ODC presented two world premieres during its spring home season, March 19 – 22 in San Francisco. Created by artistic director Brenda Way and co-artistic director KT Nelson, The Invention of Wings and Dead Reckoning were as sleek and beautifully staged as we’ve come to expect from these veteran dance makers, now in their fifth decade of leading the company. Their productions have come to center on high concepts and visual collaborations that often include filmed projections, sculptural installations and moving set pieces — dazzling trappings that sometimes overpower the choreography.
Inspired by a trip Nelson took to Death Valley, a majestic and environmentally sensitive area of California, Dead Reckoning is the choreographer’s attempt to come to terms with human impact on the natural world, including climate change, and anxiety about the possible demise of the world we know and love. Former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud created the commissioned score, which paired repeating cello chords over PC Muñoz’s tribal percussion and heavy sampling, including sounds of falling trees.
Partially clad in shredded black tops, skirts, suit jackets and pants, the dancers looked like post-apocalyptic refugees, appropriate to Dead Reckoning’s theme. They spun and squatted, writhed and embraced, lifted and carried one another. In the background, dancers crossed the stage with large pieces of lime-green confetti spilling from their hands – a representation of snow, something we’ve had far too little of in California.
ODC boasts world-class contemporary dancers, and they moved with weight, intention and a compelling tenderness as one tapped another with the tip of a toe or the gentle nudge of a forehead, triggering a new sequence. Katherine Wells, Jeremy Smith and Josie G. Sadan in particular seemed to dance on a different plane altogether, propelled by a mysterious inner momentum.
Nelson and Way raised the visual bar much higher with The Invention of Wings, a choreographic collaboration with scenery by Matthew Antaky and visual design by Ian Winters and RJ Muna, and sound score combining Olafur Arnalds, Ben Frost and Ben Judovalkis. (Wings is actually a reinvented, proscenium staging of a site-specific ODC work performed in 2014; Way created it for the opening of an installation by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island, a former federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay.)
Group lifts, tender touches, weighty squats and dervish whirls reappeared in Wings — the choreography seemed familiar from Dead Reckoning. Once again, the dancers infused the movement with luscious energy, but visual noise obscured their purpose. A woman stripped down to a bra and slip, then rolled up in a swath of red fabric. Dressed in long black skirts, three men rolled onstage on a cart while Wells painted red Xs on their backs. A paper screen was lowered and then raised again, showing projections of Alacatraz prison cells, a nude woman getting tattooed and bespectacled eyes.
Toward the end of Wings, gigantic white poufs (of paper? parachute fabric?) inched in from the wings and slowly engulfed three of the women. Then Joseph Hernandez pushed a birdcage filled with crumpled papers onstage, Johnson following with a leaf blower, blowing the papers out from behind. Surely, all of these gestures and referents were included for artistic reasons — what were they? Without that clarity, they kept The Invention of Wings from taking flight.