No token males or ballerina-hoisting partners here. Against the Grain/Men In Dance’s mission “to create performance opportunities for men who dance” becomes not just a chance to see a bunch of guys on stage, but a chance to see a fuller range of masculinity in dance rather than a few tired stereotypes. The biennial festival’s Program 2 (October 3-5 at Broadway Performance Hall) featured men dancing in all the ways that men are in life—carefree, grieving, loving, aggressive, tender, physically strong, slyly smiling. They performed across a spectrum of styles, from Bill Evans’ softshoe routine to Darren Bersuk’s acrobatics, and delved into a range of thematic settings, from Marlo Martin’s stark drama to Mark Morris’ folk-infused bliss.
As with Program 1 last weekend, Men in Dance opened with a word about Anne Green Gilbert, tireless supporter of men and boys in dance and first recipient of the Lawrence Tenney Stevens American Dance Award, followed by a documentary about sculptor Stevens’ work with early modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn. Since Shawn was the original tireless supporter of men in dance, it was fitting that Program 2 (as well as Program 1) kicked off its live dancing with The Cheerleaders, a short excerpt from Olympiad: A Suite of Sport Dances (1936). What a gleeful spark this dance is, with a trio of men in 1930s pep rally gear to good-naturedly open the festivities.
Amy Johnson crafted Trouble, a duet for dancers Kince de Vera and Drew Lewis with driving music from FOXHUNT. With sharp, focused movements, the dancers created a tense relationship. The charged atmosphere felt like a rubber band pulled back, ready to snap—although it never did. The clean execution of the choreography was a testament to the performers, but also to Johnson; she has a knack for making her dancers truly move together.
Bill Evans, artist and educator extraordinaire, performed Blues, a delightful softshoe tap dance. He seemed absorbed in himself, but always ready to invite the audience in with a look or a smile. It’s possible he got the biggest applause of the night. With a long history in Seattle (although not based here for many years), and a generous spirit, he has many friends here.
Marlo Martin’s Tomo featured a quintet with a confessional streak. Against dramatic lighting, audible breathing, and a mashup of personal text and music, the dancers alternated between launching themselves through space and performing strong, more static gestures. Martin’s work always makes her performers, usually women, into a particular breed of dancer-badasses, and it was an interesting change to see her signature aesthetics on a group of men.
Vancouver-based Darren Bersuk’s Power Tower opened Act 2 with an impressive show of acrobatic strength, control, and grace. Using a pole with a four-legged stand, former Cirque de Soleil artist Bersuk made himself into much more than a human flagpole. The most surreal moment featured him walking at a ninety-degree angle, his hands gripping the pole while it smoothly rotated; it looked like he was walking around a clock face from the inside-out.
Choreographer Bryon Heinrich brought excerpts from Beyond Brokeback from his Man Dance Company in San Francisco. His ballet is part of a larger project that generated stories and art in the wake of the 2006 film, Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s story of doomed cowboy love. Despite worthy subject matter and source text, the quiet and subtlety that contribute to the story’s wrenching tragedy were not evident in the excerpts presented here. The performers (Cole Companion and Jonathan Dummar) danced beautifully, but their romance felt quick in its realization and somewhat cliché in its expression—although perhaps this was because the duets were taken out of context from a longer work.
Sixes and Sevens, choreographed by Post:Ballet Director Robert Dekkers (San Francisco) and performed by Christian Squires, showed a tension between gorgeous fluidity and sharp, detailed quirks—an aesthetic (and certainly an aesthetic trend) that contemporary ballet is ideally suited to capture. The costume of flesh-colored shortitard and flesh-colored socks abstracted Squires’ body to the point where he looked a bit like a Ken doll, only with infinitely more soul. It was a minimalist look to fit Philip Glass’ minimalist music.
Deborah Wolf’s Falling In, Falling Out was cleanly composed to express the ideas and showcase the dancers: the clear mark of a choreographer who has been making dances for years. Four men (Scotty Flores, Chris McCallister, Sean Rosado, and Sean Tomerlin) moved agilely in and out of the floor as they fell in line and fell out with each other. Live music by Eric Chappelle created an all-encompassing sound atmosphere that encircled the dance with tension.
The biggest joy of the show came early in the evening but is saved for last here: Aaron Loux, a current Mark Morris dancer who got his childhood start in Green Gilbert’s Kaleidoscope Dance Company performed Morris’ 1981 I Love You Dearly. (Further fun Seattle connection: the piece’s world premiere took place at On the Boards in its Washington Hall days.) I Love You Dearly, set to Rumanian folk songs, featured Loux in a rosy glow of happiness. He stomped in circle patterns reminiscent of folk dances, swinging his arms and throwing his head back in an open-hearted release. It’s the kind of dance that will feel forever fresh, and Loux performed it with joyous abandon.
It’s a pity we have to wait two years for another Men in Dance festival, but it’s a wise move by the presenters. Festival producing is no small job, and the high quality at work here—well-programmed shows, artists from near and far—is without a doubt worth a little patience.
More information on Against the Grain/Men in Dance, visit menindance.org.