Oh, Donna

Award-winning choreographer Donna Uchizono's namesake company makes its Bay Area debut
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Donna Uchizono

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You don't necessarily expect a choreographer to be interested in playing with conceits. After all, dancers work in an art form that is primarily nonverbal and movement driven. Yet Donna Uchizono's imagination embraces ideas in conjunction with physicality. "All of my work is concept based," she explained over the phone from her home in New York. "The idea always comes first, and then I develop a movement vocabulary to support the concept. So the pieces are very different from each other."

Sometimes she takes off from a single word. When I asked her about an early work, Fault (1990) — which had struck me as a puzzling combination of brain and brawn — she chuckled. "The piece was terrible," she remembered. "But then [later that year] I made San Andreas out of it, which was very beautiful." It turns out that she had been inspired by the idea of "fault," as both a geological concept and the attributing and accepting of blame, as in "It's my (or your) fault."

More recently, for last year's Leap to Tall for Mikhail Baryshnikov, she thought about how his life has been full of huge leaps — to the top of the ballet world, from the Soviet Union to the West, from ballet to modern dance, and from dancer to the founder of the Baryshnikov Arts Center. She also noticed that for many women Baryshnikov is still a matinee idol and that at his arts center he is surrounded by "strong, capable women." Leap turned into a trio for Baryshnikov, Hristoula Harakas, and Jodi Melnick, the last two of whom support him in his leaps, both literally and metaphorically.

Uchizono has been choreographing for close to 20 years, and her work has garnered just about every major dance award, from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 and a Bessie Award in 2002 to three Rockefeller Foundation Multi-Arts Production Fund grants (to work in Argentina with indigenous musicians) and most recently an Alpert Award in 2005.

Uchizono is known for lush movement and intricate partnering that "takes months and months to learn." For Thin Air, with which her namesake company makes its Bay Area debut Oct. 18, she chose a different approach. "It's very minimal, very transparent, and it takes a long time for something to develop," she said. "I am working with a very long time frame." She described the piece as having been influenced by quantum physics and the Buddhist concept of emptiness.

Cocommissioned by ODC Theater, Thin Air premiered Oct. 9 in New York City. Locally, it's part of ODC's expanded presentation series, which will continue to showcase local companies and also include national and international artists, similar to the way ODC operated in the 1980s.

Thin Air includes a score by Fred Firth and a video component, agreed to somewhat reluctantly by the choreographer. In principle, Uchizono doesn't like video with dance. "I am so tired of how these large projections dwarf dancers, but since I am working with the idea that the observer is actually projecting reality into emptiness, video seemed appropriate. Video clearly is projected reality." Uchizono, who is not dancing in the work, relied heavily on her dancers' input, particularly that of longtime troupe member Harakas, whom Uchizono described as being "her inside eye" and "like a great actor who gets involved in the part and [has] discussions with the lighting designer and the director."

As for the future of her project-based company, Uchizono is both a conceptualizer and a realist. She dreams of an installation project, but then she pulls back, noting that what she'd really like to do is provide her dancers with health insurance. Ideas may turn her on, but Uchizono's feet remain firmly planted on the ground.

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