Between Action and Idea at ODC Theater | Guest Post by Marie Tollon

Last fall, the Dance Odyssey Project, which creates opportunities for participants to observe, practice and discuss dance at ODC Theater, facilitated a dialogue with visual arts students from the San Francisco Art Institute. Darryl Kirchner’s short film Between Action and Idea captures the essence of this conversation. One shot discloses a piece of linen saturated with scarlet red inks, poignantly reminding of live, warm flesh, while another shot freezes the students experimenting with movement in space, their bodies becoming malleable sculptures. The film evokes the porosity of both art forms, and the capacity for them to inhale, digest and stain each other:

Between Action and Idea: A Collaboration Between ODC Theater and SFAI

Led by artist and SFAI Richard Diebenkorn Teaching Fellow Liam Everett, the first group comprised of graduate students whose practice ranges from photography, video, and painting to sculpture and multi-media installations. In their seminar, students had worked on identifying both the intellectual and emotional systems on which they rely to make. In order to potentially disturb and rearrange these systems of practice, they were invited to observe an open rehearsal with choreographer and ODC Artist-in-Residence Hope Mohr and her dancers.

Hope Mohr Dance in Route 20, premiering April 10-13. Photo by Margo Moritz

Hope Mohr Dance in Route 20, premiering April 10-13. Photo by Margo Moritz


Students were treated to a rare behind-the-scene moment where the choreographer and dancer develop a work from raw material. They observed Mohr calling for a revisit of a particular section, stopping a movement phrase, giving indications, incorporating dancers’ suggestions, weaving the fibers of movement into a form to be revisited and transformed. After spending part of the semester questioning their own way of working, the students became privy to the working process of another artist, in a field and medium that were entirely foreign to most of them. Sculptor and photographer Chris Grunder explained: “I generally view the outcome of my work as being a concrete and objective thing. Once complete it can be viewed in its form continuously. This informs the practice of making it. While watching Hope work with her dancers, it was interesting to consider that ‘completeness’ or ‘finality’ are points at which there is no longer something to visually consume, things have run their course and are over. The perfect practiced form may happen once and never be approached again. Acceptance of this as a method of working is a challenge to patience and control but I have been trying to adapt ephemerality and duration to my own practice since our visit.”

Following the rehearsal, Mohr and her dancers invited the participants to discuss some of the parallels between the making of a dance piece and the creation of a visual artwork. They evoked the tools they use to keep the artwork present and compelling, at a level of working, in an effort to avoid complacency. Students remarked on practical or conceptual restrictions they have imposed upon their craft, such as refraining to use a particular color or material, as a way to explore new avenues and create tension within the work. Mohr explained alternating textures in her dances, such as layering different movement languages, speed or physicality, and working at two different levels: one level conveyed directly through the work, as well as an ongoing and less immediate “subtext.” The full conversation between Mohr and the students is available on Hope Mohr Dance’s blog.

Similarly, a second group of SFAI students, from Everett’s advanced undergraduate painting seminar, used some aspects of the movement workshop they took with choreographer and ODC Artist-in-Residence Scott Wells to inform their studio practice, as recounted in a previous entry.

Scott Wells. Photo by David Papas

Scott Wells. Photo by David Papas

With this exchange, the ODC studio space functioned as a blank canvas on which the painters were encouraged to think about composition, texture and depth, not only through their eyes but also with their entire body. “As a painter, it is easy to let sight become the predominant sense that I utilize in my practice,” mentioned student Ahna Fender.  “Working with Scott reminded me that all of my senses are indeed engaged when I paint, and that by bringing more awareness to them, something deeper and fuller can come forth in my practice.”

Creating a bridge between disciplines, this dialogue questioned how some of the elements inherent to dance could be transposed to other artistic practices. How and in which direction does a painting move? What would it mean for an image to have speed and how can you measure its velocity? Can a painting be thought of as having been choreographed and if so how does the painter imbue this sequencing with a sense of unpredictability? Finally, how can this conversation between dance and the visual arts nourish each other and in what language and/or dialect do they establish their optimal mode of communication?

Disclosure Agreement. Ahna Fender, 2013. Vinyl drop cloth, acrylic, pen, steel, paint cans.

Disclosure Agreement. Ahna Fender, 2013. Vinyl drop cloth, acrylic, pen, steel, paint cans.

Back in their studio, students incorporated these specific questions, and the problems they raise, in a series of paintings. The exhibition Between Action and Idea was curated from this body of work and is on view until the end of the month at ODC Theater. Fender commented on the making of her piece Disclosure Agreement, which is part of the exhibition: “During our workshop with Scott Wells, we explored a variety of trust exercises, allowing ourselves to be seen, guided and moved by other members of the group. With this painting, I wanted to experiment with a similar kind of openness and disclosure, stripping the painting down to its essential elements, allowing it to be bare and inviting a kind of literal and metaphorical transparency into the work.”

Weeks after Mohr’s open rehearsal at ODC Commons, I ran into two SFAI graduate students at the Garage, where Mohr was performing The Metrics of Intimacy with Christian Burns. After the show, I asked one student what he thought of the performance. He candidly answered that although he did not possess the dance background to contextualize the piece, it had urged him to think about the organization and relationships of objects and bodies in space in a way that was both refreshing and relevant to his practice. Previously an unknown artistic territory, dance is now becoming for him a fertile ground for reflection and critical investigation.

Marie Tollon coordinated the Dance Odyssey Project at ODC Theater in the fall 2013. A native of France, she provided community engagement and program support to a number of dance institutions, including the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, Elisa Monte Dance and the French dance festival Les Rencontres Chorégraphiques Internationales, before managing the Cultural Center of the Lycée Français de New York.

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