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ODC Commons Tour -- Brenda Leads the Way!

ODC's New Dance Facility

by Toba Singer

January 26, 2005 -- San Francisco

The ODC Commons is a diamond in the rough of San Francisco's Mission District, where hard times have taken a toll on the housing and infrastructure of a largely Central American and Caribbean immigrant neighborhood.

The new structure, just across Shotwell Street from the current ODC studios and theater, is a three-story building that is dazzling in both its concept and appearance. The massive wall space in the downstairs lobby serves as an art gallery, displaying the non-dance-subject work of dance photographer, R.J. Muna. Carpenters, electricians and plumbers busy themselves with finishing touches as Artistic Director Brenda Way, takes me on a tour. The performance, gallery and studio space will open officially in early February. There is a Pilates studio off the lobby that will soon boast reformers and other equipment that will distinguish it from the more pedestrian mat studios that seem to spring up on every street corner of our city. On the far side of the lobby is Town Hall, a dancer-centered reception area in the form of a very welcoming Great Room that hosts several conversation areas set off by rich-hued area rugs and loveseats. A fireplace with a big hearth is the only missing element! The Town Hall is intended to be the space that is so desirable, but so absent, in all other dance buildings where dancers, dance students, visitors and audience members can sit, read, chat, or have a cup of coffee. A large screen will be mounted on the wall to stream video of art and dance work from other cities around the world. Way has a sizeable personal library, which she hopes will find a new home in this space.

The adjacent hallway is ample and accommodating. There's plenty of space for pre-class stretching under a skylight that runs the length of the hallway, angled in the style of the pre-war European railroad station roofs. The Town Hall is intended to compensate dancers for generations of their predecessors having been forced to climb four flights of dimly-lit stairs, only to find a little room at the top of a tenement office building with dishearteningly small studios and retired pianos that nobody had any other use for.

There are four studios: two with maple sprung floors and two with sprung floors lined with Marley. One is a ballet studio that includes a stylized barn door--a tribute to Jacob's Pillow--and a ceiling with tented exposed beams that suggest rafters, or, for the more majestically-inclined, a cathedral ceiling. One is a folkloric studio and its flooring is tempered to endure flamenco zapateos. It looks out on the street and, reciprocally, the public can look and even walk in. “Special community-based events will happen here,” says Way. The modern dance studio is almost the size of the current theater, and features ODC's signature wood floors and a baby grand piano that is the apple of Brenda Way's eye. She is proud, if not elated, that ODC is able to provide high quality rehearsal space, and the baby grand is what anoints this sacred ground. Lighting in the studios is either natural or recessed. Windows have scrim-like filtering shades.

"Only the best for the working class," I comment approvingly--"and the working dancer!" adds Way, with a class-conscious wink and smile.

The Healthy Dancer Clinic will operate on the first floor, free-to those who take class, and staffed by physical therapists from the University of California San Francisco, which occupies a brand new campus just a few blocks away in the revivified "Mission Bay." The clinic's services will be vetted by Dr. Richard Coughlin, a member of the ODC board.

The main staircase to the building's second floor is constructed of thick, wide-planked maple with acrylic panels under broad wooden banisters. It is flanked by high walls and painted a warm shade of cinnamon red. The centerpiece of the second floor is an atrium that will feature three Japanese maple trees and a stone bench for sitting and reflecting. A modern kitchen and several offices are ringed around the atrium. On the third floor there is another lobby, with the ballet studio to the right, and the ODC performance studio with pull-out bleacher seating to the left. The lobby walls displayoversized posters of past ODC performances and dancers. There are additional offices on this floor for the directors and faculty, a screening room, and dressing rooms that seem a little small to accommodate what appear to be ambitious program and curriculum plans.

Brenda Way's message is that this is a community performance space, and she compares it to what Baryshnikov is currently doing in NY. The elaborated ballet, modern, and world dance curricula are seen as innovations that will forge continuity for the company and up-and-coming dance artists. The Janice Garrett and Robert Moses' Kin dance companies will be resident there alongside ODC-San Francisco. Way calls it "connective tissue" and looks forward to an emphasis on crossover exposure in the curriculum. ODC hopes to utilize the Town Hall for lectures on dance history, history, literature and physics, and Way hopes to see a partnership degree program initiated before too long. She views the body of work that will develop as an indispensable contribution to the company's patrimony (though it might be more accurate to call it "matrimony" when one considers that ODC is led by Way and two other women: K.T. Nelson and Kimi Okada).ODC hopes that the abundance of space and resources will increase opportunities for spontaneity and flexibility, enabling the company and theater to bring in multiple generations of guest artists to perform and teach master classes. The new facilities will also make it possible to schedule rehearsals on short notice so that the company is no longer hemmed in by the ODC theater schedule as has been the case in the past.

The school will focus on the creative process, hoping to partner with California College of the Arts (formerly California College of Arts and Crafts which has a campus on nearby Potrero Hill). In addition to the very popular Dance Jam program for kids, there will be a teen program--already in gear with 20-30 students--and an Emerging Artists module. The ballet program will be directed by former San Francisco Ballet Company dancer and accredited Feldenkrais practitioner Augusta Moore.

At the Commons' "soft" opening in early September, 500 people took dance classes and Pilates, and individuals of all ages were taught portions of ODC rep. Several commissions are in the works for the Grand Opening on Feb. 2.

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