ODC and the Magic Of Space

The Oberlin Dance Collective theatre on 17th and Shotwell.

En Español

Everyone at the Oberlin-born and San Francisco-raised ODC agreed on one thing: They needed more space.

Eight years later, near the path where Mission Creek once ran to the Bay and light industrial companies once flourished, construction workers sawed, drilled and hammered madly in mid-September, putting the final touches on what happens when the ODC folks are tired of feeling tight for space.

Tonight, Artistic Director Brenda Way’s dancers will spin, kick and chassé their way through the three-tiered, 13,000-square-foot and 200-seat theater on 17th Street as they perform a sold-out show of their new work, “Architecture of Light.”

“The magic of theater is that it always comes together,” Rob Bailis, the theater director, said a few weeks ago as the hammering continued.

Magic helped, but also confidence.

“We all knew, even in the current economy, that [we] were doing the right thing,” said Lori Laqua, who joined ODC in 1991 as a development assistant and is now managing director.

What they didn’t know was that the eight-year, two-phase construction project that began in 2002 with the Dance Commons on Shotwell and ends on Thursday with the inauguration of the expanded and refurbished ODC Theater down the block at the corner of Shotwell and 17th streets would bring plenty of surprises: hazardous waste, a war abroad and a financial crisis at home.

In the end, however, ODC has a 36,000-square-foot dance and school space, larger than that of New York’s Dance Theater Workshop and about half the size of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on 55th Street at Ninth Avenue. What’s more, ODC did it without taking on any debt.

Laqua said the board’s first bit of luck came when a former auto shop at 351 Shotwell Street was put on the market — at the same time that the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation gave ODC $1.5 million.

“The Hewlett Foundation’s support for the project helped us in approaching new donors, as it gave a lot of legitimacy to the project,” said Lynn Feintech, a volunteer who became the chair of the capital campaign.

It also gave the group enough money to buy the auto shop outright and have $100,000 left.

Feintech had entrée into the world of big donors. The daughter of a Los Angeles philanthropist and a lover of dance, she was living in San Francisco and working at Bank of America when one of her colleagues told her about ODC. She started going to performances and met Pam Quim, one of the early ODC choreographers.

Soon, Feintech said in an interview from Europe where she was traveling with her mother, she was on the board, and when the expansion started, she became the capital campaign manager. (Yes, she did make it back for opening tonight.)

The board’s first surprise was that auto shops come with buried history. As construction workers dug the foundation for the Dance Commons on Shotwell, they found whole barrels of hazardous material, Bailis said, sitting in the Dance Commons conference room, which is available to the community at no charge.

Removing and cleaning up after the motor oil, coolant and other wastes added up. Then, after the war in Iraq began in 2003, the cost of construction materials rose sharply. The board’s budget of $9 million for building the Commons and refurbishing the old theater was clearly inadequate.

Steel prices alone grew steadily from an average of $300 per ton in 2003 to more than $700 in 2004. Suddenly, just building the Commons added up to $11 million.

“We just never thought of that; we had to pay twice what we thought,” said Bailis.

Despite the prospect of raising another $9 million, the board saw no reason to stop. Their reason for wanting to remodel and expand the old location held up: space. Professional artists needed more. The old theater would not do. “Electricity was so poor we had to pull electric power from the other building,” said Laqua.

“We wanted to give the whole city of San Francisco a creative center,” said Bailis. The Mission is a center for the arts in the city, and the ODC wanted to “provide these artists a great venue worthy of their creative endeavor.”

The board also refused to saddle artists with paying down a bank loan.

“We needed a debt-free facility,” said Laqua. “For [artists] to make it, they need to find a large subsidized space…. Artists shouldn’t [worry] about paying our mortgage.”

A case in point is the 736-square-foot room where Laqua stood recently. Dancers can rent it for a flat rate of $20 an hour, no matter how many dancers are in the room.

Laqua, who has overseen both stages of the two-phase project, said the group simply stepped up its fundraising efforts and plunged into phase two.

Feintech gathered a list of donors to solicit and guided the board’s efforts. Way, Laqua and Bailis presented ODC’s case to funders.

“The key player was the quality of the ODC programs,” Feintech said in an e-mail. “It was central to any solicitation. If a funder doesn’t believe in the quality of the program, it is unlikely that he or she will make an investment in the organization.”

The Shotwell Commons opening in 2005 offered plenty of proof that the ODC team was on to something. The number of classes jumped from 13 a week to more than 120. Within a year, Laqua said, the Commons ran in the black. It now has as many as 200 classes a week.

Way would tell donors, “San Francisco will reap the long-term benefits of our center, which will attract and support an ever-growing community of artists and audiences.”

And Laqua would add what she recently told a reporter: “ODC currently has the distinction of being the most active dance center in the west, reaching over 30,000 artists, students and audience members in the Bay Area each year.”

The pitch worked.

Feintech’s family’s participation, always strong, grew.

Over the years, Feintech said, “my family has gotten to know about the work of the organization; they have attended performances of the dance company, the school and the theater artists.”

It was more than just a financial interest. “Lynn’s father used to call us every day to check on our progress,” said Laqua, referring to Norman Feintech, who passed away last year and whose calls she remembers fondly.

From 2002 to 2009, two Feintech family foundations gave $806,525. “The donations from my family are both a result of their strong support for the programs of the organizations and their support of my volunteer efforts,” said Feintech.

In 2008, that effort became focused on the old theater. Built in 1909 as a box factory, the 17th Street space housed a hardware store when ODC, formed at Oberlin in 1971 as a collective, purchased it in 1979, three years after moving west to San Francisco.

Initially, the board envisioned refurbishing the theater and adding two floors, but discovered during the planning process that they could go higher. Ah, more space. They added a third floor.

By October 2008, things were looking good. Some 75 percent of the costs had been raised. Then the global financial crisis hit. “The last 25 percent was the hardest to raise,” said Bailis.

But this is a team that sees the glass as half full.

The crisis made foundations and donors less bountiful, Laqua and Bailis agreed, but also caused the cost of raw materials to drop.

The Norman and Evelyn Feintech Foundation continued its support, and during the height of the recession contributed another $195,500.

Moreover, small donations kept coming in.

“The people who donate $100 to $250 are the immediate community, the ones who care the most,” said Laqua.

So, does the company have enough space? Well, not really. The board always expected the ODC company to continue to perform at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and while the ODC team is ready to relax for a while, the fantasies continue.

Following the old creek out to Mission Bay, some see a performance space.

ODC Theater
3153 17th Street at Shotwell

ODC Dance Commons
351 Shotwell Street

ODC Theater Presents
ODC/Dance: Architecture of Light

Thursday, September 30, Opening Gala—SOLD OUT
Friday, October 1, 8 p.m.—SOLD OUT
Saturday, October 2, 8 p.m.—SOLD OUT
Saturday, October 2, 10 p.m. —SOLD OUT

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  1. Lois

    Maybe explain what ODC stands for? Often, this would be spelled out in the first reference….

  2. Andrew


    Oberlin Dance Collective

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