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Cool Cleveland, Victor Lucas  |  November 10, 2015

ODC Dance Returns to its Northeast Ohio Roots With Evening-Length Work

Sat 11/7 @ 8PM

ODC - originally the Oberlin Dance Collective - started in Oberlin in 1972. In 1976 they climbed in a big yellow bus and moved to California. Forty-some years later they have a strong national presence and deep community roots in San Francisco.

To let our readers know what to expect when ODC performs at Playhouse Square Saturday, we read about Boulders and Bones, the evening-length work ODC will be performing here. It's a multi-layered piece that makes extensive reference to the work of landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy. Cellist Zoe Keating's commissioned score itself densely layered with what Wired describes as "an arsenal of audio-crunching software and scripts" - will be performed live on the Ohio Theatre stage by Oberlin graduate Erin Wang. Reviewers seemed to like Boulders and Bones a lot; the term "master work" gets tossed around.

We called up ODC's founding artistic director Brenda Way to learn more.

CoolCleveland: How did Boulders and Bones come to be? What was the sequence? First, Andy Goldsworthy received a commission to do an installation, what became Culvert Cairn, at a secret location in Marin County? Then RJ Muna started making a video documenting construction? And then ODC used that video as a backdrop, if you will, for Boulders and Bones? Is that right?

Brenda Way: Almost right. It's not a secret, just a private site, a private home. I've known Andy Goldsworthy for several years, and he had created work at this same property in years past. When I learned that he was going to do another work at the same site, I said that I would love to collaborate with him because I thought the parallels between dance, which disappears, and Andy's work, which very often disappears, would be interesting and worthy of making a piece around. Then I asked RJ Muna, who is our company photographer and an artist in his own right, if he would like to collaborate on this work, and he was very excited and he decided to document the entire three-month process of Andy's building of the work.

I had no idea how we would use that documentation. I was actually skeptical about how a stop-motion film would fit in the dance world because it's so literal and dance is abstract. As it turned out, RJ's video serves as a prologue and a kind of wonderful program note because you can see the inspirational action from which the dance piece was made.

So between those two and Zoe Keating who creates the music, the piece became not about a disappearing piece, because actually the piece Andy has made is made out of stone and it won't disappear. It's exactly the opposite of what attracted me to this collaboration.

So we changed how we would relate to Andy and decided that what we'd do instead was to really be inspired by his creative process. And his process begins with reflection and inspiration and then goes through a messy construction phase - he wrote me an email which describes what he sees as his process, which is noise and dust and then ultimately a very quiet, finished product. As you may know, Culvert Cairn is a stone tower in a creek bed, so nature actually finishes the work when the rain comes because it rushes down through the tower, the cairn as he calls it. So it's human inspiration, human invention, and then nature finishes the work. And we've used that arc to make our dance piece so we start with contemplation and then we go to construction and work.

You see the effort in this choreography - we're not pretending that we're carrying rocks or anything, but you see effort - and then at some point it gets refined and we have a very quiet moment where the person who is the art work questions. So it really follows Andy's process. Of course Andy expected nature to finish the piece with rain and, as you may have heard, there is no rain in northern California. [laughter.]


CC: So the premise behind Boulders and Bones is

BW: It's a parallel between the creative process that Andy went through in developing Culvert Cairn and the development of the choreography. How we realized the creative process really triggered the kind of movement we used in our piece.

CC: And what is the dancing like?

BW: I think we embody a fusion between a very refined capacity and very evident effort. It's unlike the dancing in ballet where the dancing looks effortless, where you know they have muscles but that's not what you're seeing. But in this piece you see that it's effortful, and that distinguishes Boulders and Bones from some of our other repertoire.

CC: We confess to a preference for contemporary ballet but, watching the highlights video for Boulders and Bones, we don't feel like you're very interested in ballet.

BW: I studied at Balanchine's School of American Ballet during my entire childhood so I had a very strong formative influence with Balanchine, and then the '60s and Judson Church came along with their interest in breaking down the barriers between high and low art and bringing onto the stage a more quotidian physicality. How do real people walk and move? That was a major question in the '60s. The Judson was very informative to me and I think what we did really at ODC was fuse that idea with actual technical capacity. I think it was Marcia Siegel who said early on, "What you see is real people really dancing."

CC: "Really dancing" and "actual technical capacity" emphasize a distinction that's very important to us. What we see ODC doing is really dancing, unlike so much of the - to us - unwatchable pedestrian movement identified with Judson Church.

BW: You know, virtuosity isn't just one thing. Being able to incorporate a very simple physical presence with a very refined or virtuosic technique is a kind of virtuosity. To go from a person just walking to a person leaping through the air - that's a trajectory that takes real skill.

CC: What was the premise behind ODC? What were your intensions when you got on that bus in 1976 and drove from Oberlin to San Francisco?

BW: Of course I mentioned the '60s because I'm thinking of Oberlin. I'm so excited to come back. I would say that, having come from NYC and having been around the Judson people, I was asking questions like, "What is dance?" and "What is theater?" All those questions were in the air, and when I was at Oberlin, what I saw was a group of young people who were extremely creative and who were not following in the models and the traditions that I had been raised in at School of American Ballet and I found them extremely interesting and so I thought, "Let's put on a show!" [laughter]. Meanwhile the idea of a collective was also in the air, with new forms of non-hierarchical organizations. So I thought all of us could choreograph and we'd be in each other's work. That way the burden of carrying on would be shared by like-minded people. Also, I had kids and I wanted to share the work of the company so that I would have room in my life for my family.

CC: When Vic first heard about ODC, a collective of dancers, painters and sculptors, he remembers saying to himself, "That won't last long." Part of that's his admitted talent for being simultaneously pessimistic and wrong, but part of it is his experience of a million dances that tried and failed to incorporate some kind of set piece. But Boulders and Bones is an example of how different art forms can collaborate successfully.

Boulders and Bones is only your second choreographic collaboration with your co-artistic director KT Nelson after 40 years. And other than Velveteen Rabbit, this is ODC's first evening-length work. What took you so long?

BW: I think that when you choose to become an artist you're also choosing to continue changing, to keep asking different questions to stay engaged with your art form. So the fact that we said, "Hey, what if we tried something together?" is perfectly in keeping with other questions that we've asked. You ask yourselves questions that challenge. For each piece, there has to be - for me - some aspect of it that is unknown, that I don't know how to do, so that it's a growth-inducing circumstance. So I think that's the goal of an artist, to keep questing.

CC: Some have called Boulders and Bones yours and KT's masterwork. What do you say to that?

BW: Oh, that's not for me to say. All I will say is that I'm happy with it. And that's the greatest feeling I can imagine.

CC: Anything else that you'd like to say?

BW: Just how exciting it is to go back to your roots. SAB formed my body and my aesthetic, but Oberlin formed my mind, and that is the real basis of any artistic work.

See a highlight reel of Boulders and Bones HERE.

ODC performs at PlayhouseSquare's Ohio Theatre. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to the PlayhouseSquare website. A pre-performance chat with Brenda Way is at 7:45pm; a post-performance Q&A follows the performance.

ODC/Dance will hold an advanced contemporary master class for ages 15 and up Sat 11/7 @10:30am-noon at Cleveland State University Middough Building Dance Studios. RSVP is required; email Sarah at

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