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Anniversary markers — 1 year, 10 years, 25 years — are significant in that they represent continuity and a certain amount of steadfastness. So when a dance company achieves over 50 years, it’s a big deal. And that’s just what San Francisco’s ODC/Dance has done.

Says Brenda Way, founder and artistic director of ODC/Dance, “I think for a contemporary company to survive so many ups and downs is pretty exciting. And to hit 50 in the middle of a pandemic and come out of it kind of doubles the pleasure and, at some level, the surprise.”

Thursday through April 10, San Francisco-based ODC is celebrating its half-a-century (and then some) existence as a dance powerhouse. Established in 1971, the company has a long history of teaching and training dancers and putting on performances that highlight contemporary dance techniques. 

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Support from local agencies, as well as from the National Endowment for the Arts, has factored into ODC’s longevity in the modern dance world. Explains Way, “There have been a lot of people who have participated in what we do, and that’s why we’re still here. I take great pleasure in that and in recognizing what that means about our place in the community.”

Brenda Way, ODC/Dance founder and artistic director, has included two of her older works in the “Dance Downtown” programs, “Investigating Grace” and “Speaking Volumes.” (Photo courtesy Eszter + David)

The focus of ODC’s 50+ anniversary celebration is “Dance Downtown,” a two-program event showcasing ODC choreographers and dance company members, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Blue Shield of California Theater. Each program features an influential work by Way, “Investigating Grace” (1999) and “Speaking Volumes” (2005).

Way explains that for Program A, “On Renewal,” she’s having Dexandro Montalvo produce his first work for the company. Titled “Vámonos,” the world premiere spotlights hip-hop-oriented choreography. She describes the other piece in this program, her own “Speaking Volumes,” as full of delight and as optimistic.

Of “Speaking Volumes,” Way shares, “It starts with one person, as in one idea, and it grows and grows till the end, when there are 30 people onstage. So it’s kind of a celebration of community.”

For “Dance Downtown’s” Program B, “On Reflection,” Way aimed for a looking back and looking forward theme and factored in how the pandemic induced a great deal of contemplation. She notes, “So it’s not just our 50th, but it’s [also] our social circumstance today that led me to the programming.”

The program includes the world premiere of Amy Seiwert’s “No Alibi” — a piece set to words and music by poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen — as well as Way’s “Investigating Grace,” which was prompted by the choreographer facing a personal circumstance that led her to contemplate the meaning of life and the making of art. 

ODC/Dance, formerly known as the Oberlin Dance Collective, was founded in 1971. According to the ODC site, “[It] was one of the first American companies to incorporate a post-modern sensibility (an appreciation for pedestrian movement) into a virtuosic contemporary dance technique and to commit major resources to interdisciplinary collaboration and musical commissions for the repertory.” (Photo, circa 1972, courtesy of ODC/Dance)

As she explains of the latter, “I was in a very reflective mode, asking, ‘Was that an important thing at all?’ — of course, you question yourself when you’re in a major personal moment. And I felt, ultimately, that, yes, it is — to reaffirm the important things in life. So I made that piece to Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations,’ which I thought was completely pertinent because it’s one variation after another, kind of like facing each day. And you go through each day when you’re experiencing grief.”

The “50+ Anniversary Gala” is scheduled for Friday at YBCA and will include an opening reception and a dinner in YBCA’s The Forum, wherein Way has carefully planned the visual elements. 

Way shares, “I’m very excited about the decor because I’m installing costumes from our long history — the costumes from pieces that I thought had social significance …  I’m excited to be bringing our history, repertoire and aesthetic into the party.”

After the dinner, gala attendees will take in “Dance Downtown’s” Program A, as well as a lively performance by ODC’s teen company Dance Jam, featuring dancers ages 13 to 18. An afterparty complete with dessert, cocktails and, of course, dancing will follow. Various ODC choreographers and company members — current and past — are expected to join in the fun.

Company dancers practice at ODC’s studio with Brenda Way (third from left), ODC associate choreographer Kimi Okada (fourth from left) and ODC fellow KT Nelson (fifth from left). (Photo courtesy Eszter + David)

As Way comments about the gala, “As far as I can tell, there’ll be a lot of ODC alumni coming. It will be a real celebration to see some of these people again after all these years.”

Reuniting after time apart and celebrating the return of in-person performances — these aspects are significant not only for ODC but also for all artists and organizations that thrive onstage and in the public eye. Way is very much aware of the “bigger picture” that ODC’s 50+ anniversary event represents.

“We’re seeing some of the [pandemic-related] constraints reduced, and I’m hoping that we can be part of a new wave of return to the theater for all the companies and theater and dance in town,” she says. “I feel very optimistic that we may be at the front end of the change, and that’s exciting and that’s putting my arms out to all the other performing artists in our region. We have been struggling together to get through this. So it’s not just celebrating us — we’re celebrating the beauty and the optimism of performing for live audiences.”

‘Dance Downtown’ schedule

ODC’s “Dance Downtown” features two programs, “On Renewal” and “On Reflection.”

Program A: “On Renewal” (featuring “Vámonos” and “Speaking Volumes”)

7:30 p.m. Thursday
8 p.m. Friday (50+ Anniversary Gala)
7:30 p.m. Saturday (LGBTQIA+ Night)
3 p.m. Sunday, with 2 p.m. “Balcony Talk”

Program B: “On Reflection” (featuring “No Alibi” and “Investigating Grace”)
7:30 p.m. April 7 (Off-Campus Night)
7:30 p.m. April 8
7:30 p.m. April 9
3 p.m. April 10, with 2 p.m. “Balcony Talk”

To purchase tickets, $25-$150, to “Dance Downtown,” go here: https://odc.dance/.

ODC’s “50+ Anniversary Gala” will take place starting at 5 p.m. Friday in the Forum and in the Blue Shield of California Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco.

5 p.m. Welcome reception
6 p.m. Dinner
8 p.m. Performance at YBCA Theater
9:30 p.m. After-party with dessert, cocktails and dancing

To purchase tickets, $175-$1,200, and tables, $8,000 and up, for the 50+ “Anniversary Gala,” go here: https://odc.dance/.