emma willard school
A Moving Life
FEATURED ALUMNA ARTIST Self-Portrait #3 by Angelina Doherty ’11, who is currently a student at SUNY Potsdam.
On the cover The Oberlin Dance Company: Kimi Okada ’69 was one of its founding members in 1971. Photo by RJ Muna.
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emma willard school winter 2012
10 Bringing It to the Table
Sommelier Sarah Sutel ’90 is pouring love, authenticity, and a story with every bottle of wine.
18 The Summer of Aunt Sister
Holidays on the Cape with her glamorous aunt revealed the undercurrents in the family life of Debra Aaronson Lawless ’77.
22 A Moving Life
A dancer, choreographer, teacher, Kimi Okada ’69 has lived a life in movement.
departments 02 Headlines
irls who aspire to leave their G mark on the world.
Film on women’s portrayal in the media brings a shocking message to students, alumnae, and parents.
04 Emma Everywhere Emma Hart Willard’s 225th birthday. Alumna creates logo for Bicentennial.
06 Spoken Word An awakening for Kathy Erskine Jenkins ’66 when her corporate advancement is hijacked by sexual politics.
28 Connections 30 Class Notes 34 Memorial List 80 Women’s Work Horses go barefoot with the new, natural approach of Michele Beehner ’89.
Printed on 100% recycled paper that is manufactured entirely with nonpolluting, wind-generated energy.
bringing it to the table Sommelier helps customers taste the story behind every good vintage
by rachel morton
On an unseasonably warm and breezy Wednesday night in November, Sarah Sutel ’90, restaurant sommelier and, tonight, maître d’, stands at the helm of Elsewhere, a European-style bistro in New York’s theater district. It’s dinner hour, the bar is full, and the tables are filling quickly. The restaurant has been widely lauded, and part of its appeal is due to Sutel and her hand-curated wine list.
Photos: Bob Handelman
welcomes me and my dining companion. I can’t believe my
luck: I am writing a story about a wine expert and
had even begun perusing the menu, Sutel brought us flutes of sparkling pinot noir from as part of my research I must dine at an excellent Germany. “It smells like strawberries,” she warned, and it did. restaurant, sampling the food along with Sutel’s Surprisingly, the dark pinot noir grape is often used for a wine choices. light sparkling wine and is fermented without the skin so the color remains clear. In spite of a generic professional outfit of white shirt and With our appetites sufficiently whetted, we moved on dark skirt, Sutel looks extraordinarily well put together. to our first course—butternut squash soup, which Sutel Her oxford button-up fits her to a T due to two rows paired with a hard cider from France (Cidre Doux, Eric of tiny buttons along the back that pull it snugly to her Bordelet, Normany, France 2010). It is effervescent, with trim torso. Yet in spite of the businesslike appearance, it’s only a hint of apple. She tells us that the apples come hard for Sutel to tamp down her vivacious personality from 150-year-old trees and represent four heirloom and take-charge presence. Her face is framed by thick, varietals. Apparently, in Normandy, hard cider like this curly black hair, which tonight is fairly well tamed in a is drunk everywhere. I can see why. low ponytail, but which could, at the slightest provocaOur next course was grilled octopus salad with fention, turn “volcanic.” Little mink powder-puff earrings nel, baby spinach, avocado, orange and dill mustard bounce above her shoulders. Though she’s in charge of the entire beverage program, vinaigrette. To complement this, Sutel served us a white Rioja from Spain. Coming up with a language for wine wine is her thing. And part of being the wine person is should be simple for a writer, but it turns out to be a not only knowing the wine, but also knowing the food, challenge for me to even know what I am tasting, much because help with pairing the two for ultimate pleasure less produce words for it. I sniffed the aroma, swirled the is why customers turn to her and why the services of a very light wine around in its narrow glass, gave another sommelier are so valuable to restaurants like Elsewhere. sniff, then tasted. Hmmm, slightly fruity? “It’s definitely A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Sutel refreshing and crisp,” I say. And then hazard, “A meadow has a strong background in food, so she brings two very filled with flowers?” I looked to Sutel for words to express distinct and important skills to the table. what we were drinking. To get Sutel talking about wine is to be almost “The food is the low note,” she explained, effortlessly instantly overwhelmed with information about grapes poetic, “the salty-ocean, burned-charred octopus. The and individual growers, about regions and terroir, that goes way over the head of casual aficionados like me. She wine is the high note, like clouds over the ocean.” talked to me about precocious wines and shy ones, about ones that need coddling and ones that can stand up to Sutel wasn’t always so serious and the roughest treatment. dedicated. Though she was a good “Pinot noir is a finicky grape,” she says. “You can’t put student at Emma Willard (as were her mother and three it on the list immediately after transport as it freaks out of her sisters), her first year of college at the University of easily because of its delicate molecular bonds. But syrah, Arizona was her first (and only) fling with irresponsibilthat’s a hearty grape that doesn’t care what you do to it— ity: “I wanted to go someplace warm. I wanted boys and you can spray it around a room with a fire hose and then booze, and I wanted to be an adult.” Accustomed to the pick it up with a bucket. If pinot noir is the bitchy, prissy guidance and supervision at Emma Willard, she flounfeline, then syrah is the goofy dog who does anything for dered in the total freedom at U of A. Her parents were a belly rub.” shocked as her GPA plummeted. So was she. She clearly adores her wines, and it was exhilarating She left the university soon thereafter and moved back to learn more from an expert, especially why she paired to New York (she grew up on Long Island). Over the certain wines with certain foods. next five years, she attended several colleges, fell in love From our table in the dark, cozy dining room with with history, and even toyed with the idea of going for a its wooden paneling and mullioned, deep-set windows, doctorate. She eventually graduated from the University we gazed onto a bustling West 43rd Street. Before we of Colorado.
“If pinot noir is the bitchy, prissy feline, then syrah is the goofy dog who does anything for a belly rub.”
Sutel supported herself and paid for her education during those years by either waiting tables or acting. She had some “small accomplishments” on the stage, she says, including a part in an off-Broadway play where she got good reviews, but the life of an actor was not a good fit for her. “It was up to producers, directors, casting directors,” she says. “You didn’t get the part because you looked too ethnic, too tall, your nose was too big. It took a toll on my self-esteem. I thought, ‘I am going to get into something I can control.’” All this while she was waiting tables at a series of topnotch restaurants in New York, like Oceana, Gotham Bar and Grill, and Union Square Café. If the front-of-thehouse staff (the waiters, bartenders, and maître d’) were all dancers, actors, and singers, the back of the house was just as creative. Sutel was struck by the beauty and creativity in the food and wine, and she began paying attention, even working for free in the kitchen to learn more. She soon began taking chocolate classes and then baking classes. “I was like, oh my god, this is something I have been waiting for for a long time,” she says. “I could be creative without being on the stage.” The drive to learn, to improve, was strong in Sutel. She applied to, and was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in California. But before enrolling, she apprenticed with one of the top pastry
chefs in New York—Deb Snyder, formerly of Union Square Café, who was now at Lever House. She also signed on with a renowned Russian chocolatier. Hard work was no obstacle for Sutel. “I’d do chocolate from 8:00 to 2:00,” she recalls. “Then I’d report at 3:00 for my p.m. shift at Lever House and work pastry and plate desserts.” She worked her way through both of these kitchens, acquiring experience and the respect of the chefs. In 2005, she left New York for the CIA, specializing in their pastry program and taking a work-study job in the wine cellar. Wines began to interest her as she got to know the school’s massive wine cellar when she helped inventory some 50,000 bottles. Sutel’s vision for her life post-CIA was that she would make wedding cakes—beautiful, delicious, and structurally sound wedding cakes. “Meticulous cakes!” she says. “Because that’s what I am.” But after she’d made several cakes she realized with dismay that though she loved making the cakes, this clientele—brides and their mothers, fraught with the tensions of an upcoming wedding— were not the customers she wanted to be dealing with her whole life. “I make a damn good cake,” said Sutel. “But I realized this isn’t what I want to do.” So she thought again about wine, about how much it appealed on so many levels. It appealed to her love of history, for one thing. “When I have a wine rep come in here and say, ‘This family ownership of the vineyard dates back to the 1590s,’ I can think, the Spanish Armada was 1588. And I can think laterally—what was going on in Europe socially, politically?” Plus it really plays to her talents for detail and organization—her own wine cellar in this restaurant would get the nod of approval from any finicky librarian, so well is it organized and classified—and her love of food and cooking. Wine seemed to have it all. She passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Introductory Exam and
Sarah’s Picks 14
B D WHITES
B Szigeti (pronounced ZIG-it-ee), Gruner Veltliner Brut NV, Burgenland, Austria: $14–$18. Insanely drinkable, crisp, and refreshing. Excellent with fresh and bloomy cheeses, crudites, and artichoke dip. The bubbles are fine, soft, and consistent, because it’s made the same way Champagne is made (the bubbles are made in the bottle, not made in a large tank and then pumped into the bottle under pressure). C Billecart-Salmon, Brut Rose NV, Champagne, France: $38–$45 for a half bottle, $68–$75 for a full bottle. One of the finest rose Champagnes available, hands down. If you can’t seal the deal with this wine, you need to give up dating or get a lobotomy, or both. D Philipponnat, “Clos des Goisses,” Champagne, France, 1999: $160–$180. This tête de cuvée blew my mind when I tasted it, and I was lucky enough to taste it with Charles Philipponnat himself. It’s a masculine Champagne with body and texture. I’m stupid for this wine, and this vintage in particular. I had the ’98 back in May, and it wasn’t nearly as good.
I love whites—thoughtful whites, whites that have soul. I’m not a fan of slutty whites that are flashy and frivolous (I liken them to girls in the “Girls Gone Wild” videos). I find myself reaching for whites more often than I do reds. It took me a long time to understand white wine, much longer than it did for reds. I adore everything from the Loire Valley from west to east, Alsace and the rest of France, just about anything from Galicia and Jerez, Spain, and Germany and Austria. Here are some of my favorites: E E. Carrel, Jongieux (Jacquère), Savoie, France, 2010: $10–$14. This is an oddball varietal (jacquère) that lives in the Savoie region of France. It’s limey and minerally. A fabulous alternative for those who are stuck in the pinot grigio camp. Seriously, it’s like drinking bottled mountain air. F Prager, Gruner Veltliner Smaragd, “Zwerithaler,” Wachau, Austria, 2007: $40–$45. The Wachau region in Austria does things a bit differently than the rest of Austria. They harvest the grapes from their finer vineyards in multiple tries. Smaragd is the third round, so the grapes are at their most ripe, before they head into desserty ripeness. The final product is a gruner that is richer and fuller on the palate than a plain old gruner (think of the texture of 2 percent milk versus skim milk). I recently had a bottle of this, and it was insanely delicious with my cheese plate. G J. J. Prum, Riesling Auslese, “Bernkasteler Lay,” Mosel, Germany, 1998: $75–$90. This will make your head explode. It’s hard to find, especially retail; a better bet would be in restaurants. But if you do find it, buy all you can, and enjoy it. Just be sure to save some for your grandchildren (yes, it will age that long). Reds I prefer lighter-bodied reds with brighter, higher tones and crunchy red or black fruits. Not full-bodied reds like Argentinean malbec. But many people lean that way. I tend to go for reds that flirt and have nuance, rather than reds
that give me a roundhouse kick to the face. Here are some of my favorites: H Clos de la Roilette, Fleurie, Beaujolais, France, any vintage: $18–$23. Put a chill on this and let it fly! Give it about 25 minutes in the fridge, and it will pop and sing with food. A fantastic bistro wine, this pairs well with everything from charcuterie and cheeses to grilled fish to roasted chicken. One of my favorite Cru Beaujolais and always a crowd-pleaser. For a party, I’d pour it out of magnums (about $50). Reynauld Heaule, “Rive Droite,” Loire Valley, France, 2009: $25–$32. Pinot noir with a smidge of pinot meunier. Think snappy pomegranate, tart-n-juicy red raspberry, and a silky, almost weightless body. The aromatics on this wine are through the roof, with freshly harvested herbs out of cool earth and early summer red fruits with the skin on. It stays grounded with the funk of fresh, rich, damp potting soil. Barolo Mauro Veglio’s “Arborina” v. Elio Altare’s “Arborina.” The two men and their families live right next door to one another—in fact, they share the same driveway—and their respective plots of Arborina are contiguous yet their expressions of the vineyard are completely different. I tend to lean towards traditional producers and some I would recommend include Mauro Veglio, Cavallotto, E. Pira, Roagna, Bartolo Mascarello. Expect to pay anywhere between $75–$150 per bottle, depending on the vintage, producer, and rarity of the wine.
But how can I forget Burgundy (Roger Belland!)? And Bordeaux (Jean-Luc Thunevin!)? And Tuscany (Ciacci Piccolomini!)? And Madeira? Nobody should die without trying The Rare Wine Company’s “New Orleans Special Reserve.” It’s made from the rare Terrantez grape and Malvasia from the island of Madeira’s most important vineyard, Faja dos Padres. My toes are curling just thinking about it.
“Don’t pooh-pooh boxed wines. There’s no oxidation, no corkiness. It’s all recyclable. And the wine costs like $1.25/glass.” soon thereafter the second-level exam, and now holds the WSET Advanced Certificate with Merit. Her return to New York brought several wine jobs: in sales, in wholesale distribution, and eventually running a wine store called Pour, where she became general manager. She not only gained knowledge of the commercial end of the wine business, but also found a boyfriend. She and Ryan Looper, who was her sales rep at Pour, now live together in Brooklyn. “He’s a tall drink of water from Dallas, Texas,” she laughs, and obviously a good match for this gutsy New Yorker. When the job offer to be sommelier at Elsewhere arrived a year ago, she jumped at the chance to work with food again. Though she’s modest about calling herself a wine expert (“Wine experts write books. I’m more of an enthusiast”), she’ll admit she’s got a keen eye and a good palate. But even more than that, she is passionate about the back story of a wine—the land, the grower, the history of the region, and the grape—and that kind of knowledge is invaluable to customers. “If I don’t have the depth of product knowledge, then I can’t get behind the wine.” For the past year, she has carefully tended Elsewhere’s wine cellar, or cave (pronounced cahhv), stocked with wines from small family vineyards rather than bigcompany blends. She will have nothing to do with the big industrial wines (Cavit pinot grigio, Yellowtail, Sutter Home), she says. “Wines with two million bottles made in three weeks with grapes from 50 different producers—there’s no romance, no integrity behind them.
There’s no love behind them. You can taste it.” Sutel is going for the love, for authenticity, for the story: “For everything that supports a wine. You totally taste the love in a wine.... I want to know the wines that have something to say. A wine will tell you so much if you just listen to it.” Sutel doesn’t try to push expensive wines. Wines in the restaurant range from $32 to $450; a $75 bottle is an average wine choice. But she does try to get customers a little out of their comfort zone. Which isn’t difficult, since her wine list is hand-curated and many of her wines are unfamiliar to diners. She swears by every bottle. “I have what I call the ‘intimidating wine of the day,’” she said. “I rotate through wines that consumers wouldn’t necessarily know what grape is in that bottle. Or I offer appellations that are very small with grapes you might not have heard of. I might offer Poulsard, but it’s sparkling from the Savoie region of France.” The pairing of tastes is key, and she loves to help diners find a great wine pairing for their meal. Some wine pairings are classic, she says. “The obvious things, like nebbiolo and truffles. Or another beautiful duo: foie gras and Sauternes. “Those are classic marriages,” she says, but laughed. “I would drink kerosene with foie gras. I love foie gras!” In the end it’s about what the customer wants and likes. “Everyone’s palate is different.”
Elsewhere closed at the end of the year, another casualty of the volatile state of the restaurant business circa 2011. In the weeks before Elsewhere closed, while Sutel was contemplating whether to open her own wine store, she got an offer she couldn’t refuse. She will be joining the wine team at Blue Ribbon, a wine bar in the West Village.
The danger came from the unseen, what lay in the darkness
By Debra Aaronson Lawless ’77
My life on Cape Cod, that summer of 1966, revolved around a sandy beach on Nantucket Sound. My parents, not yet married for a decade, had rented a two-bedroom cottage in Chatham from which we could walk to, but not see, Ridgevale Beach. Bathing suits dried on the line, and sea creatures lived and died in plastic buckets I tended with a slotted spoon at the edge of the deck. The only people we knew locally were the real estate agent and a man who sold insurance to renters. For a week in August my mother’s sister Elsa—a name no one in the family used, and her husband, Uncle Bill, stayed with us in these modest digs on Cranberry Lane. Aunt Sister, as I called her, was a glamour puss sporting a big diamond ring that Uncle Bill had given her. She wore it even on the beach. Uncle Bill had been netted and wed during some earlier maneuvering that I didn’t understand. He was a stout man with black orthopedic shoes, almost as old as Aunt Sister’s father, my grandfather, and had another family, grown and never seen. At the supper table he’d pick up his plate to read the stamp on the bottom to see if it was Royal Doulton china. He was then the president of Doulton and Company. When I graduated from Emma Willard a decade later he sent me a check for $25. Dad was a dermatologist, just starting his practice outside Providence, Rhode Island. Mother had been a nurse until I was born, six years previous. Does everyone think their mother is beautiful? Mine was. Slender,
Photo (left): courtesy of Debra Aaronson Lawless. Photo (right): Brian Powers
and we could see the lights at the top of the tower, too. “This arm of land, which holds Provincetown, a dot in the crook of its fist, is surrounded with mystery,” Mary Heaton Vorse, a 60-year Provincetown resident, wrote in her elegiac memoir Time and the Town. Vorse had died, in fact, about two months before we crawled into the Buick that evening but it would be decades before I would know who Vorse was. In fact, it would be many years before I saw Provincetown by daylight. Provincetown is only two streets wide. We crept down Commercial Street with the Buick windows open wide to the muggy summer night. People stood so close to us on the narrow street that we could have licked their ice cream cones. Now, as then, visitors can find what they are looking for in Provincetown. In the early part of the 20th century, painters flocked here for the light they compared with that of Italy. Bohemian writers and theater people sought a place where they could work and cut loose. Later the town became a safe haven for gay men and women. Some people, like my parents, sought a few hours of excitement, a break from the routine. The street widened slightly and Dad slipped into a parking space at MacMillan Wharf. The five of us stepped out into the throbbing darkness punctuated by yellow lights streaming from open storefronts. And there we were. After a pause to take our bearings, we plunged into the sea of people dodging cars on Commercial Street, Mother and Aunt Sister in the lead, Dad and Uncle Bill following, and me wedged between the two couples. If Chatham was staid, Provincetown, at the beginning of the hippie era, was louche. Under the colored lights teenagers roamed with bare feet right in the street, mingling with loose dogs and cars and stepping in
who-knows-what. This was about the time Mother began carrying packets of sugar in her purse. She believed sugar cubes, which restaurants sometimes served unwrapped in sugar bowls, were laced with LSD. People were laughing, and faces lurched at us and as quickly disappeared into the night. A bearded man in a shop held out long dangling earrings while Nancy Sinatra belted out “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” Uncle Bill shouted for me to look as a man licking a popsicle goosestepped by on stilts. Left behind Uncle Bill were the boardrooms of New York and London that were rumored to have given him his ulcer. And for Dad, too, left behind were the starched white coats and the trio of examination rooms through which he trudged hour after hour, week after week, once walking well over a mile in a day just in that small space. Aunt Sister bought a box of penuche fudge.
We paused at a stall, and Mother commissioned an artist to sketch me in profile on gold foil. I still have that sketch. He gave me a little upturned nose. “Very lovely,” Mother said, nodding, thrilled as she accepted the art in a paper bag. “What do you say, young lady?” The wildness of the scene came not so much from the odd leering strangers brushing up against us in the narrow street as we all worked to keep our feet out from under the
Photo: courtesy of Debra Aaronson Lawless
dark-haired, girlish, it was her luminous eyes set in a heart-shaped face that everyone noticed. In the afternoons on the beach we all sat in chairs in the sand and smiled for the Rolleiflex Dad was always pointing at us. I spent most of my time in the water paddling on an orange and green striped raft. Sometimes Mother and Aunt Sister, who always had some private sotto voce joke, waded in to cool off and Dad clicked the shutter. A photo of Aunt Sister and me would end up on the cover of my second book. One evening, after a fried fish and chowder supper, Dad got restless. “How about we drive out to the tip,” he said, and as a quintet, then, as the sun lowered itself in the western sky, we piled into Dad’s buffcolored Buick station wagon and headed to Provincetown. Cape Cod is a peninsula in the shape of a “bare and bended arm,” as Henry David Thoreau described it in the 1850s. Chatham is the elbow and Provincetown the fist. The 36-mile connecting road is a vein of asphalt between Cape Cod Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. This stretch of the coast is a graveyard of ships, and only the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914 prevented the drowning deaths of many more sailors in the inky darkness of the sea. People speak of pirates and wreckers and the kind of weird goings on that happen only facing the open ocean. After Orleans we passed clam shacks, gas stations, and brightly lit businesses catering junk to the beach trade. In between these pockets of civilization the wind swished through scrub pines as we crawled through Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and then peaked at the hill just above Provincetown with land’s end below us. It was dusk, and a string of lights illuminated the harbor where the Mayflower made anchor in 1620. An Italian Renaissance tower was dedicated to the Pilgrims in 1910,
21 wheels of passing cars, but from the unseen, what lay in the darkness of an alley between buildings. You could feel, too, that the beach was close, although invisible. The adults must have sniffed something else in the heavy salt air—sensed that somewhere someone was dancing an unchecked, naked dance before a window open to the dark sea. Eventually exhausted, we staggered into the Buick. Uncle Bill dug into the penuche, scattering crumbs onto his madras shorts. “Your Uncle Bill has a sweet tooth,” Aunt Sister was always whispering to me to explain why Uncle Bill ate more candy than I did. In between the men in the center of the back seat I slept—Mother was at the wheel now—and then back at the cottage I bedded down on the padded bench in the living room. Aunt Sister and Uncle Bill were, of course, occupying the second bedroom. Near daylight, birds and frogs began to twitter and croak beyond the open jalousie windows. Some mornings dawned foggy. For me, everything was fresh and wondrous.
Bradford Street. I stand outside Mary Heaton Vorse’s house, which now has a plaque, and I imagine her sitting in that house writing while her children run screaming into the yard. And I imagine Eugene O’Neill’s young wife Agnes, pregnant, standing among strangers not far from where I am now, watching the aurora borealis in the fall of 1919. I visit Provincetown almost weekly now, off season. I’ve been living in Chatham for a decade, across town from Ridgevale Beach. I never go to the beach, except for a celebratory walk on New Year’s Day. Once I tried to find our old house on Cranberry Lane but it seems to have a second story now, and I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. The drive from Chatham to Provincetown is still 36 miles up the dull highway, a trip I now make in a 20-year-old Volvo. I fantasize about moving to Provincetown, believing in some dreamy way that I would write better in this rarified arty atmosphere. This book I’m writing on Provincetown from World War II to the present will be my fourth, and
When I look at the photographs now I sense undercurrents among the adults. Yet after that summer, it seemed as though something unwanted had entered our lives through a backdoor that someone had forgotten to close.
Walking in Provincetown on a bright, cold early morning in December 2011, I realize I am in love with the place. Of course I’ve been to Provincetown many, many times between that evening in 1966 and now but today is different. It’s quiet, and I’m alone. In the light of day, well-preserved late 19th-century houses practically touch one another in the narrow side streets connecting Commercial to
by now I know what I’m doing; I know how to write these books. We were a family of practical immigrants from Sweden, and no one of us ever was a writer. I cannot say that my parents understood the compulsion to devote myself to writing that came over me during my junior year at Emma Willard. When I spent a year in my twenties writing a novel full-time, Mother was hardpressed to explain my occupation to her acquaintances. A month after Mother died in 2009 the long-lost photo album from that summer of 1966 turned up. When I look at the photographs
now I sense undercurrents among the adults. My parents are seated on either side of me on that bench that served as my bed. I hold a black and white cat and an open comic book in my lap. Mother and Dad clutch tall cocktail glasses. Mother presses her head to mine while reaching with her right arm across my back to touch Dad’s shoulder. I sense the invisible fourth, too, standing behind the camera. Aunt Sister, just 40, died of lung cancer 18 months after that summer. Was she already ill then? Later, we canonized her. After that we mainly lost touch with Uncle Bill until Mother visited him in Manhattan in 1988. His nurse told Mother, on her way out, that Uncle Bill never forgot Aunt Sister. I never understood that. How could you forget your wife? Writing history—or memoir, or biography—revolves around editing and shaping events. In the case of a town’s history it’s a matter of finding sufficient facts to make sense of what happened. In the case of your own history, it’s a matter of editing the hours, days, and years of seemingly random events until some meaning or order can be teased out. In a way, it’s time travel. I find it comforting. I’m sad that Mother did not live to see my books. And by the time the first was published Dad had already taken more than a few steps down his private path toward dementia. Our family trip to Cape Cod in the summer of 1966 turned out to be the first of many such summers, though none was ever to be so carefree. Debra Lawless ’77 is the author of three books published by The History Press, including most recently Provincetown: A History of Artists and Renegades in a Fishing Village. She lives in Chatham and freelances for Cape Cod Magazine and the Cape Cod Chronicle.
A Moving Life emma
Kimi Okada ’69 was part of a dance collective in 1971 at Oberlin, which has grown into one of San Francisco’s most vibrant dance institutions.
by Brian Eule
This is how the first paying job goes: Hauptman Von Clown, an animal trainer, bounds on stage at the Pickle Family Circus to show off the talents of his gorilla, Ramona La Mona. He’s demeaning about it. He wants her to jump on a pogo stick. He wants her to ride a tiny tricycle. This continues as the clown patters on in German gibberish, asking the gorilla to do these things, the gorilla crouching on a small pedestal center stage. But then he asks her to dance. And oh, can that gorilla dance. She suddenly has taps on the bottom of her feet. They do a duet. And she quickly demonstrates that she is far better at tap dancing than the man standing beside her. She dazzles. Which is entertaining in itself, but even more captivating if you know that the young woman sweating inside that black gorilla costume is a trained dancer on her way to a celebrated career as a choreographer. And that the man to her side is a close friend she will marry, divorce, remain friends with and work with again, and with whom she’ll eventually share a Tony nomination.
Photo: Max Gerber
imi Okada walks with her feet turned out. It’s a byproduct of years of dance training. But it seems to also make her look open, to people, to ideas, to adventures. She is short, energetic, of Japanese descent, and from Northfield, Minnesota, where there weren’t many people who looked like her and, though this can be said of plenty of places, probably not that many that acted like her either.
When her dear friend and now longtime colleague Brenda Way met her, Okada, then a 19-year old college sophomore, looked a bit like Woody Allen’s Annie Hall character. She wore oversized clothing, vests, creative pieces from thrift stores, and was completely charming and mesmerizing. Here was a person, Way thought, with a lot of verve and curiosity. And more than 40 years later, Way still thinks that. Okada first fell in love with dance at Emma Willard, several years before she met Way. It was Pat Peterson at Emma who had taught her that dance was a serious art form, both the physical elation of moving through space and the intellectual and emotional expression it could serve. Peterson had encouraged risk taking. She opened her student up to modern dance and, in turn, a young Okada found her identity. The dancer left for Oberlin College, where she was the first person to have a dance emphasis in the theater arts major. Way came there to teach in 1970, and by 1971 created the Oberlin Dance Collective, with 16 dancers, musicians, visual artists, and actors. Okada was one of them. More than 40 years later, ODC, as it’s now called, has its home, The ODC Dance Commons, in two spacious buildings in San Francisco, where it’s lived since Way, Okada, KT Nelson, and the Collective moved across the country in 1976 in a school bus that took
out a clutch and the overhang of a Denny’s along the way. And where it is both one of the oldest contemporary dance centers in the West and one of the premier West Coast modern dance companies. With a professional dance company, a theater, and a school, there are more than 100 faculty members and, this past year alone, 800 kids in the school, not to mention the thousands of adults taking regular dance classes. Okada, now 60 years old, currently keeps the titles of ODC School Director, Associate Choreographer, and Co-Director of the teen company, the ODC Dance Jam. That doesn’t quite do justice to all the roles she plays. She teaches. She choreographs the professional dance company. She choreographs the teen company. She cleans the refrigerator. She drops off the mail. She and Way even helped build one of the ODC’s early stages themselves. Nor does it do justice to just how intertwined her life is with this company. “Our history is not just about a dance collective and what we became, it is also about how each of us forged a life that deeply values art, family, community, and engagement,” Okada wrote on ODC’s 40th anniversary. Part of that family was Bill Irwin, the aforementioned clown. They met when they were students at Oberlin together, and Irwin would go on to be a noted actor and clown—starring on Broadway, film, and television. But at Oberlin, they grew up together, artistically, and he eventually performed with ODC. When he moved to San Francisco, Okada split time
Photo: RJ Muna
with him there, and time back at Oberlin, until the Dance Collective moved west. As she walks around the ODC Commons, Okada greets people coming for classes, and points out the beauties of the space—the area in the center of the building that looks like a living room to foster a feeling of community, complete with couches and Wi-Fi, the room in a corner that serves as the “Healthy Dancers’ Clinic” staffed by doctors and physical therapists, and the large, open studio rooms. It’s clear this is a haven for dancers, a “temple of dance,” as Okada calls it. The ODC Commons “is what we have always believed in,” she has noted. “Accessibility, exposure, expertise, opportunity, and passion.” And, of course, fun. She passes a large window to a studio, low to the ground and built so children can watch the older dancers and so parents can watch their children, and she pauses at a sign the school put up, intended for their parents. A mischievous smile forms on her face. Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy. She laughs, then she keeps moving. Way has said that Okada never really stops. There’s a lot of rhythm in all of the work she choreographs, a kind of pulse, and that pulse has clearly run parallel in her life. Art is everywhere. On one wall, there’s an Annie Leibovitz photograph of the ODC Dance Company from 1984. And hanging above the open stairway to the Commons’ second floor is a white dress, dipped in paraffin, suspended in movement.
Francisco General Hospital, had always been civic-minded and had volunteered to go on a relief mission to Guatemala in 1976, a few months after a massive earthquake there. The plane had been taking Father Bill Woods and three other Americans to the Ixcan jungle in the northern part of the country. Woods had received death threats for helping the Mayans organize, and now his plane had gone down. People
It took Okada more than 20 years to be able to approach her feelings about what happened that day. She joined Coalition Missing, a support group made up of relatives of people who had disappeared. Having lost her father when she was just a child, and her mother in the ensuing years after the plane crash, Okada felt a deep sense of loss. And with no religious rites or traditions, dance, a deeply meaningful part of her life already, gave her a ritual and a way to pay tribute to her brother. “I didn’t want to be selfindulgent” she says, in thinking
“Hanging above the open stairway is a white dress, dipped in paraffin, suspended in movement.”
reported seeing snipers, but no evidence was found of an attack. A second call confirmed that her brother had indeed been on the plane, and that there had been no survivors. “I have no doubt it was foul play,” Okada says.
about how she approached the piece that she ended up creating years later. “It became about the nature of memory and the disappeared. It could be about the abstract, the elusive nature of memory. It gave me a structure I could deal with rather than pain and loss.”
Okada choreographed “Flight to Ixcan” in 2004. It helped her work through the death of her brother.
he first call she and Irwin got with the news came from her uncle who said a plane had crashed. They didn’t know if her brother was on it, but they thought it likely. Her older brother, a doctor doing his internal medicine residency at San
“Flight to Ixcan” debuted in 2004 as a full company piece for ODC Dance, performing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. In the performance, a dancer danced with an empty dress. The San Francisco Chronicle described it as “a language of movement and image expressing the complexities of memory and the emotions it triggers.” The white dress, now hanging at ODC, tells that story.
kada has always been interested in the tension between order and chaos. Or, as she once described it, control and lack of control. But just as much as that sees its way into her choreography, so does wit. She’s playful with her
dancers and with her audience. She likes cartoon physicality. “I totally believe in the power of art to connect with people to express different states of the human condition,” she says. She believes in the power “to move, to prove, to accelerate, and to perplex.” An early piece she choreographed had dancers in bubble wrap. Another had dancers flying on stage from trampolines on the side. Another was made up of a lexicon of physical obscenities—how some gestures and movements are highly offensive in one country and not at all in another. And yet another was based entirely on turns of phrases: rub elbows with; cold shoulder.
Her choreography has made its way into television commercials and even movies—she got called in to direct the Scottish dancers in the Mike Myers movie So I Married an Axe Murderer. It’s even influenced a few cartoons—a result of her work with a consultancy for DreamWorks, Disney, and Pixar, that taught computer animators about dance movements so they could better animate them. In working with the dancers, she likes to use them to make up a lot of the movements themselves. She’ll come at them with a physical idea—something very specific, like you can never lift your head up, or can’t lift your feet from the ground. She never simply tells them an emotion she wants them portray, for fear she’ll get a lot of trite material.
Photo (left): Max Gerber. Photos (right): courtesy of Kimi Okada.
“You really evaluate what’s important,” she says. But married life was hard on them, with Irwin in New York for his career and Okada in San Francisco for hers. She took a leave from ODC in the early 1980s to be with him, but mostly there were only three or four months a year they were able to be together. “It became an impossible way to be married.” And so, five years later they decided to divorce and remain friends instead. Seven years later, in 1989, Irwin called Okada. He was doing a piece in New York, he said, something called “Largely New York.” And he wanted some modern dance choreographed. He told Okada he thought it was right up her alley.
came through the portable television sets people held in the stands, she saw the collapsed Bay Bridge. And she later learned that five people had been killed by a collapsing building at Leif ’s office. She was 39. It was another moment in Okada’s life where she took pause. It was now or never, she decided. “I’ve had so much loss in my life, I felt like I needed to start my family,” she says. And so, not long after, Okada’s greatest work of art—her daughter—was born.
“Irwin and Okada were nominated for a Tony for best choreography.” Top: The beginning of the ODC at Oberlin in 1971, Okada right. Bottom: An early piece she choreographed had dancers wrapped in bubble wrap. Opposite: Okada confers with a colleague at ODC.
Instead, she presents them with a physical aspect to overcome. Then she gets to pick and choose what she sees. The dancers are her canvas. “This is a way of generating material, which I could do endlessly because it’s so much fun,” she says. “You come up with all these wonderful bizarre and unexpected things.” a Okada and Irwin got married
the year following her brother’s death. They had been together four years already, and she couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to have an occasion that was joyful for her family.
“The thing about Bill and me is we share so much history,” Okada recalls. So “there wasn’t a lot of necessary prep work. We knew what the other person was talking about.” Irwin and Okada were nominated for a Tony for best choreography for their work. And though they didn’t win, Okada was absolutely elated. She also was in disbelief. The New York Times called Irwin, Okada, and their collaborators “first-rate,” noting that Okada had “obviously drawn on her own experiences in the next-wave dance world when distilling fashionable choreographic attitudes down to their self-parodistic essence.”
t was in that same year that, at the World Series to watch her beloved San Francisco Giants with her boyfriend Leif, they felt the tremors of an earthquake that would level her city. As the news
a Okada no longer performs herself. But she’s constantly still dancing and moving when teaching and choreographing. And at 60, she’s not anywhere near ready to retire. But occasionally, she does stop and look at ODC with an enormous amount of pride. She thinks about what she and her colleagues have built. And she thinks about its future in this community. “We’re getting to the point where we start to think about legacy and what we leave behind. It’s all about how is it going to continue,” she says. “We want this to stay.”
Brian Eule is a writer in San Francisco and the author of Match Day: One Day and One Dramatic Year in the Lives of Three New Doctors (St. Martin’s Press).