“Refreshing!”, said the veteran modern dancer heading up the Joyce aisle after ODC/San Francisco’s intermission. We nodded agreement. Then I started wondering what we both meant. As Oberlin Dance Collective, founded in 1971 by Brenda Way, Kimi Okada, and K.T. Nelson, the group had loose affiliations with the developing postmodern scene. When Way was a power at Oberlin College, she brought Steve Paxton, Twyla Tharp, and others there for residencies. In 1976, the company’s move to San Francisco instigated new approaches and styles. The three dances on view at the Joyce display the chops of ODC’s 11 dancers, as well as their creative flair. The choreography—entertaining without being unserious—emphasizes high energy, clean lines, and clarity of attack, whether the moves are distorted or conventionally elegant, verging (very slightly) on balletic.
Nelson’s 2004 RingRoundRozi and Way’s 24 Exposures (2001) and On a Train Heading South (2005) reveal one of the company’s most valuable choreographic traits: an ingenious use of space. The stage picture keeps changing; three diverse activities may occur simultaneously, then one is subtracted from the mix and a new one added while the first continues.
Explosions of motion here counter stillness there. Sudden entrances and exits by a flock wipe the stage momentarily clean. The effect is of a lively cooperative society in which rivalry only occasionally plays a part, and relationships are almost interchangeable. As the evening progresses you come to know and admire each performer.
The commissioned score by Linda Bouchard for Nelson’s piece includes the voices of children calling out indistinctly, and singing an electronically distorted “Frére Jacques.” Almost always some people lounge at the front of the stage, watching their colleagues or (disconcertingly) us. They don’t dance like children. A duet between Anne Zivolich and Justin Flores edges toward violence. As is often the case in ODC works, the dancers play imaginatively with one another’s bodies. There are some striking lifts (once Andrea Flores is carried high overhead like a battering ram); people jump over others or step onto their bent backs and push off. The ending is more somber. Alone onstage, Private Freeman and Daniel Santos prolong a hot, slowly combative encounter, as if they (and the choreographer) had become addicted to the physical possibilities born of anger and lust.
The tone of Way’s 24 Exposures is evident from the first moments. A. Flores is standing on Brian Fisher’s crouched-over back. Fisher straightens up, launching Flores backward into the air; others rush to catch her. Edgar Meyer’s string trio rings playful changes on folk and country music, and the dancers (including Yayoi Kambara, Corey Brady, Marina Fukushima, and Elizabeth Farotte) wear little flowered dresses or pants with variously colored tank tops. In line with the title, Way studs the piece with group poses, as if a camera were snapping the bunch at a Saturday night dance. High points: a fast-footed, swoopy solo by Fisher; an athletic duet for Zivolich and Santos; a sweet, somewhat contentious one for A. and D. Flores (she rolls him offstage at the end); and an eccentrically flirty turn by the irresistible Quilet Rarang.
In On a Train Heading South, Way bravely tackles inexorable environmental change and our current government’s refusal to face the danger and do something about it. Her point is most clearly made by the decor. A dozen blocks of ice, maybe 16-inch cubes, hang in an arch above the stage. Alexander V. Nichols’s lighting makes them glow like diamonds, emeralds, sapphires. As the piece progresses, they slowly shrink; at quiet moments in Jack Perla’s commissioned score, you can hear them dripping. Beneath them, wearing chic white outfits by Cassandra Carpenter, the dancers frolic heedlessly. At times, they’re silly—mincing, strutting, simpering, as if at some never-ending cocktail party. They pay little attention to Zivolich, who rushes among them. If I hadn’t read the program note identifying her as a Cassandra—a prophet of doom no one wants to listen to—I’m not sure I would have seen her despairing tantrums as something more than an unhappy outsider’s venting, or her roughhouse duet with D. Flores as more than a lovers’ quarrel.
The dancing is punctuated by brief political triggers. Freeman wheels on an ice statue of the American eagle while voices talk of market profits and G.W. Bush dissimulates re the Clean Air Act. Two men rush through in bridal veils, followed by an avid crowd; Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress attracts a following. Is Way saying we are distracted by what ought to be non-issues when the earth is being destroyed? Perhaps. In the end, the dancing slowly ebbs, while Zivolich sits in a circle of light, sadly tracing its outline.