Story of flight from Nazis inspires ODC Dance piece

Fifteen years ago, choreographer Brenda Way sat down with a tape recorder and her mother-in-law, Iza Erlich.

On the resulting four hours of tape is Iza’s story: In 1941, when she was just 17 years old, she needed to flee from the Nazis. Her mother had died years before, in childbirth, and her father was too old to travel.

She had to choose: Her past, or her future?

She decided to leave her father and, with a friend, walk from Warsaw to Russia searching for her boyfriend, who also had fled with his family. They eventually were reunited and married.

The story preserved on tape was intended to safeguard Iza’s story and legacy for Way’s four children. For years, the tapes sat in a desk, gathering dust.

“She told me: ‘I see my story in images. I think it’d be better told in a dance,’ ” Way recalled. “But I didn’t think I’d really do anything with it.”

Next week, Way finally premieres a dance piece inspired by her mother-in-law’s courage and strength.

“In the Memory of the Forest” is featured as part of ODC Dance’s 38th annual spring season, ODC/Dance Downtown. It will be performed March 12 to 28 at the Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Brenda Way will speak about the piece March 19 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Dancers from “In the Memory of the Forest.” photo/rj muna

Way, the founder and artistic director of San Francisco–based ODC Dance, worked on “In the Memory of the Forest” over a two-year period.

“It’s not about the Holocaust. It’s about love — it’s about the human spirit,” Way said of the dance piece. “No matter what happens, there is some core of optimism, some vision of goodness.

“Even in the worst of times, [Iza] could say, ‘It was a beautiful summer.’ I find that very hopeful.”

Way based the choreography on the broad emotions and moments associated with Iza’s story: Courage. Fear. Panic. Desperation. Loss. Hope. Survival.

The result is a mixture of both gentle and bold modern dance moves that, even in the story’s most frantic moments, are full of grace.

The performance includes original music scored by Jay Cloidt,  which features excerpts from Iza’s audiotapes and a remixed version of a Polish folk song. The piece includes a video by artists David and Ha-Jin Hodge.

Way’s goal was never to tell her mother-in-law’s story as it happened. Rather, she wanted her choreography to capture the intense emotions that accompanied Iza as she fled Poland and trekked to Russia.

“I wanted to give people access to the feelings I got from her story,” Way said. “It’s not directive. I don’t want to tell anyone how they should feel after seeing it. I wouldn’t want to tell you what to feel after seeing a Chagall exhibit, either.

“I have no specific agenda. I’m honoring my family,” Way added. “I simply hope it inspires people to reflect and awakens consciousness — whatever that means for people.”

“In the Memory of the Forest” debuts 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12 at the Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. Other performances are 8 p.m. March 20, 21, 26 and 2 p.m. March 28. Tickets: $15-$45. Information: or (415) 978-2787. Brenda Way will speak about the piece 5 p.m. March 19 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Tickets: $5 general admission, free for members. Information:

For a brief review, read the reporter’s blog post.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.