dance world’s NPR? ODC/Dance.
in a Strange Land
Theatre, Pittsfield, Mass., May 2
a mixed-bill performance last week at the Colonial Theatre,
ODC/Dance brought what may have been the finest movement yet
seen in Pittsfield. Choreographer Brenda Way founded the group
37 years ago while teaching at a bastion of the liberal ethos,
Ohio’s Oberlin College. Five years later, she and the company
loaded up a yellow school bus and moved to San Francisco,
where they now enjoy elder status and an enormous, sleek complex
of studios. So it’s possible that ODC is to dance what NPR
is to radio. It is well-funded, assembles eclectic (if mildly
formulaic) programming, and, when a show is over, you feel
edified and tell your friends all about it.
I can’t remember, though, the last time an NPR program made
my eyes tear up, as did Hunting and Gathering, the
brand-new work by KT Nelson, who shares in the company’s artistic
direction with Way. (Also near the helm is associate choreographer
Kimi Okada, who also directs ODC’s school.)
and Gathering, like each of the program’s four works,
is of watertight construction and employs the classical ballet
lexicon in a remarkable way. Other contemporary dancemakers
use classicism like the two guys in Weekend at Bernie’s
propped up their dead boss: String limbs to the rafters and
give ’em a good shake—anything to animate lifeless material.
In Nelson’s work, however, the steps are alive throughout.
Its classicism is intrinsic, yet subversive, and rarely an
and Gathering, which opened the show, is set to a percussive
score (not named in the program) by Brian Eno and David Byrne.
The first section started in smoke, with a female soloist,
Quilet Rarang, alight with the fluid intensity of a recently
freed animal. Rarang’s wide stance, with one leg a full yard
in front of the other, gave her a strong, balletic base onto
which she lowered her pelvis. From that depth, and while masking
great effort, she occasionally flung herself up, out, off.
Sometimes she lassoed an arm around invisible prey. As with
good graphic design, Nelson’s physical images here were clear
The use of theatrical haze is often a cheap (and smelly) trick.
But when the work’s two men stalked onstage, the haze became
a woodsy screen, allowing glimpses of human nature. Private
Freeman furled into the arms of his partner, Corey Brady,
then drifted away before delicately returning. Then, as in
one of Michelangelo’s mannerist sketches, each enveloped the
other’s torso diagonally in hunky tension. Later, with Rarang
back onstage, all three dancers gradually deepened their chaos,
veering around in an anxious frenzy. Just before reaching
the border of monotonous ineffectuality, the dancers cohered
around a single, massive idea. They lurched from corner to
corner like rag dolls and repeated the wide-legged, deeply
bent stance from before, fingertips grazing the floor. When
the first section’s music concluded in echoing pops, the dancers
hopped up like frogs to catch the vanished haze, thrillingly
just out of unison.
Often, with Nelson’s three works, it was hard to define an
early passage until viewing a later one; such was the case
with Hunting and Gathering. Its second half opened
with Byrne and Eno’s melancholy drones and chunks. Soon came
chords of such sweltering beauty that I wanted time, but not
the piece, to stop. The dancers, in panoply, raised their
hands in an odd kind of prayer and seemed to float in space.
It felt redemptive, like church. Again, I thought of Michelangelo,
this time in The Agony and the Ecstasy. One man lifted
Rarang, who straddled her legs through a multidimensional,
twisting kind of lift—“with no edges,” I wrote in my notes—then
all three coalesced at the center, where a soft light outlined
her final ascent. This last pose didn’t need to be “up,” though.
The piece had already shot through the stratosphere.
Next, for two fleet-footed couples, was Nelson’s Scramble,
which started off as a harmless romp. The work was set to
Bach’s sixth cello suite, and felt at times like a tribute
to love, especially when one guy, after a running start, tackled
his girl from across the stage and they flailed into sculpture.
After the four traded off to make same-sex couples, the partnering
was initially tentative. Soon enough, they all tackled each
other. In a thrilling finale, they alternated huge, jaunty
leaps with a peculiar dragging to diverse corners. They sprang
into the air from nothing just as the lights went dark.
The program’s closing piece was Nelson’s Turkish-inflected
Walk Before Talk. Like its predecessors, and like another
here by her colleague Way, there was a recognizable process:
After a disingenuous start, build to a frantic, inspiring
end, often with jumps. Still, ODC/Dance charted enough uncommon
territory that unabashed praise felt totally deserved. As
one audience member raved after the final, gorgeously engineered
transcendence, “It’s about being human!” And you can’t knock