by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
SEATTLE CONTEMPORARY DANCE
ERICKSON THEATRE OFF BROADWAY
Through September 17
A hundred choreographers worldwide applied to create new works for Olivier Wevers and his seven-dancer company, Whim W'Him, and it's no wonder - the dancers are not only trained in classical and modern technique, but they are passionate and fully committed to the dance-maker's intentions. Add to that one of the best dance audiences in the world - Seattlelites who appreciate everything from ballet to modern to hip-hop - and you have an ideal laboratory for new work.
If that weren't enough, Wevers gives his dancers the executive privilege of selecting the winning choreographers. This is unusual in a profession where dancers traditionally cluster around one or two geniuses who use the company as tools to realize their personal visions. But Wevers - who was a principal in the Pacific Northwest Ballet - knows that dancers can evaluate choreographers better than most people in the universe, and should have a say on how their bodies and emotions are used to communicate.
This year's 'Choreographic Shindig' program demonstrates the strength of Wevers' approach by presenting intriguing, innovative, and challenging works from three young choreographers who are making their marks on stages all over the world. It was a terrific evening of exciting work, worthy of a company that is growing, thriving, and using the deep traditions of dance to forge new pathways.
In reverse order of presentation, here are the choreographic winners of the 'Choreographic Shindig':
'From Under the Cork Tree' (2016)
Choreographer: Lauren Edson - Music: Judy Collins, Hildur Gudnadottir, Flat of Angles, Maurice Ravel, Simon Says, Mike Wall
It's not unusual to save the home-run for the end of the game, but you risk losing part of your audience along the way. Fortunately, Whim W'Him's audiences know very well that if they are challenged early on, it's only because they will be rewarded later - and we were richly rewarded with this clever, hilarious project that had a good deal to say about individuality in a mechanized world.
It opened with a scene reminiscent of 'Delicious Pesticides' by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in last June's 'OUT-Spoken' program in which the seven dancers clustered in a hive-like bunch and executed maneuvers back and forth and up and down the stage in perfect harmony. In that dance the 'pests' had props such as goggle-eyes and long, wiggly fingers, but in Edson's harvest of the same general idea the seven are united both by costume (good work, Ronalee Wear) and by the splay-footed, baby-step march they used to migrate around the stage in perfect, dopey harmony. This sort of regimentation invites variation and escape, which happened in infinite variety as one after the other broke off, re-joined, and re-formed with the strangely appropriate amalgam of familiar music that Edson compiled.
I missed the program note that the dance was inspired by the children's book, 'The Story of Ferdinand,' so I didn't assign the choreographer's meaning to the dance. Instead of imagining that the metaphor of a breakaway dancer represented the subversive quality of individuality (a bull that refuses to fight), I imagined that it could be many things - a wrench in the works, a cancer, an artist, an individualist. Many interpretations can be projected onto the same vehicle. But toward the end, when the dancers began to prance around like matadors, the Spanish element entered in, followed by a hilarious finale reminiscent of 'A Chorus Line,' conjuring up images of individuals trying to stand out against the need for conformity. The dancing was brilliant, the choreography was brilliant, the costumes were brilliant - Yay team!
'Swan Song' (2016)
Choreography: Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz - Music: Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Carpenters, Growing, Infinite Body
Campbell and Diaz - also known as MADBOOTS Dance - embedded the familiar movements and gestures of 'Swan Lake' into a low-slung, angular vocabulary of modern dance, as if the swans were bubbling up from an abstract expressionist painting. This fusion of the old and new was a powerful form of expression, made even more interesting by blue flower petals fed slowly in front of a fan, or scattered from the arms of the dancers as if they were flower girls at a swan funeral. The dying swan theme was beautifully evoked in flashes of graceful ballet emerging from a heavy metal soundscape.
My favorite part was when a male dancer executed about fifty entrechats - vertical jumps crossing the ankles - to the odd accompaniment of the Carpenters, ending in an excruciatingly slow plié, as if to offer a swan song to ballet technique altogether. In the final scene of this fascinating dance, a custodian enters with a push broom, sweeping the blue petals together into a pile around the ballerina and the fainting cavalier dying at center stage, as if they were invisible, or were to be thrown out with the trash. Swan song indeed!
Choreography: Joseph Hernandez - Music: Caroline Beach and Thomas Beach
Inspired by an American folksong, this dance was the most abstract of the three works presented and was wisely offered as the first work of the evening, when the audience was fresh and prepared to be challenged. The strangeness began in the lobby, where dancers in expressionless face masks stood muttering odd soliloquies, and, again, in the fully lit audience area where a single dancer rolled around on an astro-turf carpet that figures later as a symbol (my guess, anyway) of the pathway through life. When the lights went down there was an interview between an apparent journalist and a female subject who was being questioned on the subject of forgiveness. Without this clue I would have been hard-put to assign a meaning to the dance, which clearly intended to mean something, and in the end I could only assign emotions - desperation, anxiety, searching.
For a while it appeared as though only the women were going to take turns doing the low, fifth-position based dance moves that characterize Hernandez' work, but about halfway through we began to see some very fine movement from the whole group. My wish is that the real dancing had started sooner and that the performance-art dimension had been shorter. I greatly enjoyed the finale, danced by the character I came to think of as 'the searcher' (Tory Piel), whose expressionless face mask brought a different level of attention to the expressive movements of her body.
My dance buddy asked me why so many modern dance performances are done to soundscapes (what he called 'grating noises') and I had no answer. IMHO there is music to suit every need if only one searches - but hey, we've been in the soundscape moment for several years now, so I'm getting used to it. This was the only dance that had a fairly extensive program note and a poster in the lobby to support its meaning - always a clue, I fear, that the dance will not explain itself.
In the after-performance chat I asked the dancers how they can remember so many complex moves. (It must be more difficult with soundscapes that require counting rather than learning to musical scores that count for you.) I got a very interesting answer from Patrick Kilbane. He said that dancers memorize the moves and vocabulary of dance from childhood, which enables a choreographer to work with variations on actions that the dancers already know. I was impressed by the dedication of each member of the company as they described the challenge of learning so much in such a short time. I was also struck by their commitment to the choreographers they selected for themselves. 'We'll do anything for them,' they told us. 'If they want us to stand in a circle and eat Cheerios, we'll do it!'
This was the first time I've seen Whim W'Him at the Erickson Theater Off Broadway, a great setting for edgy, new dance in a lively, edgy neighborhood. Whim W'Him is going from strength to strength, and I'm eager to see what they do in January, when their next program, SENSATION, debuts at Cornish Playhouse.
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