The Unanswerable Questions

Janice Berman on March 19, 2018
(L to R) Mia J. Chong, Tegan Schwab, and Brandon Freeman perform in the world premiere of Brenda Way's News of the World at YBCA | Credit: Margo Moritz

When last ODC was reviewed by SFCV, the setting, Grace Cathedral, was heavenly, said founder and artistic director Brenda Way. But the atmosphere for the second show of ODC Dance Around Town 2018, which opened Thursday night at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts? “Hellish,” Way joked in a pre-curtain comment.

Or maybe half-joked. Her premiere, News of the World, embodying still-ripping-from-the-headlines themes of sexual repression and violence at worst, inequality and stereotyping at best, bade no good news.

Okay, maybe a little excellent news. The new piece itself, performed by 11 dancers, is one of ODC’s strongest. It stands up for women, but also for those men (not surprisingly, a vanishingly small few) who are themselves upright. Through its choreography, it hits the bullseye time and again without stooping to finger-pointing or preachiness. It’s even funny, with a glancingly bitter aftertaste. It’s intense. With music by Holly Herndon, David Lang, and Laurie Anderson, it makes its points squarely on the beat. In short, were the news of the world not so alarming, it would be great news indeed.

The ODC dancers perform in the world premiere of Brenda Way's News of the World at YBCA | Credit: Margo Moritz

Platoons of women in Natalie Barshow’s varied red designs, slickly fitted to the body, showing a little leg, torso, and so forth, venture forth in conflict and comradeship opposite a Madison Avenue brigade of guys in skinny ties, black suits, and white shirts. The Mad Men theme is never far from the consciousness, perhaps because that sexism of the ‘60s is as shocking as anything else to have reared its head in 2017-18, from Trump to Weinstein to Charles Dutoit.

Tricky questions like what’s abuse and what is simply misbehavior and when is sexual stereotyping stepping toward abuse are all presented here. When a man wraps his jacket around a woman, is he chivalrously protecting her, or is he aggressively trying to smother her? Is a woman jumping into a man’s lap because she wants to be there, or is she trying to hurt him, or vice versa? Is that arm-in-arm chain of five women expressing sisterhood, or are they huddling together in fear?

Daniel Santos and Jeremy Bannon-Neches perform in the world premiere of Brenda Way's News of the World at YBCA | Credit: Margo Moritz

As if that weren’t enough, we have the enigma of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to contend with. It’s the visual backdrop of the piece, but it’s been worked over not only by its misogynistic/brilliant (choose one or both) creator Picasso, but also by Doug Argue (I don’t know if he made up his surname or not), who endowed the 1907 mural of five prostitutes with an overlay of large semielliptical letters, giving the whole thing a shattered and maybe even more shattering effect than it would have had on its own. Argue’s overpainting, titled “Footfalls Echo in the Memory,” is either a trigger or a reflection of the ardent and hateful dancing that goes on in front of it. Or both. The visual effects are lit by Alex Nichols.

The kicker comes after an interlude of reluctantly-arrived-at peace, when a man and a woman are coached by another woman to crawl toward each other, reach toward each other with agonizing slowness and caution, and at last to embrace in an approximation of a slow dance of mutual surrender. Composer Laurie Anderson has the last word(s), offering at least some assurance that things may end better than they portend: “This is the time,” she says, “And this is the record of the time.”

Brenda Way

Brenda Way isn’t just being modest when she credits the dancers for their role in building this work, in fact, all the company’s work; these people are wholly involved, and they have such intelligent, beautifully presented bodies.

Further proof of their acuity came in the opening dance, What we carry What we keep, also choreographed by Way. It premiered in 2017, before the current brouhaha, or was it? Its theme questions why we allow ourselves to take on burdens — human, material, spiritual or otherwise — and when are they appropriate? When do they wear out their welcome? Or were they never supposed to be there in the first place? Well? Then what? What do we choose to discard? How do we do that? What do we carry with us, wittingly or unwittingly?

As always, there are more questions than answers, more objects, more people, more ideas than can be danced, than can be held, in the heart or in the hands. Always good to have Brenda Way and ODC (its helm shared by KT Nelson and Kimi Okada) on hand — for 47 seasons now — to ponder the imponderables.

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