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The dance world’s NPR? ODC/Dance.

Familiar in a Strange Land

By French Clements


Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, Mass., May 2

For 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.)

Hunting 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 adornment.

Hunting 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 and readable.

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 humanity.

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