Review: 'Dance Downtown' Program 1 shines 

Even before it got to the hors d’oeuvres at the after-party, the new, 36th season of ODC/Dance Downtown seemed like atasty, but somewhat unbalanced, three-course menu. KT Nelson’s world premiere "Scramble" began Thursday’s opening night as a light and playful appetizer. The long and somewhat hard-to-bite premiere by Brenda Way, "A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes," followed. The evening was topped off by Way’s "Investigating Grace" from 1999, an airy, delicious dessert.

The company’s new season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts brings four world premieres by Nelson and Way, divided between two programs. Nelson’s "Scramble" from Thursday’s Program 1 was perhaps the most dance-y of them all.

Created for a quartet and set to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 D major played by Yo-Yo Ma, the work explores the joys and intricacies of pas de deux. The relationship between the two couples — Anne Zivolich with Daniel Santos and Elizabeth Farotte with Justin Flores — was intimate at first. Whether they lifted each other or locked in a sensual embrace, the duos danced as if no one was watching.

But in a part for all four, the mood changed and the dancers transformed into children at play, jumping with legs bent in a jester-like L-shape, dragging each other, playing Twister, or falling comically. Nelson’s light piece warmed up the audience for Way’s meaty premiere.

"A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes" is the last part of Way’s trilogy that critiques societal problems. Following pieces on global warming and religious extremism, the work explores questions of privacy — or what she calls "homeland insecurity" — and is accompanied by David Lang’s anxious music and a video by Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa.

Unlike her global warming piece "On a Train Heading South," with its striking metaphor of Cassandra and melting icicles, Way’s new dance is harder to swallow. Although it began pleasantly enough with a blissful caressing of a middle-class couple, played by Private Freeman and Andrea Flores, the story soon began to fall apart.

There were clear images of control emanating from men in suits and broadcasters on TV that somehow separated the loving couple. Yet the metaphor was so jumbled, we only got a general sense of trouble. Part of the confusion came from Sawa’s wonderful black-and-white video of airplanes taking off from someone’s bedroom that, although thematically appropriate, was distracting. The flowery dresses, shorts and suits created by Cassandra Carpenter created a sense of a social milieu, but ultimately helped complicate who was who. Flores was great as a soloist, but the unclear story prevented her from making the same impact as the disaster foreseer Cassandra in Way’s previous dance.

Finally, it was Way’s highly acclaimed "Investigating Grace" with Freeman and former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Joanna Berman that reminded us again that ODC is all about dance. This work showed such clarity of vision and had delicate, quiet choreography, the dancers were no longer dancing, but flying. Set to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and with beautiful lighting by Alexander Nichols, "Investigating Grace" brought home what makes ODC/Dance such a delight — wit, lucidity and imagination.

ODC/Dance Downtown Program 1 ***½

Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. today and March 15; 2 p.m. March 18

Tickets: $10-$75

Contact: (415) 978-2787 or www.ybca.org

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