Global warming is not a likely topic for a modern dance troupe. But ODC Dance of San Francisco decided to tackle the issue with a modern day telling of Cassandra's story, complete with large blocks of ice melting around the dancers. Todd Spencer attended a rehearsal.
CURWOOD: Last year, the disaster film, "The Day After Tomorrow," was a notable attempt by Hollywood to draw wider attention to the issue of climate change. Another effort by the art world to document the warming planet is underway in San Francisco, where one of the city's most respected dance companies is tackling the almost impossibly unglamorous subject. Producer Todd Spencer sat in on a rehearsal of ODC Dance's "On A Train Heading South" and has our story.
WAY: Take it slow going back to that place and let her grab you and pull you back to that place.
[FLOOR NOISE AND PEOPLE GETTING INTO POSITION, FOOTFALLS]
SPENCER: ODC founder Brenda Way has choreographed 70 pieces over the last 30 years, but never one like this. Like me, you might wonder what a dance about, essentially, weather, would look like. You might also question the topic's value as good dance fare, but if the feedback from advance audiences is any indication, the 30-minute dance packs an emotional wallop.
[NOISE OF FOOTFALLS]
WAY: Did you guys figure out what you're doing there?
SPENCER: The piece is the brainchild of Way and composer-collaborator Jack Perla, who pitched the idea to Brenda after a vacation to Antarctica.
WAY: He proposed this idea, I thought it was ridiculous. I mean, I thought it was so massive.
PERLA: And, I still get that, you know, like, if I describe the piece to colleagues at work…can you really do that? I mean, a dance piece about global warming. It's pretentious.
SPENCER: As it opens, we see the dancers as a picture of society engaged in what could be a fancy, black tie party. An awkward female guest soon arrives.
PERLA: Cassandra is, sort of, the party crasher and she's the, you know, she's the downer and she's not a very good conversationalist and she's not very effervescent.
SPENCER: In Greek mythology, Cassandra could see into the future. But, stripped of her powers of persuasion by Apollo, she's unable to convince the Greek generals about the danger posed by the Trojan Horse. Throughout this piece, the lone Cassandra figure tries to alarm her fellow dancers about the strange weather.
PERLA: And as the evening wears on, the tension gets greater and greater. It starts innocent; it really becomes quite violent.
ODC Dancers Yukie Fujimoto and Daniel Santos.
SPENCER: Jack describes the arc of the story this way.
PERLA: Sky is falling, sky is falling, ah shut up, ah shut up, ah shut up, and then the sky falls. That's the arc of the story (laughs).
[MUSIC WITH EXCERPTS OF PRESIDENT BUSH]
SPENCER: The piece is scored by Jack, who peppers his original music with snippets of media clips from politicians and samples of MTV-style hip-hop and even a parody on a Britney Spears song, not coincidentally named "Toxic."
[SAMPLE OF BRITNEY'S SPEAR'S "TOXIC"]
SPEARS: It's dangerous, I'm falling…
SPENCER: But, it's when the choreography and the music are combined with a third element, the stage set, that a new emotional understanding of global warming is created with viewers.
SPENCER: Hanging above the stage suggesting a glacial world, are twelve giant blocks of ice.
PERLA: The pieces of ice are shaped in an arc so they, sort of, remind you of being at one of the poles or being at the top of the world or the bottom of the world. But at the same time, they look like big ice cubes and they almost look like they should be draining into a martini glass.
SPENCER: With the ice cast iridescent in hot stage lights, the dancers' world literally melts around them. Yukie Fujimoto is a dancer.
FUJIMOTO: It was so beautiful until, of course, we started slipping in it (laughs) and then we ran the piece a couple a times, people fell and I think Brenda was horrified.
SPENCER: She might have been horrified, but Brenda fell in love with the set and its emotional impact.
WAY: For me, the idea of a big chunk of ice melting on the stage and a group of brilliant dancers with gorgeous bodies ignoring it seemed to me such a perfect metaphor for our social non-response to the condition that that's really all I was thinking about.
[FLOOR NOISE AS DANCERS PERFORM A COMPLEX MOVE THIS TIME WITH MORE FOOTFALLS, MOVEMENT WITH PERCUSSIVE FALL]
SPENCER: In a moment that elicited audible gasps from a preview audience, the dancers form an elegant human glacier that sinks and contracts in jerky tremors, personifying our intrinsic connection to the fate of the icecaps.
WAY: I was reading all these descriptions of what was happening to the glaciers and so on and I felt there was a profound analogy between what was happening to the glaciers and what's happening to our social order--the collapse of both. One is actually collapsing because of the other.
[FLOOR NOISE AS DANCERS PERFORM A COMPLEX GROUP MOVEMENT]
SPENCER: Toward the dance's conclusion, there's a battle between Cassandra and a solo male dancer where she is physically dominated, partially smothered and left in emotional shambles. Then, as she predicted, the worst happens. The final scene is a flood scenario. Upstage, a shattered Cassandra sits, making circles in the water with her finger as two male dancers come to terms with the devastation behind her. One props the other up in consolation, and wills him to continue on, to adjust to the new reality.
WAY: What a dance form can do is touch a place emotionally that you didn't even know you were sensitive to. And I hope we do that!
SPENCER: For Living on Earth, I'm Todd Spencer.
CURWOOD: ODC Dance Founder Brenda Way's "On A Train Heading South" just opened in San Francisco and will tour nationwide this autumn.