A deeply sophisticated psychology permeates Brenda Way’s choreography for ODC Dance measuring the strength and self-determining action of the individual against the surrender to forces beyond one’s control. The importance of relationships and solidarity for mediating individual, dynamic and cultural circumstances manifests in the dances through several threads. Surveying the most recent decade of work (from 2003-2013) during which Way created 17 new dances, the narrative trends of the choreography include the woman whole and independent, effort and surrender toward social issues, resilience through relationships, and a biographic story through visual and textual interests. This final thread I conclude having spent time with the artist in the office, at the dinner table and in the studio during 2013. Our conversations deepen my perception of her work. Artists are philosophers in their own right, and through Way’s dances, one shares her lens of inquiry and spirit.
Additionally, humans are creatures of narrative and the tendency to make sense of things lies in the psychology of Way’s work. Even non-linear constellations of imagery in the dances trigger the narrative impulse. Susan Foster writes that “narrative is inevitable” and in a time-based art form, such as dance, the sequence of action transfers suggestions from the artist, between which the audience fills the gaps. Therefore, in each work there exists what scholar Kathryn Profeta describes as an embedded narrative – that which is offered by the work or artist, and the emergent narrative – the spectator’s narrative which is highly personal and generated by the audience member. Using this framework to survey Way’s work, I will focus most on the embedded narrative, for which there is a visual evidence.
A Woman Whole
In several works since 2003, Way conveys both an empathy for and portrayal of the archetypal “woman unto herself” not in the virginal sense, but rather the portrayal of a woman who is whole, complete unto herself and owned by no man. The works Remnants of Song (2003), On a Train Heading South (2005), In the Memory of a Forest (2009) and Lifesaving Maneuvers (2013) all contain such female solos. Often empowered trailblazers, these characters also seem to oscillate between a sturdy solitude and wistful loneliness of less traveled paths. Way’s female protagonists exhibit a brave strength. They are active forces, suggesting self-determinism.
In the Memory of a Forest, a dance-theater work based on a 17-year old woman (Way’s future mother-in-law) walking from Warsaw to freedom in 1941 illuminates the courage of the “woman unto herself” through the role performed by Yayoi Kambara. She emerges alone from a human chain which advances forward and retreats. Running in white and khaki garments through the dark woods, (a dynamic forest projection on the scrim), Kambara embodies a forward-looking woman taking ownership for her future. Appearing and disappearing bodies in the forest film, which create the illusion of additional ensemble figures, suggest a dreamlike remembrance of time’s passage during a long and difficult journey. The projections create an effect similar to the multiplied bodies on film behind those onstage in Lucinda Childs’s Dance (1979) – a sort of dancing with ghosts. With Kambara and other male and female roles from this decade, Way brings forth the broad capacities of individuals, which expand beyond what mass culture assumes and represents of genders. At the end of Forest, four women, including Kambara, assume a partnered arabesque position as the lights dim; they lean forward and amplify the striving of Kambara’s bold character.
Almost five years later, Kambara stands alone again in Lifesaving Maneuvers. Amongst depictions of supportive friendship and through partnering, Kambara peers from behind the translucent backdrop, following the periphery in solitude. Here she projects inner-strength separate from the groupings composed by the rest of the ensemble.
Consider also the woman’s solo performed by Annie Zivolich in On a Train Heading South. Under an arc of melting ice droplets, Zivolich gesticulates in a frenzied struggle apart from the ensemble. She is on her own as the noticer and alarmist while the rest of the performers enact etiquette of party mingling. Zivolich does not participate in the luxurious rituals of society depicted, speaking instead through tireless and full physicality until she is finally silenced and literally smothered by Daniel Santos. In this work, Zivolich remains dedicated to the less popular path, even as it ends in defeat.
Finally, in Way’s earlier work of this period, Remnants of Song, which follows the story of twelfth century French lovers, Heloise performed by Yukie Fujimoto the woman involved with Peter Abelard’s character, Justin Flores, exhibits a confidence in deviating from the all female ensemble. (Sections of choreography among same sex ensembles provide a common signature of Way’s work, repeating again in Lifesaving Maneuvers, Book of Hours and Waving Not Drowning. We see male and female tribes mobilize repeatedly, a suggestion of gendered kinship and common experience.) To the haunting Gregorian chant, Fujimoto gently traces the space around her face with her hands and rocks in a deep plie as part of the female ensemble, exhibiting tender femininity. These sections alternate with her solos of ostracized removal. Finally she trudges forward, void of joy, conveying a loneliness that accompanies her choice to diverge.
Imprint of the Contemporary Moment
Socially motivated narratives also trend through the decade with works like On a Train Heading South (2005), Time Remaining (2006), and completing the trilogy, A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes (2007), as well as Unintended Consequences: A Meditation (2008) and Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) (2010). These narratives questioning social norms provide a tension against the strong individual solos previously mentioned. They challenge self-determinism, pointing to societal force as a primary and oppressive educational voice – the cultural apparatus. With these narratives, Way reminds us to pay attention to the troubling issues of our time and to the imprint of society. Embedded in these works is a residue of imminent darkness and alarm. They reveal individuals being somehow overwhelmed by larger cultural and societal phenomenon. Surrender, stagnation or defeat result to varying degrees.
Looking again at On a Train Heading South, the work illustrates a narrative of social concern, in this case related to climate change. Similarly, the other works of Way’s trilogy, Time Remaining and A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes also explore social issues: righteousness and conformity and fear of terrorism respectively. Gestures of covered eyes and ears performed by the ensemble, indicate the chosen ignorance to climate change against Zivolich’s alarm in On a Train. The ensemble dances around an ice sculpture and remains unaffected by audio newscasts in the sound score. Wide legged, parallel bourees (another recurring movement in Way’s work) show the dancers literally tiptoeing around the climate issue.
In Time Remaining, we see the deterioration of individual will through manipulative partnering sequences with both mannequins and dancers. The dancers appear droopy, tentative and puppet-like in these duets. For example we see Private Freeman conduct a sequence firmly tilting, spinning and grabbing a mannequin. No big deal. But when he repeats it again with Marina Fukushima and later Andrea Flores the effect is unsettling that there is little difference between the handling of the mannequin and the women. Some private struggle appears when Freeman dons a white blazer and wrestles a tie from around his own neck. Flores’s solo also demonstrates a writhing in one’s skin while three upright women properly shuffle past. A montage of devotional prayer gestures arrives late in the work suggesting the religious influences of conformity.
In addition, the darkly atmospheric imagery created by Hiraki Sawa’s film in A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes, with duets by Flores and Freeman, creates a sense of paranoia and violation as the choreography is performed against domestic footage – of a kitchen, a bedroom – places in a home where one ideally feels safe. Something unusual and foreboding exists in this domestic sphere of women in floral sundresses. Tiny airplanes drift slowly over a stove, around a bed, projecting a sense of doom in this post-9/11 age of paranoia. The dancers stack chairs into a false fortress of protection to a chilling effect.
Unintended Consequences: A Meditation deviates from much of Way’s work with isolated deliveries of movement and a relative absence of connected partnering relationships. In this commission for the Equal Justice Society, the dancers enact abstractions of violence, such as a person hanged. Concluding with ensemble unison, the work seems to evoke Sherry Turkle’s 2012 book “Alone Together.” Laurie Anderson’s music contributes to a sense of sobering stagnation with its steady electronic stasis and vocals beyond language.
An additional socially motivated narrative from this period, Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) employs a different style altogether. While Unintended Consequences reads as introspective, Waving Not Drowning is overt and declarative, bolstered by Pamela Z’s use of text from a 1960’s volume of manners and style protocol for the sophisticated woman. The knowing looks and presentational delivery emphasizes the body as object as surgical marks are drawn in marker onto dancer Quillet Rarang’s abdomen and sexualized gestures highlighting breasts and buttocks repeat. Hearing phrases like “A really elegant woman never wears black in the morning” in the sound score and seeing the dancers mock the protocol, the dance makes obvious the troubling fixation on appearance and unrealistic, yet mainstream norms of beauty and pressure specifically on women. During the final section when the women build paper dresses on the males standing as mannequins, one can contrast the restriction of these delicate garments on objectified bodies with the expressive dynamism of Brazilian Neo-concrete artist Helio Oticica’s Paragoles – cape-like garments meant to be inhabited and activated by human motion. The men in paper dresses demonstrate complicity, whereas the cape garment from Brazil’s Tropicalia era is an indicator of individuality, expression and agency. With Waving Not Drowning, as well as the aforementioned works, Way tells us to pay attention to the messages embedded in our contemporary culture with a critical eye.
Support and Solidarity
Possibly the most harmonious narratives embedded in this decade of Way’s work are those which acknowledge the importance of relationships – partnerships, family and community. The dancers, who offer support and serve as witnesses and confidants, appear to alleviate suffering of certain individual characters as they grapple with the ups and downs of life. The psychology of coping, adapting and accepting is strongly braided into this third type of narrative and speaks to the healing potential of art. The most striking example is Lifesaving Maneuvers (2013), which follows Way’s Investigating Grace (1999) by 14 years and converses in particular with that NEA American Masterpiece. Both of these works elicit a heightened degree of humanity and resilience. They conjure change and passage, a sort of liminality and communitas. The dances conclude differently than the previous group of works discussed, in that they acknowledge and navigate life’s beautiful and ugly parts through human relationships.
To be carried by others thematically permeates Lifesaving Maneuvers from the opening diagonal of pairs, women firmly extended on the backs of the men, followed by piggy-back partnering. Later in a trio, Zivolich is carried between two women, all facing backward, her feet walking inches off the ground. Daring leaps and catches weave trusted partnering into the work, in which relationships are paramount. Compare the theater of composure, demonstrated by separate serpentines of men and women gesturing conversational flourishes, with the pure moments of union, compassion and humanity. These latter moments are expressed through contact and support, including female and male kinship. The psychology of this work addresses weathering the changes and challenges of life, and because of its universal theme, Lifesaving Maneuvers transfers a healing communication of survival, coping and the importance of a people landscape. The effect parallels the human resilience conveyed in Investigating Grace, a signature work of the choreographer.
While Lifesaving Maneuvers demonstrates the role of support during adversity, it’s worth noting how the narrative of 24 Exposures (2001), just prior to the discussed decade of work, reveals community in more harmonious contexts of the everyday. We see a parade, several joyous gatherings, as well as duets where a posed figure is tenderly and slowly rotated. The imagery of the pairs evokes tiny spirals of time and developing trust. The brightness of 24 Exposures, driven by melodies of Edgar Myer, Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor reminds us of the joy in community that exists not only when support is needed but ongoing in order to sharing and making meaning together.
An Elemental Narrative
Finally, from Way’s dances, the structural elements drawn from aesthetics, architecture and books over the course of a decade create a narrative of their own, potentially a biographical portrait of the dance maker. Book of Hours (2007), Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) (2010), Architecture of Light (2011) and Triangulating Euclid (2013) all offer examples of these visual and textual leanings. Literary elements, both syntactical form and assertion of story, permeate Way’s style, however with dance as opposed to books, the employment of these elements through bodies offers a different kind of freedom released from language: non-linear, illegible and full of possibility.
Book of Hours takes its inspiration from an illuminated medieval manuscript, Les Tres Riches Heures due Duc de Berry. The groupings of dancers suggest a progression of life stages from the playful and floor-bound Rarang and Erin Dernstine, to small male and female ensembles of kinship, giving way to the couplings of male/female pairs. The manuscript drives the content of life cycles present in the dance and also reveals a choreographer’s art object of interest.
Waving Not Drowning (A Guide to Elegance) includes the words of Genevieve Antoine Dariaux from her 1964 book “A Guide to Elegance” in Pamela Z’s score, allowing the audience to experience the structural syntax of declarative sentences with the varying rhythms of punctuated movement phrases. In this case a book serves as the point of departure, structural element and reflection of Way’s curiosities and critiques. Furthermore, Triangulating Euclid, a triptych, hints at Way’s affection for books, ideas, knowledge transfer and art objects. In this collaboration with KT Nelson and Kate Weare, Way employs art conservator Karen Zukor’s relationship with works on paper, specifically a rare original edition of Euclid’s Elements, to illuminate the elegance of math.
Included in the biographical portrait that colors the narratives of Way’s work is the accretion of individual styles and voices of the company dancers, with whom the choreographer works. Way appreciates how the dancers’ performance of material shapes the emergent stories and acknowledges the inspiration and affect of, for example, Shannon Mitchell’s dramatic capacity, the fine articulation and possibility of nuance demonstrated by Freeman, Zivolich’s fiery appetite, Fujimoto’s elegance and Kambara’s personal signaling to name a few.
Finally, the site-specific work Architecture of Light created to open the new ODC Theater features Elaine Buckholtz’s lighting, ODC Dance plus ten additional dancers, audience participants woven into the finale, and the theater – all players in the dance that doubles as a guided tour. Through building design, environment, as well as social interactions of people in the space, Way combines aesthetics and architecture to activate a classy and celebratory shindig, extending multi-dimensionally beyond facility, dance or community gathering. The work reveals Way as a savvy and generous gatherer welcoming others into her world of aesthetics, beauty and virtuosity.
It’s no surprise that this loosely biographical narrative emerges, since Way is indeed an aesthetics scholar, voracious reader and avid writer herself. These elements indicate a value of learning, story and environment, all at the heart of the ODC campus in San Francisco’s Mission District. As a result, this narrative, while present in the ephemera of Way’s dances, has the most concrete existence by also manifesting in the buildings and facilities, which support a full creative life cycle of dancers in mind, body and community.