ODCunplugged: "Raking Light"

ODC Theatre, San Francisco, CA

January 23, 2002
by Karen Drozda

Wednesday's latest ODCunplugged event was the third in a series of events aimed at making modern dance more accessible to audiences. ODCunplugged is a party, an introduction to the choreographer's creative process, and the introduction of a work in progress. It is also an opportunity to meet and talk to all the ODC people who make these performances possible – dancers, choreographers, composers, musicians, board members and administrative staff. Their collective enthusiasm and dedication is inspiring.

This year's event introduced Brenda Way's Raking Light. Brenda started by talking about her own dance background and introducing the ODC dancers. The dancers first move across the stage using classical ballet technique, then perform the same movements using ODC modern technique. Brash, physical and conceptual.

She then explained her inspirations for Raking Light as having their roots in an exhibit of Vermeer paintings in New York. Struck by the quality of the light in the paintings, she resolved to move away from the narrative style of her previous choreography into a piece about ephemerality and the fugitive nature of light. Hearing the work of composer Jay Cloidt and the Cypress String Quartet, she realized that she had found the music that would provide the right framework for her choreographic ideas.

The commissioned musical score is called "Eleven Windows", composed as a series of twelve vignettes. The composer's image was that of someone looking into the various windows of a house, each time seeing a different view, but finally arriving at an integrated understanding of the occupants.

Then, there came a family tragedy that affected Brenda strongly. A niece who had led a somewhat chaotic life had recently found a boyfriend and settled her life, when they were involved in a car accident that killed the boyfriend and very badly injured the niece. The sudden tragedy, the chaotic life, the arbitrary nature of events, and a host of related emotions all began finding their way into the choreography. The non-narrative abstract composition became less entirely about light as it began to include human emotions.

The ODC dancers then treated us to the latest version of Raking Light, dressed in a rag-tag assortment of practice dancewear, to the live music of the Cypress String Quartet. Lighting and costumes were still evolving, but the power of the work was already evident.

Dancers fell and leaped with an abandon that drew gasps from the audience. They launched themselves at each other and were caught or deflected in ways that were at once surprising and effortless. Movements were done with a spontaneity that belied the hours of practice and countless repetition. Falls or catches sometimes appeared accidental, until they were repeated later with precisely the same appearance of accident.

As an extra treat at the end, Brenda asked the dancers to show us three additional endings for an audience vote. The audience was even allowed to suggest a fourth ending that the dancers performed on the spot. Ultimately, the chosen ending will depend on the what the choreographer wants to convey, since the ending subtly changes the reading of the piece.

A short post-performance discussion quickly evolves into a continuation of the opening cocktail party, with an opportunity to talk to the dancers and musicians about their experiences. The sense of casual intimacy extends the accessibility of the performance even further.

As a work in progress, Raking Light is already powerful. The polished version with proper costumes and lighting, on a stage with curtains and wings is eagerly awaited. But there is no substitute for the background and insight of the Unplugged event. It is no wonder that ODC finds their Unplugged events so popular, and their ticket sales soaring.


Please join a discussion of this performance in our forum.

Edited by Mary Ellen.

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