June marks the return of the NW New Works Festival at On the Boards, where you can catch a variety of dance, theater, and musical performances all in one evening. Weekend one of two (June 5-7) brought eight fresh NW picks to OtB’s two stages, and some very promising pieces of new work. The Mainstage show focused on bigger spaces and bigger movement, while the Studio showcase presented more intimate, theatrical dance pieces, often with the performers telling their story directly to the audience.
One such piece was Markeith Wiley’s 31 and Counting. Highly personal with underlying tension, Wiley portrayed his relationship to his blackness through a shadow character: a figure entirely obscured, including face and hands, in black clothing, danced by Danielle Hammer. The shadow sometimes synced up with Wiley, his movements even and measured, but interjected with quick jerks. Sometimes the shadow evaded him and other times tried to be his friend. The piece, always smoldering just below the surface, finally caught fire as Wiley took the spotlight as alter ego Dushawn Brown, addressing the audience directly—specifically the white people of the audience—with a FAQ-style rant that worked itself into a rage. Wiley’s work is complicated and unsettling. It cuts close to the quick. He does not allow the audience to walk away with a tidy package of understanding, nor any absolution, just gristle to chew on.
Another work from the Studio, Violets on Smoke’s Rooms was one of two works that integrated dance and music. Flanked by two musicians and two dancers, Sarah Paul Ocampo (singer, composer, and choreographer) sang folksy melodic originals while poised elegantly on a couch and staring dryly into the audience. A scene unfolded around her where noises of the cast (the clink of Sara Jinks stirring her coffee, for instance) folded effortlessly into the rhythm of the music. While the musicians rotated out instruments (Accordion! Ukelele!) and shifted occasionally, the dancers were more active: at one point, they crawled under, over, and around the couch before completely retrograding their movements. The precise composition unfolded like some kind of revolving Wes Anderson-inspired family portrait with understated, peculiar hilarity.
The weekend’s other dance-meets-music piece was presented on the Mainstage by Carlye Cunniff and Margery Pulkkinen, both members of the Seattle Irish Dance Company. Using a looper to record their complex hard shoe rhythms, the two made their own accompaniment. A fiddler was also invited to stage to play along with the beats, although usually not at the same time as the dancers. The costumes (casual leggings and leotards), lighting design, and transitions, all seemed too simple and perfunctory. While the shift away from pageantry was an interesting choice for Irish dance, it felt like a missed opportunity to go somewhere new. Could there have been a relationship between the dancers? Facial expression? Dynamic play? Messiness? Humanity? Here’s to hoping these two take their immense technical skill and keep pushing the boundaries of what can be done with it.
Speaking of immense technical skill: holy crap, LED! This Boise, ID-based group wowed the audience with their gymnastic ballet skills in their new piece, Barbarian Princess, choreographed by (and also starring) Lauren Edson. While choreography full of stunts and tricks usually comes off feeling cheap, these were so well integrated, so expertly done, that it was at once thrilling and believable. The work exhibited the kind of passion, drama, and kinesthetic breath-catching that is underrepresented in the Seattle contemporary scene. That being said, this piece lacked a cohesive through-line and would be stronger with some editing. How many times does a woman need to be tossed in the air and caught effortlessly by the group? Is the repetition of this important to the story, and if so, is it possible to highlight that? There were also lots of disparate elements at play. Why are the men wearing old-timey lederhosen? Why the costume change into bikinis? Why the projection? Why this particular music? There may be reasons for all of these elements, but they weren’t clear from the choreography. The choreography should demand these choices, not merely co-exist with them.
Where LED could have paired down, the “too much is never enough” mentality really worked for Jessica Jobaris & General Magic’s new work, A Great Hunger. To begin, the cast of eleven trickled and then flooded into the space from every which direction. A sheet-covered ghost figure stood amid the audience. A woman dangled precariously from a previously unnoticed tech ladder. The wings were pulled back and the idea of stage space expanded. Projection on a long strip of cloth partially obscured a duet going on behind. Everyone got naked and stacked along the back wall. A jumble of props appeared onstage. Masturbation. At any one time, there were multiple simultaneous elements, seemingly unaware of one another. The choreography was unruly and true to title, hungry. A string of “rocking out” solos displayed the personal flair of each cast member before the group made their exit: clambering over the seats and heads of the audience. The piece produced the kind of sensory overload that leaves a frenetic buzz deep in the gut, appealing to our wild, primal natures.
NWNW Weekend One also included works by Faith Helma, Nancy Ellis, and Travis Clarke & Benjamin Kamino. Weekend Two runs June 12-14, and tickets are still available through On the Boards.