In 1976, KT Nelson, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio and deep into her hippie phase, joined a dance collective. It was a logical decision: She had been hanging for a couple of years with the crowd, which included her husband and the ringleader, a college lecturer named Brenda Way. Later that year, 14 members of the group piled into a yellow school bus and headed for San Francisco.
That collective would metamorphose into ODC/Dance, a West Coast contemporary company with a national reputation, which launches its 40th anniversary season Friday evening. ODC/Dance now employs 10 dancers on a year-round contract. Nelson, 55, is the troupe's co-artistic director and comes up with a premiere virtually every year. Her dances are unpredictable in style, tone and theme, and she has won a following among dance audiences beyond her home company.
We talked with Nelson by phone in Santa Rosa, where she was on a friend's spread, looking for a rock, intended as a prop for this season's new dance, "Listening Last."
Q: Do you always give such attention to choosing your props?
A: I would say no, this is a new thing. I need a rock that is just the right shape and size. You see, "Listening Last" is about urbanization and the disconnection of human beings, who don't consider themselves part of the natural world. That we don't see ourselves in that way exerts a huge cost. Dan Rathburn's original score will tell that story. The music will include sounds of frogs and automobiles, a symbol of human self-involvement. Dan has added bits of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," from the 18th century, a time when humanity and nature were more unified.
Q: How have you seen your dances evolve over the years?
A: I have always been interested in making work that examines contrasting energy lines and visual imagery, which I know is not fashionable today. I think that in this premiere I am trying to investigate a new way of working by going back to the way I used to work.
Q: Shinichi Iova-Koga, whom we might call a nouveau butoh artist, is your collaborator on "Listening Last." Your styles don't remotely resemble each other's. Why did you choose him?
A: A gut feeling. He is such a different choreographer that he has disrupted the way I work, which is what I wanted. I have to tell you that I am not sure what I have come up with here. This is a process piece, which is why I'm going out to find a big rock. Shinichi has introduced a new physicality to the making of dance. That has expanded my understanding of what dance can be.
Q: What is the essence of the difference between your manners of working?
A: I used to do so much planning beforehand, and Shinichi is so much "Let's talk a bit and go into the studio and work." He's more intuitive that way.
Q: Can you describe your professional relationship with Artistic Director Brenda Way?
A: Early on, we decided that maybe a year and a half before a premiere, we would discuss our ideas to make sure we were not doing the same thing or duplicating CDs or titles. I don't see Brenda's work until the first draft stage, when she invites me into the studio, and it works the other way around, too. I trust her and I think she trusts me.
Q: With the ODC Commons and ODC Theater both up and running, what's the next step?
A: Until now, we have seen ourselves as a dance company and a school. Now we are going to see ourselves as a dance campus. I am focusing on the company and trying to be more free-floating. We've got the spring season, the "Velveteen Rabbit" season and "Toe to Toe." Now, we want to find a balance between the institutional demands and the things we need to do because they're in somebody's brain. We want to tackle projects that don't fit the mold but still keep that mold.
ODC/Dance: Fri.-March 27. Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F. $15-$60. (415) 978-2787. www.odcdance.org.
E-mail Allan Ulrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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