Brenda Way, artistic dance director, answers questions
What work do you do?
I founded ODC (originally the Oberlin Dance Collective) 35 years ago as a multidimensional arts organization — that is to say, not just for dance jocks. We moved to the Bay Area from Ohio and now own 33,000 square feet of dancing/teaching/performing space in San Francisco. My primary time is spent as artistic director of the 10-member resident contemporary dance company. I choreograph, and the company tours our repertory around the world. In addition to the dancing part, I started and help run our community arts center, which includes a theater, a training school, two children’s performing companies, and a visual arts gallery. All kinds of community groups as well as artists meet, perform, raise money, and make trouble here in our space.
How does it relate to the environment?
I think that as artists, we are all keenly aware of our environment, both natural and invented. Ideas, receptivity, and inspiration drive us rather than commodity culture. Values constitute the bedrock of our lives. I think that is true of environmental activists as well. Artists might be seen as the vivid front edge of the past — canaries in the mine shaft. A key part of our purpose is to promote perception and awareness, to incite reflection and reactions. I see us as strong allies with environmental groups in the struggle for enlightened social consciousness in our shared desire for a greater humanity.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new piece about global warming: “On a Train Heading South.” It focuses on social denial and complacency in the face of environmental degradation (read: disaster). I’ve centered the piece on a Cassandra figure whose prophecies and attempts to communicate are going unheard (which is very much inspired by the position of environmental groups over the past 20 years). I have a set that includes 12 large blocks of ice suspended on iron rods that melt over the course of the piece onto a silver floor. You hear the dripping throughout the piece, and the silver creates a bit of an unearthly glow on the dancers. It’s a powerful image as it invokes both a vision of diamonds — precious/gorgeous/glowing — and also a deteriorating, melting form. The suggestion of social decadence is enhanced by the floor’s reflective surface; images of Narcissus looking at his own reflection come to mind.
And of course, I spend a lot of time raising money so that I can make dances and keep our theater open. Our programs are designed to promote creative capacity in the thousands of students (and audience members for that matter) with whom we work every year. On a daily basis, like most contemporary artists, I cope with the nagging problems of invisibility, marginalization, and a serious lack of cash and social/civic power. Sounds a little like the environmental activists.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I worked in New York City politics around housing issues — displacement of low-income populations — and served as Democratic county committee member from the Upper West Side. I had a few children, and I performed and danced in my spare time. Then I got wrapped up in feminist organizing for half a decade or so, focusing on media analysis and child-care issues. I occupied a vacant building in New York City and helped set up and run a collective day care center. My three small kids (and a vanishing husband) ultimately led me to accept a job teaching dance (which I’d studied since I was three) at Oberlin College, where I had been an undergraduate. This turned my political ambitions around and led me to work on creating a small world organized around humane values rather than trying to shift core values by tackling the whole world. The artistic world celebrated beauty, creativity, and reflection. I needed all three. So I started a dance company, which eventually moved to San Francisco. Now we own and run a 33,000 square foot cultural center that serves the entire region.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
The biggest pain for me is begging for money from ill-informed, arrogant sources. I want to shrivel up and blow away when corporate or private foundation staffs try to make us wiggle through narrow hoops — e.g., convert your request or your program into something that you don’t do but that they have in mind, or insist upon evaluative methodology that is entirely quantitative. America marginalizes art and artists in favor of a commodity appetite, so it is difficult to make the arts funding case on its own merits (rather than, say, economic, educational, or social service). That said, most foundation personnel are smart and supportive. But when I get one of the duds, I really have to practice breathing. I’m old; I’m impatient.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Private patrons. There are so many wonderful individuals for whom support is a graceful and generous act of faith.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
The San Francisco earthquake of ’89, which almost toppled our building.
What’s been the best?
Every day I get to be in the studio with the dancers. Really. Oh yes, and getting a major private donation that allowed us to buy our new facility.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I went ballistic when Cheney (or was it W.?) declared that as Americans, we have the right to burn as much fuel as we want. Drive that SUV, people, he said. What an outrageous lack of responsibility and global humility.
Who is your environmental hero?
I hold Rachel Carson in very high regard for framing the notion of a silent spring. My commitment to finding evocative language to better promote the necessity of our message came after reading Carson.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
My nightmare is the co-optation and distortion of scientific data to promote the lies of corporate and reactionary political agendas.
And proponents of the Rapture.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
I think we all need to work on both fronts — political and private. As a minimal starting point, we act responsibly, we vote, and we talk about it. From there on, I think we should focus on the efforts that best suit our talents. For me, I raise issues through my artistic endeavors and in public forums with the thousands who take part in the cultural center we have built. I also give money to environmental groups, and I do think we should all tithe ourselves for this purpose.
What’s your environmental vice?
I drive to work, and the dance company flies to tour.
What are you reading these days?
I’m reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse; I think he’s brilliant, though this is not quite as compelling an argument as that in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Also, Edward Jones’ The Known World, which is set in the slavery South and is a profound journey into questions of identity and morality. I’m also reading Gain, by Richard Powers, my favorite author, who takes on corporate sensibility in this book.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Urgent and insistent and verily, I am a tree hugger.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Cape Cod: the dunes, the low-lying locust trees, the muted colors, the bird life, the light.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
The introduction and implementation of recycling programs.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
We’re not successful enough with politicians. I’m thinking a lot about how to persuade elected officials and candidates to link their success to environmental righteousness. (It was so disappointing to see Vice President Gore go pale on these issues.) I suppose one might consider tactical adjustments like shifting the language away from saving fuzzy animals to reducing health risks through cleaning up the air, away from overarching concepts like the threat of melting glaciers to the mounting impossibility of insurance coverage for corporate and personal loss due to climate change. Arguments focused on the necessity for species diversity seem to lose people. If I really knew what to do, of course, I would run for office.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would seriously and substantially increase annual SUV registration fees.
What’s your favorite movie?
I loved O Brother Where Art Thou and Lone Star.
What are you happy about right now?
I am very gratified by the dancers’ engagement with the climate-change issues that motivate my new piece and the early enthusiastic feedback I have gotten from all sorts of nonpolitical as well as activist viewers. (I had an open showing several weeks ago.) Does it seem that the issue is finally moving from page 22 to page 1? I am doing numerous interviews (not just on NPR) on this piece, which suggests a level of newsworthiness that didn’t exist a few years ago.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
I would have them come see “On a Train Heading South” March 20 at 2 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center Theater, and then participate in the panel discussion afterward with members of ODC, Redefining Progress, and Literacy for Environmental Justice. I’ve invited Al Gore to moderate. Anyone know him?