The Way You Move

Brenda Way, ODC.

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!