Building a dance empire

Were Winston Churchill to describe the “empire” of ODC/Dance-ODC Commons-ODC Theater, he would say “Never in the field of modern dance was so much done for so long by so few.”

What has been and is still a company of only 10 dancers, founded 40 years ago as the Oberlin Dance Collective by Brenda Way, today has a facility serving 15,000 students a year in more than 200 classes a week, and has just renovated a theater in addition to its ODC Commons headquarters in the Mission District.

The company — headed by Way, KT Nelson and original collective member Kimi Okada — has also been touring around the country and as far away as Southeast Asia, where it recently participated in the U.S. State Department’s inaugural DanceMotion USA program. Annually, ODC has an audience of more than 50,000 with $5 million in revenue.

The ODC operation has grown to three components, a dance company, a community theater and education.

ODC/Dance presents varied programs at Yerba Buena Center in the spring, including commissioned world premieres. Children’s-favorite “The Velveteen Rabbit” comes to Yerba Buena in November and December. The company is known for presenting scores of new works, with the participation of famed pioneers of contemporary music.

At the ODC complex, at Shotwell and 17th Street, a $10 million renovation began with the ODC Commons (completed in 2005) and ODC Theater ($9 million, completed this fall), a remodel of the converted hardware store Way bought and originally opened 30 years ago.

The two-building 36,000-square-foot campus will comprise eight studios, three performance venues, office suites and health facilities — a unique environment for dancers outside such big companies as the San Francisco or New York City ballets.

A grand opening celebration is set for Sept. 30. The 170-seat theater will then serve as the venue the next two days for Way’s new work, “Architecture of Light,” and then host a variety of dance companies and music ensembles (see sidebar).

The return of ODC to the theater “is really a meaningful moment for me,” says Way. “Dorothy said it all, ‘There’s no place like home’.”

“Architecture of Light” joins the ODC dancers with 15 guest artists, and presents an investigation of the rebuilt facility.

The wall of windows now facing Shotwell Street will feature light installations by Elaine Buckholtz.

“It is fitting that we launch our season with this site-specific work by Brenda,” says ODC Theater Director Rob Bailis, “set, as it is, throughout the new facility and utilizing all of its resources. Certainly it is an appropriate way to celebrate the completion of the ODC campus, bringing ODC back to perform in the neighborhood which has been the setting for Brenda’s creative process over the last 30 years.”

San Francisco architect Mark Cavagnero — also responsible for the recent major renovation of the Oakland Museum — was in charge of the ODC Theater project. He preserved much of the former brick structure, but completely transformed the interior, increasing the height and volume to provide a versatile performance space.

The three-story theater building also includes three new studio classrooms, a green room, lobby, café, and other facilities. Sprung wood floors and natural daylight are key features of all performance spaces.

Way’s path to four decades of growth

Brenda Way, who’s choreographed nearly 100 contemporary dance pieces, has led ODC/Dance through four decades of steady growth since she launched it “as a multidimensional arts organization — that is to say, not just for dance jocks,” she said.

Under her leadership, ODC became the first modern dance company in the country to build its own complete facility — including a school, theater, gallery — the home for not only ODC (Oberlin Dance Collective) but for many other local dance companies.

Way started the organization in 1971 as a collective of artists at Oberlin College in Ohio. When Way relocated the company to San Francisco in 1976 — on the same old yellow school bus ODC used for touring — her vision was to defy the accepted view that no modern dance company can be successful unless it’s located in New York.

Way “constructs” dances that combine athleticism, passion, a specific world view and intellectual depth.

“Ideas, receptivity and inspiration drive us rather than commodity culture,” Way says. “I see us as strong allies with environmental groups in the struggle for enlightened social consciousness in our shared desire for a greater humanity.”

Way received her early training at the School of American Ballet and Ballet Arts. She has a doctoral degree in aesthetics and is the mother of four children. Way has published widely, and has received numerous awards and 30 years of support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

She is a 2000 recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and was honored with a prestigious residency at the American Academy in Rome for the academic year 2008-2009.

While in Rome, Way collaborated with Rome Prize-winner San Francisco composer Kurt Rohde on a major project: a puppet opera, based on the popular founding story of Rome about the brothers Romulus and Remus.

— Janos Gereben

Best-known works by Brenda Way

These and other pieces were performed by ODC/Dance as well as dance companies around the country.

  • “On a Train Heading South” (2005)
  • “Scissors Paper Stone” (1994)
  • “Western Women” (1993)
  • “Ghosts of an Old Ceremony” (1991)
  • “Krazy Kat” (1990)
  • “This Point in Time” (1987)
  • “Invisible Cities” (1985)

Keeping things local


  • “Architecture of Light,” 8 p.m. Oct. 1-2
  • KUNST-STOFF, Rebetiko, LEVYdance: “Our Body Remembers,” 8 p.m. Oct. 21-24, 28-30
  • inkBoat/AXIS dance: “ODD,” 8 p.m. Nov. 5-7
  • ODC/Dance Unplugged, 6:30 p.m. Nov. 12
  • Paul Dresher Ensemble, 8 p.m. Nov. 12-13
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