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?
The Way You Move
What do you think should be the role of artists and performers in the face of injustice, environmental and otherwise? Do you believe, as Paul Robeson said, that “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery”? — Name not provided
I think the artist’s role is to alert us to whatever that individual artist is passionate about. Being awake and responsive is the precondition to political consciousness as well. I’d say our real role is to be honest.
How does the average person react when you tell them you choreographed a dance about climate change? Have you found it to be a gateway to meaningful dialogue about the topic? — Name not provided
They think I’m a bit misguided — well, maybe naive, to say the least — but it does open up a great discussion about the nature and function of art. Now that the piece is being performed, the conversation is more specific about the work and the impact. It is a great conversational catalyst, I am finding. And people are telling me they are moved to tears by the end of the piece.
Can you describe your global-warming piece? What style of dance is it? What kind of music do you use (or is the dripping water from the melting ice the only noise)? How many dancers are in it? Do you dance in it or just direct? — Name not provided
ODC is a modern dance company and “On a Train Heading South” uses a movement vocabulary that draws from ballet, modern, and postmodern techniques. Bay Area composer Jack Perla wrote the music, which is instrumental (violin, clarinet, viola, piano) and incorporates natural sound and political sound bites. The dripping of the ice can be heard throughout the piece, not from the score but from the actual melting ice. There are currently 10 dancers in the company and one apprentice, a total of 11 dancers (five men and six women) in the piece. I retired from performing in the ’80s. I am a choreographer and the founder and artistic director of ODC.
Do you foresee yourself doing other environment-related performances after “On a Train Heading South”? What other environment-related topics would you like to create performances for? — Name not provided
At the moment, I am thinking about making this piece as potent as possible (it opened last night to a very nice review!), but since the issue is so central to our lives, I can imagine coming at it from a different perspective. Radical change (as in climate change) could be an interesting point of departure for a future work.
As an artistic organization dependent on public funding, how do you avoid taking money from sponsors who pollute or damage the environment? Is it better to try to work with them to achieve improvements in their practices? — Seamus Balkin, Melbourne, Australia
First, let me clarify that public funding is usually governmental and thus does not emanate from private interests, at least not on paper. And you can be sure I have worked in the political arena to see that we have a more conscious government. As you may have noticed, I failed in our recent election. I think you’re probably referring to corporate donors, however. The arch answer would be that corporate funding has shrunk so severely that one hasn’t the luxury of rejecting their offers; the realistic one is that my main objective is to speak out in every way I can so I would probably take the money and make my artistic case.
How long does it take for the whole creative process — from concept to performance — for a work like your “On a Train Heading South”? How many people — choreographers, dancers, set designers, etc. — work on a project like that? And how much funding does it take for one performance when you’re counting all of the variables (like elaborate sets, costumes, etc.)? — Name not provided
It took about one year from conception to the first performance of “On a Train Heading South.” I mainly worked with three other people on this particular piece: Jack Perla, the composer; Alexander Nichols, set and light designer; and Cassandra Carpenter, costume designer. In addition, the 11 company dancers also had a lot of input on the piece. As for funding, the work was made possible with funding from many sources including: the Doris Duke Fund for Dance of the National Dance Project, a program of the New England Foundation for the Arts. Additional funding was provided by the National Foundation for the Arts, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, among others. The main expense on a project like this is dancers’ salaries — they constitute about 85 percent of the budget.
When the audience leaves your performance and discussion about global warming, what do you hope they take away from it? How will your performance encourage them to act or think differently? — Name not provided
First and foremost, I believe that raising the issue is important: One of the major themes of the piece is the “hear no evil, see no evil” complacency in this country, especially compared to the more prevalent political involvement in Western Europe. I do not want to preach, but to reflect a reality and let viewers draw their own conclusions. Naturally, I do hope that people see the urgency in this particular situation and that political or social activism results. We are putting climate-change articles in the lobby and suggesting ways that people can become involved in the issue.
The image of ice melting onto the stage during the global-warming dance is really cool. But how do you keep the stage from getting slippery? And how do you keep that last, melty, dangling chunk from sliding off and clonking a dancer in the head? — Name not provided
This is a great question, and the answer is yes, there was a lot of concern over the issue of having water on stage and the risk of dancers getting hurt. We put buckets under the 12 ice blocks to catch the drippings until the dancers came on stage. The buckets were then removed and the dance takes place around the dripping. The dancers are actually learning to deal with the slipperiness much like an East Coast driver can deal with an icy road. In addition, the ice blocks were hung from iron rods that have a flower-like spread at the bottom so that the ice can’t drop.
I’d certainly like to go to more concerts, dance performances, etc., but it seems that more and more arts events are unaffordable. What, if anything, has your center done to address that issue, and do you have thoughts about what might work in other areas? Shouldn’t art be available to all? — Name not provided
ODC performances are very affordable. Our tickets range in price from $10 for matinee shows to $38 for center orchestra seats. We also have $15 seats for all shows that are located on the terrace sides. Our season takes place every spring at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which is a wonderful theater because all of the seats are good. There are no obstructed views, whether you pay $38 for a ticket or $10. We also have open studio events and two-for-one ticket sales. I think art should be available to all and if we had an enlightened government, there would be subsidy for those who couldn’t afford it. As you might guess, artists actually need to pay the bills too.
Do you think your work would be well received if you were still in Ohio? Is that why you left? Seriously, though. Aren’t people in Ohio and other more conservative states more in need of performances like this than the enlightened folks in San Francisco? Are you going to take your show on the road? — Name not provided
I moved the company to San Francisco 34 years ago because it was a great city for dance, with one of the first ballet companies in the United States (and because the love of my life lived here). The company does tour annually and will be taking “On a Train Heading South” to the Washington, D.C., area in October 2005; Monterey, Calif. in February 2006; Sheboygan, Wis., April 2006; and Anchorage, Alaska in May 2006. Ohio is better than the way it voted this year, however. I have deep suspicions about voter fraud.
Do you incorporate environmental and social issues into your work with kids? — Name not provided
Yes, as much as possible. We make compositions about social issues and we discuss and share the work that the company does with our young charges.
You mention that you feel like America marginalizes art and artists — how can we remedy that problem? So many schools and communities are cutting arts programs, so kids aren’t getting the arts education they need to be healthy, well-rounded adults. — Name not provided
Well that is exactly the problem. I know my company does as much outreach and education as we possibly can but if young people aren’t exposed to the arts, we are in trouble. And not just because the arts will diminish, but because our common humanity will.
How can artists and environmentalists work together to promote their causes? — Name not provided
There isn’t an overarching or easy answer to this. In the end, I think that groups of people with like-minded agendas or interests should work together when the spirit moves them strongly enough, and when their alliance makes pragmatic and political sense. Picking one’s causes and allies selectively always makes sense.
I’ll be at a music weekend near Healdsburg on March 20 and will have to miss your show. When and where will it play again? I’m an environmental songwriter and onetime dancer, and I want to see it! — Nancy Schimmel, Berkeley, Calif.
You can see the show at CSU Monterey Bay in February 2006!
If you could choreograph a dance for George Bush and Condi Rice, what would it look like? — Name not provided
For them, or about? I know that Dr. Rice professes love of the arts, especially music, but I rather doubt Mr. Bush is into contemporary dance; certainly, his administration is not overly concerned with preserving the ever-shrinking National Endowment for the Arts and other funding organizations. If the question refers to a pas deux, I’ll take a pass!