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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: ODC/Dance presents “Dance Downtown Program A” March 27 - 31, 2024 Blue Shield of California Theater at YBCA, San Francisco, CA

“Art-making calls for our attention. It poses questions, and at its best, proposes fresh ways of seeing and understanding,” so declares ODC/Dance’s Founder and Artistic Director Brenda Way in her welcome letter for their 2024 Season.  On March 31, I caught the closing performance of ODC/Dance’s Dance Downtown Program A, a triple-bill, featuring premieres by Way, ODC founding member and School Director Kimi Okada, and a revival by long-time collaborator and company leader, KT Nelson.  This trio has been making movement-based art for Bay Area audiences since 1976, their inventiveness consistently helping us to connect with each other, ourselves, and the world around us.  


Inkwell by Kimi Okada. Photo by Shawna Sarnowski


ODC/Dance’s Program A is fresh, thought-provoking, emotionally impactful, and dazzlingly well-executed.  Way’s A Brief History of Up and Down (world-premiere) is an ode to the joy of dancing. It begins with a series of framing questions, which reverberate in our minds throughout the program and perhaps beyond. Letter by letter the queries appear on the back screen, accompanied by the distinctive clatter of old-school typewriter keys.  “Can any action be a dance?” “Does unison make movement more legible?” Brief History explores the boundaries, if there are there any, between the pedestrian and the performative, or sport and dance.  It asks us to consider how virtuosity, recognized in high-flying leaps or speeding pirouettes, might it also be found in the way Rachel Furst stands steadily on one leg while subtly rotating the foot of her raised leg, leading it on a leisurely path through space.  Furst performs several versions of virtuosity ranging from fast and frenetic, to a still body balance upon the balls of her feet as one arm swings pendulum like at her side.


After exploring the impact of silence on our viewing experience, Way offers us energetic Baroque music.  Playfulness isn’t mentioned, but rather unpins the whole endeavor as dancers flirt with freedom.  Avoiding the cliché of male/female partnering and its implication of romance, she creates trios of friends, teams of men, and klatsches of women. Designer Kyo Yohena’s costumes transform from beige athleisurewear to concert-dance grey, with glimpses of vibrant floral undergarments peeking out from neck and hemlines.


From left, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Miche Wong, Katie Lake, Jeremy Bannon-Neches and Rachel Furst in A Brief History of Up and Down by Brenda Way. Photo by Shawna Sarnowski


The unexpected is celebrated as lifts find the airborne partner pedaling their flexed feet or soaring arms outstretched.  A jumper changes direction midair, swiveling suddenly like a dog twists to catch a frisbee.  My favorite innovation happens as one dancer interrupts another’s upright jump with a playfully shove, thus adjusting the jumper’s trajectory from vertical to horizontal. Smiling faces belie the intricate timing required to portray such carefree silliness.  The dancers’ manner is that of sophisticated self-awareness which lets us know that they know, that we know, that playing at performance is still performing play.


Okada’s Inkwell (premiere), inspired by Max Fleisher’s black and white animation from the 1920’s and 30’s, comprises the second act.  Okada’s cartoon world is upbeat on the surface and sinister at its core. The narrative follows a naïve newcomer’s introduction and eventual indoctrination into a realm controlled by a slick demagogue portrayed with eloquent sleaziness by Brandon “Private” Freeman.  Freeman hypnotically controls eight townies. Like a puppeteer, a wave of his hand sends them tumbling or holds them hovering like zombie ragdolls.  A maestro of movement, he faces his attentive minions, amassed in twin lines. As Freeman’s undulating arms cross, the town-folk sway in response, leaning toward and away from each other. 


Inkwell by Kimi Okada. Photo by Shawna Sarnowski


In red spectacles and bright plaid suit coat, Christian Squires, as the bedazzled neophyte, catches Freeman’s eye.  Caught in Freeman’s web, Squires is both attracted and repulsed. We fear his eventual submission, though the inevitability of the suppression of difference is depressingly certain., bringing to mind the blind allegiance certain politicians elicit in the masses.


Exaggerated silhouettes and pied black and white designs reinforce the performers’ identities as clownish caricatures, courtesy of costume designer Maya Okada Erickson.  Inkwell’s movement vocabulary brings to life the broad pantomime of early film. While tussling, fists arc upward in mock battle, ala Popeye, a later Fleisher creation.  When moving in unison, the dancers’ heads bob, knees pulse, and heels rise, manifesting a stuttering effect which perfectly emulates the flicker of movie cells. 


Squires’s malleable mugging helps carry the story, a bumpkin in the thrall of a huckster.  An innocent reeled in and rejected, he inchworms across the floor after Jenna Marie’s sultry siren.  Inkwell, while darkly entertaining, risks monotony and would benefit from some careful trimming.


Act three brings KT Nelson’s epic and haunting Dead Reckoning (2015), which suitably culminates both Program A & B this Spring.  Exploring climate change, its ever-present advance and our willful quotidian denial, this dance has grown in power through the years.  With virtuosity on our minds, we our struck by the commanding ferocity with which the ODC dancers attack this work. Their versatility in moving from the frisky fun of Brief History, to the theatrical specificity of Inkwell, to the demanding complex partnering of Dead Reckoning, speaks to a wealth of talent. 


The environment is degraded, timeless and empty. Against an unrelenting colorless vista, lighting designer Matthew Antaky’s warm light glazes the human forms sticking to them like pollution.  Clad in decaying black formal wear (costumes KT Nelson and Kyo Yohena), the figures move in and out of shadow, under the constant drip of neon green particles. The men are shirtless, their naked chest vulnerable to an overbearing sun or corrosive air. Joan Jeanrenaud’s score features cello chords over PC Muñoz’s tribal percussion and as the particulate matter builds in clumps upon the stage, falling in greater density, we hear the irreparable sounds of caving ice or collapsing ancient trees.


From left, Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Christian Squires and Colton Wall in Dead Reckoning by KT Nelson. Photo by Shawna Sarnowski


Some throw their bodies through space with speed and urgency, as if aware of the impending doom. Jenna Marie among them, her unblinking forward gaze judges our complacency while insisting on our continued observation.  Jaime Garcia Castillo and Miche Wong, partners, focus inward, transporting and soothing each other with heroic tenderness.  He carries her floating above himself, her cheeks clasped in his palms. With gravity-defying jumps, Colton Wall attempts to escape the earthly, only to land once more amongst the gathered people.


Jenna Marie, downstage, in Dead Reckoning by KT Nelson. Photo by Shawna Sarnowski


As evermore petals rain down, figures gaze up in disbelief and sadness. Rachel Furst shudders, possessed by unwelcome impulses, she struggles to regain control of her limbs before collapsing into a sobbing puddle.  Katie Lake sits astride Jeremy Bannon-Neches is proud shoulder, her hand held by Christian Squires who leads their towering trio through encroaching darkness, perhaps in search of more hospitable environs.  Our final image is of the lovers, Castillo and Wong, vaulting forward over the dead body of our heroine, Jenna Marie, who may have, shortly prior, given birth.  Breathless and devastated, we applaud the artistry and skill of the dance makers who have taken us on a journey and returned us ever-so-slightly changed.


Review by Jen Norris, published April 1, 2024

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Production Credits:

PROGRAM A FRIDAY, MARCH 29 SUNDAY, MARCH 31

A Brief History of Up and Down (world premiere)

Choreographed by BRENDA WAY

Lighting and Projection Design ALEXANDER V. NICHOLS*

Costume Design KYO YOHENA

 Music JOHANN HEINRICH SCHMELZER CHAD LAWSON / J.S. BACH

Dancers FULL COMPANY

Inkwell (world premiere)

Choreographed by KIMI OKADA

Projection Design YUKI IZUMIHARA

Costume Design MAYA OKADA ERICKSON

Lighting Design THOMAS BOWERSOX

Sound Design MILES LASSI

Music RAYMOND SCOTT, CARAVAN PALACE, DJANGO REINHARDT, LIZZY & THE TRIGGERMEN

Additional Costume Construction KYO YOHENA

CAST The Human CHRISTIAN SQUIRES

The Demagogue BRANDON “PRIVATE” FREEMAN

Townies JEREMY BANNON-NECHES RACHEL FURST JAMIE GARCIA CASTILLA MICHE WONG RYAN ROULAND SMITH JENNA MARIE COLTON WALL KATIE LAKE

Dead Reckoning (2015)

Choreographed by KT NELSON

Lighting Design MATTHEW ANTAKY*

Snow Concept by YAYOI KAMBARA

Creative Assistant MIA J. CHONG

Rehearsal Assistant BRANDON “PRIVATE” FREEMAN

Dancers JEREMY BANNON-NECHES RACHEL FURST ALLIE HEAL JAIME GARCIA CASTILLA MICHE WONG CHRISTIAN SQUIRES RYAN ROULAND SMITH JENNA MARIE COLTON WALL KATIE LAKE

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