Seattle’s Against the Grain/Men in Dance Festival is a biennial endeavor of performances exploring, celebrating, and focusing on exactly that: male dancers, choreographers, and the idea of masculinity onstage in dance. The first of the festival’s two weekends opened September 26, 2014, at Broadway Performance Hall. In nine short works, ATG/MID showcased choreographic and dance talent and wit through both thought-provoking and more “merely” beautiful works. One of the best parts about this festival was the presence of many new faces to the Seattle dance scene—displaying exciting technical and performance skill hopefully to be seen again soon here onstage.
For the 10th anniversary, ATG/MID partnered with the Lawrence Tenney Stevens Trust Award to honor Anne Green Gilbert, founder of Creative Dance Center and Kaleidoscope Dance Company, and a Seattle dance staple. Following a short film about the collaboration between sculptor Stevens and American modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, producers introduced Gilbert and explained her vital work teaching boys in dance and her support of the ATG/MID Festival. In their presentation, two of the festival’s many producers spoke to the audience as if to old friends (although, at the opening night performance, the audience was filled with many Seattle dance luminaries—most likely colleagues and friends indeed). This set the tone for the entire evening: intimate, celebratory, and inviting.
Although brief, The Cheer Leaders, an excerpt from Ted Shawn’s Olympiad: A Suite of Sport Dances, was a fresh burst of boisterous energy to open the show. Fresh despite its premiere date of 1936, the trio of male dancers echoed many qualities of the male athletes from Nijinska’s 1924 Les Biches—a fascinating stylistic contrast between early Nijinska’s neoclassicism and Shawn’s early modern dance. Fausto Rivera was a delight to watch in this piece, a perfect balance of technical precision and the comical self-importance required of the role. Rivera was also a particularly strong presence in Rhonda Cinotto and Paula Peters’ Just Because, a study in contrast of exaggerated “feminine” gestures (such as jutting hips, arms resting on heads) with “masculine” muscular force.
BARE Dance Company (NYC) presented an excerpt from Mike Esperanza’s Venomous, beginning as a tender duet with violent undertones that became increasingly darker as more dancers entered with mocking mimicry. With such strong choreographic partnering, audiences were left to wonder about the contents of the full piece. Also in the first act was Rainbow Fletcher’s Sportif, a delightful trio of men wittily costumed in black sport coats, black and white patterned fitted leggings, black heeled booties, and body-painted suggestions of ties, suspenders and button-down shirts. Each of the dancers (Benjamin Maestas III, Keon Price, and a very talented Sylvain Boulet) sparkled in solos and group work alike. Much like Just Because, Sportif highlighted contrasts. The use of tall-heeled shoes greatly changed the movement quality, as the dancers were necessarily more grounded; the power of movement came from a higher, more superficial level—further highlighted by the showcased musculature of dancers easily capable of dazzling feats of technical prowess. Fletcher’s choreography also pointed to the artificiality of exaggerated curves and leg extensions through generous, but never overdone, repetition.
While Act Two felt less energetic and balanced than Act One, the choreography and dancing was nonetheless engaging to watch. In Center of the Earth, Bill Wade’s Pilobolus-esque weight-sharing movement featured circus-like strength, and the dance came off feeling very cirque-like, as well. Wade Madsen’s self-performed solo, Federico, was an elegant and gentle soft-shoe style love song to Federico Fellini (set to composer Nicola Piovani’s music), complete with fedora and cigarette. The softer thematic energy of both works felt better suited to earlier in the program.
Sean Rosado’s solo in Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz’s Warhol began as if in the middle of the action, suspended in a sea of blackness. Rosado’s tightly controlled bursts of energy became a personal dialogue, a set of diary entries. Meg Fox’s lighting, brilliant throughout the whole night, truly shone in this work; it blended fluidly from one cue to the next creating an almost cinematic palette and tone.
Gérard Théorêt’s showy Tango del Hombres closed the evening with an ensemble cast of six men (Boulet again a highlight). The most balletic of all the works, Tango was also the most purely dance piece of the evening—more about the movement than a particular thematic element. While the dancers excelled at the balletic vocabulary of mostly jumps, the construction of the piece felt basic following so many more contemporary works, and would have been more effectively placed earlier in the program.
One of the major treats of the evening was Tim Lynch’s choreography for thirteen young men from Gilbert’s Kaleidoscope Dance Company and from Pacific Northwest Ballet School. While Social Exclusion’s loose narrative of a boy bullied at school concluded with a predictable happy ending, the choreography for these young dancers felt fresh and innovative without itself becoming predictable. Fortunately for audiences who may have missed ATG/MID’s first weekend, this work will be also be presented during next weekend’s shows (as will The Cheer Leaders).
The tenth anniversary of Against the Grain/Men in Dance Festival felt like the perfect dinner party: a wide variety of visual and mental treats where no one person wore out their welcome. As this festival is presented only every other year, get your tickets now to enjoy the delicious courses sure to be offered at the second weekend’s lineup.