by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
@ SEATTLE CENTER
The three dances performed by Whim W'Him to conclude their 2016 season were focused on the bad things in life: betrayal, societal intolerance of difference, unrequited love and impossible love. In their usual laudable practice, Whim W'Him employed two rising choreographers, James Gregg and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, to make new works alongside work by Whim W'Him's founding choreographer, Olivier Wevers. The first two dances on the program - Wever's 'A Disagreeable Tale of Duplicity' and Gregg's 'Into You I Go Willingly,' were narratives that made these difficult themes dramatically clear. But the third, Ochoa's 'Delicious Pesticides,' was a witty, delightful, and intriguing full-on exploration of dance as well as ideas.
At the post-performance Q & A, a young girl, in the innocence of childhood, asked Artistic Director Olivier Wevers which of the three dances was his favorite. The audience laughed, knowing that he would be in deep water if he expressed any preference, or if he responded with anything other than vast praise for everyone. So Wevers suggested to the little girl that dance was like dinner - appetizer, main course, and dessert. 'You wouldn't just want dessert, would you?' he asked, at which point the entire audience shouted back 'Yes!!' because Ochoa's dessert was the dish everyone was waiting for in this concert, and the big payoff for staying to the end of a challenging meal.
'A Disagreeable Tale of Duplicity'
Choreography: Olivier Wevers
Music: Sound design by Dylan Ward based on Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet'
There was an interesting connection between the highly romantic music of Prokofiev's familiar 'Romeo and Juliet' and Wever's narrative dance that acts out the torments of love prohibited and betrayed. Ward's soundscape is dark and grating, though Prokofiev's haunting themes clearly guide the audience toward the romance of forbidden love. Wevers has himself, as a principal dancer in PNB, responded to this music in the traditional way, and now has used it ironically to describe various scenes of dread - including a red-horned devil backed up by invisible arms brandishing vicious red tusks in the background. There is a mysterious man in a black hat, a woman who ends up in a cage after throwing herself around in an excruciating solo, a couple of soldiers in camo and hoodies who try to regularize love partners, and a boy in blue who acts out all the clichés of Gay male behavior. I especially liked the blue boy, whose dance to Mercutio's rascally music perfectly illustrated the charm of otherness and its challenge to authority.
In general, though, I found this dance to be more in the tradition of pantomime than the movement of dancers over the stage in patterns. At times, in solo sections, it seemed entirely improvised. And though the audience could see that it was a dance about suffering, the narrative line was so obscure that instead of entering into the drama we were left outside with question marks over our heads. I know from his last creation, 'Brahms and Tights,' that Wevers has a commanding choreographer inside him - that he can manipulate a company of dancers in the visually rich patterns and individual gestures that amplify the power of dance performance. This dance is a departure from that, exploring feelings more than the tools available to the choreographer - even in a small company like Whim W'Him. I hope that this cathartic dance has released the choreographer in Wevers to return to the intensity and complexity of group movement that he has displayed in the past. This somewhat private interlude seemed to me like a step backward, however necessary such steps are to the growing artist.
'Into You I Go Willingly'
Choreography: James Gregg
Music: Ben Frost; Setting: Danny Estrada
I mention the set designer of this dance because it was one of the most intriguing elements of the performance. It looked like a cross between Chinese characters and a maze-like wall erected to frame the complexities of relationships. In and out of this set move two dancers who enact the encounter, conflict, and reconciliation of strangers, ending on a hopeful note that is foreshadowed in the title. My favorite part was a fight-dance in which the two men, danced with commitment by Jim Kent and Patrick Kilbane, fought each other into the embrace that is always implicit in people who care enough to give each other hell. It was a moving piece of work that certainly reminded the lovers in the audience of all the struggle it takes to make things work out between two people - even those who are forced to navigate the maze of societal conventions.
Choreography: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Music: Dylan Gutierrez with others
This was the delicious dessert that rewarded the audience for eating their dinner of betrayal and struggle in the first two dances. Ochoa's cleverly engaging dance is the only one of the three I would pay to see again, and a dance that other companies should expose to wider audiences. It was terrific!
We knew we were in good hands when the curtain rose on seven dancers hunched together, wiggling fingers elongated with floppy red extensions like creepy insects. They wore round red goggles that enhanced the alien look, though their weird little group pas de bouree -that yielded to simultaneous about-faces, backward bends, and regimented marches - suggested an army of ants. I loved the way Ochoa used a full range of complicated, simultaneous movement to establish a regimented form that suddenly flew off into chaotic individual actions, only to return suddenly to their military-insect movements. Light designs by Michael Mazzola were part of the fun, throwing down rectangles that the creepers would hasten to fill, only to find others they could not fill. It struck me as a metaphor for the endless variation that regimentation seeks - and fails - to contain.
This idea was emphasized in a favorite moment for the audience, when two characters departed from regimentation with a delightful interlude of seventies-style dancing, with the biggest guy wearing kinky boots of lipstick-red sequins. When the platoon of creatures falls back into formation, the big guy is literally out of line. We see his struggle to return to conformity, and at one point he is beaten into submission (which gave me an 'uh-oh' moment) only to have him yell 'Ow!' - in the whiney tone that signals indignation more than distress. It gave the audience a big laugh both of hilarity and of relief that the dance would not take a dark turn after luring us into a more relaxed state. After an ever-intensifying complexity of brilliant, fresh formations by this troupe of strange creatures, the dance ends with them falling over - on a final, hilarious 'Ow!' from the refusenik. My dance buddy and I were equally awed by the endless invention of movement, coordination, and humor in this dance, that nevertheless reflects the evening's theme of OUT-Spoken, and the problem of living as an 'other' in a society that still insists on conformity.
I applaud director/choreographer Wevers, Whim W'Him and the loyal 'wimmers' who support them, for bringing new choreographers to the stage, for forming a company of fantastic, powerful dancers, and for confronting the issues that most concern the LGBTQATS community and all people who have hearts, brains, and futures. It's a pleasure to watch a company experiment and grow, and to see so many gifted artists launching into the public conversation of dance as meaningful, important expression.
SGN A&E Writer
(AT LANGSTON HUGHES
PERFORMING ARTS INSTITUTE)
Through June 19
Intiman's season, this summer, is a celebration of African-American women playwrights. That is a great plan! A chunk of time in the summer will be used for readings from several playwrights, and you should check the website: www.intiman.org for times and dates and writers. They are mounting two full productions; the first is open and staging at Langston Hughes Performance Arts Institute (LHPAI).
Stick Fly is by Lydia R. Diamond. It notably avoids the stereotype of the poor black family, setting this family drama in a Cape Cod cottage during a family get-together. But issues of class, historic racism in the community, and absentee fathers play heavily in the script.
The upper class family we meet are a novelist son, Kent (Tyler Trerise), who wants to introduce his fiancée Taylor (Chantal DeGroat), an entomologist, and his older brother Flip (Reginald Andre Jackson), a plastic surgeon, who wants to introduce his current (though perhaps not too serious) girlfriend, inner-city teacher Kimber (Bhama Roget), who is melanin-challenged - i.e. white. They are all concerned with their father and mother accepting them, but the only parent who shows up is Dad (a bombastic portrayal by G. Valmont Thomas). Mom is missing and no one quite knows how to figure out why.
There is another missing person, the long-time housekeeper, who, we are told by her 18 year old daughter, is too ill, and sent her daughter Cheryl (Amara Granderson) to help out instead. This young woman has grown up with the family, and seems to easily manage all the household chores as if she's been highly trained. But we learn that she's gone to the best high school in her area, courtesy of help from Dad - pointing to his loyalty and generosity to his long-time employee.
But very early on (spoiler alert), in a phone call with her mother, Cheryl is told to 'ask Dr. LeVay' to tell her something she doesn't know. Just about anyone can easily guess that Cheryl is much more than an employee's daughter, revealing one of the first secrets that the play is supposed to be full of.
The issues of class are raised by both the example of the hired help and the fulminations of energetic Taylor, who little by little reveals that, though she has a famous writer father, her father left her and her mother to scrape by while he created a 'second family' and that she feels more akin to the housekeeper than to the upper class family. The historic racism is related by Dad, who tells about how a black family got to own a house in this exclusive neighborhood. The absentee father aspect comes out from Taylor and Cheryl, who expectedly has an awkward confrontation with Dad about her parentage.
There is much to enjoy in the script overall, but there are misses, too. It has chunky transitions, but much solid dialogue. It sometimes veers from stereotypes and other times uses them way too much. It's too long and meandering, but with a good trimming might brighten up to a better evening.
The cast, as often happens in Seattle, is better than the material. Roget gets a lot of the smart lines, being the character who is the most 'outside' the family, with the most experienced viewpoint. Granderson is a breath of fresh air in terms of her spunky and life-loving portrayal, and her awkward teen aspirations to make contact with her 'father.'
The LHPAI is not an easy space which to manage a large installation, so the set (by Andrea Bush) is nicely appointed, but more modest than it might be. Sound, in particular song music, chosen by Matt Starritt, is great fun, but director Justin Emeka uses it a bit too much in scene transition, bogging down the flow. It would have been more fun if it fit more organically into the scenes themselves.
Diamond allows a look inside one specific father's dilemma regarding including or excluding offspring, and the effect on two specific offspring who long for a father's presence. This is part of the important conversation, but honing in a bit and paring out that that does not serve the main story would help shorten and strengthen that topic.
For more information, call 206-441-7178 or go to www.intiman.org.
Discuss your opinions with SGNcritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters. More articles can be found at MiryamsTheaterMusings.blogspot.com.
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