Modern dance explosion

San Francisco ensemble on tour

Posted: Thursday, April 20, 2006

Thirty years ago, according to company lore, the Oberlin Dance Collective moved 2,500 miles from Ohio to San Francisco in a large, yellow school bus.

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Last fall, the ODC (now officially called the ODC San Francisco Modern Dance Co.) celebrated its 35th anniversary by opening a $10 million, 23,000-square-foot performing arts commons with 33,000 square feet of performing and studio space.

"It's just a spectacular, wonderful new chapter for us," founder Brenda Way said. "We've had a big birthday celebration."

Way, KT Nelson and Kimi Okada are the three resident choreographers at ODC - an National Endowment for the Arts-supported troupe renowned for its combination of modern dance and explosive ballet movement.

Way, a former student of the legendary Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine, founded the Oberlin Dance Collective (ODC) in 1971 at Oberlin College in Ohio. Eight years later, in San Francisco, ODC became the first modern dance company in the country to construct its own facility. The company has performed in 11 countries and 32 states, for more than a million people, in 35 years.

The ODC school has grown to include 250 dancers a year and 150 classes a week. The 10-dancer touring company adds between two and five new pieces each season. Half of the touring dancers are company veterans. Half have joined in the last few years.

"The movement style is contemporary, in so far as it doesn't use traditional ballet vocabulary, but the skill and the physical training include the values that ballet represents: strong legs, good lines, powerful jumps," Way said.

"Our philosophy has always been a company of soloists with a brilliant ensemble capacity,'" Way said. "We're ballet modern and we're also solo ensembles. We're just trying to fuse those two very separate things together."

Sunday's performance at Juneau-Douglas High School will begin with "Lip Service," a piece about human behavior that the company originally performed in the 1980s. It's been readapted by associate choreographer Okada as part of the 35th anniversary celebration and has no score. The cast creates all the sound effects and language on the stage.

"It's a bit of a cartoon glance at society's foibles," Way said. "Any time you look at a group of people it's political. It's not partisan politics, but when you talk about people, you open up the possibility about reflecting on societal norms."

The second piece, "Shenanigans," is a slapstick duet set to a French mutant rhumba. Private Freeman and Anne Zivolich push, pull and drag each other across the stage in a part-romantic, part-silly look at the concept of relationships.

odc san francisco modern dance co.

when: 7 p.m. sunday, april 23; pre-concert lecture and discussion about modern dance starts at 6.

where: juneau-douglas high school auditorium

advance tickets: $22 general, $18 students and seniors, $75 family (two adults, two students) at hearthside books, rainy day books, the observatory and the juneau arts and humanities council, 206 n. franklin st.

"Think Fred and Ginger," Way said.

"Stomp a Waltz," the third work of the night, premiered earlier this year. It's set to a composition by Brazilian Marcelos Arvos that Way heard when she was at a performance back East. The work never had been published or recorded until Way won a grant and bought access to the music.

"It was all a wonderful happy accident," she said. "I loved the range, and I loved the rhythmic lines. It's a contemporary composition, but it's more lyrical than most modern music."

The finale, "Part of a Longer Story," is a celebration of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 250th birthday. It's set to his "Clarinet Concerto in A" and begins with an ensemble of the entire company.

"It's really more of a formal dance, a little more classical, and I think the memorable part about the piece is you really get to know each of the individual dancers," Nelson said. "It's kind of a way to tackle the differences and particular strengths of each of the dancers, and we hope people will go away thinking, 'Oh, I know these people.'"

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