Dance Matters: Extreme Home Makeover

When they bought an old hardware store in an industrial section of San Francisco’s Mission district in 1979, the nomads from Ohio didn’t think that they would end up with 36,000 square feet and 20 million dollars’ worth of debt-free real estate. They acquired the space because they were tired of creating studio environments only to be evicted. So ODC/Dance, then still known as the Oberlin Dance Collective and later, as ODC/SF, became one of the first American modern dance companies to buy a home. Thirty years later, shrouded in black veils, the remnants of the theater, small studios, and office space await a September 30 resurrection, to be celebrated with a gala and the premiere of ODC founder Brenda Way’s new piece.


The new ODC Theater now completes ODC’s two-campus facility (ODC Dance Commons opened in 2005). It includes three studios, staff offices, an expanded visual arts gallery, a media lab, space for additional programs, and—realizing a long-time dream of Way’s—an all-day, full-service café.

By pushing the new construction up instead of out, architects Mark Cavagnero Associates were able to build 13,000 square feet on land that ODC already owned. “We might have ‘fixed’ the old place,” Way explained, “but we wanted to stay current and allow a new generation of artists to realize their vision.” Still, the decision to “do it right” meant raising another nine million dollars, including money for a modest endowment.


On a hard-hat tour last June, theater director Rob Bailis clearly looked forward to having artists working in the reconfigured facility. “The old space had an 11-foot ceiling,” he said. By adding another story, “dancers now actually can do lifts.” The theater also has state-of-the-art sound and lighting, including a tech booth that can be reached by stairs instead of a ladder. Still, much looks familiar. The skylights, which make matinees so pleasant, return, as do the 170-seat (now steeply raked) capacity. Also incorporated into the design is the old 1940s-style curved entrance. The new façade, however, sports a decidedly 21st-century look: a three-story “green wall,” made up of living vegetation.


While the renovated space allows ODC Theater to undertake new projects (such as a media lab and dance archive), Bailis plans to expand and strengthen its original mission: to present local and touring groups, award residency and mentorship programs, and offer self-producing opportunities. Bailis points out that it always has had an identity separate from the dance company (ODC/Dance does not perform its home season there). In addition to presenting Bay Area dance, ODC Theater has hosted the debuts of national artists such as Ronald K. Brown, Nora Chipaumire, Eiko & Koma, and Bill T. Jones. The venue is also a member of the SCUBA touring network that pairs companies in SF, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia to form national tours.


For Bailis, ODC Theater was always intended to serve dance as a presenter of experimental work. “The theater,” he says, “is a house of risk.” The rewards belong to a new generation of artists who will create at ODC.


Rendering of the new ODC Theater building. Photo Courtesy ODC.

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