I profiled ODC/Dance founder Brenda Way for yesterday’s Chronicle; ODC’s 37th annual home season opens Thursday:
“Brenda Way is not the kind of woman you’d think of as flitting, but that’s what she’s doing this gray morning in the kitchen of her Oakland home. She twirls to put on the teakettle and reaches for sugar on a high shelf with an agility that belies a recent hip operation. She takes a seat at the table almost giddily, eager to share her reactions to Trisha Brown’s latest dance at Cal Performances. But when the conversation turns to her own work, her blue eyes become serious and her makeup-free face assumes its usual expression of formidable thoughtfulness.
“I feel so compelled by what’s going on around me,” she says, cradling her mug in both hands. “The political situation has just been dire. And what you’re doing when you make new work is saying, ‘Consider this.’ ”
Way, 64, who founded the company now known as ODC/Dance 36 years ago, has been uncannily prescient in what she’s asked her audiences to consider. In 2000, her “Crash” evoked the irrational exuberance that preceded 1929’s Black Tuesday — and the dot-com stock market faltered soon after. But Way’s most arresting moment of topicality came in 2004, when her “On a Train Heading South” adorned the stage with hanging blocks of slowly melting ice — two years before Al Gore made us all acknowledge a certain inconvenient truth.
Normally, after such a socially charged piece, Way would retreat to pure movement invention, but last year she pressed onward with “Time Remaining,” an allegory about religious extremism. Now she’s unveiling what she conceives as the final installation of a trilogy. “A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes,” premiering during ODC’s annual home season this week, uses video by the Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa. In the early frames, a toy plane flies around a house. Soon more join it to form a horde.
“I thought that was how I felt about the use of terror in our lives,” Way says. “It’s invaded our homes. And this fear debilitates us.”
The title comes from a New York Times story on Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“It’s the phrase they used to describe Samuel Alito’s wife,” Way says. “And it’s such a slam of every woman that I thought, ‘Well, excuse me!’ And I think it’s that kind of person who’s terrified by what’s going on, an ordinary housewife.”
If Way takes the Times’ phrase so personally, that might be because it evokes aspects of her. Way, who had two children before age 20, has always been domestic. And like a good wife and mother, she has often stood quietly in the background of great accomplishments — not only her children’s but also her dance company’s.
Way is rarely front and center, choosing to flank herself with ODC co-Artistic Director KT Nelson and Kimi Okada, school director and associate choreographer — even though Way has been the primary force behind this successful and influential modern dance institution, now with a school, a theater and a $9.5 million headquarters in the Mission District.
“There’s no major development regarding dance in this town over the past 30 years that Brenda hasn’t been a part of,” says Stanford University dance Professor Janice Ross, who first saw Way’s work when ODC, then in Ohio, toured to San Francisco in 1974. “She’s one of the great unsung teachers in the way she’s raised the level of conversation about dance here.” ”
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