ODC Dance, for non-Bay Area-dwelling dance fans, is San Francisco?s most established and prominent modern dance company. It?s led by three headstrong women who, in the seventies, drove a big yellow bus to California from Oberlin College (hence the acronym, for Oberlin Dance Collective). These days they?ve got an annual season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (which kicked off Thursday and continues through March 20), a steady touring season, and a soon-to-expand headquarters that serves as the Mission District?s dance hub. Their other prime assets, besides longevity and real estate, are 11 very fine dancers and a jazzy company style. Co-artistic director KT Nelson?s work tends to be sensual and nakedly emotional. Artistic director Brenda Way?s choreography is generally more high concept, which is certainly the case with her latest, ?On a Train Heading South,? a dance about global warming. It was the critical hit of last week?s gala, with Allan Ulrich proclaiming it a ?miracle?:

?I never thought I would live to see a locally produced dance as clever as Brenda Way?s On a Train Heading South, a delectable parody of those grindingly earnest, half-baked socially conscious dances without a trace of artfulness that clog small performance spaces around town. To watch Anne Zivolich performing a part that suggests a cross between Cassandra and the personification of toxic waste run rampant is to observe comic dance at its most delirious. In fact, the whole production, which concludes the lengthy program, is a magnificent exercise in politically progressive chic turned on its head and given a good shaking.?

In the Chronicle, Janice Berman was also a believer:

“A dance about global warming” sounds like the intro to a performance by cartoonist Jules Pfeiffer’s earnest, black-clad modern dancer. If you want to send a message, said moviemaker Sam Goldwyn, call Western Union. But artistic director Brenda Way’s marvelous new “On a Train Heading South,” highlighting ODC Dance’s opener Thursday night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, avoided all the pitfalls, delivering the goods with imagination, urgency and a wicked sense of humor.?

I?m more on the fence, and thinking it might take a second viewing to sort out my reactions. To be sure, Alexander V. Nichols? visual design is a thing of immense beauty: a string of crystalline ice-blocks strung overhead like diamonds, dripping upon the stage with an eerily soothing patter. The whole stage looked like a glowing ice cavern, and made an eloquent statement in and of itself.

Way?s choreography teetered on the brink of moving, trading preachiness for pointed satire. I think I was more distracted by the lapses in structure than by the sanctimony. The work is at least three minutes too long. Anne Zivolich, as an unheard prophetess, gave a fabulously committed performance.

Way?s other premiere, ?something about a nightingale,? struck me as not so much lightweight but confounding. There?s some kind of curiously convoluted fable struggling to find its telling here: libidinous men in high-waisted trousers, two preening chickadees (the gorgeous duo of Yukie Fujimoto and Andrea Flores), and a guy in spandex shorts who sends the whole scenario spiraling toward incomprehensibility.

Way has emerged as my favorite of ODC?s three choreographers over the last six years since I?ve been watching the company?I can still play vivid moments from her ?24 Exposures? in my mind. But if you want to see her best work, return for ?Fiendish Variations.? It?s on the company?s second program, which I plan to catch next Thursday. The slate also includes two premieres by KT Nelson, one a duet for Anne Zivolich and Private Freeman. See you there.

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