In the information age, appropriation and recombination are the requisite modes for processing and creating experience. We are interracial and multicultural, we are the product of every moment that has ticked by, marked or unmarked by the hands and eyes of all the bodies that have walked before us, we labor under the burden of past inventions buoyed up by technologies that indicate our collective acquisition of knowledge, though individually we stagger along dimly searching for a means or vision of something new. The body is the same body, limbed and bipedal, ravaged by conveniences, re-engineered by Pilates and yoga.
The annual Walking Distance Dance Festival, May 30-31 at ODC Theater and Dance Commons, is an occasion to reconsider the state of contemporary dance, its innovations on and in the art of the moving body. Featuring three programs that each feature two contemporary dance companies, local as well as touring from Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York, the event promises thoughtful juxtapositions of work that reflect the miscellany of early 21st century American dance.
Asked to define contemporary dance, the same concept that drove artists a hundred years ago still pressure choreographers today, the necessity of making it new. Even what was originally referred to as "contemporary dance" has undergone several shifts in recent years, no longer simply referring to the developments in dance that occurred after postmodern dance, but, as Seattle choreographer Amy O'Neal points out, acquiring a popular definition through television programs like So You Think You Can Dance that has shifted the expectations of viewers as well as those who create dance. Yet these shifts take widely divergent routes, even as they rely on a modernist strategy of collage, perhaps best characterized by O'Neal, who draws from street dance and popular culture, and Los Angeles choreographer Lionel Popkin, who looks at both the history of American modern dance and the relics of his individual heritage.
On May 30, Program A features the west coast premiere of Popkin's Ruth Doesn't Live Here Anymore, a piece that re-examines the early twentieth century work of Ruth St. Denis. Born on a farm in New Jersey, St. Denis became one of the pioneers of American modern dance, combining the theatricality of vaudeville with dances inspired by the pageantry and traditions of the so-called Orient. Popkin uses the sensibility of his mixed Indian-Jewish heritage to recreate St. Denis's project of infusing dance with an apparently exotic element.
Yet Popkin is fully aware of the contradictions inherent in his approach, explaining, "If there's a genetic link, we give someone more leeway, even if they didn't grow up in the culture, if they have the right last name. I have the wrong name but the right skin tone."
Like St. Denis, who painstakingly replicated the costumes she encountered on her global tours, Popkin uses his mother's saris as a focal point in the piece, yet points out in a monologue, "You can't just put on gloves and have clean hands."
Overall, his work is about the complications of being a second-generation immigrant and how to manage a relationship with tradition. "I don't even know what authentic means because tradition is always changing, shifting, altering -- it's never fixed. It's growing," he says.
Program C brings O'Neal's solo, The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade, which treats the issues of hype and racial and sexual stereotypes through a vocabulary that combines hip hop, ballet, and modern dance.
"Contemporary dance is a place where I can bring all of that together, because I don't fully identify as a hip hop artist, I don't fully identify as a contemporary artist," she explains.
O'Neal has choreographed for dance clubs and rock concerts as well as the theater, which has shaped the way she makes work: "There are things that I know really drunk, distracted people are going to respond to, but even in a theater, I'm always bringing in the spirit of a dance club, trying to get people to relax and interact more."
Ultimately her work aims to highlight the daunting task of originality and the collaborative way that new works of art are generated.
"We live in a sampling culture," she says. " "Hip hop is essentially how we work as human beings. We're working from what already exists, and it's what we do with it that makes us unique."
See Popkin, O'Neal, Headmistress, Garrett + Moulton Productions, Chitresh Das Dance Company, and Doug Elkins at the Walking Distance Dance Festival May 30-31 at ODC Dance Commons and Theater, 351 Shotwell St. and 3153 17th St., S.F. Tickets are $25 per program and $65 for a festival pass. For more details on programming or to buy tickets, visit odcdance.org/wddf.