The dark months are time for revels, and when every ballet company is putting on its annual Nutcracker, ODC brings back a tradition of its own for the holidays. For the 27th year, the Bay Area welcomes the Velveteen Rabbit, the story of a nameless sawdust-stuffed rabbit who dreams of becoming real. Originally choreographed by KT Nelson as a twenty-minute piece to Meryl Streep's recording of Margery Williams's beloved children's story, with sets designed by children in the Leap arts program, the company's quest for "a simple show, in contrast to the extravagance of the Nutcracker" has grown over the years into a two-act program to music by Benjamin Britten that christened the stage at the YBCA in 1993. The children who were its first audience have begun to bring their own children to watch the heartwarming narrative of transformation through the power of love.
Co-Artistic Director Brenda Way, who directs Velveteen Rabbit for the first time this year, while Nelson is on a sabbatical, explains that the show is meant to appeal to all ages with "beautiful dancing in an enticing story." "I think of ODC as a value-based company," she declares: like the ODC Dance Commons, which offers dance classes from tots to seniors, the message is inclusiveness, community, and the conviction that "dance makes better lives." But don't mistake inclusiveness for anything less than an absolutely stunning production, danced with athletic verve by one of San Francisco's great resident contemporary dance companies. The 11 company members and 10 students from the ODC School form a host of characters: haughty mechanical dolls to wild rabbits to adults who are oblivious to the rich inner lives of children and their toys.
Opening night finds Justin Andrews in the gymnastic role of the Boy (alternating with Jeremy Smith), who contorts himself into impossible postures with the supple expressiveness of a Maurice Sendak illustration. Vanessa Thiessen and Steffi Cheong switch out in the role of the Rabbit, here not the "spotted brown and white" of Williams's text but Energizer Bunny pink, dancing with quirky determination, even as his stuffing falls out and his fur gets mended over with colorful patches. The others amuse as mischievous toys who conspire to stay out of their box, the mysterious, shaman-like Skin Horse who explains the method by which one becomes real, the harried 10-foot-tall nursemaid Nana, and the random cool crocodile roaming around the playroom.
If all this talk of bunnies has you hankering after an experience of real fur, performances December 7 and 8 feature live rabbits in an education showcase by the nonprofit animal rescue organization SaveABunny. For families, animal lovers, and those in the grip of a helpless holiday nostalgia, Velveteen Rabbit promises rousing cheer and Real entertainment.
ODC presents The Velveteen Rabbit at various times Nov. 29-Dec. 15 at the Lam Research Theater in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (700 Howard). Tickets are $10-$75 at odcdance.org.