Syniva Whitney and Will Courtney have quickly made a name for themselves as co-founders of the queer-friendly company GENDER TENDER. On January 16, 2014, their evening-length production, Sync or Swim, premiered at Calamus Auditorium at Gay City. Completed just last week, Calamus is an intimate, sawdust-in-the-air-new addition to the Seattle arts and LGBT scene, committed to supporting LGBT artists and nurturing a strong community through art. Sync or Swim proved to be the perfect production to launch the space’s first season. Sensual in a bizarre and gritty way, the show explored the contrast between the media-driven image of family and the reality that families shift and struggle and manifest in many strange forms.
The performance opened on a quiet note. As the audience entered, ambient and pensive music created by Golden Space (Ava Cole and Loren Othón) filled the air, evoking a calm whale song with spacey harmonies. The work established a domestic scene with a strange latex construction hanging at the back of the stage, a bulky line of fabric across the floor, and a TV on center stage playing a sort of homemade sitcom, while the dancers, clad in football jerseys and baseball tees, moved slowly as if through the rooms of a house.
The section of the performance entitled “Family Portraits” was by far the most hilarious of the evening. Essentially an improv sketch, the dancers added themselves one by one into photo-studio poses of “Families of Divorce,” identifying themselves as various members of a disjointed family. In one photo, Tyler Wardwell quipped, “I’m not just your spokes-mom, I’m your real mom, too!” In another, Jan Trumbauer perfectly punctuated “I’m Maximillius, the greyhound,” with a sharp arch of her back. Each portrait devolved from posed perfection to the reality of each character’s confusion, disdain, or oblivion as part of the family dynamic. While amusing, it also provided a distinctly pessimistic view of the culture surrounding divorce.
The second act’s most notable section, “Problem Child,” featured Cole and Othón’s live vocals and body percussion, accompanied by kt shores in a sinuous and anti-gravity solo. She reached through the entrance to the stage, slid her legs up the wall, and suddenly hovered, suspended from the doorframe, while Golden Space’s harmony and poetic lyrics resonated on a clear, deep level. The level of artistry evident in this trio made the already stimulating show all the more worthwhile.
While much of the show generated visceral and emotive vignettes about the essence of relationship and family, many moments had potential to be more trenchant. Though still visually interesting and thought provoking, most of the group sections fell short in comparison to the the “Family Portraits” section and the more actively danced solos and duets. In “Water Stained Ceiling”, the dancers lay in a circle, heads in and feet out, alternately raising arms and legs in the air as different rooms in the house were named. Throughout, the members of the “Artist Pit Crew” circled them, taking live photos and video. The image hinted at many ideas and concepts worth exploring, but none of were developed acutely enough to be fully interpreted.
The cast fully embraced the improvisational structure of the piece: forming portraits, speaking, fully becoming multiple characters. Their unreserved presence and commitment to the uncertain nature of the material made the performance a success. Courtney and Whitney tied the piece together by dancing and acting duets throughout, performing interchangeably as the family’s mother/father figures. In “DREAM HOUSE/HELL HOLE” they gave an apt overture to the piece and its intentions, and “WHAT/EVER” captured their ability to have fun while tearing apart social expectations and exploring human emotion. In the end, their efforts turned into an oddly effective family. And just like in a family, each performer had their shining moments.
Sync or Swim, was a fun, never-the-same-twice production performed in a valuable, new space. For more information about GENDER TENDER see their facebook page. Information about the first season of Gay City Arts is available at gaycity.org/arts-season.