ODC Theatre, San Francisco, CA

April 29, 2002
by Toba Singer

“Unplugged” seems to mean that we watch them create what will come into fruition as a finished work in its later stages. The “them” could be the choreographer, the dancers, or the musician who scores the piece. ODC Unplugged opened with Brenda Way, the company’s artistic director, making ceremonial proprietary remarks. She took the opportunity to announce ODC’s expansion of its site to include five studios, an injury prevention program and a Pilates studio. She then introduced KT Nelson, the company’s co-artistic director, and in my opinion, most creative choreographer. Nelson showed a mild flush of anxiety as she began to recount “the journey” of Sleeping Beauty, the work in progress that we would see. One dancer was injured, another was out on personal leave, and eight were left to carry the evening. I would have preferred that Ms. Nelson was left to “own” the company for this showing, where all the freight rode on her back. It seemed heavier than the already heavy load that ODC tends to shoulder. Ms. Way’s avuncular introduction implied that the burden of this work enjoyed a shared authority, when it is clearly Ms. Nelson’s project. This was underscored by Ms. Nelson’s looking solitary and shivery, preparing to cue both dancers and music, with house lights at half.

Ms. Nelson chose the vehicle of the ballet story of The Sleeping Beauty to explore elements of life transformation, in a counter-balletic mode. She explained that the innocence of childhood is lost as the child awakens to sexuality and confronts the chaotic drive imparted by that awakening, and the ancillary feelings of self-possession and power. In collaborations with San Francisco Mime Troupe, a program at Everett Middle School called “Rites of Passage,” and, in what she described as “Petri dish” rehearsals with the company, Ms. Nelson was re-sensitized to that age as it is experienced among younger adolescents in today’s world. For Ms. Nelson, it stands as an icon for all the transformations that take place in a life. Ms. Nelson says that we develop compensatory elements of denial, restraints, and containment, to fill in the spaces left by lost innocence.

She adopted and adapted three of the principal characters from The Sleeping Beauty, Aurora—the one who awakens, Carabosse, who represents what is bad and fearful, and the Lilac Fairy, whose goodness is revealed in instinctive wisdom and what Ms. Nelson termed a “guide” quality. Onstage, in improvisation with the company, these qualities took the form of phrases. A “skirt” phrase was demonstrated by Tammy Cheney and Private Freeman, wearing unbleached muslin pinafores. A foot phrase, “kid”- like and carefree, was demonstrated by Yuki Fujimoto and Whitney Moncrief. A phrase called “puppet dreams” drew on the Jess Curtis Dance Company’s Fallen segment, where hand puppet choreography is shown. In Sleeping Beauty, girls’ loss of innocence gives way to the good girl who raises her hand respectfully and thoughtfully in the classroom, the secretive girl(s), the one who retreats and the one who is vulnerable. An investigation of the eight-count kiss and twisty skirt were additional tools in chiseling out the forms needed to bring the life transformation concept into sharper focus.

The women begin as a chorus, “frotting” their skirts up, not so much provocatively as experimentally. Private Freeman skids onto the scene as the cocky showoff guy, and a little West Side Story-like “Cool” jazz-inspired frolic ensues. This is countered with a more studied gavotte that hides and then exposes desire. Khamala Somphanh and Silfredo La O Vigo perform a duet suggesting a defloration rite. When the dancers move upward facing each other, they seem exalted; when they move downward, we feel a consuming lust rush. In the “scary scene,” good fights evil in the personages of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse, who uses the persona of a dog to point up fear/aggression issues. Presenting his back to the audience, Mr. Freeman’s expansive “bad self” range is evidenced in his ominous Carabosse. With Somphanh asleep, he weaves his evil web. He is focused so completely on his task that he is impervious to the potential of her soon-to-be-awakened resistance, which momentarily frightens him whenever it surfaces. It appears that the piece is really intended as a cautionary tale for youth the age of the company’s “Dance Jam” students, to show them the dialectic dance of fear and wisdom. Later, when we ask if this was the intention, Ms. Nelson says “No. This is a piece for everyone, because we all experience transformation.”

The dancers, men and women, dance bravely and fully, like the committed “good, thoughtful girls” who have let their “innocence” go, in favor of something more sustainable. They have raised their hands year after year, with only the individual recognition deemed necessary to successfully market the company. This is puzzling. Sometimes it is hard to see the dancers refer to the distinctive personalities they brought to the company when they joined. It is as if they have flocked behind Ms. Way to follow her unchallenged instinctive wisdom.

The audience was eager for the post-curtain discussion. Individual audience members spoke in admiration of the duets danced by Ms. Somphanh and her partners. Some questioned Ms. Nelson’s insistence that this was not a sexual piece, so much as it was about sexuality and its derivative powers. My dilemma as a reviewer is that I often find that I am uncomfortable with formats that invite the audience in as philosophical backstage partners. As a former child, the parent of one, and a professional who works daily with children, I don’t believe that loss of innocence is a function of sexual awareness or activity. I believe, instead, that some among us are innocent because one or another privilege protects us from knowing the real ways in which power in the world operates. Certain “protected,” but highly sexual adults are far more innocent than children who have experienced deprivation, exploitation, oppression and war. I can very much appreciate, enjoy, and admire the process we were invited in to see. Personally, I question aspects of its etiology, and the appropriateness of the underlying Calvinist concepts of good, evil, innocence, and its loss. That said, it was a treat to be a witness to the creative work. When all is said and done, it is the creativity that stands above the talk and the conceptualization. It is the shawl that warms KT Nelson’s bared shoulders. It is also the key to what makes this outstanding group of dancers continue to work hard at just being good, and succeeding at being great performers.


Please join a discussion of this performance in our forum.

Edited by Marie.

Submit press releases to press@criticaldance.com

For information, corrections and questions, please contact admin@criticaldance.com