Julian Guthrie, Staff Writer
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Brenda Way's first performance space was outside on Martha's Vineyard on land owned by a friend. It was the summer of 1971 when Way and 20 artists from Oberlin College built the floor for their stage and formed seats from sand dunes. They lived in tents, and cooked on a stove rescued from the dump.
Through movement, the Oberlin Dance Collective, as Way called the group, asked questions about female beauty and classical dance, about a sharing of power and gender expectations.
Now, Way is the artistic and executive director of San Francisco's ODC/Dance, the West Coast's premier contemporary dance company, which is preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary. With 36,000 square feet of newly renovated space, the company includes a professional dance troupe, a clinic for dancers, a theater, and hundreds of dance and movement classes for the public.
At 68, Way is still driven by questions - "I think about how to rub the truth out of language," she says - but she also has answers. To ideas of female beauty. To distinctions between ballet and modern dance. To running a company while raising a family.
"I think underneath all of my questions is an exploration of the power and capacity of women," Way said, sitting in her quiet corner office at ODC on a rainy morning last week.
"When I was studying ballet with Balanchine as a teenager, the image of beauty was delicate and lovely and fragile," she said. "You were expected to be strong but not look strong. As I grew older, I saw women who were powerful and diverse. In my own life, I remember carrying two children and two bags of groceries up five flights of stairs and thinking, 'Don't tell me women are fragile.' "
Philanthropist Sakurako Fisher, who has known Way since 1985 and is on ODC's advisory board, said, "Brenda has taught me a lot about philanthropy, and about what a woman could do on so many levels. Not just being an artist, but being a smart businesswoman. And she's in a dynamic marriage and has great kids."
Not "the Balanchine image"
Brenda Way, born Brenda Bolte, began studying dance as a young girl. Her mother, Bonnie Bolte, ran a small dance studio in Greenwich, Conn. By the time Brenda was 9, she was taking the train from Greenwich to 59th Street in Manhattan to study ballet with choreographer George Balanchine.
"During the school year, I'd go after school, and during summer, I'd go all day every day," Way recalled. "We knew Balanchine as 'Mr. B.' When he walked around, everyone's head swiveled."
Although Way was naturally athletic, she was not "the Balanchine image, nor was that my interest." Instead of a long and elegant Suzanne Farrell, described by Balanchine as his "alabaster princess," Way was muscular and expressive.
In 1969, after studying at Oberlin College, she was offered a temporary teaching position there.
"It was a time of radical change and a time of interdisciplinary arts," Way said. "People were throwing out everything traditional."
Modern dance appealed to her because it was about looking at "how new forms could make the same content feel different." Where ballet was a "received language," Way noted, modern dance was "inventing the language." It was a departure from Balanchine's approach, in which he described dancers as instruments "like a piano the choreographer plays."
"I would say in some sense, that (statement) is what distinguishes ballet from modern or contemporary dance," she said. "In modern dance, the dancers are the intellectual and visual collaborators. As the choreographer, I'm the boss, but I expect these complicated intelligent adults to bring their own experiences to life."
At the same time Way was teaching dance and bringing to life the Oberlin Dance Collective, she had divorced and was a single mom with three young children. At the urging of a friend, she attended a "conference for radical faculty" in New Hampshire in 1973. With her three kids in tow, she met the man who would become her husband.
"I was at this conference and there I was playing the guitar and singing a country song when Brenda and her kids sat down next to me," said Henry Erlich. "We just sort of clicked. I found her attractive and interesting and charismatic."
After doing his post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton in molecular biology, Erlich headed to Stanford to do a second post-doctoral fellowship in immunogenetics.
Erlich, now director of human genetics at Roche, said, "I think part of the reason Brenda moved out here was me. But the big reason was really that San Francisco is a wonderful environment to pursue the arts, in particular dance and choreography."
Way says the West Coast was appealing because of Erlich, and because of its history of early dance innovators, from Merce Cunningham in Seattle and Lester Horton in Los Angeles to the Bay Area's Isadora Duncan and the San Francisco Ballet.
Move to West Coast
In 1976, after maintaining a long-distance relationship with Erlich, Way moved the Oberlin Dance Collective west on a packed yellow school bus. "Our bus was beautifully stenciled with ODC on the front," Way said. "The bus was the right price, and you could get a lot of props and costumes in there. I looked at San Francisco as having this history of invention, and importantly, it had the Grants for the Arts hotel tax fund, which told me that people here cared about the arts."
Kary Schulman, who met Way in 1981 when she became director of the Grants for the Arts, said, "It became known to me pretty quickly that one of the really dynamic young companies in the city was the Oberlin Dance Collective. I saw that Brenda was an absolutely unstoppable energy."
The ODC received around $6,000 from the Grants for the Arts in 1981, Schulman said, and more than $150,000 this year. The ODC's operating budget is $5.2 million.
While others have urged Way to change the name from ODC to something like "The Brenda Way," she has resisted. (The school evolved in name from dance "collective" to "company.")
"One of the things I wanted, and this came from the '60s, was to create a structure where everyone had skin in the game," Way said. "We started by questioning the nature of leadership and asking, 'Can you be a leader without being deeply egoistic?' I had children and a life, and I wanted to make sure there was latitude in my life. I wanted to have partners, and do this shoulder to shoulder and to give each other space for things that weren't professional."
She and Henry Erlich, whom she married in 1981 and had a son with, now have four grandchildren. Her partners and fellow choreographers at ODC - who came west on that yellow school bus - are Kimi Okada, director of the ODC school, and KT Nelson, co-artistic director. As they gear up for the 40th season, which opens Friday, Way spends her mornings on administrative work and afternoons choreographing in the studio.
Center opens in 2005
Her office is in the ODC Commons, which opened in the Mission District in 2005 and is home to the dance company, the dancers' clinic, a Pilates training center, and studios for classes for the public. The commons offers 250 classes per week and has about 15,000 participants per year. Down the street, at the corner of 17th and Shotwell, is the renovated theater, opened in 2010.
With the extensive fundraising and expansions - both done during economic downturns - completed, Way says she is done with building, although she is interested in creating housing for artists.
As part of ODC's 40th anniversary celebration, Way is hosting a "symposium on creativity" benefit called "Women Who Frame the World." Questions to be discussed include: "How do artists realize their vision and invent their language?" "How do we manage creative fear?" And "How do women invent the lives they wish to live?"
Seeking 'bigger picture'
When Way looks at her career, from that first crazy summer in 1971 when anything felt possible, to today, she says, "I wanted a bigger picture of what was beautiful. I wanted to redefine beauty."
She continued, "I had many parts of my life that required me to be strong. Part of it was survival, and that is good. Effort is beautiful. Striding along and being powerful is beautiful."
As for her legacy, she laughs before turning thoughtful. "ODC/Dance is its own thing," she said of the dance company. "I love to work with the dancers. I also love seeing this school, with people ages 2 to 80. It's a little microcosm where people beautifully interact, were you can be physical, and where young artists feel productive. It's an ideal world where everybody can participate."
Downstairs in the lobby, near studios pulsating with music and dance, is a message board dotted with hand-written notes about the ODC Dance Commons.
"It's a place to be free," one message read. Another said, "It makes all dancing fun and reminds me that anyone is a dancer, no matter what size or shape." Another, written in a child's block print, read, "It is a place where the sun is always shining."