ODC/Dance Downtown, March 22, 2012 [Review]
Guide: Modern Dance in America
The second program on ODC’s Dance Downtown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco featured three works choreographed by the three Artistic Directors of the ODC. The San Francisco-based ODC Dance Company was founded in 1971 by Brenda Way, and is now among the leading professional Modern dance companies and training programs on the West Coast. The audience was perhaps the largest and most vocally enthusiastic I’ve seen at a Modern dance performance, testifying to ODC’s popularity within the community.
The program opened with a world premiere: “Cut-Out Guy” by KT Nelson, with an ambient electronic music score by Ben Frost that shifted between thick, driving textures and quiet canvases of sound. This piece featured only the male dancers of the company, clothed simply in shorts and white shirts with sparse backdrops of dark colors (lighting by Dave Robertson), and was inspired by the choreographer’s experiences watching male wrestling teams in her son’s middle and high school (according to her program note). The dance explored tensions between strength and vulnerability, determination and awkwardness, expression and frustration.
The piece featured each of the dancers in turn in a series of duets and solos, and seemed carefully custom-made for the individual styles of movement and body types in the group: at one point a small, agile dancer tucked himself into the frame of a taller dancer and climbed over the larger dancer’s body. A dancer with a balletic quality takes on broad, graceful movements.
A number of unusual kinds of movement were featured extensively in this piece. The predominant leitmotif of the dance: the dancers took courageous, determined leaps then crashed to the floor in a carefully cultivated recklessness (taking the “recovery” out of Doris Humphrey’s famous concept of “fall and recovery”!). Dancers also slid across the floor on slippered feet and sometimes on their knees, scrambling and shifting nervously. They embraced or fought with each other in ambiguous, impersonal moments of intimacy. Overall, the dancers did a wonderful job of living the choreography with strength, grace, and commitment.
“Cut-Out Guy” was the most overall compelling work of the evening, for me, though I felt a lack of development over the course of the piece. Most of this relatively long dance offered elaborations rather than new discoveries, and based on a first viewing I came out of the piece with roughly the same impression as I had in the first several minutes.
Kimi Okado’s I Look Vacantly Over the Pacific… Though Regret (2011) explored one theme in three movements: lost in translation. The title comes from a Japanese pencil box, and the piece goes on to explore awkward misunderstandings between two cultures. The first movement explored language: the dancers performed word-for-word gestural interpretations of cliche English phrases (“beat around the bush,” “hung out to dry,” etc) from an ESL learning tape. The second movement was a manic interpretation of customary gestures of of greeting and insult. The third explored imported pop culture, with a Japanese interpretation of 1960s surf and psychedelic music as the high-energy score.
The subject was inherently compelling and the choreographer took many risks in making this humorous and bizarre piece. However, the piece fell flat for me: it was self-conscious and overwrought in its attempt to exude quirky satire, and the musical score—a combination of commissioned new music, found music, and speech recordings—felt more hokey than kitschy.
Part of a Longer Story (2006) by ODC’s founder Brenda Way, a dance to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in D, took a far more lyrical, neo-classical approach than either of the two preceding pieces. It reminded me in many ways of the works of Mark Morris (e.g. Mozart Dances or L’allegro) in that it took historical music as a starting point for creating delicate, charming dances that draw on diverse stylistic influences and are integrated with witty humor.
The relationship between the music and the movement on a micro level was clear in many parts of this dance: the dancers would often visually mimic the contour and gesture of the clarinet soloist’s line. But this didn’t come through on a macro level: the overall clarity of Mozart’s musical form and repetitions of musical phrases were generally not mirrored or responded to in the dance, so the structural clarity of both dance and music were obscured. Brenda Way made an entirely reasonable commitment not to be entirely tied down to the music’s phrase structure, but dancers’ shifts between mirroring and disregarding the music felt almost random.
The center of Part of a Longer Story is a gorgeous, emotionally intense love duet between two dancers—the middle slow movement. The dancers drag, carry, lift, attract, and repel against each other, evoking a myriad of emotional complexities, and the two dancers exuded clarity and intensity. I would have rather watched this without music altogether.
The use of humor in this piece generally lacked the organically infused wit that Mark Morris has often been able to pull off. When a dancer interrupts a sequence of lyrical solos to “shake their booty,” for instance, it lacks spontaneity or necessity. Humor in dance seems incredibly difficult to achieve gracefully, and I feel it has to come from a place that is genuine.
The evening featured masterful dancing by the company and distinctive and mature choreographic visions, but I left the venue craving some of the rigorous structural clarity of Martha Graham’s choreography in which every movement is carefully considered, every turn of the head or lift of the leg is expressive, and every dance is a closed world in which there is exactly as much or as little going on as there needs to be.