ODC/Dance made a comeback and then some on Thursday, April 7, in the second program of its “50-plus” anniversary season, dancing with exquisite open-heartedness in works that deserve to be seen for decades to come.
If guest choreographer Dexandro Montalvo’s strangely grim world premiere left a saddening aftertaste in last week’s Program A, Amy Seiwert’s touching new dance to the songs of Leonard Cohen during Program B has now obliterated that memory. Add a revival of ODC co-founder Brenda Way’s tender and endlessly inventive “Investigating Grace,” and you have ample reason to get to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Blue Shield of California Theater before this run ends on Sunday, April 10.
Having led her own company for more than 15 years and served as a resident choreographer at Smuin Contemporary Ballet for a decade, Seiwert is far from a green dancemaker, and in “No Alibi” her quiet confidence shows. Her wisest choice of her may have been not to compete against Cohen’s iconic sound and brilliant lyrics.
The dance opens with a concert crowd cheering, and during “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Cohen’s words appear as they are sung on the scrim behind the dancers (projection design by Olivia Ting), inviting us into a missive to an old friend that ends “ Sincerely, L. Cohen.” Meanwhile, Jeremy Bannon-Neches, Cora Cliburn and Ryan Rouland Smith partner in ways that loosely suggest the letter’s love triangles. The dance is full of small, texturing details, like Ella’s Bannon-Neches lowering Cliburn’s lifted arabesque leg so that it lands with her flexed foot pressing into her neck.
Between songs, writings from Cohen frame the action with more of the late singer-songwriter’s mordant bittersweetness. “How do I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?” one such quote asks, while another proclaims “I’m not a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain and I already feel soaked to the skin.” The quotes enhance Seiwert’s wonderfully sensitive emotional sequencing of the songs: From the ensemble rocking Mia Chong in “Dance Me to the End of Love,” to the innocent intimacy of Rachel Furst and Brandon “Private” Freeman in “No Way to Say Goodbye, ” through the exuberance of Nina Simone’s rollicking take on “Suzanne,” and ending poignantly with Cohen’s unmistakably gravelly mature voice in “Thanks for the Dance.”
Just as Seiwert is no stranger to making a dance, she is no stranger to this company’s members — Freeman and Furst have both performed with Seiwert’s troupe Imagery, where it’s fair to say Seiwert helped make Furst the stunningly charismatic artist she is now. It’s thrilling to see in this first ODC commission how Seiwert has teased new dimensions out of dancers like Christian Squires, who is torn between independence and clinging need in Joe Cocker’s rendition of “Bird on a Wire.”
“No Alibi” stands beautifully alongside Way’s masterwork (even the National Endowment for the Arts has officially labeled it so), “Investigating Grace.” Set to Glenn Gould’s youthful and brisk first recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Way’s dance seems to encompass the full range of human emotions, with the brightly comic and the melancholic often intertwining. A section in which the men launch themselves from the wings to roll on the floor, while the women traipse over them, reminds me of a bit of the late New York choreographer Paul Taylor’s classic “Esplanade,” but the jazzy sass of Way’s sensibility is all her own.
Freeman has a soft yet crisp quality in the central role here, like a cat who moves with total control. A simple phrase — his arm swinging around his back and seeming to slice his abdomen — mutates with utter nuance throughout, while other sections offer complex spectacle, contrasting the speed of Gould’s playing against gentle, slow-motion partnering, or evolving a cradling trio between three men until Freeman is in a long, sustained handstand above Rouland Smith.
In his liner notes to his 1955 recording, Gould wrote that the Goldberg Variations have “unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved.” A similar kind of unity has been beautifully achieved by Ella’s Way in her dance.
ODC will be making a digital stream of this season’s “Investigating Grace” performance available soon on its ODC Connect service. It certainly would reward second, third, and even fourth viewings.
ODC/Dance’s “Dance Downtown”: Home season continues with Program B at 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday April 8-9; 3 p.m. Sunday April 10. $25-$150. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Blue Shield of California Theater, 700 Howard St., SF www.odc.dance/downtown