On Thursday, Aug. 19, ODC/Dance, San Francisco’s contemporary dance company founded and led by Artistic Director Brenda Way, premieres its first full-length film: Up for Air/Decameron. Although its title may evoke early pandemic messages of resilience and memories of book-clubbing 14th-century short stories from Boccaccio’s collection, the work was actually originally conceived four years ago. Way was sickened by the toxic political era of the Trump administration and wanted to analogize the environment in Washington, D.C., to a national illness. She became interested in how Boccaccio used the frame narrative of 10 young people who had escaped the Black Death in Florence in a secluded rural villa to tell love stories. “The original idea when we did it at the studio was to have the lobby full of newspapers, Fox News, and all the disturbing vitriol that we were surrounded by — and then when you’d walk into the studio, it would be love stories in contrast to that. And it would be beautiful,” Way says.
The performance was slated to take place in March at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Two weeks before the date, lockdowns took effect in counties across California. “The plague of [political] attitude was replaced with the plague of Covid,” Way says — or perhaps, both plagues were now festering at once. Suddenly, everything ODC/Dance did was threatened: “dancers, of course, do nothing but touch each other — which was off bounds,” Way points out.
Way, along with three other choreographers at ODC — KT Nelson, Kimi Okada, and Kate Weare — now had created dance sequences about human connection and love in a time of fear and hate, an artistic theme that had become even more relevant in light of the pandemic. Why not do something with the work that could never be performed for live audiences? As the year progressed, Way became increasingly set on making a film. She didn’t want it just to be a recording of dance performed on stage — she wanted it to be a proper film. She quickly learned that filmmaking was a “very, very different process from choreography.” “I gave a lot of thought to what the camera can do — how can the camera be the other dancer in the work, rather than sitting in the back of the hall, looking at the work?”
The new artistic medium also forced Way to adopt a new creative approach. “The process of making a film was, in a way, diametrically opposed to the way I choreograph,” Way reflects. “When I choreograph, I create a landscape, from which the spectator can choose their story — so there’s something going downstage left and upstage right, and you choose where you wish to look and you put it together. ... In film, of course, the director makes all those choices. So you just see what I see — it’s the opposite.” Filming the dance forced Way to abandon a key tenet of her choreographic philosophy in favor of a new practice of perspective and control.
On the day that San Francisco reopened the city, filming began. One challenge was giving each segment of the choreography its own distinct feel. Way wanted each story, choreographed by a distinct author, to have a unique atmosphere. Ultimately, this was accomplished by presenting one scene in black and white and layering another with haze, highly editing one scene and shooting up close for another. “I tried to identify an emotional strategy for the way each scene was filmed and edited,” Way says.
While the dances were not initially designed to speak to the maladies of the coronavirus pandemic, the film is framed by a consciousness of the pandemic. And dance is a medium that will always have something to say about interconnection and interdependence. As Way explains, “when people dance together — it is the story of human interaction or lack of it.” Way also thinks that the perspectivism of Up for Air/Decameron resonates with the political agitation for diversity and inclusion in 2020. “The idea of having different points of view was also felicitously parallel to what we were talking about in our culture at large — going beyond the singular view into a more pluralistic perception of what’s going on,” she says. “It was a pretty exhilarating experience to create this film,” Way concludes.
The film was a particularly ambitious project for ODC/Dance, given the difficult year it has had. The company lost 80 percent of its income during the pandemic; the over 15,000 students that usually visited its studio in a year dissipated overnight. Still, thanks to a PPP grant and special grants it applied for and received, it was able to stay afloat and keep most of its staff working. Meanwhile, it expanded its digital offerings, including online classes and experiences for young people, and brought on a director of digital programming. And it developed more experiences and lectures for seniors on physical and mental health and launched an ODC fit program, a cross-training program for everybody, not just dancers.
ODC is gearing up for a full theater season ahead, and Way’s looking forward to its annual Velveteen Rabbit production, which she wants to capture on film. She’s generally excited about the possibilities of film: She wants to do one film project a year, although she recognizes it’s a lofty goal given how expensive it is.
The premiere on Thursday night will take place at 6 p.m. in a live showing at ODC Theater to a limited-capacity audience. Those who wish to watch at home may stream it online beginning at that time. Before the screening, mixologist Dan Burns from Foreign Cinema will lead audiences in creating “The Florentine,” a specialty cocktail designed especially for this event, and Way and creative producer Kellee McQuinn will discuss the creative process that took place behind the scenes of Up for Air/Decameron. Tickets are available here.
ODC will be launching a new online platform this fall that includes a suite of ODC on-demand offerings, including Up for Air/Decameron, with special behind-the-scenes content.