San Francisco’s Postmodern Dance Pioneers
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 collective, 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 and Jenkins 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?
Either through self-effacement or self-importance, their respective seasons seemed to say.
ODC opted for self-effacement. boulders and bones, a 70-minute premiere presented in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ large main theater, took inspiration from the Scottish land sculptor Andy Goldsworthy—not so much his actual art but his process. Thus the dance began by screening a time-lapse video: seven months of Goldsworthy building a recent piece, Culvert Cairn, at a private site in Marin. Way and Nelson said they were inspired by the temporal nature of Goldsworthy’s work, the way his materials of dirt and stone are subject to the erasures of natural forces, just as dance exists in the moment and quickly fades from memory.
In boulders and bones we saw dancers carried like planks, piling atop one another, swirling as though pushed downstream by rains, and only with a theatrical puff of dust here or there did the metaphors press too hard. Instead of being pushed to interpret this in a strictly schematic way, we were given space, within the suggestiveness, imaginatively to roam the well-built structure of the piece, serviceably supported by an electronically layered score performed live by cellist Zoë Keating. It is no small feat to keep the audience continuously engaged over 70 continuous minutes, and boulders and bones did, breaking for an extended cello solo in the middle and building to a marathon solo of tour-de-force balancing arabesques for tiny Anne Zivolich, the company’s most commanding member, dressed in red.
Much that is best about ODC shone in boulders and bones: the diversity of the women’s strong bodies, the zest of their attack, the cultivation of their distinct personalities (the men of ODC are, interestingly, less memorable). I particularly appreciated RJ Muna’s costumes in the second half: white tops with unisex flesh-colored bottoms, so that the dancers looked both human and more than human, allowing your mind to vacillate between the two perceptions.
But, rather than thinking about the erasure of choreography by time as a parallel to Goldsworthy’s impermanent art, I kept thinking about the self-erasure, the giving up of self to an ego-less reality, that Way and Nelson have achieved here as choreographers.
boulders and bones is only the second dance the two have made together, after four decades of working separately. (Triangulating Euclid, a shorter work from 2013, was their first foray into collaboration.) The two women have always exhibited distinct strengths and weaknesses: Tall and spunky, KT Nelson is wonderfully musical but conceptually less rigorous, while Way is less rhythmic but solidly schematic (sometimes to the point of over-packaging). Apparently when they meld their minds, the strengths compound and the weaknesses dissolve. Nowhere in boulders and bones can you see exactly who created what because (I was fortunate to see the process in rehearsal) each woman relinquished her grip on credit entirely; one might generate a movement phrase, the other change a gesture within it to have more dramatic clarity, both losing track of original authorship.
boulders and bones is, in my opinion, richer than what either woman has choreographed alone, and I find this new phase to be not a negation of their separate gifts but a daring fulfillment of them.
Margaret Jenkins’ season, by sharp contrast, was an exercise in separation and credit-taking, which points, perhaps, to some ironies.
Jenkins prides herself on giving her dancers “agency” (a buzzword among choreographers) as collaborators who create many of the movement phrases based on images or instructions she provides. Yet there Jenkins was in the Forum, the Yerba Buena Center’s other venue: seated like a high priestess at the front of a crucifix-shaped performance area outlined by neon, her eight dancers processing toward her in supplication. They performed short phrases from her past work as she read off the titles in a tense, small voice above the solo cellist at the other end (electronically augmented solo cellists being ubiquitous these days in modern dance). She read off, too, the names of past dancers, collaborators and mentors, and yet—I can only attribute this to Jenkins’ stately manner, the visual rhetoric of her seated upon the throne—the effect was not so much to honor others as to say, “Look at all this art-making and community that I have made possible. Here I am at the center of it.”
The audience then crossed the plaza to the YBCA Theater, where stunning set designs by Jenkins’ longtime associate, Alexander V. Nichols, awaited: Ten towers of square panes, some smeared with white and some empty, upon which a black-and-white blur of grainy archival dance footage was projected. The lighting rig was hung low, and the Paul Dresher Ensemble, which has played live for many a Jenkins production, was hidden behind a wall of Plexiglas panels that shone with different configurations of white and red light. This created an intimate room for Times Bones, a reassemblage of past works that Jenkins had choreographed the previous autumn.
I have many issues with Times Bones, the same reservations I’ve had with almost every other Jenkins dance (she has made 75) that I’ve witnessed. There is the overreliance on the voice-over poem by Michael Palmer—I admit I find poetry spoken over dance melodramatic in general. There is the score by Dresher: pseudo-minimalist repetitions laid over a ’70s-era funk bass line. But most of all my heart resists the dour, inexplicable tension on the dancers’ faces. If I had only one word to describe Jenkins’ dances, it would be “joyless.”
Whether they are reaching into the void, clutching one another, or assembling in swirling vortexes of spinning and catching (this latter they do often), the dancers are assiduously grim. I say “assiduous” because in the high velocity sections when the dancers are giddy with trust and camaraderie, they will often lock eyes, share a secret smile, and quickly suppress it. The abstract nature of Jenkins’ compositions (which, alas, are too traditionally framed to give us, as in Cunningham, the thrill of making meaning from chaos, but rather seem to serve us a test) offers no clues as to the cause of this searing worry. The only thing I can deduce is that Jenkins wants her dancers to be grim because this is Art. This seems to me a special shame because Jenkins’ current company is astonishingly gifted, especially Chin-chin Hsu with her Zen-like focus and total merge with the movement. I wanted, so badly, permission to relish the kinetic experience with them.
Few in the audience seemed to feel that permission, even though the attendees were mostly former Jenkins dancers. As the intermission lights came up, an anxious hush persisted, which evidently was reverence among her past dancers (several have since told me what a profound experience they found the 40th season to be), but for more casual viewers amounted to Oh God, is there more? There was—the night stretched beyond three hours, closing with the world premiere of Gate of Winds, a collaboration with the Kolben Dance Company of Israel. Here we had at last, in addition to a fresher soundtrack of recordings by the likes of Aphex Twin and the electronica group Rachel’s, a reason for the tension.
The Kolben company’s eight men and women move from anger, and they do it with a physical authenticity that means you never once wonder why they look like they might eat you alive. Their choreographer Amir Kolben opted not to merge his style with Jenkins’ but to stage a showdown, so what emerged, between much marching in opposing lines, was a patchwork of Kolben’s explosive duets with their whiplash spines and Jenkins’ controlled clumps of partnering. The dancers were dressed in clever dresses and jumpsuits by designer Mary Domenico, the Jenkins crew in black, the Kolben ensemble in teal. Altogether, this was the antithesis of what ODC’s Way and Nelson had done: Here were two strong-willed choreographers each saying—and the analogies to the Holy Land reality were obvious—I will not cede; I will defend my separate identity at all cost.
For all this emphasis I’ve put on Jenkins’ credit-taking and ego-defending, it’s important to note the many generous ways she has bolstered the Bay Area dance community, primarily through the Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange program, which she created to help emerging dancemakers receive critical feedback on their work, and which she runs primarily out of her Margaret Jenkins Dance Lab. Community is not mere rhetoric for her; I believe it is honestly the way she sustains her faith in art. Yet I feel, in the tension of her works, her self-presentation, her operations, that her faith may be brittle. Any lapse in solemnity, it seems, might weaken her role as high priestess of the Bay Area dance avant-garde. I am curious to see what would happen in her art if she relinquished that solemnity of leadership.
Because no living community is based on one person, and I think most enduring art, in a paradox Balanchine lived by, and Cunningham lived by, does not fight its own perishability. As I search my memories for the most challenging, thought-provoking and yes, at the end of the day, joy-inducing dance-as-challenging-art I have seen in San Francisco, a group called KUNST-STOFF stands alone.
Its male co-founders, Yannis Adoniou and Tomi Paasonen, were transplants from Europe who came to the Bay Area to dance with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. They arrived at postmodernism through a different, third-generation route than ODC’s women and Jenkins: Adoniou and Paasonen appear to be highly influenced by the avant-garde ballet choreographer William Forsythe, who you can argue brought the innovations of the Judson iconoclasts into the ballet world. (In fact, Darrell Wilkins argued exactly that, last year, in a brilliant Ballet Review article.) Adoniou and Paasonen’s provocations, in fact, resemble Anna Halprin’s.
KUNST-STOFF’s movement may be more lifted from the ground, more extreme and occasionally virtuosic, but I believe you can trace their intimate aesthetic through William Forsythe, back to Trisha Brown/Yvonne Rainer, and then one more step back to Halprin. The KUNST-STOFF dancers are typically presented in a non-proscenium space, the audience close enough to see sweat and hear breath. The dancers are given to stripping down, with deeply present stares.
At KUNST-STOFF’s 15th San Francisco season in fall 2013 (presented in ODC Theater, the small black-box space owned and operated by Way and Nelson’s organization), Daiane Lopes da Silva, wearing a hoodie that shrouded her face, was tossed and turned atop an Astroturf rug that four men dragged around the stage; finally, she stepped off the green into the void (the effect was Existential, like a moment from Beckett). Then she stripped and donned the Astroturf as a cape, defiantly strutting.
That stunning piece was a collaboration between Paasonen and Adoniou, made in conversation with their mentor Alonzo King. Meanwhile, in Paasonen’s Those Golden Years from 2012, a body rolled beneath a thick scattering of bronze foil sheets, until the rolling about grew more violent—and up Adoniou himself popped from the pile, wearing a costume of those shiny wrinkled sheets, which eventually also fell away to leave him naked. These acts of vulnerable exposure were raw. Yet—as in the work of Anna Halprin—the sequence of stage events leading to them had a tight internal, even formal, logic.
The audience at KUNST-STOFF’s show was, as usual, of modest size, but adoring and avid. I think we should give thanks to both Jenkins and the women of ODC for this; they have successfully sown the seeds for such a society of appreciation. Is there a gender-essentializing parable here about the ways women maintain the stability that men then profit from? I’m not prepared to go there, but there was a bittersweet aspect of KUNST-STOFF’s 15th season in San Francisco: It was their last. The Wild West of California is tough. The rents are high and the public funding is low. Adoniou and Paasonen felt their time in SF was over and returned to Germany.
They came, they built art, they fed community, and now time begins its erasure. And at their final performances, you could see from the mischievous Buddha smile on Yannis Adoniou’s face that he was at peace.