What lies at the intersection of work, life, and art, and how does a dancer navigate the tension and ambiguity that runs through it? These were the questions dancemakers grappled with in Work//Life, an evening of contemporary dance works performed by Seattle-based Ktisk Contemporary Dance, performed March 18 and 19 at Velocity Dance Center. Set to a varied selection of jazz musical accompaniment on a core of contemporary and, at times, jazz-inflected movement vocabulary, the evening’s works offered three different perspectives on the pursuit for direction and balance in an arts-driven career, and the panoply of emotions that can accompany such a journey.
The show opened with the ensemble piece, Love and Hate in a 9 to 8. With choreography by Rachael Forstrom, the piece offered a series of impressions, set in separate, somewhat connected scenes, tracing a trajectory of the career life, with its periodic excitement, its routines and mundanity, its fluctuations of emotion. Set to a mixed jazz selection, Love and Hate began in a frenzy, with an overlay of traffic noises clouding the music, and the dancers criss-crossing the stage, their brisk strides punctuated with occasional jumps or lunges. Repeated hand and upper body gestures—as if checking a watch or shrugging on a coat—suggested the routines of workday bookends. Successive scenes probed career drama—an interview scene using office chairs as props, a sweeping duet with the hired employee and her boss—gave loose structure to the work’s universal themes. The dancers’ movements, which ranged from sharp and quick, to languid, and later to full and rich, gave texture to the multitude of mindsets and feelings that populate the work experience, sometimes in the span of a single day.
FAI, the evening’s second piece, was performed and choreographed by guest collaborators and former Ktisk members Lauren Linder and Adriana Hernandez. It slowed the program’s pace with a quiet, quirky exploration of what happens to a dancer’s sense of identity when injury sidelines their chief instrument in creating art. The piece began with Linder and Hernandez side by side, each bearing a long black mark tracing one leg top to bottom, their facial expressions alternately somber, pained, or determinedly cheerful. Their movements, slow and hesitant at first, suggested bodies tight and sore. As the piece progressed, so did their determination. But even as they gained confidence, they moved without total cooperation from their joints and limbs—arms hung limp, hips refused to turn out, balance looked elusive.
A voiceover picked up about one-third into the piece; “Femoroacetabular impingement,” the voices spelled out deliberately for anyone who hadn’t caught the hint of work’s title. We learned, eventually, that this is Linder’s and Hernandez’s own story of the surgery to correct it. The voices relayed the frustrations of a bruised body and the difficulty of not dancing, and mused over the coping mechanisms she’ll call on during a long recovery (catching up with Netflix and reading “all the books”). As the speaking tone picked up energy, so did the movement quality, with Hernandez and Linder executing fuller impressions of the steps they had hobbled through before. Overall, the piece provided a nice breather in the evening’s lineup, made light by the witty script and grounded by its humanity.
At the same time, FAI‘s resolution, perhaps limited by an effort to faithfully present personal experience, seemed a little too tidy. Toward the conclusion of the piece, the audience had the sense that the dancers figured out that they’re injuries are temporary, and so the way they fill their time in the meantime isn’t exactly a rethinking of identity; it’s distraction, albeit opportunistic in tone. More interesting might have been a deeper query into the uncertainty that accompanies a career blow, and how to reconfigure your identity if things don’t work out the way you wanted them to. You don’t want to hear that they’re not going to be able to dance again—but you do want the sense that if they can’t, everything will be okay.
Philippa Myler’s Enter the Unknown, with accompaniment by Seattle bassist Isaac Castillo, concluded the evening with a dreamy meditation on the sometimes elusive, wending, winding business of finding your way in work, and the life it’s bound up in. Visual metaphors set the stage for the work: a light fog rolled across the floor as dancers streamed on and off the stage, each carrying a stone they used to lay a rough diagonal path.
Alone, one dancer (Emilee Putsche) began to trace the steps from one corner of the diagonal to the other with off-balance movements suggesting hesitation and apprehension. As she progressed, a few dancers joined her, giving a lift to her steps and helping to carry her to one step, then another. As the remaining dancers filled the stage, they danced with, around, and past one another. Sometimes they collided with an uncomfortable clash of competition, but increasingly they used each other to mutual advantage, partnering or synchronizing their steps in clusters. The work reached a high pitch as one dancer, in throes of desperation, stopped in a shoulder-width stance and threw her upper body to and fro, beating her thighs and vocalizing angst. This release contrasted with the low emotional register of the rest of the piece as to be jarring. Perhaps that was Myler’s intention. Frustration in life and work is real; here it was palpable.
As the staged thinned, dancers picked up the stones they had so carefully laid down at the show’s outset, sometimes turning them over in their hands, leaving the impression that whatever their path, they’d found it, at least for now. The program notes tell us that in creating Enter the Unknown, Myler specifically drew from her own pursuit of a career in dance, but anyone in the audience, as the notes also suggest, could surely find something relatable in Myler’s portrayal of her work/life journey. And this, ultimately, was one of the show’s greatest strengths—in creating material on a topic relevant to so many lives in the dance community, Ktisk hit on something undeniably resonant. -Emily Horton
More information about Ktisk Contemporary Dance can be found on their website.