San Francisco, April 21, 2011 -- On April 12 and 13, Oberlin Dance Company and ODC Theater's dynamic founder Brenda Way hosted a two-day symposium titled "Women Who Frame the World: A Symposium on Creativity."
Subtitled "A Conference on Women in the Arts Today," guest speakers included creative pioneers who have made significant contributions to the fields of dance, poetry, literature, music, film and more. A few of the names on the roster: singer/songwriter Laurie Anderson, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Jorie Graham, NPR's Kitchen Sisters, Pixar producer Darla Anderson, documentary filmmaker Eleanor Coppola and sculptor Beverly Pepper.
The Symposium, which Way spent the last two years planning, was comprised of talks, performances, workshops and meals that recognize the achievements of seventeen exceptional women.
Under Way's leadership, ODC became the first modern dance company in the United States to build its own facility. Now considered the most active center for dance on the West Coast, the institution is a fully integrated arts complex housing a school, theater and gallery in San Francisco's Mission District.
As a dancer and choreographer, Way did her early training under George Balanchine and has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and over thirty years of support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which recently elevated her piece "Investigating Grace" to American Masterpiece status.
Way, a woman of fierce and lively intelligence, quick to laugh, irreverent, frank and philosophical in her thinking - sat down with Notes On The Road recently and reflected on her ever continuing journey towards inspiration and sharing the fruits of her creative, intellectual and entrepreneurial efforts with the world.
Is this the first year that ODC is putting on a Symposium?
First time, yes.
Tell us about its beginnings.
Several years ago I started a fundraising project with Warren Hellman, for ODC and all of its programs. It involved a combination of sports, athletes, and dancers; we had a competition we called "Toe to Toe" and it was a great event...but all this was very focused on the athletic nature of dancers.
This year we were opening the theater and I thought, I'd really like to do something that focuses on womens' role in the arts (this whole organization was built by three women partners). So instead of doing something that was sporty, I wanted to do something that was intellectual and personal to me. In a way, I wanted to consecrate the ground of the new theater, with the best of womens' thinking in the arts.
So that's what I decided to do. I have various friends around the country who are wonderful artists and most of them have a particularly innovative role they play in their fields. So I just thought "Well, we're just going to bring them all together, and have a party! And talk and connect."
What a great way of honoring the accomplishments and achievements of all these women and simultaneously have them share their life and work experiences--
I think one of the most important things I thought about when I was putting it together was that I said "Ok, if I'm going to have Carol Gilligan out here, who would she like to talk to?" So that I put together a group that would make it something that each of the presenters would want to come to. Then I thought, "well, if all the presenters want to come to see each other, there will probably be some other people that will want to come too."
How long was the symposium in planning?
About two years.
Do you think of the upcoming conference as a kind of dance taking place over two days?
Well, I think it is. I've been thinking a lot about the dynamic of it. It's just like writing a piece. If you have someone talking for 45 minutes and then you need a break and then someone talking for 10 minutes. I actually am totally choreographing it, in terms of an experience. For the people that are in it I hope they like the dance!
How would you describe the dynamic you are going for?
I'm trying to touch the different parts of the intellect and the emotions over the course of the two days. For instance, Claudia Bernardi talks about her work with people who have had a massacre in their life - profound real art coming from tragedy, which I then want to move into a completely different realm. I want the experience to be inspiring. That's really what I want.
Someone said to me, "Well what are you going to get out of this? Are you really going to do a better business plan?" and the usual conferencing plan, etc. Well, that's like saying to me "What are you going to get out of seeing one of my pieces?" I hope you are inspired, I hope it takes you some place. That's my goal.
Are you giving any keynotes?
I'm probably not going to be giving keynotes, I'll be rushing around presenting people and telling people why they were chosen, why they are there. ODC the dance company is going to perform the first night, so I'll have two of my pieces in that performance - So I will not be talking, I will be showing. But, I always talk, so~ [smiles].
What a great gathering of ideas, of women, creativity, performance, food--
--Food! Always food and drink..[laughs]
--It actually reminds me of your past and how when you first founded ODC, it was also a mixture--
Actually that's a wonderful observation, which had not occurred to me. It is like the beginning! Of the different art forms, and coming together, and what is the rub...Nice! I'm going to claim that as my own thought [laughs]...Thanks!
You founded ODC in 1971 at Oberlin with sixteen dancers, writers, painters, artists. Then in 1976 you all piled into the now-famous big yellow bus. Can you bring us back to that moment, of arriving in San Francisco, this place you'd chosen to be the new context for your artistic ideals?
Well there were a couple of things about choosing San Francisco: one was the fact that it had one of the earliest and most established ballet companies. And it had the Hotel Tax Fund (my son is so tired of hearing me talk about the Hotel Tax Fund-
The Hotel Tax Fund. In other words, they have a tax on all the rooms at hotels. And the money collected from that tax goes to the arts. Not that I thought I would be in line for the money, but I thought it said something about the town... A value-structure. If the cultural life was that important, and they identified tourists with coming to San Francisco - those were two reasons this city would be compatible ground to plant in.
Also, the choreographer Margaret Jenkins was here with a young company- and she was a very interesting and intellectual person that had taught one of the dancers I was working with. And Kimi Okada and I had boyfriends out here [in San Francisco]. Now you get to the bottom of it! [laughs] It all comes down to that! No, well in actuality if the other things hadn't been that way, it wouldn't have mattered about the boyfriends. But it sure helped when those things were all together.
San Francisco at that time had a very lively arts scene. It had twelve writing critics, it had scores and scores of young people making art in a non-institutional way. Around this time, the Bay Area Dance Coalition dance series - the Gumption Dance Series, began. Then maybe only a year after that, a dance festival cleaved from Gumption started. A very vital and enthusiastic time. We landed at a fine moment.
In another sense, it was the end of a very non-verbal West Coast milieu. People were beginning again to talk about their thoughts and it wasn't just purely experiential. A major contribution that the West Coast had was an emphasis on experiential.
During the first year when we set up our studio I hung out a shingle and we had an aesthetics seminar. Everybody laughed at me and we had 23 people who signed up- scientists came, people from Santa Cruz came. Everything that went on at the time made for a very hot moment in intellectual-social-cultural San Francisco history.
It sounds like you were really interested in breaking down the boundaries of different art forms and getting to the bottom of what skill sets are needed to create something creative - can you describe that process more?
Well you know it was the time. None of us invents anything "whole-cloth." But in all of the art forms I think we were trying to figure out how they intersected, and what was necessary (and what wasn't). Did you need to have a stage? Did you need to have an audience? I think there were fundamental aesthetic questions we were asking. In New York people were asking "Did you need to know how to dance in order to be a dancer?" The composer John Cage was addressing similar questions about sound...it was all at that time-
What's your answer to that question by the way?
If you say it is, I'll believe you. I might not like it, and I might not understand what you like in it, but I'm very Catholic in my view of what is art. Because I don't think that closing in on those definitions get you anyplace. I'd much rather talk about what speaks to me, and think about why.
You've spoken in past interviews about audience, and how you would like to see audiences transported more within the moment. That with everything getting shorter and shorter--
---Attention spans, yes...that there is still this desire to see people transported behind what you do. Can you comment on this?
That was in the context of discussing "So You Think You Can Dance?" and those TV shows. I do think that, and our schooling is shortening attention spans, and there is a cost. Losing yourself in someone else's vision has two great things- 1) it allows you to live someone else's life, which I think leads to tolerance, in some fundamental way, to be YOU when I hear you, To go into that other place that is not about "my ego." That is a really important experience.
This is not exactly a pop thing I'm talking to you about. I'm talking as an artist to an artist...And I think that's a really important humanizing effect of art on people.
I also think that the immediate gratification of these short pops of things leads people to a very shallow perception of meaning. So I want to stretch it, and help people find something else, go someplace else. I think we do it in church- the long services, and the singing, etc (I didn't go to church but I know this), but you know what I mean- that was a ritual which helped people transcend their small selves. And that's really not where we are anymore in general. I think art has some of that same capacity. So I want to use it.
Can you talk a little about music and its place in your choreography? How do you think of music pieces, composers, and how do you address systems of musical ideas themselves?
Most often, the movement will come first for me. But I'll be listening to dozens of different things to find something which will work with that movement, until I find an interesting date. This is in pre-recorded music. Then when I work with that music, it completely changes what I am doing, but I have something to be changed. The music actually affects what you see on stage.That's an interesting relationship to me, even with dead composers, because I let them come in even after I have something fully formed.
I've commissioned a lot of work, and with living composers I usually come up with a concept together (once it was the Bloomsbury group in a piece I did with Paul Dresher. We just talked about the nature of their lives and philosophies. He went off, and I went off, and we'd come back to see if anything worked. Usually my composers will give me 10, 12, 14 little vignettes to see and feel if what we have is going in an interesting direction. I'll say Ok #1, 7 and 8 are awesome; #2 doesn't have a place in this piece. And then we'll start putting things together and changing them around...so it's a very collaborative process.
Since I do the movement first, I always have dancers. So when I say that #1,7 and 8 work, I'm looking at what I've done, what the composer has done, and what the dancers have done. So those elements are all on the floor.
What are you listening to these days?
A lot of CDs of new composers that were sent to me. I listen to them blind, to see. In pop music I'm just an old-fashioned person- I really am a Motown girl. That's what I like.
I like Zoe Keating a lot (there are some names that I know, and she's one). Also Beth Custer. There are some contemporary composers I'm thinking of working with at some point.
If you were to look at all the aspects of your life, and where you are putting your energy, how much of it is actually going into, say, choreographing? Versus raising money?
[laughs] Oh god. Such a sad thing to think about! Probably only a quarter is going to artistic work. I think it is the realistic aspect.
On the other hand, I think that there's a lot of artistic friction at the intersection of these different parts of my life. My family, my organizing, my building, my directing.
For me, the "art act" is not distinct and separate, it's not an interior process. I'm much more connected with the world. So all the things I do I think actually feeds it. Even when I'm not directly working on my pieces, I'm provoking thoughts that end up in my work. For instance, my family - that's a good one. It's very time-consuming to have a family--
--How many children do you have?
Four. And they still call in, and I edit their books, and there's a lot of time.. [playful grumbling]. They have had a huge impact on my work and my sensibility. So to me it's not separate from my work. And I think the same thing about ODC- even though building a building doesn't sound like an artistic act, being in the middle of it stimulates the artistic muscle.
You probably find yourself using your director's mindset in many different aspects of your life--
I think so. Did you see the movie Shakespeare In Love? Do you remember how in the movie something will go by in the street, and he'll describe it in Shakespeare's words, just "snatching" things? Well I think that's how it happens. For someone like me, the creative process is really like "snatching" from life.
You once said that sometimes a piece can end up completely different than what you had in mind, and that you might not even understand it until you see it on the stage. And that this is one of the thrills for you of the work you do as a choreographer - that there's always a mystery--
[laughs] You've done your homework! I think that's completely true! The piece that I have on this season is one of those pieces. People are telling me what it's about and I'm having a great time. And I wasn't even sure it was going to work at all. It's fantastic.