NW New Works Festival Challenges Conceptions of Time, Space, and Self

Written by Laurel Dix
A hooded woman steps tentatively into the land of a video screen.  An affable band relates the history of the universe in no fewer than four songs (and one collapsible dinosaur).  Reams upon reams of paper dangle from the ceiling over two velvet-clad dancers.  These entrancing, eclectic moments are all a part of On the Boards’ exhibition of local performance art, the NW New Works Festival, that culminates June 19th in the Mainstage Theatre.  Local dancers, musicians, and artists showcase creations that run the gamut from somber to whimsical, often surprising audience members with innovative uses of technology, props, and stage space.  As the festival’s second weekend of performances demonstrates, the creativity in Seattle and its neighboring art hubs is at a spectacular high.  NW New Works is nothing short of striking.

The first artist of the weekend’s program, Haruko Nishimura, lays a fascinating foundation for the evening with her multi-layered piece Grandmother Mothra’s Mercurial Tale.  While a group of live musicians play Joshua Kohl and Jherek Bischoff’s thrilling score, Nishimura creeps slowly away from the audience with precise, spasmodic upper body movements like she is sewing her own bones together.  A recorded voice intones, “You will never see all of me,” a statement that only gains force as the piece progresses.
Nishimura’s complex attempts to harness the energy that radiates out through her shaking hands and turned-in feet make her seem vulnerable, but once she dons a pointed red hood and begins to converse with a filmed alter ego, her character’s bravery and newfound control of movement become apparent.  She trades the womblike safety of her introspection for a comic and slightly frightening venture into the forested world of two video screens.  Most interesting is to see how Nishimura portrays movement as a form of communication, whether to the audience or to her recorded self.  Though she and the musicians had some timing issues at the June 18th performance, their rapport lends another facet to her intriguing expedition.

Following Nishimura, Shannon Stewart’s bold and moody work A Better Containeralso takes the audience on a journey, though of a very different sort.  Nothing is as expected, right from the beginning when a mannequin-like dancer rocks her hips toward the back wall, then turns to reveal a faceless mop of hair.  She eventually slithers onto the stage to join a two other swaying dancers and singer/composer Sam Mickens, who croons alongside two vintage televisions.  This anxious scene gives way to a continuous diagonal of dancers walking backward through dim blue light.  A pattern gradually surfaces, as though the audience is flipping through a family scrapbook and realizing that the events they remember really aren’t what happened at all. The flickering televisions, with their footage echoing the onstage movements in grainy detail especially reinforce the tension. 

Some of the dancers behave as though overwhelmed, stumbling under the weight of their thoughts, while others seek to hold invisible objects.  The piece really picks up speed when two dancers break away from the group’s larger-than-life shadows and dash to the edges of the stage, performing sudden hinges backward and lithe rolls that flow effortlessly from floor to standing.  It’s impossible to tell whether the family conflict is resolved, especially as one dancer steers the other’s head and neck in a slow ending circle, but Stewart certainly makes a powerful statement about human interaction.

The third work of the evening is perhaps the lightest, with refreshing music performed by The Blank Department, but has a gravity of its own as it continues the theme of how we perceive the past.  Orders of Magnitude introduces a cheerful, accented professor who strides onstage and begins to scribble the day’s science lesson on a chalkboard, only to have his material hijacked by the band and two actors who illustrate the lyrics in child-like abandon.  While the actors cavort, nuzzle, and nestle in each other’s bare arms, the genial members of The Blank Department sing how “some believe a comet sowed the seas…” with a honeyed, repetitive twang vaguely reminiscent of Fleet Foxes.

As the actors assemble a dinosaur onstage the tone becomes uncertain.  How much can history really reveal, if all we leave in the end are bones?  What if the world and its creatures had turned out differently?  Regardless, the mock lecture dismisses its students with good humor, for even pixilated video projections can’t distract from the cheerful chaos that The Blank Department creates.  As their professor warns, irregularities are commonplace, and it’s best to accept the flow.

Choreography by Aluminum Siding and mattisonthemove closes the program with a visual exclamation point in Torn.  Its dancing and concept form a whole, perfect unit, though the performers are experiencing anything but wholeness when they enter.  Donna B. Isobel scatters rippling sheets of white paper through the air, but can’t seem to let go of one piece; her body becomes a pen as she traces the piece over her nose and down her back, into the crook of her elbow, and back to her face again. 

Gorgeous columns of paper swaying from the ceiling would almost be worth watching alone, if it weren’t for the mesmerizing fluidity of Isobel’s movements as she spirals between pools of light.  Swift pirouettes whirl out of nowhere, and a single sheet of paper becomes a jump rope that carries her to the floor.  Her anguished contractions are soon supplemented by the lanky grace of mattisonthemove, who also clutches at the crackling piles of paper.  They remain immune to each other’s presence until, under the jewel-like glow of Bill McCoubrey’s lighting, they turn from their futile searches to the joy of companionship.  Torn is electrifying.

These four performances in the NW New Works Festival only continue through June 19th, but next year’s festival promises just as much excitement, introspection, and innovation, with artists who fearlessly explore through dance, music, and film what it means to be human.  For more information, visit www.ontheboards.org or call 206-217-9886.