Ready to Fly: ODC School and Theater Present Pilot 57

Normally, when multiple chorographers decide to coproduce a show, it’s because they like each other, or feel a creative synergy, or have harmonious work styles. Their artistic or logistical strengths and weaknesses being complementary, they shoulder different responsibilities to bring their unified show to pass.

But what happens when six up-and-coming dance artists who don’t know one another—and who have varying degrees of experience, vastly different priorities, and potentially conflicting decision-making styles—are given eleven weeks to put together a joint show at one of the Bay Area’s most prominent theaters?

ODC’s Pilot Program, that’s what. This year marks Pilot’s 20th anniversary and 57th “graduating class,” which includes Raisa Punkki of punkkiCo, Nathan Cottam, Daria Kaufman, Elizabeth McSurdy, Charles Slender of FACT/SF and Amy Foley. Their group show, Pilot 57: Pilot Light, takes place Saturday and Sunday, December 4 and 5, in the brand-new ODC Theater—the first and only time a Pilot show will appear in that 170-seat space.

“A lot of times when you start out, you do a piece at this small space here or this small space there, and we’re talking sometimes 10, 15, sometimes 20 people will show up,” said Cottam, a classical ballet dancer who recently earned his MFA in choreography and performance at the University of Arizona. “To put up a piece and have its mettle tested at a place like the ODC Theater—you’re riding some pretty significant coattails on a program like this. So you get to test out your ideas on a stage that really has some draw.”

The portal into ODC’s multilevel mentorship system, which continues with Migrations and House Special, the semiannual Pilot program tutors emerging choreographers in self-production, their most common outlet for showing work. For a minimal $95 fee, which includes application and enrollment, participants learn the basics of marketing, press and publicity, house management, lighting and box office from ODC staff, and then put those lessons to direct use as they develop the show. Participants get half off rehearsal space at the ODC Dance Commons, a useful resource as they create a new piece of up to ten minutes in length, plus the theater—and the production staff—free of charge for the performances.

Charles Slender. Photo: Rob Kunkle. Design: Kat Foley.

More than 290 artists have taken part in Pilot, among them Erika Chong Shuch, Private Freeman, Amy Seiwert and Lizz Roman, who is also Pilot 57’s choreography mentor. Choreography, however, is the smallest slice of the Pilot pie. And in that bit of irony—a choreography mentorship that isn’t really about choreography—lies Pilot’s greatest challenges and most useful lessons. Each Pilot member heads up one area of production, but everyone has to agree on decisions about how the flyer will look, negotiations on staging needs, plans for the post-show reception, and how to publicize the event.

“It is interesting to not only have six cooks in the kitchen, but also to put a show together with anybody else, even just one person,” said Foley, who recently retired from Robert Moses’ Kin after dancing with the company for eleven years. “Because we are sharing the stage, that means we all have to have the same light plot, we all need to decide about the setup of the stage—some people want a cyc and a scrim, and other people are more interested in having a really kind of bare performance space. You have to agree on that, which is a good exercise for everyone. Because when you’re [dancing] in a company, that’s just all taken care of.”

“Often artists aren’t asked to do this, and we think that’s really an important skill because it initiates self-reflection,” said ODC School director Kimi Okada, whose tenure with the organization goes back forty years to its original incarnation as the Oberlin Dance Collective in Ohio. “A lot of inexperienced choreographers don’t know where to begin; they just go in and start making stuff. But communicating is really what art is about, and if you want to take the next step in getting more recognition, you have to get your work out there. And in order to put your work out there, you have to either get presented or have enough production skills that you can figure out how to self-present, or you collaborate with other people. You have to be resourceful. I’d like to think that the Pilot program really gives you resources and certain skills to be able to take that step.”

Unlike the majority of mentorships, grants, and residencies, Pilot doesn’t require a video or DVD submission. Applicants range from recent graduates to more-established artists exploring new ideas, and each one writes a brief proposal for a piece they’d like to put together during the program. “What we’re looking for is a succinct and articulate description of why they want to make a dance, what they want to make it about, how they plan to do it, what are the elements, what is the movement style, what is the music,” Okada continued. “We don’t hold them to it at all, but we just want to hear that they have an articulated vision of what it is they would like to do.”

Once they’re accepted, participants can veer from that proposal as much, or as little, as they’d like. ODC doesn’t meddle in their artistry beyond feedback given during one choreography workshop and two work-in-progress showings.

Everyone Gives, Everyone Gets

As infrequent as the choreographic feedback may be, it has been productive for Slender, whose two-year-old contemporary company, FACT/SF, will debut Pretonically Oriented v.1 in the Pilot shows. “It was totally brilliant. A group of us were thrown into an environment where we had to observe each other and observe our own work but not be too critical of it, and just see what we could make. Since I primarily make my own work, I’m like the little dictator in the studio; what I say goes. When you’re working with other choreographers, everyone has a different idea of what things mean, because we’re all artists. There’s a way that the experience made me relearn how to see things.”

Foley comes from the opposite perspective: that of a dancer accustomed to embodying another person’s vision. “I don’t want to show my work and have someone say, ‘Well, she clearly danced with Robert Moses for ten-plus years.’ I want it to be my voice and my work.” Pilot’s bite-size format offers a safe way to take her first steps as a creator of dance. “There are challenges, of course, in making a ten-minute piece. But it’s definitely been helpful to me, because I say, OK, it’s not an evening of work, it’s not even half an evening of work, it’s just one piece.” Foley ventures into choreography with Nearly/Known, in which she plumbs the nature of happiness—after all, why not start small?

Kaufman, on the other hand, has been presenting her own work since getting her MFA from Mills College in 2008. With her bent toward creating experimental performances, “I’m used to lower-budget venues where it’s more informal, or lower-tier, I guess you would say.” For Kaufman, showing work at ODC is an experiment in itself. “I wanted to see what it would be like to make something being presented by a more mainstream organization that…operates in this very different way than what I’m used to.” The ODC Theater won’t let her throw paint on the walls, so Kaufman will rely on an electronic noise-scape as the backdrop to 11:56 PM, her exploration of city life and city dwellers.

Pilot is a focused program with very specific goals. But like most things in life, it is what one makes of it. Cottam sees Pilot as “a little laboratory that gives you an opportunity to do some choreography, to cooperate with people, to extend your network. Raisa Punkki and I just had a conversation for 5 or 10 minutes, and I’m thinking to myself, I really like this person, and this is a person that I would enjoy working with in the future.”

Relatively new to professional choreography, Cottam has used that laboratory to dream up Aneurotypical, Man, set to Thelonious Monk’s solo piano music. “It’s fun and a real challenge. In the beginning I wanted it to be kind of contemporary ballet, but it’s kind of a mixed bag of really random movements. Some of it looks almost like soft-shoe-y tap dance, even though I don’t have any background in tap—it was just like, well, this seems like something we would do to this music!” Pilot’s creative freedom is also part of the appeal for the audience, which gets to see fresh ideas from up-and-coming artists—Pilot shows consistently sell out.

That ready audience makes Pilot a superb vehicle for McSurdy, a recent transplant from Boise, Idaho, to introduce herself to the Bay Area dance community. “I have more of a background as a designer and a dancer, not as a choreographer. So this is not only a debut piece for me in San Francisco, but one of the first pieces I’ve ever created.” Quite a coup for someone who applied to the program on a whim.

 “I told myself that when I moved to San Francisco I would just be a dancer—show up and stretch and be told what to do. And I was really looking forward to doing that!” she said. Of course, we all know what happens to the best-laid plans: “This process really taught me that making stuff is way more enjoyable than I thought it was all of that time.” McSurdy’s recent life transitions—from Boise to San Francisco, from creator to dancer and back to creator—figure in her reflective piece on being a newcomer, Not just passing through. The title suggests that her new direction has staying power.

Punkki came all the way from Finland, moving to the United States in 2003 and founding her company, punkkiCo, two years later. The translation from life in Europe has been met with grants, awards and successful shows, but it hasn’t always been easy. “It’s a totally different way to maneuver things—funding, everything, is different. Some things I already knew; [Pilot] is kind of just confirming those things. What has been new to me is how you have to approach the press. It’s really hard to get a critic to come see you; if somebody comes, it’s so huge. In Europe I used to get critics every time I did something.” She connects with her roots in Polar Night, inspired by the darkness of the Northern Hemisphere in winter and set to a shamanic score by Finnish composer Kimmo Pohjonen.

Raisa Punkki. Photo: Rob Kunkle.

In addition to better navigating the American arts world, “what I needed now is just to talk, to be able to share the artistic part of it,” Punkki said. “Working with Lizz Roman and talking with everybody, it’s wonderful. And we have been staying afterwards and talking about where the pieces are going, so it’s been really, really good for me.”

It’s not Yalta, But Still…

Merging six perspectives on art and business, meeting six people’s needs and negotiating compromises requires maturity. If one doesn’t bring it to the table, one learns it along the way.

“You throw these six artists together, and they have to come up with how to become a cohesive whole,” Okada said. “You have to figure out, OK, how do we intersect, what do we share, what are we interested in. It’s a way also of getting people to articulate what their artistic and aesthetic sensibility is.”

For Slender, the exercise has strengthened some underused muscles. “I’m gonna sit in this meeting at 8:30 in the morning with five other choreographers who are all at different places in their careers, and we’re all going to find some common ground. And we’re not going to find it because I’m gonna tell them what the common ground is, which is how I run my company, but because we’re going to figure it out.”

He also sees the bigger picture of how this experience can help a dance company grow. “The skills of learning and listening and observing are immediately applicable when you need to identify what other people can contribute. Maybe they have this other skill set that I don’t have, or they are making work that is just so different from what I would consider making, so maybe there’s a collaboration that can happen.” It’s not the easiest skill to master, but it’s a powerful tool to employ in art, in business and in life.

So from the crucible of Pilot, artists emerge with potent skills and practice using them. “One of the real beliefs of the Pilot program is that you should know how to do this yourself and take it on,” Okada said. “Don’t wait around for the opportunity and cry because you didn’t get picked. It happens to everybody—carry on! You gotta have a thick skin, but you have to have the chops behind it to survive. That’s what we hope this will give them.”

ODC School & ODC Theater Present
Pilot’s 20th Anniversary
Pilot 57: Pilot Light

Saturday and Sunday, December 4-5, 8 p.m.
Tickets $12

ODCTheater.org
415-863-9834

ODC Theater, 3153 17th Street (@ Shotwell), San Francisco

© 2010 Claudia Bauer/SpeakingOfDance.com

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