ODC Fosters Artistic Community for San Francisco and Beyond

Sponsored by ODC
February 21, 2023
ODC founding artistic director Brenda Way. Photo by Eszter+David, courtesy ODC.

Brenda Way founded ODC/Dance in 1971 on the basis of one guiding question: “How can we help create a culture of art and art appreciation?”

More than 50 years later, the depth of her organization’s programming speaks to Way’s community-based mission. ODC is a company, a school, a performance space and a dancer health clinic, but it’s the sum of these parts that ultimately sets it apart.

“If you celebrate everybody’s capacity to move, you do nothing but help enhance the possibility of appreciating the expression of the form,” Way says.

She founded ODC at Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1971. Its letters originally formed an acronym for Oberlin Dance Collective, and the group began as a creative haven for the college’s artists. In 1976, Way, who still serves as artistic director, moved the company to San Francisco, where ODC has since played a profound role in developing the Bay Area’s cultural landscape.

“They were really a collective, thinking about how to make a ‘movement movement,’ ” says ODC’s executive director Carma Zisman of the group’s beginnings. This curiosity speaks to the open-mindedness that still defines the organization, a concept she refers to as the company’s “sphere of participation.”

“The embrace of what was going on around us is part of why we’ve survived,” Way says. “Of course we did our own work, but we wanted to do it in a context that meant helping other people.” This remains true today.

World Premieres at Dance Downtown

ODC’s upcoming Dance Downtown performances—March 29 to April 2 at San Francisco’s Blue Shield of California Theater, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—embody this participation of present and past.

Way will debut a world premiere titled Collision, Collapse and a Coda, which the show’s program describes as a “response to the daily barrage of news, disaster and disruptive events.”

“I’m feeling so strongly that coping is a big part of every day,” Way says of our current sociopolitical climate. “The codathat I refer to in the title is really the consolation that we provide each other with intimate relationships.”

Way set the piece to one of her favorite Chopin compositions and focused her choreography on the avenues through which human connection can uplift artistry. In this sense, the piece’s thesis feels intrinsically connected to ODC’s larger legacy: a community of creativity.

The approach appears to be working. “This is the most compatible, invested, passionate company I’ve had since the very beginning,” Way says of her dancers. “I was so disturbed about what was going on in the world I wasn’t even sure I could make a piece for this season, but working with them really turned it around for me.”

Way commissioned a second world premiere for the program, Amy Seiwert’s Witness, which also deals with grief. The program description for the piece states, “When words fail, we dance. Our feelings become the movement.”

Balancing out the premieres are three pieces from ODC’s existing repertoire: Way’s Something About a Nightingale is achoreographic representation of inspiration. Triangulating Euclid is a collaborative piece by Way, KT Nelson and Kate Weare that explores the human implications of geometric theory. Way describes the final piece, Impulse, choreographed by Dexandro Montalvo, as a “powerful, kick-ass piece for women.” More information on Dance Downtown is available here.

ODC/Dance company member Cora Cliburn. Photo by RJ Muna, courtesy ODC.

ODC Connect: Going Beyond the Bay Area

In addition to preparing for its Dance Downtown performances, ODC is now undertaking the renovation of a recently acquired building on San Francisco’s 17th Street, immediately next door to its existing theater. Once completed next year, the space will host an expanding number of classes and community programming.

Related to ongoing expansion, the organization also continues to grow ODC Connect, its streaming platform with performances, classes and lectures available to community members worldwide. Though the idea for the platform was born out of necessity during the early stages of the pandemic, Zisman says that she and her team were intentional in transforming ODC Connect, into the established resource it is today.     

Still from Up for Air / Decameron (2021), currently streaming on ODC Connect and directed by founding artistic director Brenda Way. Courtesy ODC.

“There was a way for a digital platform to be actually engaging and not sort of a poor substitute for being able to come to something live,” Zisman adds.

Available on demand and through monthly and yearly subscription levels, ODC Connect features access to live dance and fitness classes, short and feature-length dance films, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and interviews with artists, instructors and health experts.

Way is particularly excited about the fact that Connect widens ODC’s access levels. “This allows us to accommodate people who can’t get out,” she says, “and also reinforces how important it is for people to keep moving and keep staying connected to other people.”

The platform, like the dance organization that houses it, will continue to cultivate a culture of artistic participation within the Bay Area and beyond.