With their Dance Around Town home season, ODC/Dance treated viewers to two very different performance experiences. Last month, Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson’s Path of Miracles debuted at Grace Cathedral – a work that was site-specific and mobile, where the audience was at close proximity to the action. Five weeks later, ODC has returned with its second Dance Around Town event, an evening of work by Founder and Artistic Director Brenda Way. Joining the premiere of News of the World was last year’s What we carry What we keep, presented at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in a conventional theatre setup; the audience watching from a distance. Truthfully, I don’t have a preference between these formats. Not at all. Though, when watching dance, you often get a sense (as I did here) that some pieces are better suited to one or the other.
The works in this mixed bill were much linked and in her welcome, Way even referred to them as “companion pieces.” Both featured a remarkable choreographic language. Both had a collaborative spirit. Both showcased the company’s technical and artistic fortitude. Neither told a linear story, but both sought to embody topical themes. Program notes revealed that News tackled “perceptions of women in the world at large, both observed and imagined,” and What we carry “was inspired by questions about material accumulation and meaning, but ultimately also about emotional stockpiling.” However, the gender explorations in News were powerful and strong, whereas What we carry’s narrative thread got a little lost.
News was charged from beginning to end, filled with messages of gender-based orchestration, control and manipulation. Way brilliantly interpreted these themes through an array of vignettes, all framed by striking theatrical elements. Costumed by Natalie Barshow, the women wore bright red, and the men, black suits, the latter adding a definitive business/workplace vibe. There were large panels at the back of the stage projecting a collection of images as the dance went on (video and scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols): static television snow, street scenes, flashing newspaper headlines, ominous clouds, visual art by Doug Argue. At one point, giant, painted eyeballs confronted the audience. Were we complicit in the aggression represented on stage? Had we been silent when witnessing similar situations?
Gesture factored heavily into News’ choreography, one of the early sequences utilizing it for an eerie glimpse at hidden hostility. Directing the women through the space, the men moved their hands with delicate, graceful motions, like an orchestra conductor interpreting a musical score. But as the women were pulled against their will from one place to another, the intent was clear. The men were calling the shots, and attempting to camouflage dominance with nice-ness. A similar scene unfolded later in the work, as Josie G. Sadan navigated the space with four men, who repeated, “you look nice.” Their creepy tone saying volumes more than their chosen phrase. Another potent quintet saw Rachel Furst and James Gilmer dancing a duet out in front, while the men of the company mirrored Gilmer’s gestures and movements. He, reinforced by a pack, she, on her own.
But News didn’t only reside in places of gender control. Way also introduced themes of disengagement and entrenchment. A number of partnering sequences found the men present but detached, the women crafting the duet’s shapes without their participation and support. You could feel the struggle and frustration as they clawed and muscled their way from one position to another. Circular movements – running, crawling and rotating body positions – spoke to repetitive, cyclical patterns that are difficult to break. And I loved how, much of the time, the action arrived on stage already in progress, having been initiated in the wings. The themes of News were not contained to the stage space, but rather, happening everywhere.
What we carry had a solid start, the company posed behind a see-through scrim. Ladders, papers and other paraphernalia were strewn about like one might find in a messy garage; the idea of too much ‘stuff’ readily apparent. As they transitioned to the front space, diverse carrying images peppered the choreography – dancers lifting each other in a variety of positions, at different heights and orientations, again creating an atmosphere of bearing people, things, emotions, and even relationships. But after these first moments, things shifted. Save for one text-driven scene where Natasha Adorlee read instructions about packing and moving, as What we carry continued, long stretches of movement seemed ever more abstract. Not abstracted, but actually abstract. Some captivating choreography and dancing definitely arose – tender, careful articulations and isolations; cluster shapes built together as a collective; high impact sequences of leaping and rolling – but the narrative felt absent. I don’t think this was because of the choreography, nor the dancers’ communication of the material, but because of the setting. What we carry had sought to explore internal, introspective puzzles: what we value, what we cannot shake, why we refuse to extract ourselves from certain conditions. And it felt like the big stage and the proscenium arch had swallowed up these personal queries. What we carry just seems like a work that yearns for a non-traditional theatrical container, not necessarily Grace Cathedral, but perhaps a smaller space in which to engage its intimate dialogue.