Trigger warning: this review talks about trigger warnings. Velocity Dance Center’s annual Bridge Project program brings choreographers (new-ish to Seattle) and dancers together for a concentrated month of dancemaking. It’s a Seattle community standard. This year’s show (January 29–31) brought some fine work to the stage, but it also stirred up controversy about how to put triggering subjects—alcoholism, violence—on stage in an effective way. The evening began with an announcement about the subject matter of Nathan Blackwell’s piece, the show’s closer, and how there would be no judgment if anyone felt the need to leave. It was a well-meaning announcement—and, I think, important to include in some way—but I wonder how many people sat on edge for the evening, unsure what the last piece would hold and weighing the pros and cons of climbing over people to leave (Founders Theater is always packed like sardines) or sitting through a potentially uncomfortable piece.
But more on that later. The first three works felt like any other pretty good Velocity show, with enough diversity in tone to make a well-rounded program. Ashleigh Miller’s Third Incarnation opened the evening, with a look at group dynamics using 11 performers and choreography that melted and spiraled from one step to the next. Dancers watched one another as an individual or a small group danced apart. They whispered to each other, a clear community negotiating the lines between individual and group. Lorraine Lau oozed through her opening solo, with a tactile sensitivity to every movement that highlighted both her own skill and the best of what Miller’s choreography has to offer. One moment, two- thirds of the way through, where the whole group clustered in the downstage corner as if facing a new unknown together, felt like a natural end. It built a tension that was not resolved by the long unison section that followed. The dreamy original music performed by Travis Corwin and Miller herself on vocals swirled around the dance, adding an aural reality to the community on stage.
After the sinuous go-go-go pace of Third Incarnation, Stephanie Liapis’ Pasture provided a welcome change. The composition favored a few ideas developed and repeated over an onslaught of the new, which resulted in a chiseled, structured, and accessible work. The six dancers (three men, three women) wore white pants and shirts with a garland of fabric strips around their shoulders. They weren’t feathers, but with the dancers’ birdlike prances and elbows, that was the effect—creating, almost, an image of dinosaurs, which really aren’t very far off from birds. Martin Jarmick’s sound score surrounded the dance with found sounds and, at one point, a vaguely sinister circus-y melody. Couples formed for social dance moments, lending a human familiarity to the dancers’ relationships, although they did not seem (and did not need) to be people. The effect was that of a curious bird sanctuary, a pasture where an abstracted form of life played out through dance.
ilvs strauss, fresh from her MANIFESTO cycle, presented Doin’ it Right, which began before the audience had fully returned from intermission. One dancer was already working through a phrase descended from the pedestrian approach of 1960s Yvonne Rainer: each movement was accessible, but performed with a dancer’s attention to detail and combined with a relaxed, unperformative demeanor. The five dancers, wearing matching t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, worked their way through choreography like they were old friends in rehearsal, driven by snaps and the occasional change in music—Daft Punk’s “Doin’ it Right” interspersed with a more atmospheric PJ Harvey track. The tension between structure and ease was a through line; as two dancers rocked back and forth side by side, the others stood chatting in the corner, casually climbing over each other. The last few minutes of the piece were given over to a recorded monologue by strauss talking to a friend who was leaving. After watching these casual but deep friendships in motion, it was bittersweet to hear strauss stumble humanly through her address—I’m happy for you, but this sucks, but I’m still happy for you.
Finally, we came to the piece noted at the top of the show: Nathan Blackwell’s Through desolate planes we emerge: an exercise in transcendence for the non-believer. In the work, performance artist Britt Brutality Greenwell entered, pounded a beer, sat in a chair downstage left and proceeded to drink throughout the work. Cans of Rainier lay about her—a fresh group and a crumpled group. She watched the eight dancers who eventually filled the stage with a movement vocabulary dominated by writhing and internal focus. All nine women wore the same black leggings and socks, and a black zip-up hoodie over Saran-wrapped breasts—like the extreme version of an oversexualized American Apparel ad. While the dancers themselves were articulate in their writhing, the composition of their dance left an unfocused impression and detracted from the more potent act of Greenwell’s desolately determined alcohol consumption. The dancers drank too—at one point all nine stood in a circle and chugged—but there was no clear expression or indication of what that felt like as the work went on. Everyone continued as though nothing happened. This may be an accurate picture of high-functioning alcoholism, but it did not invite the audience to feel what the performers must have been feeling.
It is understandable that Through desolate planes could trigger a negative reaction in someone who has experienced or seen the effects of alcoholism. However, the trigger warning announcement hinted that the work would be much more intense—drastic, violent, searching, provoking. The elements were all there, but the way they were combined lessened their potential impact. It was both too much and not enough: too many elements on stage cluttering a few stark moments, and not enough demonstrated depth of thinking to communicate the complexities and textures of living with substance abuse. While Blackwell has clearly thought about these issues, there is a gap between the intricacies of his own thought process and how he communicates those ideas to an audience. What remained was the rough shape of alcoholism; by trying to capture so much, it fell short of communicating a particular experience, which could have made a bigger impact. I wanted badly to be challenged, but instead just felt vaguely uncomfortable watching people harm their bodies in performance. Substance abuse is indeed “desolate” and important to process through art. Given more time—the Bridge Project is a three-week rehearsal period—Blackwell could make a work that devastates as only art can. But he needs to dig deeper into how the performers’ actions connect, both to each other and to his audience.
Velocity’s Bridge Project is always worth talking about, and this year was no exception, with three different, very dancey pieces and one work of performance art that probably pissed a few people off. The pre-show announcement also heralded the theater as “a safe space for unsafe ideas.” While this sentiment does not absolve an artist from judgment—every member of the audience both comes into the theater and leaves with a different set of experiences and opinions—it is an important reminder to be open to the work before you. Be ready to be uncomfortable. But be ready to ask questions, too. And artists, be ready to keep digging.
More information about Velocity Dance Center performances and programs can be found at their website.