While even critically lauded troupes often struggle to fill theaters, ODC has sold out three home seasons in a row, not to mention a season at the Joyce Theater in New York. While other companies fret over rehearsal space, ODC -- though it had to fight off a live-work development last year -- controls its own Mission District complex of studios and a small, funky theater, remodeled with the sweat and toil of its dancers and choreographers two decades ago. And while other companies struggle to stay alive, the grown-up flower children of what was once the Oberlin Dance Collective anchor the city's modern dance scene, giving some fledgling troupes a place to perform, others a place to rehearse, and showing all of them, entrepreneurially, how it's done.
So, if ODC doesn't desperately need patronage, and so many other companies do, why tell you -- an entire week in advance -- about its second ever "Unplugged" performance? Because you'll be glad you got your tickets now, before the 200-seat theater is sold out. Because "Unplugged" events (in more prosaic terminology, lecture-demos) can be revelatory barrier-breakers. And because in the right company's hands, such events convert new dancegoers for life -- and ensure future dance articles won't be merely charitable.
A perfunctory part of the touring circuit, lecture-demos can take on new life when offered, without obligation, to the general public. "When you're doing lecture-demos for a tour or a residency, you're trying to introduce dance and make it attractive, just to create enthusiasm for dance," says KT Nelson, ODC's co-artistic director, who heads the company along with founder Brenda Way and Associate Choreographer Kimi Okada. "Here we try do more, to take people through a particular work and get them to understand another layer."
In this case, the particular works will be Way's Hugging the Shore and Nelson's own Standing Here, both of which will receive their world premieres next month at ODC's Yerba Buena season, "Dancing Downtown." For "Unplugged," ODC's impossibly muscular daredevil dancers will give an un-costumed, minimally lit performance of each, interspersed with Way's and Nelson's commentary and audience feedback.
"This is an opportunity to see beautifully trained dancers up close and as real people, so you have less of a relationship to the work than you do to the dancers," says Way, who's likened dances to cities you have to explore and allow yourself to get lost in, taking back mental images. She also hopes audience members will be open to their gut responses. "I don't think you should turn off the intellect," she says. "But I think you have to keep it from getting in the way."
Way's piece is tailor-made for teaching newcomers to understand contemporary dance. Set to the vocal work of Sheila Chandra and excerpts by jazz artists such as Lenny Pickett, it features the men of ODC and one woman (three women will alternate in the role for "Dancing Downtown") in highly suggestive but definitely abstract groupings. "I think of the female figure as a fate figure, and you never know when she's going to come back into the center of your life," Way says. "It refers to the ocean, the security of the shoreline, the tug of the tide."
Way expects to benefit from "Unplugged" as much as the audience. "It's an opportunity to talk about the genesis of the piece, but it's also an opportunity to put it in front of an audience and see how it feels," she says. "You still have time to go back into the studio and tweak. It's like a preview system."
Nelson, who's been on a choreographic hot streak recently, has crafted a patience-testing piece that could also use some advance illumination. "It's in part about how difficult it is to choose to be alone; that was the content I was after," she says.
Simple idea, deliberately obscure execution. "I decided to do an inverse kind of structure," says Nelson. "The whole first section would not let you know what in it was important and eventually it would unfold what was important. And the third section is a trio and it's about choice, not which person do I want to live with but which life do I want to live. And what's important should emerge then."
But expect the evening to throw light on more than just Nelson's and Way's own work. "There are certain things that transcend individual choreographers," Nelson says. "We're part of a generation of dance. We're all reeling from what Balanchine did and what the people at Judson Church did and we're all responding to the same cultural impacts, so when you talk about your work what you say will inevitably be relevant to others."