Mash-ups and Tygers and Flashlights, Oh My!

Written by Mariko Nagashima
(Photo: Amy O’Neal in The Most Innovative, Daring, and
Original Piece of Dance Performance You
Will See This Decade.

Photo by Tim Summers)

With an equal dose of hard hitting hip-hop and tiger-like tenacity, Seattle’s Amy O’Neal and Kathleen Hermesdorf (a guest artist from San Francisco) dazzled the standing-room-only crowd at Velocity Dance Center this Friday and Saturday evening. Both artists presented their own solo work (Hermesdorf with her collaborator, musician Albert Mathias), and together performed a duet, thats construction has spanned four years.

O’Neal, Velocity’s Artist in Residence, opened the show with the pretentiously titled The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance Performance You Will See This Decade. Throughout this “lecture/demonstration/performance experience” O’Neal used physical examples and witty commentary projected on the back screen to deconstruct the modalities artists use to create work, as well as her own artistic influences. In “Exhibit A: The Sample” she blended Big Boi’s heavy rapping with the choral stylings of “Aida.” The overlapping music and her meshing of pops and locks with sustained fluid movements, served to remind that while the “mash-up” has become its own genre, it still remains just a sample of two already existing things. Later, she sang (a far-too-lengthy rendition of Tom Gray’s “Money Changes Everything,” made famous by Cyndi Lauper’s), she danced (a tribute to her many “teachers and art heroes”), and gave new meaning to the term “booty shake” (in an over-the-top but entertaining parody of Ciara’s “Ride”). With the final exhibit “Homage,” O’Neal whirled across the stage channeling each influence as it appeared on the screen behind her. Though it created a slightly schizophrenic effect, as the list ranged from Merce Cunningham to Mary J. Blige to her own students, O’Neal managed to make the transitions look organic. At one point in the work she pondered, “What if contemporary dancers claimed their alter egos the same way hip-hop stars did?” With this piece, O’Neal does just that, unabashedly proclaiming herself as both the product of her influences and her own fearless persona.
Kathleen Hermesdorf and Albert Mathias’ work Tyger Tyger, an excerpt from the full-length songs of innocence & experience, was another beast entirely. Inspired by the William Blake poem, Hermesdorf began growling, twitching, and barring her teeth, embodying the ferocious feline. Flicking her tongue she donned a tiger mask with relish and, paradoxically, became more human. A somewhat disconcerting sight, as an anthropomorphized tiger, she casually lounged with her feet up and recited Blake’s poem with accompanying gestures. Later, she stalked about the stage in a leopard print leotard and tights, her body jerking in calculated spasms to the sound of clanking mechanics. This stylized prowl highlighted her unique movement quality; it was as if each muscle were separately programmed with infinite yet readily accessible capabilities. The movement seemed to stem from an outer source, as if each twitch was prompted by a remote control, but somehow managed to never look forced. This captivating quality extended to her facial muscles as well; in one passage she scaled almost the entire emotional spectrum with facial permutations. The ferocity with which she performed, coupled with Mathias’ exquisitely crafted sound-scape, made for a thrilling performance.  
The duet, What Goes Around Comes Around, rounded out the split bill. The piece had its beginnings in 2007, with late night shenanigans involving hula hoops and video cameras in Lewiston, Maine, and wasn’t finished until last week, here in Seattle. The hula hoop antics were projected on the screen (for far too long) at the beginning of the piece. Eventually, a live-feed video of O’Neal doing a hiccupping shuffle step in one of Velocity’s back studios appeared on the side wall.
The action gradually shifted from the video into the stage space, culminating in a unison sequence displaying their well-matched technical skills. A circular theme pervaded the choreography; wrists twirled then punched the air, hips rotated as if still swinging hula hoops, a preposterous off-kilter balance spiraled suddenly to the floor. The clever use of flashlights made for several striking images. The lights darted along the back wall, making the performers appear to be dancing with huge fireflies. Though the piece seemed on track to end inevitably, by coming full circle to where it began, it instead concluded with Hermesdorf stumbling through the audience, watched by O’Neal’s eye looming large in the live-feed camera. While not predictable, it felt somewhat anticlimactic for a work with so much range. However, both artists are formidable in their own right and it was a treat to see them bringing their distinctive styles together.
Hermesdorf and Mathias will premiere their full length work, songs of innocence & experience,at ODC Theater in San Francisco on May 4-6, 2012. O’Neal continues her tenure as Velocity’ Artist in Residence through 2011, working toward creating a full evening-length work. In addition, she teaches contemporary dance technique and bottom-heavy funk classes weekly at Velocity Dance Center. See http://velocitydancecenter.org/for more details.