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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Grab Bag of Observations from ODC dance fest

I had the great pleasure of attending many of the events that comprised ODC Dance’s aptly named State of Play Festival. The festival, an ambitious collection of contemporary dance performances, work-in-progress showings, facilitated conversations and social gatherings, took place from June 2 to 11 at ODC’s San Francisco Mission District campus.

Congratulations to ODC Theatre Creative Director Chloë Zimberg, and Co-Curators Amara Tabor-Smith and most especially Charlie Slender-White, who attended all but one of the MANY festival events. I look forward to the 2023 State of Play Festival. At the Opening Night Party, ODC Executive Director Carma Zisman announced the 2023 festival will be co-curated by Maurya Kerr and Leyya Mona Tawil.

Here are some musings from what I observed:

All three main stage productions (little house dance, MKArts and SAMMAY) required audiences to wait in the lobby until just after curtain time, only to be admitted once the performers were in motion on the stage. House lights were up as we entered and low-key movement in progress; minutes later when the patrons were all seated the house lights faded and the performances began in earnest. Interestingly, the three productions couldn’t have been more different from each other in every other way.

A majority of dance makers included spoken text, either recorded or voiced live, to support the movement and provide context for their work.

As we return to viewing live performances, patrons seemed hungry for dialogue. Almost all attendees chose to indulge a twenty-to-thirty-minute post-showing discussion with the artists. Oddly these were part of all the studio showings, but not one of the three major theater productions chose to engage the audience in conversation.

Audience-artist conversations were wide-ranging, fascinating and elucidating. Contemporary dance is open to a myriad of interpretations. During the post- talkback, following the showing of snippets of Detour’s developing work entitled ‘QUAKE’, choreographer Eric Garcia asked audience members to shout out words or phrases about what they saw or felt. Where one person saw a jellyfish, another felt cold; while others perceived a struggle, someone saw freedom, what I saw involved a person trapped under ice, trying to breakthrough. One of the joys of concert dance is that it requires the audiences to connect the dots in ways that makes sense to them. Each post-performance conversation enriched my thought process over the following days, as I reflected on the insights the choreographer, dancers and other views had to offer.

Most audience members chose to see only one work per day, despite the festival format, which offered multiple works in multiple venues per day. The curatorial team shared with me that they designed the festival events to unfold like a pub crawl, with audiences engaging with each other between events as they moved from space to space. While COVID and a series of unfortunate last-minute cancelations contributed to this single event approach, the timing of presentations was also challenging. Weekday festival showings began at 3:30 p.m., followed either by a 4:15 p.m. panel discussion and 6:30 and or 8:00 p.m. performances. I attended multiple offerings per day, my longest day, Friday June 3, ran from 3:30 to 10:00 with six activities including a private happy hour with the curators and artists.

Pre-curtain welcome speeches, which occurred before each showing, included a land acknowledgement. Land acknowledgements are a formal statements recognizing the original inhabitants of the land upon which the event is taking place, in this case the Ramaytush Ohlone people. The outstanding part, in ODC’s case, is that a portion of each ticket sold to the festival, and all events which take place in their theater in 2022, is paid to a local land trust set up to benefit the surviving indigenous ancestors. There is power not just in this gesture but in the repetition of the statement. I heard it eleven times in a week.

ODC is committed to making programs accessible to people who require ASL interpretation. There was a sign language interpreter present at all showings and performances. Unfortunately, no one attended who required this accommodation. This meant the interpreter was not used, as when not necessary it was thought they might unnecessarily pull focus. I affirm ODC for bucking the status quo at other venues which requires a person requiring ASL to identify their need and inform the venue well in advance so an interpreter can be engaged. ODC’s pro-activeness in having ASL available as a default is admirable but costly for an unutilized service. One wonders if open captioning wouldn’t be a better fit as a majority of what is spoken either live or recorded is scripted and so could be pre-loaded into captioning software. Research has shown that captions support overall greater patron understanding and enjoyment even those who don’t identifying as having hearing loss.

COVID protocols were robust but necessary to protect unmasked performers. Patrons were pre-screened at lobby or building entrance for proof of COVID vaccine and then given stickers to wear as proof-of-vaccination for the remainder of that day. Masks were required to be worn by all audience members when viewing a show. Most dancers were unmasked when performing.

Last minute cancellations were unfortunately common. Rosanna Tavarez, which was to open the festival on June 2, cancelled with less than 24 hour notice, without explanation, but with a promise of a future performance in November. Nicole Peisi and DANCE MONKS were also cancelled. DANCE MONKS notice arrived 70 minutes before curtain time.

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