ODC/Dance opened its 38th season with world premieres by artistic director Brenda Way and co-artistic director KT Nelson. Neither Way's In the Memory of the Forest nor Nelson's Grassland broke new ground. But novelty is overrated. What you want from experienced choreographers is that they continue challenging themselves with ideas that are compellingly realized. If both works need some settling, the rest of the season should take care of that. In upcoming performances they will be presented as part of the repertoire, which will give them a warmer context than the opening gala did. The dancers, who now include Robert Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen, look as good as you may want them.
Nelson set her Grassland to a commissioned score by Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos, with whom she collaborated for her 2006 Stomp a Waltz. It's a restless, driving piece of music, forcefully interpreted by a piano quintet and well-suited to Nelson's equally restless, driving choreography. She kept the relationship to the music elastic, sometimes following its rhythmic impulse but also anticipating its sweep or going against its complexity.
Even without direct references to natural phenomena, Grassland suggests a vast sense of open space. Dancers tore in and out of the wings; they walked or scurried on tiptoe as if trying to see beyond the horizon. Legs swept the floor like scythes; four-legged critters scrambled across. The beautifully individualized duets for Daniel Santos and Yaoi Kambara, Anne Zivolich and Corey Brady, and Elizabeth Farotte and Jeremy Smith involved collisions and interlockings that then split, slithered, or scooted apart. The whole suggested a pulsating sense of aliveness, sometimes almost too much to take in.
Way's elegiac In the Memory of the Forest was inspired by her mother-in-law's escape from Poland in 1941 to find the man she loved. The work ended with parts of a recording incorporated into Jay Cloidt's musical score of Iza Erlich telling her story. The audio was fragmented, pensive, and a little scratchy, just like Way's choreography. Instead of fashioning a narrative, Way explored the anxiety, uncertainty, and determination as well as the innocence and sense of loss inherent in Erlich's experience. More than anything, this is a piece about remembering. Cloidt's music was multilayered and supportive; in the hands of Elaine Buckholtz's set and lighting design, David and Hi-Jin Hodge's video work looked first rate.
The piece opened with a stunning line of hand-holding dancers stepping from video images of woods; their line then began to fracture as if an earthquake had broken the ground beneath them. Joining them were video images of white-clad dancers who accumulated until they gave the sense of a world about to drown. But Way kept the focus on the private. Couples fused and separated, sometimes like silhouettes, sometimes very physically. Kambara was the heroine who flitted hither and yon. A limp Zivolich, dragged around by Santos, seemed to be an alter-ego whom Kambara befriended. In good movie tradition, it was not the men's uniform gestures but Cloidt's sound track that terrified. When Kambara finally threw herself against a slightly overwhelmed looking Smith, both froze and began to turn like music box figurines, while the shadows kept pace with their own whirling dance.
Through March 29, $10$45
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard, SF
(415) 978-ARTS, www.odcdance.org