San Francisco's Postmodern Dance Pioneers

By Howard, Rachel | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2014 | Go to article overview

San Francisco's Postmodern Dance Pioneers


Howard, Rachel, The Hudson Review


Two DANCE TROUPES, ODC/Dance and the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, are the indisputable pioneers of postmodern dance in the Wild West of San Francisco, where avant-gardism once struggled to take hold. Staking a claim for such art may be the most vulnerable kind of homesteading, and anyone who undertakes leadership of this kind deserves commendation for strength of character. Yet months after these companies' celebratory home seasons, I am haunted by a contrast that seems, to me, a cautionary tale about credit-taking in art.

Margaret Jenkins is a regal woman with a lion's mane of waist-length red curls and a perpetually up-tilted chin. ODC/Dance is also female led, though by a trio of choreographers rather than a single matron figure. Both Jenkins and the women of ODC share a forebear in Anna Halprin, who came to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s with her radical yet highly structured breakthroughs: "task-based" dances made up of ordinary actions like pushing a broom across her Marin County dance deck and rituals that shocked viewers with their anti-theatrical intimacies, like undressing to the pop song "Downtown" in Halprin's infamous Parades and Changes.

But here on the West Coast, Halprin and her rigorous radicalism remained an anomaly, while her best-known students, like the young Yvonne Rainer, took those seeds of postmodernism back to New York. There, they grew into a movement. And there, Margaret Jenkins, though a fifth-generation San Franciscan, joined the early lineage of postmodern dance artists, first studying at the Merce Cunningham School and then becoming a member of Twyla Tharp's original three- dancer company, back when Tharp was making dances that the Village Voice described as "wild flinging floppy gyrations with great complexities."

It was a time of heated rebellion couched in cool intellectualism. No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make believe, Rainer was proclaiming. Another dancer, Brenda Way, was witnessing the early days of it too and leaving behind her training at the School of American Ballet to spread Rainer-style experimentation as a professor at Oberlin College. Way convinced her choreography students to board a yellow bus headed to San Francisco in 1976, making ODC's 2014 season the troupe's 43rd overall and 37th in the Bay Area. Once a true collec- tive, ODC (the initials stand for Oberlin Dance Collective) has long since reorganized as a company with power shared at the top between Way and her Oberlin protégé KT Nelson, with a third Oberlin alumna, Kimi Okada, as assistant director. Way, Nelson, and Okada have made more than 180 dances and built an astonishing dance village: ODC operates a gleaming, sunlit 23,000-square-foot campus offering 200 classes a week in all styles, low-cost rehearsal space and subsidies for artists-in-residence, and a 170-seat theater that is a lively hub of San Francisco dance culture.

Still, the top figurehead of ODC is Brenda Way, with her close- cropped hair and no-nonsense grin-and she andjenkins are civil rivals for the unofficial title "doyenne of San Francisco postmodern dance." After all, they compete to attract top dancers, donors, and board members. Jenkins can (and does) claim to be first on the prairie: she returned to San Francisco and set up her studio before ODC, in 1971, then her company in 1973. That made last spring the 40th anniversary season for the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, which Jenkins marked with high ceremony.

You can understand the need for self-celebration. Jenkins and the women of ODC carry the burden of wise elders transplanting an intellectual tradition (and Way is bolstered by a PhD in aesthetics). That's a heavy responsibility that has long put them on the defensive-is their art up-to-snuff with the stuff in New York?-and left them in a position of lonely leadership. They had to create a community of art converts to make their art possible. How to sustain the faith? …

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