Pilot: a Work in Progress

Pilot 68. Photo by Al Ponce

This essay, written by dance writer Rita Felciano for ODC Theater’s 40th Anniversary catalogue in October 2016, is reposted here with her permission.

Modern/postmodern dancers often find themselves wanting to expand from performing into choreography. At a recent lecture about Trisha Brown, local choreographer Hope Mohr, who danced with the company for four years, was asked why she left. She answered that she had loved the experience but that she also was beginning to wonder: “Where am I in this practice?” This questioning is still rare — though changing — from ballet or world dance professionals whose disciplines have a long history and a codified vocabulary.

But so where should a would-be choreographer go?

The answer is ODC’s Pilot, a program that reflects the design of the original Oberlin Dance Company collective format. Since 1990, ODC has sponsored 67 different iterations of an eleven week session during which dancers, six at a time, learn to become dance entrepreneurs. It’s one thing to make a dance, it takes another set of skills to bring it to fruition on stage before an audience. (Pilot was started in conjunction with what was then the Margaret Jenkins Company Dance School).

In addition to presenting a work, often still in-progress, participants take responsibility for the entire production, including public relations (press releases), marketing (what is a good photo?), programs (design, printing), box office (track ticket sales), and soliciting donations (for the post-performance reception). ODC provides professional staff mentors in each of these fields. These days the group also has to come up with a program title — considered an essential marketing tool. “That’s an arduous process,” Kimi Okada, Coordinator of Pilot and Director of ODC’s School since 1996, smiles over lunch at Robin’s Café, next to ODC Theater’s lobby. It’s not easy for six different minds to agree on an inclusive nomenclature.

The application process, apparently, has changed little. “We want to establish as even a playing field as possible,” Okada says. “We tell applicants that selection takes place on the strength of a written proposal because we want to know that you have a solid idea, and you have a plan as to how to implement it.” What about choreographers who may not be verbally as articulate as others? “Choreographers,” she asserts, “need to learn to solicit commissions, write cogent grant applications, negotiate for venues, and in general be able to talk about their work.”

Applicants are also told that the panel will not look at work on video because, explains Okada, “some people might not be able to afford or have the skill to create visual documentation.” However, since the advent of cheaper production costs, Pilot is re-considering this stipulation.

Jo Kreiter whose own Flyaway Productions — Apparatus Based Dance celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, credits Pilot for having encouraged her to pursue choreography. She was in the first Pilot on August 30, 1990, in what was then the New Performance Gallery, now the ODC Theater.

At the time Kreiter had been dancing with Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre for less than a year. Having come to dance late — she used to be a gymnast — Kreiter was acutely aware of how different she was from the finely tuned dancers she encountered. “Pilot was the perfect place for me. Even though some had choreographed in college in very supportive environments, we were all the same age. I had only done a two-minute piece for Dance Brigade.”

She created a solo on herself, “Unsettling Wilderness.” “It was five minutes long and had a jacket that opened in the back; that was very important to me at the time,” she recalls. But mostly she remembers how she felt “in community” with these artists who went through parallel processes. She also remembers a wildness inside herself “that could be celebrated [here] and whose physicality at least, was not squashed down.”

During the first few years Pilot programs were performed once, on a Wednesday night, attracting primarily friends and family members. Today they are presented three times on one weekend: Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and evening. They regularly sell out, drawing on a much wider audience base. What hasn’t changed is the variety — a real grab bag — of talents, proficiency and experience. But there is such pleasure in watching young artists take an idea, even a simple and, perhaps, not particularly resonant one, and work with it. The reward is in their doing it, and in our watching. And the reward to the field can be found in the successful careers of several alumni of the Pilot program, Sarah Michelson, Nora Chipaumire and Faye Driscoll, to name a few.

When Gerald Casel, who had grown up in the Bay Area, participated in both Pilot 63 and 64 (2013/14), he brought a wealth of know-how with him. A seven-year dancer with the Stephen Petronio Company, a prolific choreographer and Bessie Award winner and now a faculty member at UC Santa Cruz, Casel used the opportunity to reintroduce himself to the local dance environment. “I had reached out to ODC, and was told that they are now open to all levels. San Francisco is so unique that it was very helpful to learn how things work here,” he explained.

While working with choreographers who “were all over the place in terms of choreographing sophistication, as a teacher I have a natural predilection to be patient, and there always was the possibility for me to learn something new,” he remembers. The second year he functioned as a “facilitator” who would coordinate meetings and at times take Okada’s place.

For Casel, Pilot became a platform on which to experiment and receive feedback. Both “Visiter” and “Craig and Tail,” two of the works he presented, eventually became part of longer works.

The feedback sessions — Casel’s favorite part — are crucial to the program. For the last ten years, choreographer Lizz Roman (Pilot 10 and 12) has mentored the groups in choreography. “I try to make them feel good about where they are and help them to go forward.” At the first meeting, she has the dancers improvise and set material on each other. “I can tell at that point who knows how to choreograph,” she says. Later, Roman is not afraid of asking tough, but respectfully phrased questions. Why is this section here? Are you sure you don’t want an arc? Will you really get eight dancers to work with you?

After a month, each choreographer has half an hour to show the work in progress to fellow participants and Roman. Everyone’s feedback, though essential, is difficult for some, Roman admits. Yet learning to give and take feedback provides valuable lessons. The second feedback session begins right before the performances. After the concerts the group meets again to consider the end product and to reflect on what the future might hold for the work.

Everyone agrees that the applicant pool has changed; fewer beginners apply. Roman has observed however that many of today’s applicants need to develop better choreographic skills. Opportunities to do so are increasingly rare. Okada agrees. “The future of Pilot is in paying better attention to mentoring of the art because that’s what they need, and that’s what the field needs.”

Born in Switzerland and educated there and at UC Berkeley, Rita Felciano wrote on dance for the San Francisco Bay Guardian for over two decades and Dance View Magazine not quite as long. She still is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and writes for the danceviewtimes website.

ODC presents Pilot 68: Wild Bodies on April 8 and 9.