My mother, Brenda Way, is the founder and artistic director of ODC Dance, ODC Theater and creator of ODC Dance Commons, a community performance center, training venue and collaborative arts space in San Francisco’s Mission District. She was a community pioneer, and while I grew up watching her realize her artistic vision, it was only recently that I took the opportunity to ask her why and how. As she has always quipped, “If you do art, you just do it.” But how you do it, where and with who matters.

ODC Dance Commons

Thaisa Way:   As an artist, why focus on place-making rather than choreography?

Brenda Way:   I am a nester. The artistic process needs grounding—it needs a home. My artistic impulses spring from attention to the world around me, but I need a vantage point. Once I had assembled a group of artists, I looked for space to create, rehearse, gather and make artistic messes. Dance requires lots of room to move, and with luck, natural light to move in and ceiling height to fly in.

ODC was founded in 1971 in Oberlin, Ohio, and in 1976, the dancers and artists moved to San Francisco. Within a year, we had renovated a raw, industrial rental space into an inspiring facility, only to be evicted due to a rent increase. Dance spaces are notoriously lovely and susceptible to takeover. With our next space, what was to become the ODC Theater, we were intent upon avoiding a repeat situation.

TW :  Do you think of ODC as a cultural pioneer?

BW:   ODC was the first American modern dance company to buy its own building. This was a message that we were serious about our work and our value to the city of San Francisco — our bid to be part of civic life.

TW :  Why the Mission District instead of Downtown?

BW:   “Mix” is the key word. I was interested in creating a world of art within the urban setting, not apart from it. Corporate Downtown lacks the neighborhood dimension. The deep value of art is its ability to engage the public in a conversation about imagination, invention and creativity. I wanted to roll everything into one dynamic environment and strip away the art/recreation divide. The artist in magnificent isolation was not my goal.

TW:   Why expand ODC?

BW:  The first facility carved necessary spaces out of an existing building. When we bought our second facility, we imagined a lively training and rehearsal space. With architect Mark Cavagnero, we designed wide hallways with skylights for dancers to warm up in, a central town hall space, an interior garden and a second-story deck to form our dance commons.

I negotiated a partnership with an exercise program called Rhythm and Motion. Engaging new constituencies has always been important to me; the space was key to this effort — young and old, skilled and unskilled, we include them all.

TW:  The neighborhood response?

BW:  The city and local philanthropies were delighted that we populated the street with healthy dancers, fami- lies and lots of bicycle traffic without displacing tenants. We planted trees, cut garden squares into sidewalks and installed outdoor lighting. Our neighbors watched us from their stoops, and we offered everyone on the street dis- counted classes and tickets. No one thought it odd that a posse of dancers moved in and set up shop.

TW:   Why across multiple buildings?

BW:  We discovered a building that was a warren of five uniquely shaped structures and found that we preferred a campus over a single institutional space. It provided a more porous and inviting approach to expansion. We wanted more doorways and street-level windows, more welcoming access, more architectural diversity and the ability to highlight the different components of our program, which now includes a café with street vendor food that is just about to open.

We have always been interested in transparency. We know it brings risk, but we choose city life.

TW:   How did the city shape the campus?

BW:   The urban mix gives permission to be different. The campus is a dynamic, optimistic place—a safe place to risk. At any one time, you find professional dancers warming up or rehearsing, grandparents reading from our arts library, teenagers doing their homework, injured dancers working with physical therapists, parents watching their toddlers spin across the floor. The halls look like Broadway at rush hour.

Of course, this vision means endlessly raising money for our buildings, school and programs — but it also means that we are connected in amazing ways to the entire city.

TW   Lessons learned?

BW   I have always lived by the dictum try or die. Make the case for art: the social case, the cultural case, the aesthetic case, the educational case, the case for more livable cities and more humane populations. If you are going to go down, do it in flames.