Brenda Way’s High Mark

Brenda Way’s High Mark

ODC celebrates 35 years with new building and environmental warning

ODC was the first modern dance company in the United States to build its own residential facility in 1976, and in September the San Francisco organization expanded its mission and operations by opening ODC Dance Commons, a 23,000-square-foot dance and performing arts facility in the Mission District. Founded by Brenda Way in 1971, the Oberlin Dance Collective, as it was originally known, is a major force in the dance world—not just the Bay Area—and not least for the exuberant 10-member company, which kicks off its anniversary tour in New York City this October.

On the program for the company’s performances is a timely and satirical new work by Way that in light of recent events takes on greater meaning and urgency. Like last summer’s big-budget movie, “The Day After Tomorrow,” “On a Train Heading South” looks at environmental issues. It focuses on social denial and complacency in the face of conspicuous environmental degradation. The piece revolves around a Cassandra figure whose predictions and attempts to communicate go unheeded.

“It’s a little felicitous,” Way said in a recent interview regarding the timing of her latest creation for the company “It’s also an issue I’ve been engaged in for quite a while, as a Californian and as a mother. But I had never thought about it artistically until I began the collaboration with the composer [Jack Perla]. I had this idea for the stage setting of a 750 pound block of ice hanging over the dancer’s heads and dripping on stage, and no one noticing. The image ties in with the notion of weapons of mass distraction—like passing baggy pants legislation instead of clean air. The humor in this helped me move forward; the whole fracas about gay marriage, Monica Lewinsky, etc., when things like climate change affect the condition of our collective lives. We focus on things that are not our business, and I try to find humor in that juxtaposition.”

Instead of one giant, cumbersome cube creating potentially hazardous dancing conditions, the pragmatic set consists of 12 large blocks of ice suspended on iron rods that melt over the course of the piece. The dripping is audible as it hits a silver floor covering, which casts an alluring luster on the dancers, even as it serves as reflection for this not-quite-imaginary culture of narcissism.

“RingRoundRozi, “choreographed by Way’s partner KT Nelson is also featured on the company’s New York City program. “It’s a hard, driving, abstract piece,” said Way. “You can tell from what we’re doing that we are living in dark times. There’s a vigorous, child-like extreme energy in the work, verging at times on hysterical, what we refer to as innocence exploding. The overarching idea is that these are terrible times.”

Sure to be a treat, “24 exposures,” rounds out the bill, a work that Way said, “frames the history of movement development of the company. With dancers at a gathering, it begins with walking in formations, which was an early focus of the work. And it evolves into real dancing, into what has happened.”

“It feels great to be a survivor,” said Way. “We just opened our new building with five studios, a clinic for dancers, a Pilates center, and more. We’ve dedicated a lot of space to gathering. We’re pulling together the energy and the will to go forward as a dance community. The goal is to survive in larger numbers. After the dot-com boom and bust, we’ve reconstituted our collective strength. I want to work toward dropping distinction barriers between different kinds of dance, to continue to evolve as a community. And to expand the purview of a dancer’s life. “

For more information about the ODC’s activities in the Bay Area, visit