by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
'TEN TINY DANCES'
PRODUCER AND CURATOR
VELOCITY DANCE CENTER
URBAN BUSH WOMEN
UW WORLD SERIES
GEORGE MEANY HALL
'Ten Tiny Dances' is an idea - and a challenge - that ten choreographers can invent works that will last under eight minutes and fit on a platform that is four by four feet square and one big step (about a foot and a half) off the floor. Another requirement of the concept, formulated by Portland's Mike Barber, is that the theater is in the round (square), so that dancers perform to all four sides and there's not a bad seat in the house. For three sold-out performances at the Velocity Dance Center audiences were alternately delighted and impressed by ten dances in all varieties of the beautiful, weird, hilarious, and awe-inspiring. Sara Jinks, a fine dancer in her own right, curated this version of 'Ten Tiny Dances' with a group of Seattle's edgiest, most interesting choreographers. Here are some of my favorites from this unforgettably cool and exciting evening:
'solo study: y(x)' choreographed and performed by Dayna Hanson was a brave, exposed performance of a veteran dancer wearing nothing more than an oversized tuxedo shirt, red stockings and gold dance shoes, whose poses and gum-chewing facial expressions were both humorous and exhausted as she rolled her socks up to the mournful lyrics 'no one comes to cook for me&' A child in the front row, clutching a doll and staring slack-jawed at the stage, burst out laughing when Hanson broke into a frantic tap dance - a perfect expression of the melancholy whimsy of this piece.
'Where Do I Come From?' choreographed by Wade Madsen and Alia Swersky, performed by Alia Swersky, extended the dance space upward by placing a tall frame over the 4 x 4 platform to construct a transparent universe with a laser-light timeline threaded diagonally from top to bottom. The lanky Swersky danced beneath and above the line, showing the audience where her own life is - 'This is now, now, now&' and where we, the viewers, are in relation to the line, as well as the past, the future, the dinosaurs, the Big Bang - an entire galaxy unfolded, miraculously - in that tiny space.
'Chimera' choreographed by Jenny Peterson, performed by Peterson, Kaitlin McCarthy and Annie McGhee was what Siamese triplets would look like in one nightgown - three heads, two arms, and six legs - all managing to move together in a sitting, standing, and rolling rotation around the stage to a soundscape from Debussy to Disney. This trio of weird sisters was hilarious and grotesque all at once, in perhaps the edgiest performance of the evening.
'Element' choreographed and performed by Kokou Gbakenou and Claire Mitchell was a slow-moving confluence of ebony and ivory dancers forming mirrored, parallel and bird-like shapes with their bodies in an undulating wave of images, set to African drums as varied as the movements themselves. Their absorbing gestures invited thoughts of a world of integrated perfection.
'Vadya Pallavi' choreographed by Pankaj Charan Das, adapted and performed by Douglas Ridings is an Indian temple dance in which the performer wears bells around his feet, waist, arms and neck, along with the vivid makeup and the bright, fixed smile of this formal dance tradition. Ridings performed dramatic feats of flexibility, balance and speed as he showed the audience a classic example of Indian dance.
And the Oscar goes to:
'Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft' choreographed and performed by Diana Cardiff to a truly goofy Carpenters song of the same name. Cardiff entered, enfolded her head in an aluminum foil 'alien' helmet, and proceeded to exploit every take-me-to-your-leader cliché we've ever seen in 'Star Trek,' Star Wars, and spaceman movies. Using a laser sword and a fist of hairy laser-lights Cardiff was alternately the universe, the invader, the space cadet, and the sentimental human race naively welcoming the aliens to our planet. This wonderfully absurd dance launched the audience into orbits of laughter and delight.
Here's hoping that 'Ten Tiny Dances' becomes a fixture of the Seattle dance scene as it has in Portland, where versions of it have been produced more than 35 times. Many thanks to Sara Jinks and Velocity Dance Center for bringing this great evening to Our Fair City - the perfect showcase for the many talented dancers and choreographers who live here.
The University of Washington World Dance series has its focus on companies from around the country and the world, showcasing the best - or most interesting - dance troupes available. In sixteen or so years of attendance my dance buddy and I have come to expect a mixed bag, coming away with the full range of feelings from thrilled & delighted to bored & disappointed. To our credit, we have never left a performance, partly because we sit in the middle of a row and don't want to disturb our neighbors by climbing over them in the dark, but mostly because we believe in supporting dance - and the subscriptions are so reasonably priced that we can afford not to like everything we see.
So where did the Urban Bush Women fall on the scale of Thrilled to Disappointed?
Both my buddy and I were thrilled by the live piano work of George Caldwell, whose massive hands and cool demeanor brought some jazzy drama to both the opening dance, 'Hep Hep Sweet Sweet,' and to the final dance, 'Walking with 'Trane, Chapter 2.' We were also surprised and thrilled by the ability of some of the dancers to sing the blues - what a combo: wild dancing and blues singing all at once! We also found the first dance, set in a nightclub to the music of Count Basie, Dinah Washington and others of that ilk to be full of potential, and we hoped to be in one of those winner evenings that we talk about for years. But alas, our hopes were dashed as the evening wore on, and we tried to figure out why, with all those high-energy dancers and great music, we could still be disappointed.
My answer to that question is that 'Hep Hep Sweet Sweet,' using a vocabulary of African dance and boogie-woogie, seemed to establish the foundation for what I hoped would flower into interesting variations as the evening progressed. African dance is wonderful - high-stepping, straight-backed, arm-flinging movements that create a very distinctive profile and, given its purpose of engaging the whole village, makes you want to get up and dance along with them. The character of this style of folk dance is that if you are in reasonable shape you could actually execute the steps yourself. Though some of the vocalizations became annoying - scat singing devolved into percussive nonsense sounds - the audience was really on board with the Bush Women in their sparkling nightclub outfits and their wild and wonderful tribute to the Diaspora in dance.
After the intermission, however, came 'Dark Swan,' choreographed by Nora Chipaumire, which the program claimed to 'respond and acknowledge contemporary dance's debt to those Russian Masters and their contribution to the art of dance.' Though I found more meaning in this work than my buddy, the dance quite literally offered the finger to its origins (or its audience). Six dancers in feathers, with their backs to the audience, tremble like birds in formation for one extended period, then, to the calls of a dancer who evidently represented the lead bird, the dancers flap their wings to Belinni's 'Casta Diva.' In the final section the birds appear to be masturbating though I thought they might also be making wing formations with their elbows (my buddy thought this theory naïve). What I appreciated about this dance was the variation on the pas de bourre, which was done on the heels instead of the toes - a comment, I thought, on the painful distortions of the feet required to dance the traditional swan variations. I wondered, however, if I was just projecting my own meaning onto the dance where the dance itself was unclear. Even the hostile expressions and the finger gesture at the end - unmistakable as a statement - was unclear as to its target and its meaning.
The final dance, 'Walking with 'Trane, Chapter 2,' was choreographed by company founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who also choreographed the opening dance - so we had hopes of some development of the dance vocabulary. Unfortunately, we were offered the same movements and gestures as in 'Hep Hep Sweet Sweet' without the exuberance. Even with an added male dancer and a babbled version on the 23rd Psalm, the undeveloped gestures had become tedious as the dancers continued to move simultaneously rather than together. Though there were one or two minor lifts, at almost no point did one dancer's movement depend on the movement of another's, giving the impression of a stage full of improvisation on a small catalog of steps. It was as if their alphabet had only ten letters in it. You can say a lot with ten letters, but not a whole lot. I only hope that as the Urban Bush Women continue their 30-year history they engage some contemporary choreographers who can exploit the talents of their dancers by giving them - and the audience - more complex and meaningful works.
The next program in the UW World Dance series is the Mark Morris Dance Group, March 5-7. Morris is a true master, the real McCoy, a native of Seattle, but a world-class choreographer. Get your tickets now before they sell out, and see what I'm talking about when I talk about meaningful, thrilling, and delightful dance.