For many, many years, ODC/Dance’s Dance Downtown program has been a must-see staple in San Francisco’s spring performance calendar – the contemporary company’s annual home season, typically held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. But this is the Bay Area, a place that is synonymous with innovation and upending, experiments and newness. ODC has been embodying that spirit for almost five decades – pushing the envelope when it comes to projects, arts education, institutional development and of course, choreography. They don’t rest in the expected or established. So it’s no surprise that for their forty-seventh season, they decided to mix things up a bit and launch a new series, Dance Around Town, with two distinct offerings at two venues over two months. The first program opened on Friday evening, bringing audiences to Grace Cathedral for the premiere of Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson’s Path of Miracles. A collaborative endeavor, Path of Miracles joined ODC with the choral group Volti, directed by Robert Geary, and Joby Talbot’s 2005 score of the same name. Voiced for five sopranos, four altos, four tenors and four basses, the layered, a cappella composition tells, over four chapters, of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain.
I don’t attend arts events at Grace Cathedral very often, but this is the second time in the past three weeks (the first in mid-January for the San Francisco Movement Arts Festival). While distinct, the two did share a couple of common elements. The majestic venue, of course. And each event’s mobile nature. The SFMAF was structured so that attendees could saunter through the cathedral like they might an art gallery, taking in dance in various locations. Path of Miracles also had a mobile quality, but it was a guided design. Except for one section, we were led from place to place to experience the piece’s lush tapestry of movement and sound.
From the opening moments to the final light cue, ‘journeys’ and ‘pathways’ dominated the work. The audience guides, who were holding long sticks topped with origami birds, first led the crowd to a long rectangular corridor behind the cathedral’s main altar. A throaty, low cluster chord rumbled through the air, slowly ascending chromatically (by half-step), perhaps the sun rising on a new day. It wasn’t major or minor, it was somewhere in the middle. Two dancers, one on either end of the performance area, began articulating their ribcages, forward and back, forward and back, increasing the speed like a heart beating with excitement and anticipation. Quickly this vibration expanded into a full body choreographic phrase. The pair danced in unison, yet remained separated in the space. Three more dancers took over with new phrase material, still in unison and spaced apart. And then it was a trio of parallel duets, again separated in the same formation. Nelson’s choreography, and the dancers performance of the choreography, was compelling to witness, but it was this stage placement that really struck. The unison movement reflected a shared experience, a shared understanding, but having the performers separated in the space also suggested that they were at different points in this shared journey. Some out ahead and some further back.
Early on it became clear that the dancers and the vocalists were going to engage and interact throughout the piece – the vocalists moved amongst the dancers and vice versa and they partnered each other. ODC dancer Natasha Adorlee even sang with one of the women as they traversed the space together. I loved it. It always feels odd to me when a work has a strong music/movement collaboration and yet is devoid of any connection between the musicians and the dancers in performance. Path of Miracles didn’t have a cast of eleven dancers and seventeen musicians, it had an ensemble of twenty-eight performers, a cohesive group who were in conversation with each other throughout the work.
Path of Miracles’ second part took us to a medium-sized nook on the right side of the chapel, where a sequence of patterns, narrative and gesture unfolded. It started with a meditation on the circle, the entire cast exploring small and large circular routes within the space. Then the meditation shifted to ideas of helping and assistance, the kind one might need when facing a monumental journey. Dancers carried each other in standing lifts, on their shoulders and in inverted positions. Feet were held and cradled, encouraged to take another step. And in the final moments of this section, a lengthy gestural phrase was introduced. Arms flung dramatically and hands quivered, revealing an arduous, exhausting trek. There was much to see in this portion of the work, but the chosen performance area may have been a bit too small – there were some sight line issues from time to time.
For part three, Nelson envisioned something different, five duets in five different locations, Volti singing from the balcony, the audience roaming around the space. Talbot’s score for this chapter also feels very different. While still full and hovering between major and minor tonalities, the music here has a definite lightness in quality. The harmonies and dynamics are more intimate, which fit well with the individual duets.
Rather than trying to catch all five vignettes, I chose to watch one from beginning to end, danced by Brandon Freeman and Jeremy Bannon-Neches. And it was great, one of my favorite moments of the evening; a twelve-minute duet that was all about human contact and spatial awareness. A calm, precise dialogue (at least at first), Freeman and Bannon-Neches cycled through various points of connection, some rather unique: the neck leaning against the foot, the hand tracing the arm, the head resting on the lower back, the palm stretched on the top of the head and gently moving to the face. It was like they were charting pathways of the body. But there was also a narrative at play. Echoing Talbot’s score, there was a sense of the ‘in between.’ Care and tenderness permeated the beginning of the duet. In the middle, forceful, pushed motions signaled frustration. And in the end, the tenderness returned.
Then we made our way to the center of the cathedral for Path of Miracles’ final statement. The company took the space and elements of the first and second movements recurred – the ribcage isolations, the gestural arm sequence, dancers lifting the vocalists. While Adorlee came forward holding an origami bird, members of the cast (vocalists and dancers) froze in various forward-moving postures. Slowly they began walking and crawling in the same direction. Ahead in the distance, Jeremy Smith was welcoming them to where he was on the journey. The intensity picked up significantly, and the company began running in and out of the space. With fluttering legs and winged arms, they appropriated some bird vocabulary, maybe to communicate that in this part of the journey, they could really fly. And as Path of Miracles came to its end, the entire ensemble recessed out of the space together, including a few audience members who had been invited into the scene.
There was something curious about this final section of the work – a slight disconnect in the atmosphere and mood. For the majority of the piece, the cast’s expressions had been somber and reverent. As they came to this last portion, we started to see palpable hope, joy and marveling awe on people’s faces. It was so authentic, you couldn’t help but feel buoyed, their spirit lifting the entire room. Surprisingly some of the dancers still remained entirely stoic, one or two looking ominous in their detachment. While I would never want or expect cookie cutter reactions, the two extremes just didn’t add up for me as Path of Miracles concluded, especially in light of the genuine happiness that had been brought into the space.