Whim W’Him’s Vibrant, Arresting Visions of 21st Century Ballet

Written by Anna Waller

Andrew Bartee and Tory Peil in I don’t remember a spark by Olivier Wevers
Photo by Bamberg Fine Art

Whim W’Him astounds with visions of what contemporary ballet can be. Artistic Director Olivier Wevers started Whim W’Him in 2009 as a side project while he was still a principal dancer at PNB, but he has since transformed it into a company that promises to become one of Seattle’s finest. With much to offer between its brilliantly trained, technical dancers, and its intriguing concepts and choreography, the ensemble opened their latest concert, Third Degree, on Friday, May 17, 2013.


This is Real., a premiere by PNB corps member Andrew Bartee, opened the show. Bartee is a formidable young dance artist who will doubtless develop into a strong choreographer. On one level, This is Real. stays in line with a certain branch of contemporary ballet aesthetics—shoulders slightly hunched (so contrary to ballet’s openness), dancers wearing socks, and a tendency toward constant movement. However, the work created a clear world for its three dancers setting out just enough narrative to add oomph to the intricate choreography. The work traced moments in a tense relationship between two women, Mia Monteabaro and Tory Peil, and one man, Sergey Kheylik. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola’s well-timed blackouts broke the piece into sections, while Lena Simon’s score was quietly unrelenting. The relationship between dancers, light, and music suggested that the audience was glimpsing moments of an ongoing life: a relationship that changes, but never quite resolves.


Lara Seefeldt and Jesse Sani in FRAGMENTS
Photo by Bamberg Fine Art

Wevers’ award-winning FRAGMENTS was the evening’s showstopper. Funny and full of layers, this deceptively light work featured Lara Seefeldt and Jesse Sani. Dressed in simple, eighteenth-century-inspired gowns, they lip-synced, danced, and gestured along to Mozart arias and choral work. FRAGMENTS essentially followed a pas de deux structure (duet-solo-solo-duet), but it turned ballet on its head, poking fun at the music and at ballet’s gender conventions. The dance began with Seefeldt and Sani side by side, earnestly mouthing the words to “Voi Che Sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro (a particularly sly choice, given that the aria is for a mezzo soprano who portrays a male character who at one point dresses as a woman), and it turned into a witty gestural dance that integrated ballet technique with gender-neutral partnering. Seefeldt’s solo followed. She is petite, but her pure, powerful dancing gives her the aura of a force of nature as she twists and jumps across the stage, her expressive face utterly deadpan. Sani’s solo to Ave Verum was a somber portrait of vulnerability; the audience witnessed him shed his dress, explore the long lines of his own body, and then return to his costume, resigned, perhaps, to societal conventions of dress. In the “coda,” the dancers engaged in playful competition, arching their bodies and screeching along with the coloratura passages from The Magic Flute. Wevers has filled every moment of FRAGMENTS with fascinating movement, engaging performance, and sly humor.


Andrew Bartee in L’Effleuré
Photo by Bamberg Fine Art

Next, Bartee performed Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s 2010 work, L’Effleuré, to a selection of vocal music by Antonio Vivaldi. A solemn, noble solo, it featured Bartee in red velvet pants and a deep red flower in his mouth and in each palm. The choreography demanded much clarity from Bartee, and he certainly delivered, deftly interspersing subtle, sinuous body ripples with clean balletic jumps and turns. Many times, he posed standing or in grand plié with his palms facing outward, so that all three flowers were visible: a pared-down vision of splendor that evoked not only seventeenth century royalty (as the program note suggests), but also Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun.


The evening’s longest and final work was Wevers’ premiere of I Don’t Remember A Spark, a dance aesthetically and thematically distant from FRAGMENTS. Spark featured an original composition by Brian Lawlor built around a recording of Wevers speaking a sort of artist statement. Five dancers in black (Bartee, Peil, Kheylik, Monteabaro, and Seefeldt) manipulated and isolated each other as they carried white suitcases (a visual representation of the emotional baggage discussed later in the text). Spark’s greatest strength was its partnering choreography. The five dancers moved together like an amoeba, but their individual movements were direct, with defined edges. Duets between Bartee and Peil crystallized the subtly manipulative—and human—aspects of the dance. The text was interesting, but sometimes overpowered the dancing, partially because it was so loud against the music. The elements of dance, text, and music did not fully work in concert with one another yet. Furthermore, a work that deals so overtly with artistic process risks toeing the line of pretension. Spark managed to remain on the other side, but only just. It would be fascinating to see it after another round of editing.


Aesthetically, the works in Third Degree fell into two categories: FRAGMENTS and L’Effleuré used classical music (the old stuff, at that) and played with classical vocabulary combined with gestures and a sense of weight that both belong to the contemporary world; This Is Real. and I Don’t Remember a Spark used contemporary music and a more contemporary vocabulary that relies on the depth of precision learned from ballet training. Neither of these categories is particularly new any more, but this should not diminish their relevance in the still-new twenty-first-century (re)conception of ballet. These are some of the new models to work with in the greater ballet world, and they will take hold more and more in this country if ballet is to remain a viable art form. Seattle is lucky to have Whim W’Him not just as an extraordinary performing ensemble, but as a group that fosters new work and further develops a new mode of making ballet.


More information about Whim W’Him can be found on their website.