Patterns Emerge in Seattle Dance Techinque

The first show of the Spotlight on Seattle series, curated by Olivier Wevers, threw together some of Seattle’s most known names for an evening of new and old work.  First on the playbill was Khambatta Dance Company performing Modern Barbarism, a piece first created in 1993.  The piece follows two social-climbing businessmen as they try to outwit and out-maneuver each other.  The beauty of this dance has always been in the weight transfers between the dancers.  They tussle, dive, roll, and weave around each other, trying to one-up each other.  At first, one is clearly the “boss,” the “head man” in the relationship.  The other is a junior partner at best.  As the piece evolves, slowly the junior partner becomes better and better at the game until his skill matches that of the other.  The dance ends as the two men become elderly, arguing themselves to the grave.  Although this piece is nearly 10 years old now, by including clever updates in the dialogue between the two men (such as mentioning Siri and Twitter), artistic director Cyrus Khambatta proved this dance has staying power.

Next came the Stone Dance Collective with Piñata.  The first image is a lone girl in a red flowered dress, eyes covered with a blindfold, holding a glass bowl.  She stands in a spotlight downstage center.  Slowly she spits round candies into the bowl for about 10 seconds.  This first image brought the title image up too literally for my taste and was not referenced again.  The light disappears and next we see her in upstage right, still blindfolded and in a spotlight, where she stays for the remainder of the dance.  Six more dancers are now also in the space, dressed in black sports tops and fitted shorts.  The dance became a frenzy of quirked-out balletic movement set to an electronic score.  It wasn’t long before the piñata girl was lost in the background.  The spacing and facings of the other dancers were predictable at best.  Ultimately, the choreographer’s meaning became obscured by the amount of movement used.  It was screaming so loudly I couldn’t understand what it was trying to say.

A trio choreographed by Andrew Bartee, interestingly named #helpimalive, followed.  It opened with a sinewy solo just steeped in story.  The dancer’s performance quality was dynamic and inspired.  I immediately became invested in his process, connecting to the idea of being alive and the insanity inherent in living.  With a subtle flick of his wrist, he stops, one hand raised with a fist at the end.  A dancer steps from the wings and lays her chin on his hand.  It’s a beautiful moment, but as the dance progresses from male solo to female-male-male trio, the solo quickly looses its original intensity.  Because of this, I can’t help but feel that the trio should be a duet.  The female dancer doesn’t add much to the mix.  The heart of the dance is in the relationship between the two men who look almost like twins.  I kept seeing them in a Fight Club way, where one was possibly the other – or was he – and they were fighting for their very sanity throughout the dance.

NorthWest Dance Syndrome finished up the first act with their piece The Snapping Point.  The lights came up on a woman tied to six other performers by red string.  The group gave the impression of a religious or cult group, all very somber in visage and dressed in gothic style clothing.  As they were all tied together, each time a part of the group rebelled it came with a cost: for example, one girl freed herself and wound up in a chest, her hair hanging out in a grisly fashion.  Evil twins closed out the show by encroaching on the audience, set to kill.  The music was overwhelmingly epic, as were the red lights.  It was entertaining but it still, like many of the dances I saw that night, didn’t go far enough or understand itself fully.  For example, this dance rested on the fact that horror tropes are in the public consciousness.  It didn’t do anything to develop the tropes in the dance itself.  I thought the twins especially could have been dealt with more horrifyingly.  They held hands once and it was satisfactorily creepy, yet most of the dancing they did was separate.  And with supernatural twins, the horror is in their combined power and their ability to be in complete unison (body and mind).

The second half begins with a piece called Creature/Pull by Perpetuum/Mobile.  The duet between two women, one who is fighting to leave a wall and the other who is fighting to keep her there, made a certain sense at first.  It was done in grayscale: gray costumes, gray video of the ocean on a black wall.  The music added to the atmosphere by creating a soundscape for the performance to exist within.  For a long time I was really enjoying the dance, and then one dancer took off her white wrist cuffs and collar and the other dancer put some on.  The dancer previously with white tangled herself up in a rope and opera started playing.  I wasn’t on board after that; I felt like the piece had changed without reason or motive.  Not long after this it abruptly ended.  As this was version 4, I’m sure they will keep working on it and each time they will understand it better.  I must say, I really enjoyed the movement quality of the dancers.  It was simple and organic, very different from the overly ornate contemporary ballet that populated much of the show.

Whim W’Him performs “Flower Festival.” Photo: Bamburg Fine Art.

The next piece was a humorous duet for two men by the curator of the show.  Knowing the curator, it made sense that many of the dances used a balletic style – it’s what he’s drawn to – and his own dance was no exception.  Titled Flower Festival, it was the ballet version of Khambatta’s Modern Barbarism, and one of the strongest pieces of the night.  One man was in pink tones and the other in blue.  They looked very much alike, although the one in blue was built a bit more thickly than the one in pink.  As the dance progressed I wondered if this casting was on purpose, because the pink costumed man’s movement was often silly, lighthearted, affable, and androgynous bordering on feminine.  The blue costumed man’s movement was much harder, stronger, and masculine.  The music they dance to also reflects these characters.  Throughout the dance the men fought and slowly stripped down to reveal brightly colored shorts (in pink and blue, of course) and tank tops.  As they disrobed, they used their clothes as partnering devices to spin and lift each other.  At the end, they look like prize fighters in a ring, and I am left wondering if the entire piece wasn’t an elaborate setup for just such a knockout moment.

The surprise of the night was transitory object: cleaning the house by Matt Drews.  While watching the dance I thought it was the one piece (perhaps with Creature/Pull as a close second) that didn’t fit in stylistically.  The solo dancer navigated the space with a door as his partner.  At each turn, the door was illuminated from behind by well-placed light.  It shone with promise, yet the dancer couldn’t see that promise because he was stuck behind the door.  He couldn’t open the door; it didn’t have hinges.  He had no way to get beyond the door.  I don’t think the choreographer meant it to be, but his dance was almost tragic.  I don’t think the movement of the piece was incredibly well-developed, but I think it had promise and if pushed, could be very interesting.

Spectrum Dance Theater performs “LOVE.”  Photo: Abigail Wallace.

At the end of a long night came an excerpt from a work-in-progress by Donald Byrd of Spectrum Dance Theater entitled LOVE.  This excerpt consisted of 8 sections, each slightly building on the others in terms of movement vocabulary, but mostly allowing Byrd to show off his physically perfect troupe and their ballet abilities.  Make no mistake, this is a contemporary ballet company, not a modern dance company.  I don’t care who tries to tell me otherwise; I will point you toward exhibit A, which is near-naked men with barely any body fat and exhibit B, which is a dancer in the splits who then touches her back foot to her head just because she can.

But what of the dance?  It’s okay.  It starts strong and develops a slight narrative, then devolves into duets that have no relationship to each other.  It opens with an interesting, searching male solo.  At the end of the solo he finds a woman, and section 2 is their duet.  They barely touch at all but for a few moments of comfort, although they finish crown-to-crown long on the floor, something I consider a unique (and strong) choice.  Section 3 is that woman’s solo.  The man stands there, watching her the entire time, as she tries to win him over.  Section 4 is the first male soloist in a duet with another man.  This is a very homoerotic dance as the original soloist indulges in and then pulls away from the touch of the other man.  Up until this point there is a developing narrative: one man, questioning his sexuality and the nature of love, happens upon a  woman and a man, and is strangely pulled toward both.

If the following sections had developed this narrative or given me a new one to ponder I would have been just fine.  However, the dance quickly gets muddled because Byrd uses the man from section 4 again and again in combination with other partners.  He’s definitely the super slut of the dance, and unless Byrd is making a statement on alternative poly lifestyles, he may want to reconsider this casting.  The dance also takes giant leaps away from discussing homosexual love when it reaches a point where all the dancers are in hetero embraces, caressing each other, as the man from section 4 dances with yet another new partner, who is inexplicably dressed in a romantic tutu and bandeau sports bra.  I am left wondering how Byrd will justify some of his choices in his full-length production of the piece.

By the halfway mark of this concert, I could already identify a “Seattle style” coming out in the work, and the second half drove it home.  The style is incredibly balletic and athletic, so it looks very impressive at first.  The problem is that soon, it’s moving so much and so fast that it becomes boring, meaningless, and predictable.  A la Cunningham, a balletic lower body with a quirky upper body can only take you so far.  After a while, a piece is dead if the choreographer isn’t able to/trying to look at it critically and to understand it as a thing separate from him or herself.  Dance as art can’t be reached by trying to show off an ability or by forcing specific meaning onto abstract gestures.  Choreographers have to earn meaning through critical self-evaluation and questioning: why am I making this choice?  Is it the choice I always make?  How does it read to the audience?  Is it how I imagine it reads?  Am I too deep in my own head?  I’m not sure the Seattle vanguard is still asking these questions.

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