Dance Review: ODC/Dance — Science and Sensuality

In both half-hour-long pieces on the ODC/Dance program, serious ideas underlay a lush movement language adorned with striking scenic effects.

ODC/Dance, presented by World Music/CRASHarts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, January 20 and 21.

Photo: Andrew Weeks

A scene from the ODC/Dance production of “Dead Reckoning.” Photo: Andrew Weeks.

By Marcia B. Siegel

ODC/Dance was founded in the ’70s by Brenda Way, who was on the faculty at Oberlin College. The company’s original name, Oberlin Dance Collective, is symptomatic of the times, celebrating a comradeship and egalitarianism that carried over into a less personal style. What happened to modern dance after the 1950s is that a work no longer had to contain thematic unity or references. The display of technical mastery or beauty became enough for the audience to admire. ODC retains a little of modern dance’s quest for Meaning, while pushing the physical virtuosity way past what the average audience viewer might relate to ordinary experience.

A bit of ’70s spirit lingered Friday night at the ICA when the company, now based in San Francisco, made its first professional appearance in Boston. In both half-hour-long pieces on the program, serious ideas underlay a lush movement language adorned with striking scenic effects. The evening started with the dancers warming up on stage, a choreographed group huddle, and hugs all around.

In the first piece, Dead Reckoning (2015), choreographed by co-artistic director K.T. Nelson and the dancers, the ten members of the company were dressed individually in complicated but scanty garments. The combination of their skin and black costumes with forest-like shadows projected from the side made for an effective opening. The title refers to the necessity of navigating without the fixed guideposts of sun and stars, as in a storm for instance. But little in the dance itself told you that.

In Dead Reckoning the idea of compass-less journey seems to come through in the dancers’ pursuit of the vertical—straight-up jumps and stretches— and of their circling moves—spins, traveling turns, arms flung wildly around the body to end abruptly in awkward shapes. Perhaps I’m over-interpreting.

During most of the dance it “snowed.” People stood on platforms (I couldn’t see exactly how this happened) or crossed the space dribbling handfuls of green stuff that looked like crepe-paper coins. By the end of the dance, the floor was nearly covered with this decorative litter, and it stuck to the dancers’ sweaty skin when they slid or lay on the floor.

A moody score with repeating phrases for cello (by Joan Jeanrenaud) accompanied the action. Despite the attractive scenic and auditory elements, the dance seemed dark. I recall lots of running, people slamming into other people and being lifted up, and a lot of self-involved movement that involved gesturing around the body, stretching and curving the torso, and sometimes groping around a partner’s body. The dance doesn’t seem to have a lot of intimate contact between the dancers, although it’s filled with lifting and carrying, and with people moving in pairs.

After almost half an hour, we began to hear crunching and surging sounds. The program tells us that this is the sound of trees falling, but I thought of icebergs calving off a glacier and crashing into the sea.

The language of Triangulating Euclid (2013) was similar but with some differences. Co-choreographed by Nelson, Way, and guest artist Kate Weare, it may have been about Euclid. I don’t know anything about Euclid except that the program tells us it relates to the man’s connection with mathematics. But that doesn’t shed much light on the dance either. It began with a woman (Mia Chong) in a black two-piece bathing suit, doing a series of cryptic gestures, and a man standing in the audience with a large white megaphone-like object held to one eye, and a woman’s voice in the background telling about finding an ancient book.

The voice disappears. Chong is joined by other dancers, all in different versions of the bathing suit, and they follow her in unison, gathering in a series of lineups and dispersing, then lining up again. Two important visual events carry through the rest of the dance. The dancers acquire gauzy but meticulously tailored jerkins over their bathing suits. And a woman appears, almost stealthily, to chalk a line across the front of the space. She crouches to sprinkle the chalk and moves slowly backwards. At the other side, she veers upstage on a diagonal, then turns left to go straight out at the same side from which she entered, leaving the space carved into geometric figures.

While this is going on, we hear a song by Franz Schubert (“Nacht und Träum”) sung by a tenor, then later by a soprano. (The program gives virtually no musical information.) A series of duets begins. In the first, the woman hangs onto the man’s arms and he drags her in a semi-circle across one of the chalk lines, her feet leaving parallel arcs on the floor.

The duets that follow are oddly impersonal, although they all involve touching, pulling, lifting, and eventually pushing and shoving. There’s almost no eye contact between the sets of partners, nothing to explain the increasing aggressiveness except the partners’ willingness to be abused.

By the end of the third duet, the Schubert is over and we hear a minimalistic repeating phrase on a cello and piano, with another dance for two, trickier and pushier than before. A woman does a solo of thrashing intensity. A man enters and their duet is even more alienated than the ones before. He leaves with another woman and the solo woman thrashes even more violently. By this time, the music sounds like something by Philip Glass.

All ten dancers reappear with discordant moves and lots of sliding and falling, facilitated by the chalk, which by now is smeared all over the floor. The dance ends abuptly as Mia Chong reappears. There’s been so much big movement that I can’t tell if her last solo was a variation of the first, but it is more discordant and intense than the first.

I don’t know what it all had to do with Euclid, but presumably the dancers did.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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