My young daughter’s room usually offers a state of tidiness until about 10 minutes after it’s been thoroughly cleaned. At a tornado’s pace, toys and accessories of multiple colors and shapes, pieces of clothes from all seasons, hats and sticks, accumulate all over the floor, rendering the room into a splendid chaos. So the thought of 49 youth performers evolving within the relatively narrow space of a theater’s backstage, and given the considerable task to manage hundreds of props, is enough to humble me. For ODC Associate Choreographer and School Director Kimi Okada, no task is too big when it comes to giving youth opportunities to learn about the craft of dance. Uncertain Weather, the youth production that she directed and which third season opens this coming weekend at ODC, comprises 49 children and teenagers, from 7 to 18. Okada and I talked over tea.
MT: What was the genesis of Uncertain Weather?
KO: We always wanted to have performance opportunities for kids. Prior to this production, they either had the choice to be in the Dance Jam, which is a major commitment, or to audition for the Velveteen Rabbit. Otherwise we just had informal performances at the end of a session. We decided that we wanted kids to be in a real production and work on something where they could have the discipline, and the fun, of learning about performance and stage vocabulary, preparing for an audience and seeing something through from the beginning. With the creation of the theater, we had the venue to fully produce it.
MT: What is the artistic vision behind Uncertain Weather?
KO: I wanted to do a production that showcased the whole school, as well as the different ages and styles of dance that we have. Yet I wanted to get out of the mentality of school productions, which is often in recital format, and do a seamless production with an artistic through line, in which you experience all kinds of things in an Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz kind of way. We came out with the idea of uncertain weather because that theme allows a lot of play.
The audience sees all the adventures unfolding onstage through the eyes of three girls, whom I see as hopeful spirits who experience all kinds of weather. I was inspired by the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is about survival and community. For instance, in one piece, I wanted to address the fact that when disasters happen, they leave an unbelievable mess and people have to deal with it. How do you survive a disaster of some kind? How do you go on? Faced with all the detritus left behind by a huge storm, the girls initiate the making of crazy costumes out of garbage and decide to do a fashion show!
MT: Can you tell me more about the genres and artists involved in the dance?
KO: I choreographed many of the pieces with Tanya Bello, who is the assistant director choreographer. We try to make this a consistent production, just like The Nutcracker or The Velveteen Rabbit. But because of the way the piece is structured, there is flexibility and there are some small changes over the years. This year, I invited guest choreographers to do specific dance genres. Bianca Cabrera choreographed a hip hop piece about earthquakes called Deck and Cover, Namita Kapoor choreographed a tap and a Bollywood piece, Elizabeth Castaneda created a ballet piece. I also worked with Dennis Hysom, a wonderful composer who wrote the music. He did a brilliant job making all the transitions, adding sound effects, and making sure that all the music is seamless.
MT: What is the learning experience for the performers?
KO: Kids do not have to audition for Uncertain Weather but they have to commit to coming to rehearsal once a week for the whole school year, and they have to be enrolled in one technique class of their choice. The real challenge is that the backstage choreography is equally as important as the stage choreography. The kids have to know how to do fast costume changes and props. We have a lot of help backstage to help indicate where to exit, where to put props… The 13 dance jam members are also very important because they help with prop work and transitions, and they also appear within several pieces and do their own dedicated piece.
In the original production, some of the kids were involved in helping make up the material. I like to choreograph that way. ‘How do you feel when you get hit by a giant wind? What does that feel like?’ I’d asked them. They also have to learn how to be in an ensemble, how to be aware of their space, all the things that dancers have to learn. Also, I think the age mix is quite special. There’s a lot of generosity from the older kids, who feel they have to be examples and help the little ones be excited about dancing. We try to create an atmosphere of mentorship and develop the spirit of community, ensemble, and support.
MT: The emphasis on youth programs appears to be really important to ODC. Can you talk more about that?
KO: I feel that the school is one of the big legacies that ODC is going to leave behind. After we are all gone, I’m hoping that the school will continue as a major dance center and that it will still embrace the values that we have, which is not just high quality training, but the importance of creativity, individual expression, and community. I feel we are very specially positioned as the youth and teens program is surrounded by professional artists, we have a presenting theater, and a professional company. The kids are constantly seeing dancers, staff, faculty, people who have devoted their life to dance and to the arts. We are trying to create more connections between the company and the school. We do in-house field trips in the classes that meet at least twice a week. At some point during the session, we take the children to the studio to watch the company and the company sometimes does outreach activities. We have such an advantage to be able to offer that kind of expansive picture, from the professional highest end model to the sheer enjoyment, recreational and health-oriented values of dance. The fact that we have so many adults taking class shows you that you don’t have to stop dancing as you get older.
I am also incredibly moved by young people, and I especially love teens. I know what they go through. Once you break through that veneer of self-consciousness, protectiveness and defensiveness, they get so genuinely inspired and excited about things that they give so much back. What keeps me going as a school director is realizing that we have the capacity to really change young people’s life or to steer them in a direction that they might not even have thought was possible. For me that’s a life mission.