What began in 1971 as Oberlin Dance Collective-an energized, innovative, post-1960s group of dancers and musicians-headed west to San Francisco five years later and has since become a pivotal and influential mainstay of that city's vibrant dance scene. Soon renamed ODC/Dance, this 10-member ensemble has, since its inception, featured the choreography of three women: Brenda Way, KT Nelson and Kimi Okada. This dynamic artistic triumvirate remains at the helm today, even as the enterprise has greatly expanded and diversified.
Like Pilobolus, another feisty, inventive troupe reaching the Big 4-0 this year, ODC was launched in academia. Way was a tenured faculty member in Oberlin College's dance and theater department. Nelson and Okada were students in the department. "I had saved an old gym on the campus and converted it to an interarts center, so I had plenty of space," Way recalls recently by phone. She took the fledgling troupe to Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1971, where they earned academic credit while creating new works, building a stage amid the sand dunes and living in tents.
The same can-do, enterprising spirit has marked ODC, which performs next week at the Joyce Theater, ever since. In San Francisco, Way says, "We got a space right away, and started a presenting series. Basically everything I had done earlier I transposed to San Francisco, which was a rich ground to inhabit." After getting evicted from the space company members had constructed and renovated themselves, Way decided, "We're going to buy a building, because we're not going to be evicted again!" So in 1979, ODC became the first modern dance company to own its home facility, a former hardware store in the Mission District. "The beginning of that building-the ownership-was really the beginning of the institution as it is now." The space quickly became a bustling hub as ODC launched its school there and welcomed other dance artists for rehearsals, residencies and performances.
Today, that building is the ODC Theater, which was expanded and renovated last year. In 1999, when "we were bursting our seams," Way overcame the board's initial objections and ODC purchased a second, 23,000-square-foot space across the street. It opened in 2005 and is known as ODC Commons. A bustling hub of activity, it houses the company's artistic and administrative facilities, as well as the bustling school, a gallery and dancers' health clinic. The school offers an amazing 250 classes weekly-from hula to tap, flamenco to hip-hop-for professionals as well as absolute beginners.
ODC's early repertory reflected the questioning experiments of the Judson Dance Theater and the explorations of Contact Improvisation. "In the very early days, I was interested in exploring the possibilities of various forms, using a lot of improvisational structures that came from composer friends at the Oberlin Conservatory," Way says. "It really was not so much about the product as it was, what else could you do if you didn't want to just do what you've been trained in the studio all those years? Eventually, a language evolved. Also, I became interested in reflecting a broader world." As a mother of four, Way notes that her work has often reflected her "connection to what's going on, socially and culturally."
The original three creative leaders have continually replenished the company's repertory while taking on varied ancillary duties. Way is artistic director; Nelson, the co-artistic director, heads ODC's youth company and educational outreach programs; and Okada serves as associate choreographer and ODC school director. "I think that having three of us gives us the latitude to make work when we have something to say, and go fallow when we need to," Way observes.
Okada is not represented this time at The Joyce, where ODC last appeared in 2008. This year's program includes two works by Way and one by Nelson: Way's Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance), which features a score by Bay Area composer/singer Pamela Z incorporating text from The Guide to Elegance, "a stunningly retrograde little 1963 volume about dos and don'ts of being a proper woman. All of the text in the piece is directly from the book-with no exaggeration, because you really don't need it!"; and Investigating Grace, from 1999, set to Glenn Gould's 1955 Goldberg Variations recording and an ODC signature work.
Nelson's 2006 Stomp a Waltz is a full-company work set to an original score by Brazilian composer Marcel Zarvos. Way describes it as "emblematic ODC: rousing, athletic, rhythmic, powerful." Those are not bad adjectives to apply to this adventurous, enterprising company, which clearly has plenty to celebrate.
Aug. 9-13, The Joyce Theater, 175 8th Ave. (at W. 19th St.), www.joyce.org; $10 .