experience has been in these past six months, Katherine promptly offers that the possibility to “cook herself dinner on any given evening or pay rent without stress” are novelties that she is still getting used to, after many years of freelance living as a professional dancer. As the burden of constant concern over material issues subsides, she now has time and space for what she does best: rehearsing in the studio and performing on stage.

We sincerely hope that you will enjoy watching Katherine perform as much as we do!

ODC Dancer Katherine Wells

ODC Dancer Katherine Wells

ODC Stories: Costuming “The Velveteen Rabbit”

The costuming of ODC’s The Velveteen Rabbit plays a central role in allowing audiences to share in the splendor and playfulness of the production. In 1989 KT Nelson, the director and original choreographer, worked with Brian Wildsmith, a children’s book illustrator, to create the designs for The Velveteen Rabbit.

Brian Wildsmith’s drawings of the Narrator and Toy Soldiers

Brian Wildsmith’s drawings of the Narrator and Toy Soldier costumes


ODC's The Velveteen Rabbit 2013

Liz Brent making adjustments to the Narrator Costume

Today, Liz Brent, ODC’s Assistant Production Manager and Resident Costumer, is responsible for the upkeep of the costumes. Liz oversees all aspects of the wardrobe, from washing bunny heads and keeping bunny ears perky, to patching trousers, reconstructing beloved costumes from scratch and handling last minute adjustments right before the dancers step onto the stage.

Liz became The Velveteen Rabbit Wardrobe Supervisor in 2011 when the previous supervisor bowed out at the last minute. She had recently moved to San Francisco and was volunteering regularly as an ODC Lobby Monitor in exchange for classes. David Coffman, ODC Production Manager, heard Liz had costuming experience and asked her, “Do you want to do this?” Fortunately for ODC, Liz jumped at the opportunity.

Liz, a born organizer, inherited a wardrobe system in complete disarray. So, with the help of the company members, she developed The Velveteen Rabbit Book to serve as the ultimate guide for records, costumes and props. The book contains everything from pictures of every costume and instructions on setting up props backstage for quick changes, to guidelines on washing and storing bunny heads. “We’re trying to put systems into place,” says Brent, “so if one of us does leave, anyone could come in and know what to do.”


The Velveteen Rabbit Book

The Velveteen Rabbit Book

Liz’s efforts have been immensely successful. While learning more about the fine details of wardrobe supervision and the particularities of designing costumes for dancers, she’s created a valuable tool that helps ensure The Velveteen Rabbit’s story continues to awe audiences while the production crew stays organized.

Come see the show in person. It’s not too late to purchase tickets for a performance of The Velveteen Rabbit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts theater.

ODC Stories
ODC’s creative DNA is made up of thousands of bold actions, curious questions, and intelligent individuals. As a Partner in Creativity, you already know a thing or two about the infectious energy and many stepping stones the ODC Creative Campus has to offer dancers, teachers, choreographers, audience members, and families. ODC Stories is an inside look at some of the inspirational moments we see unfolding daily within ODC’s spheres of influence. Your partnership is key in helping continue to foster the discoveries and growth experiences that advance the impact of our community members in the Bay Area and beyond.

ODC Stories: Creative direction and experimentation blooms in alumni of ODC’s teen company – The Dance Jam

Emma Lanier and Kylie Woodward-Sollesness

Emma Lanier and Kylie Woodward-Sollesness

Some college students take the summer to relax and recuperate. Others chase internships as they look toward the future. But for those with artistic ambition and a history tied to ODC’s nurturing community–laying bold claim to one’s artistic voice ranks just as high in priority, even as young college students.

ODC Dance Jam alumni Emma Lanier and Kylie Woodward-Sollesness reconnected over the summer after their first year in college, and created choreography for their very own dance collective.

This may sound like a tall order for new college students, but through the relationships they built and the training they received in the Dance Jam, Emma and Kylie already know how to collaborate and manage performance projects. ODC Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson and former ODC/Dance member Liz Heenan provided encouragement and mentoring for the month-long summer dance project they called Pilot Run.

Hoping to experiment with the creative power of constraint, Emma and Kylie gave themselves less than 24 total hours of rehearsal time. As current and former Dance Jammers opted in to the summer project, a dance collective began to come together.

In rehearsal, ODC’s values were evinced in Emma and Kylie’s working style. They listened carefully to their dancers and to each other, they thoughtfully examined phrases, but most importantly, they weren’t afraid to keep pushing forward. ODC’s community and support system helped turn their aspirations into reality. Kylie shared with Anna Boyer (our fabulous Development Intern and former Dance Jammer) that she was proud and thankful to have been in the Jam. It empowered her and Emma to take bold strides and truly create their own artistic practices.

Watch Video:

Pilot Run from Emma Halladey Lanier on Vimeo.

Introducing ODC Stories
ODC’s creative DNA is made up of thousands of bold actions, curious questions, and intelligent individuals. As a Partner in Creativity, you already know a thing or two about the infectious energy and many stepping stones the ODC Creative Campus has to offer dancers, teachers, choreographers, audience members, and families. ODC Stories is an inside look at some of the inspirational moments we see unfolding daily within ODC’s spheres of influence. Your partnership is key in helping continue to foster the discoveries and growth experiences that advance the impact of our community members in the Bay Area and beyond.

Stitching the Stories of a Theater Season | By Julie Potter

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography and empathy is first of all an act of the imagination, a storyteller’s art, and a way of traveling from here to there.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

A theater season is a story and a speech as well. It’s armchair travelling and reflecting on ODC Theater’s 2013 season I ask, “Where did you go?” I found myself traveling more through questions, suggestions and empathic moments than crisply legible stories. And that’s good.  That’s what dance does.

Approaching dance, the audience member becomes the spinster making, as Solnit describes, “form out of formlessness, continuity out of fragments, narrative and meaning out of scattered incidents.” To consider the theater season a non-linear narrative, we find a route to meaning through these so-called incidents. We stitch the images, sounds, associations and feelings to arrive at a personal response beyond language. These are the stories, which dance composes.

Taking a long lens on ODC Theater’s 2013 season, curated by Director Christy Bolingbroke specifically around storytelling, it’s clear how many threads wove women’s stories, though not all feminist in nature. Female heroines and protagonists of strength, action and criticality have been represented from Sheetal Gandhi’s potent expression of a determined woman navigating cultural norms and roles in Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife), to Barak Marshall’s no-nonsense, rather violent female bride in And at midnight the green bride floated through the village squareRosanna Gamson’s Layla Means Night offers another shade of femininity and power employing the narrative of Scheherazade – inherently a story about storytelling. Finally, among the 8 works presented during the Walking Distance Dance Festival, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters’ People Like You addressed motherhood, biological clocks and the stories we tell ourselves. Combined, the works illuminated how choice, resources, conditioning and time deeply influence our becoming.


Sheetal Gandhi. Photo by CedarBough T. Saeji.Opening the 2013 season April 19-21, Sheetal Gandhi’s Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife) dances her possibilities via a one-woman show. Gandhi enacts characters inspired by her family. To have options and choice is one sort of luxury but also a burden. What roles and values are prioritized, and for what reasons? How do you live your hybridity?

The roles of daughter-in-law, daughter and wife, link women from around the world, but the expectations of these roles drastically differ from place to place. Gandhi honors her family and North Indian traditions, but by exploring each character in the work, portrays her desire to break from certain elements of her culture. She dances the challenges that accompany choice, acknowledging the sacrifices that come with any chosen path. With choice comes a striving for balance and evaluation of values, and although less overtly represented in the work, Gandhi lives the roles of artist, teacher, student, traveler, circus performer and scholar.

At a reflective pace, Gandhi manipulates her costume and posture to transform into an old woman. As Gandhi embodies the elderly character, she gets the hiccups, which, she explains, is a superstitious sign that someone is thinking of her. We see her lament the life she may have had with another man had her arranged marriage not dictated her path. What does it mean to be a good daughter or wife? For whom do you make your choices? The stories portrayed by Gandhi’s characters read as warnings, no individual truly satisfied or content.

Equally charismatic in her tightly crafted solo as an elder and as a teen who longs for permission to wear a tank top, Gandhi’s presence is big and generous, inviting us to travel and empathize with her through the heaviness of choice. Hers is a thoughtful predicament, illustrated by the montage sequencing of characters. The final quiet image of Gandhi stifling a fluttering hand with the other suggests that there is a “too late.” Bahu-Beti-Biwi reminds us that we must lie in the bed we make, her portrayal of different paths begging the question of what it truly means to make “good” decisions.

Abundance and Scarcity

BodyTrafficWhere choice exists for Gandhi’s character, a scarcity and jealousy manifests in Barak Marshall’s And at midnight the green bride floated through the village square performed byBodyTraffic September 26-29 on a triple bill shared with works by Kyle Abraham and Richard Siegel.  In And at Midnight… good men are hard to find. One at a time, the men attempt to seduce the women by suggestively narrating delicious recipes of cooked lamb and fish, yet when the women gather to watch a film, they munch on simple bread. Abundance and scarcity.

Throughout the work, the women are handled aggressively. One scene features the women presenting themselves individually with great effort to appear attractive and desirable to a man sitting on a bench. Their aggressive labor to please makes them appear as desperate and hungry women. They are discarded one after the other, being dragged and draped over the bench.

Marshall’s choreography employs a humorous physicality to keep the dance in dark comedic territory. Like Gandhi, Marshall utilizes costume and regional music, in his case Israeli folk songs, to hint at a culture. The dance, inspired by his mother’s neighbors, responds to scarcity by portraying ugly female competition, not unlike the cattiness contained in television comedies like Cougar TownAnd at Midnight… is an archetypal story of the woman scorned – more lighthearted than say, Medea, but still ending with actions of anger and retaliation. The bride does not go quietly to sulk. She is angry and hysterical. While And at Midnight… conveys abusive and cruel moments, I don’t think Marshall actually hates women, however it is through a women’s story that he comments on the destructive potential of jealousy.


Rosanna Gamson World/WideRosanna Gamson World/Wide

Rosanna Gamson, on the other hand was driven by the question “Why do men hate women?” as she developed the work Layla Means Night which premiered at ODC Theater October 31-November 3. In Gamson’s eyes, the ancient story of Scheherazade is also about today’s complicity of women. Think about the many women trying not to age with wrinkle creams and liposuction, holding up teenage girls as paragons of beauty. She brings our awareness to the conditioning of mass media and notions of appeal. Gamson’s daughter originated the role of Scheherazade in an earlier version of Laylaand as a mother, Gamson wonders what her daughter considers beautiful.

To look upon this work is complicated. Self-discovery can rise from discomfort, thus revealing information about one’s own conditioning. Because of my personal sensitivity to reinforcing mainstream images of normative female beauty, a tension was elicited by the teen performers of the Dance Jam, many with long hair, red lipstick and slinky black satin dresses. While all willing and informed performers, their youthful presence in Layla Means Night raises the question of innocence, parallel to Scheherazade’s character. The teen performers both washed the hands of audience members and shared sweets, thus providing services and manipulating the audience to participate in an exchange. Innocence alternates with wit and manipulation through the actions of both Scheherazade and the teens. Are they innocent or knowing and calculating? The ambiguity keeps the performance alive and suspenseful.

Gamson’s multisensory and ambulatory site adaptive work choreographs the audience so that time goes backward and forward with different groups witnessing various nights. The relative innocence of the teens is juxtaposed with obvious sexualized imagery such as a silhouetted woman biting a banana. Ultimately Layla Means Nightis a story about how storytelling can save lives and how one woman’s imagination and defiance made her a hero.


Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters in “People Like You”Also addressing the desire to make sense of things, Rachael Lincoln and Leslie Seiters frame their work through narration, which has an invitational effect inPeople Like You,during last year’s Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF May 31-June 1. They stand at a microphone reminding us that “We tell ourselves stories.” They ask after our expectations and even request that when they get to the end of the dance, we “pretend it all works.”

An initial sequence reveals Seiters and Lincoln observing themselves holding round illuminated mirrors. A metronome ticks onstage. Limited time. Death. Biological clocks.  Again, like in Bahu-Beti-Biwi, there is a “too late” looming large. Film segments show the faces of the artists from a perspective similar to that of the mirrors held as the artists closely study their faces, pondering and perhaps checking for the changes of time in their skin. The film also features images of a pregnant Seiters. In front of her, Lincoln wears a white cast of a pregnant abdomen, pointing to the passage of time and allowing the past and present to be in conversation. The specific situation is unclear, leaving the possibility for Lincoln to be imagining or comparing her experience to that of another woman.

Like Gandhi’s work, People Like You addresses choice surrounding motherhood, domesticity, and action, however the attention to time feels more urgent. Where Gandhi lingers in reflection, People Like You builds to a roaring percussion and abruptly ends in blackout.

Experiencing the works of the season in relation to each other the audience becomes the storyteller stitching the dances together in memory. Returning to Solnit’s view of narrative creation, “the storyteller is also a spinner or weaver and a story is a thread that meanders through our lives to connect us each to each and to the purpose and meaning that appear like roads we must travel.” What does the season do? It allows us to exercise our narrative imagination.

Furthermore on this note, author, Alexsander Hamon suggests in The Book of My Lives that storytelling “is a basic evolutionary tool for survival. We process the world by telling stories and produce human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.” Dance is one such engagement. To locate the women’s stories of the 2013 season in the architecture of ODC Theater suits a dance campus founded by three strong community-minded women. In a theater season we travel. We empathize and even learn how to survive by sitting in a dark room and being with the work.

Reclaiming voices and preserving a heritage through dance | By Marie Tollon

Currently in its second edition at ODC Theater, Dance and Diaspora provides opportunities to reflect on issues of cultural identity through the lens of dance and celebrates the multitude of voices that are born out of diaspora. On February 1st and 2nd, this year’s edition showcases two Iranian-born choreographers and performers, Farima Berenji and Shahrzad Khorsandi.

Dance as an art form was banned in Berenji and Khorsandi’s native Iran after the 1979 Revolution. Like Berenji and Khorsandi, many artists and intellectuals fled the country during that time. Their relocation raises critical questions about how diaspora affects the making of art: What is preserved from one’s native dance form when it has been uprooted? Because of their context, are all dances born out of diaspora rendered political? How is identity shaped by displacement and translated into an artwork? In anticipation of their performances, Berenji and Khorsandi provided thoughtful responses to these questions, as they spoke about their work, and shared some of the rich history and background of Persian dance.


Guest Post by Marie Tollon | Between Action and Idea at ODC Theater

Last fall, the Dance Odyssey Project, which creates opportunities for participants to observe, practice and discuss dance at ODC Theater, facilitated a dialogue with visual arts students from the San Francisco Art Institute. Darryl Kirchner’s short film Between Action and Idea captures the essence of this conversation. One shot discloses a piece of linen saturated with scarlet red inks, poignantly reminding of live, warm flesh, while another shot freezes the students experimenting with movement in space, their bodies becoming malleable sculptures. The film evokes the porosity of both art forms, and the capacity for them to inhale, digest and stain each other:

Between Action and Idea: A Collaboration Between ODC Theater and SFAI

Led by artist and SFAI Richard Diebenkorn Teaching Fellow Liam Everett, the first group comprised of graduate students whose practice ranges from photography, video, and painting to sculpture and multi-media installations. In their seminar, students had worked on identifying both the intellectual and emotional systems on which they rely to make. In order to potentially disturb and rearrange these systems of practice, they were invited to observe an open rehearsal with choreographer and ODC Artist-in-Residence Hope Mohr and her dancers.

Hope Mohr Dance in Route 20, premiering April 10-13. Photo by Margo Moritz

Hope Mohr Dance in Route 20, premiering April 10-13. Photo by Margo Moritz

Students were treated to a rare behind-the-scene moment where the choreographer and dancer develop a work from raw material. They observed Mohr calling for a revisit of a particular section, stopping a movement phrase, giving indications, incorporating dancers’ suggestions, weaving the fibers of movement into a form to be revisited and transformed. After spending part of the semester questioning their own way of working, the students became privy to the working process of another artist, in a field and medium that were entirely foreign to most of them. Sculptor and photographer Chris Grunder explained: “I generally view the outcome of my work as being a concrete and objective thing. Once complete it can be viewed in its form continuously. This informs the practice of making it. While watching Hope work with her dancers, it was interesting to consider that ‘completeness’ or ‘finality’ are points at which there is no longer something to visually consume, things have run their course and are over. The perfect practiced form may happen once and never be approached again. Acceptance of this as a method of working is a challenge to patience and control but I have been trying to adapt ephemerality and duration to my own practice since our visit.”

Following the rehearsal, Mohr and her dancers invited the participants to discuss some of the parallels between the making of a dance piece and the creation of a visual artwork. They evoked the tools they use to keep the artwork present and compelling, at a level of working, in an effort to avoid complacency. Students remarked on practical or conceptual restrictions they have imposed upon their craft, such as refraining to use a particular color or material, as a way to explore new avenues and create tension within the work. Mohr explained alternating textures in her dances, such as layering different movement languages, speed or physicality, and working at two different levels: one level conveyed directly through the work, as well as an ongoing and less immediate “subtext.” The full conversation between Mohr and the students is available on Hope Mohr Dance’s blog.

Similarly, a second group of SFAI students, from Everett’s advanced undergraduate painting seminar, used some aspects of the movement workshop they took with choreographer and ODC Artist-in-Residence Scott Wells to inform their studio practice, as recounted in a previous entry.

Scott Wells. Photo by David Papas

Scott Wells. Photo by David Papas

With this exchange, the ODC studio space functioned as a blank canvas on which the painters were encouraged to think about composition, texture and depth, not only through their eyes but also with their entire body. “As a painter, it is easy to let sight become the predominant sense that I utilize in my practice,” mentioned student Ahna Fender.  “Working with Scott reminded me that all of my senses are indeed engaged when I paint, and that by bringing more awareness to them, something deeper and fuller can come forth in my practice.”

Creating a bridge between disciplines, this dialogue questioned how some of the elements inherent to dance could be transposed to other artistic practices. How and in which direction does a painting move? What would it mean for an image to have speed and how can you measure its velocity? Can a painting be thought of as having been choreographed and if so how does the painter imbue this sequencing with a sense of unpredictability? Finally, how can this conversation between dance and the visual arts nourish each other and in what language and/or dialect do they establish their optimal mode of communication?

Disclosure Agreement. Ahna Fender, 2013. Vinyl drop cloth, acrylic, pen, steel, paint cans.

Disclosure Agreement. Ahna Fender, 2013. Vinyl drop cloth, acrylic, pen, steel, paint cans.

Back in their studio, students incorporated these specific questions, and the problems they raise, in a series of paintings. The exhibition Between Action and Idea was curated from this body of work and is on view until the end of the month at ODC Theater. Fender commented on the making of her piece Disclosure Agreement, which is part of the exhibition: “During our workshop with Scott Wells, we explored a variety of trust exercises, allowing ourselves to be seen, guided and moved by other members of the group. With this painting, I wanted to experiment with a similar kind of openness and disclosure, stripping the painting down to its essential elements, allowing it to be bare and inviting a kind of literal and metaphorical transparency into the work.”

Weeks after Mohr’s open rehearsal at ODC Commons, I ran into two SFAI graduate students at the Garage, where Mohr was performing The Metrics of Intimacy with Christian Burns. After the show, I asked one student what he thought of the performance. He candidly answered that although he did not possess the dance background to contextualize the piece, it had urged him to think about the organization and relationships of objects and bodies in space in a way that was both refreshing and relevant to his practice. Previously an unknown artistic territory, dance is now becoming for him a fertile ground for reflection and critical investigation.

Marie Tollon coordinated the Dance Odyssey Project at ODC Theater in the fall 2013. A native of France, she provided community engagement and program support to a number of dance institutions, including the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, Elisa Monte Dance and the French dance festival Les Rencontres Chorégraphiques Internationales, before managing the Cultural Center of the Lycée Français de New York.

A Narrative Way: Choreographic Trends for ODC Dance, 2003-13 | By Julie Potter

Brenda Way

Brenda Way

A deeply sophisticated psychology permeates Brenda Way’s choreography for ODC Dance measuring the strength and self-determining action of the individual against the surrender to forces beyond one’s control. The importance of relationships and solidarity for mediating individual, dynamic and cultural circumstances manifests in the dances through several threads. Surveying the most recent decade of work (from 2003-2013) during which Way created 17 new dances, the narrative trends of the choreography include the woman whole and independent, effort and surrender toward social issues, resilience through relationships, and a biographic story through visual and textual interests. This final thread I conclude having spent time with the artist in the office, at the dinner table and in the studio during 2013. Our conversations deepen my perception of her work. Artists are philosophers in their own right, and through Way’s dances, one shares her lens of inquiry and spirit.

Additionally, humans are creatures of narrative and the tendency to make sense of things lies in the psychology of Way’s work.  Even non-linear constellations of imagery in the dances trigger the narrative impulse. Susan Foster writes that “narrative is inevitable” and in a time-based art form, such as dance, the sequence of action transfers suggestions from the artist, between which the audience fills the gaps. Therefore, in each work there exists what scholar Kathryn Profeta describes as an embedded narrative – that which is offered by the work or artist, and the emergent narrative – the spectator’s narrative which is highly personal and generated by the audience member. Using this framework to survey Way’s work, I will focus most on the embedded narrative, for which there is a visual evidence.

A Woman Whole

In several works since 2003, Way conveys both an empathy for and portrayal of the archetypal “woman unto herself” not in the virginal sense, but rather the portrayal of a woman who is whole, complete unto herself and owned by no man. The works Remnants of Song (2003), On a Train Heading South (2005), In the Memory of a Forest (2009) and Lifesaving Maneuvers (2013) all contain such female solos. Often empowered trailblazers, these characters also seem to oscillate between a sturdy solitude and wistful loneliness of less traveled paths. Way’s female protagonists exhibit a brave strength. They are active forces, suggesting self-determinism.

"In the Memory of a Forest"

“In the Memory of a Forest”

In the Memory of a Forest, a dance-theater work based on a 17-year old woman (Way’s future mother-in-law) walking from Warsaw to freedom in 1941 illuminates the courage of the “woman unto herself” through the role performed by Yayoi Kambara. She emerges alone from a human chain which advances forward and retreats. Running in white and khaki garments through the dark woods, (a dynamic forest projection on the scrim), Kambara embodies a forward-looking woman taking ownership for her future. Appearing and disappearing bodies in the forest film, which create the illusion of additional ensemble figures, suggest a dreamlike remembrance of time’s passage during a long and difficult journey. The projections create an effect similar to the multiplied bodies on film behind those onstage in Lucinda Childs’s Dance (1979) – a sort of dancing with ghosts. With Kambara and other male and female roles from this decade, Way brings forth the broad capacities of individuals, which expand beyond what mass culture assumes and represents of genders. At the end of Forest, four women, including Kambara, assume a partnered arabesque position as the lights dim; they lean forward and amplify the striving of Kambara’s bold character.

Yayoi Kambara in "Livesaving Maneuvers"

Yayoi Kambara in “Livesaving Maneuvers”

Almost five years later, Kambara stands alone again in Lifesaving Maneuvers. Amongst depictions of supportive friendship and through partnering, Kambara peers from behind the translucent backdrop, following the periphery in solitude. Here she projects inner-strength separate from the groupings composed by the rest of the ensemble.

Consider also the woman’s solo performed by Annie Zivolich in On a Train Heading South. Under an arc of melting ice droplets, Zivolich gesticulates in a frenzied struggle apart from the ensemble. She is on her own as the noticer and alarmist while the rest of the performers enact etiquette of party mingling. Zivolich does not participate in the luxurious rituals of society depicted, speaking instead through tireless and full physicality until she is finally silenced and literally smothered by Daniel Santos. In this work, Zivolich remains dedicated to the less popular path, even as it ends in defeat.

"Remnants of Song" Photo by Andrea Flores

“Remnants of Song” Photo by Andrea Flores

“Remnants of Song” Photo by Andrea Flores

Finally, in Way’s earlier work of this period, Remnants of Song, which follows the story of twelfth century French lovers, Heloise performed by Yukie Fujimoto the woman involved with Peter Abelard’s character, Justin Flores, exhibits a confidence in deviating from the all female ensemble. (Sections of choreography among same sex ensembles provide a common signature of Way’s work, repeating again in Lifesaving Maneuvers, Book of Hours and Waving Not Drowning. We see male and female tribes mobilize repeatedly, a suggestion of gendered kinship and common experience.) To the haunting Gregorian chant, Fujimoto gently traces the space around her face with her hands and rocks in a deep plie as part of the female ensemble, exhibiting tender femininity. These sections alternate with her solos of ostracized removal.  Finally she trudges forward, void of joy, conveying a loneliness that accompanies her choice to diverge.

Imprint of the Contemporary Moment

Socially motivated narratives also trend through the decade with works like On a Train Heading South (2005), Time Remaining (2006), and completing the trilogy, A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes (2007), as well as Unintended Consequences: A Meditation (2008) and Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) (2010). These narratives questioning social norms provide a tension against the strong individual solos previously mentioned. They challenge self-determinism, pointing to societal force as a primary and oppressive educational voice – the cultural apparatus. With these narratives, Way reminds us to pay attention to the troubling issues of our time and to the imprint of society. Embedded in these works is a residue of imminent darkness and alarm. They reveal individuals being somehow overwhelmed by larger cultural and societal phenomenon. Surrender, stagnation or defeat result to varying degrees.

Looking again at On a Train Heading South, the work illustrates a narrative of social concern, in this case related to climate change. Similarly, the other works of Way’s trilogy, Time Remaining and A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes also explore social issues: righteousness and conformity and fear of terrorism respectively. Gestures of covered eyes and ears performed by the ensemble, indicate the chosen ignorance to climate change against Zivolich’s alarm in On a Train. The ensemble dances around an ice sculpture and remains unaffected by audio newscasts in the sound score. Wide legged, parallel bourees (another recurring movement in Way’s work) show the dancers literally tiptoeing around the climate issue.

In Time Remaining, we see the deterioration of individual will through manipulative partnering sequences with both mannequins and dancers. The dancers appear droopy, tentative and puppet-like in these duets. For example we see Private Freeman conduct a sequence firmly tilting, spinning and grabbing a mannequin. No big deal. But when he repeats it again with Marina Fukushima and later Andrea Flores the effect is unsettling that there is little difference between the handling of the mannequin and the women. Some private struggle appears when Freeman dons a white blazer and wrestles a tie from around his own neck. Flores’s solo also demonstrates a writhing in one’s skin while three upright women properly shuffle past. A montage of devotional prayer gestures arrives late in the work suggesting the religious influences of conformity.

In addition, the darkly atmospheric imagery created by Hiraki Sawa’s film in A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes, with duets by Flores and Freeman, creates a sense of paranoia and violation as the choreography is performed against domestic footage – of a kitchen, a bedroom – places in a home where one ideally feels safe. Something unusual and foreboding exists in this domestic sphere of women in floral sundresses. Tiny airplanes drift slowly over a stove, around a bed, projecting a sense of doom in this post-9/11 age of paranoia. The dancers stack chairs into a false fortress of protection to a chilling effect.

Unintended Consequences: A Meditation deviates from much of Way’s work with isolated deliveries of movement and a relative absence of connected partnering relationships. In this commission for the Equal Justice Society, the dancers enact abstractions of violence, such as a person hanged. Concluding with ensemble unison, the work seems to evoke Sherry Turkle’s 2012 book “Alone Together.” Laurie Anderson’s music contributes to a sense of sobering stagnation with its steady electronic stasis and vocals beyond language.

"Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance)"

“Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance)”

An additional socially motivated narrative from this period, Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) employs a different style altogether. While Unintended Consequences reads as introspective, Waving Not Drowning is overt and declarative, bolstered by Pamela Z’s use of text from a 1960’s volume of manners and style protocol for the sophisticated woman. The knowing looks and presentational delivery emphasizes the body as object as surgical marks are drawn in marker onto dancer Quillet Rarang’s abdomen and sexualized gestures highlighting breasts and buttocks repeat. Hearing phrases like “A really elegant woman never wears black in the morning” in the sound score and seeing the dancers mock the protocol, the dance makes obvious the troubling fixation on appearance and unrealistic, yet mainstream norms of beauty and pressure specifically on women. During the final section when the women build paper dresses on the males standing as mannequins, one can contrast the restriction of these delicate garments on objectified bodies with the expressive dynamism of Brazilian Neo-concrete artist Helio Oticica’s Paragoles – cape-like garments meant to be inhabited and activated by human motion. The men in paper dresses demonstrate complicity, whereas the cape garment from Brazil’s Tropicalia era is an indicator of individuality, expression and agency. With Waving Not Drowning, as well as the aforementioned works, Way tells us to pay attention to the messages embedded in our contemporary culture with a critical eye.

Support and Solidarity

Possibly the most harmonious narratives embedded in this decade of Way’s work are those which acknowledge the importance of relationships – partnerships, family and community. The dancers, who offer support and serve as witnesses and confidants, appear to alleviate suffering of certain individual characters as they grapple with the ups and downs of life. The psychology of coping, adapting and accepting is strongly braided into this third type of narrative and speaks to the healing potential of art. The most striking example is Lifesaving Maneuvers (2013), which follows Way’s Investigating Grace (1999) by 14 years and converses in particular with that NEA American Masterpiece.  Both of these works elicit a heightened degree of humanity and resilience. They conjure change and passage, a sort of liminality and communitas. The dances conclude differently than the previous group of works discussed, in that they acknowledge and navigate life’s beautiful and ugly parts through human relationships.

"Lifesaving Manuevers"

“Lifesaving Manuevers”

To be carried by others thematically permeates Lifesaving Maneuvers from the opening diagonal of pairs, women firmly extended on the backs of the men, followed by piggy-back partnering. Later in a trio, Zivolich is carried between two women, all facing backward, her feet walking inches off the ground. Daring leaps and catches weave trusted partnering into the work, in which relationships are paramount. Compare the theater of composure, demonstrated by separate serpentines of men and women gesturing conversational flourishes, with the pure moments of union, compassion and humanity. These latter moments are expressed through contact and support, including female and male kinship. The psychology of this work addresses weathering the changes and challenges of life, and because of its universal theme, Lifesaving Maneuvers transfers a healing communication of survival, coping and the importance of a people landscape. The effect parallels the human resilience conveyed in Investigating Grace, a signature work of the choreographer.

"Lifesaving Maneuvers"

“Lifesaving Maneuvers”

While Lifesaving Maneuvers demonstrates the role of support during adversity, it’s worth noting how the narrative of 24 Exposures (2001), just prior to the discussed decade of work, reveals community in more harmonious contexts of the everyday. We see a parade, several joyous gatherings, as well as duets where a posed figure is tenderly and slowly rotated. The imagery of the pairs evokes tiny spirals of time and developing trust. The brightness of 24 Exposures, driven by melodies of Edgar Myer, Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor reminds us of the joy in community that exists not only when support is needed but ongoing in order to sharing and making meaning together.

An Elemental Narrative

"Triangulating Euclid"

“Triangulating Euclid”

Finally, from Way’s dances, the structural elements drawn from aesthetics, architecture and books over the course of a decade create a narrative of their own, potentially a biographical portrait of the dance maker. Book of Hours (2007), Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) (2010), Architecture of Light (2011) and Triangulating Euclid (2013) all offer examples of these visual and textual leanings. Literary elements, both syntactical form and assertion of story, permeate Way’s style, however with dance as opposed to books, the employment of these elements through bodies offers a different kind of freedom released from language: non-linear, illegible and full of possibility.

Book of Hours takes its inspiration from an illuminated medieval manuscript, Les Tres Riches Heures due Duc de Berry. The groupings of dancers suggest a progression of life stages from the playful and floor-bound Rarang and Erin Dernstine, to small male and female ensembles of kinship, giving way to the couplings of male/female pairs. The manuscript drives the content of life cycles present in the dance and also reveals a choreographer’s art object of interest.

"Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance)"

“Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance)”

Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) includes the words of Genevieve Antoine Dariaux from her 1964 book “A Guide to Elegance” in Pamela Z’s score, allowing the audience to experience the structural syntax of declarative sentences with the varying rhythms of punctuated movement phrases. In this case a book serves as the point of departure, structural element and reflection of Way’s curiosities and critiques. Furthermore, Triangulating Euclid, a triptych, hints at Way’s affection for books, ideas, knowledge transfer and art objects. In this collaboration with KT Nelson and Kate Weare, Way employs art conservator Karen Zukor’s relationship with works on paper, specifically a rare original edition of Euclid’s Elements, to illuminate the elegance of math.

"Triangulating Euclid"

“Triangulating Euclid”

Included in the biographical portrait that colors the narratives of Way’s work is the accretion of individual styles and voices of the company dancers, with whom the choreographer works. Way appreciates how the dancers’ performance of material shapes the emergent stories and acknowledges the inspiration and affect of, for example, Shannon Mitchell’s dramatic capacity, the fine articulation and possibility of nuance demonstrated by Freeman, Zivolich’s fiery appetite, Fujimoto’s elegance and Kambara’s personal signaling to name a few.

"Architecture of Light" Photo by Margo Moritz

“Architecture of Light” Photo by Margo Moritz

Finally, the site-specific work Architecture of Light created to open the new ODC Theater features Elaine Buckholtz’s lighting, ODC Dance plus ten additional dancers, audience participants woven into the finale, and the theater – all players in the dance that doubles as a guided tour. Through building design, environment, as well as social interactions of people in the space, Way combines aesthetics and architecture to activate a classy and celebratory shindig, extending multi-dimensionally beyond facility, dance or community gathering. The work reveals Way as a savvy and generous gatherer welcoming others into her world of aesthetics, beauty and virtuosity.

"Architecture of Light" Photo by Margo Moritz

“Architecture of Light” Photo by Margo Moritz

It’s no surprise that this loosely biographical narrative emerges, since Way is indeed an aesthetics scholar, voracious reader and avid writer herself. These elements indicate a value of learning, story and environment, all at the heart of the ODC campus in San Francisco’s Mission District. As a result, this narrative, while present in the ephemera of Way’s dances, has the most concrete existence by also manifesting in the buildings and facilities, which support a full creative life cycle of dancers in mind, body and community.

Modern Family

Scott Wells Dance “Father On” Photo by David Papas

Scott Wells Dance “Father On” Photo by David Papas

To “soldier on” means to continue doing something although it is difficult; to cntinue to do something in a determined way, even when you know you may not succeed. In Father On the unanswerable question follows: What does it mean to be successful at parenting anyway?

In this work, five men (four fathers, one expectant): Wells, Sheldon Smith, Stephen Buescher, Christoph Schultz, and Rajendra Serber,  illuminate the challenge of fatherhood with refreshing earnestness. During an opening poker night scene, the men ask each other how fatherhood is really going. “Great…” “Hard…” The game breaks down into thrown chips and spectacle. Viscerally we feel the craze of which they speak as the men slide across the table, throw one another with abandon and eventually wilt in exhaustion. The dance scores throughout the work express play, difficulty, joy and surrender. The crafted games and movement phrases reinforce the importance of community and the relief that accompanies knowing one is not alone in a challenge.


Scott Wells and Sheldon Smith, Photo by David Papas

Scott Wells and Sheldon Smith, Photo by David Papas

While I don’t have children of my own, Father On dug my well of empathy for parents. The artists employ humor through their personal stories as well as physical comedy in numbers such as the “Sperm Folk Dance.” Through absurd outbursts like the folk dance as well as the hilariously exaggerated enactment of a parenting class, which occurs late in the work, the men seem to ultimately surrender to the high-stakes demands of being a father, both the beautiful and ugly parts of the role.

“You live in Berkeley and use Pampers?!” a dancer squeals. The work is entertaining and honest, offering more human emotion and vulnerability than Wells’s last piece performed at the theater, the acrobatic Parkour Deux, part of the Walking Distance Dance Festival. In Father On when the men turn the zany up to eleven, climbing the walls and unscrewing the lighting gels in regression, ODC theater director Christy Bolingbroke puts the smack down in a staged cameo. “Don’t make me come over there!” she rules.

Sections of play are balanced by a handful of quiet and contemplative moments, some of which feature the artists playing instruments – a guitar, a kid piano. In a duet with four arms intertwined around the same guitar, Wells tenderly shows Scultz how to play, as if teaching a child through repetition and patience. The dance ends peacefully as a slightly discordant lullaby brings the lights down. Everything will be ok.

Scott Wells & Dancers presents Father On at the ODC Theater December 5-8.