Despite the “international” in its title, the Seattle International Dance Festival has been making plenty of room for local artists. Two of this year’s Spotlight shows were focused on the Seattle dance community, and though they didn’t really isolate a checklist of “Seattle-specific” qualities, audiences got a snapshot view of current work in the studios.
In several cases we were seeing the work of neophyte choreographers, who are still “learning on the job.” Others are more in control of their tools, but interestingly, many of them, whatever their experience level, are heading in similar directions. After years of the pattern and puzzle making aspects of post-modern dance, we’re seeing more and more work that is straightforwardly “about” something other than itself.
Adriana Hernadez and Lauren Linder address this desire for meaning directly in FAI, when one says to the other “We should make a dance about this.” And indeed they have, with an exploration of injury and recovery. Named, it seems, for femoral acetabular impingement, the text had some witty moments as well as more pensive ones, but it all was highly specific, in a way that the movement wasn’t really able to match. The pair began the work with brisk and confident travelling, morphing to restraint and intensity, but the kinetic impact would have been more diffuse without the text. Cyrus Khambatta’s duet for Sarah Seder and Amy Weaver of Sapience Dance Collective had a similar dichotomy between a specific text and a more universal movement vocabulary. See You Again opens with a short film where the two discuss their working relationship, and then goes on to illustrate the quirks of that relationship with movement that seems drawn from more standard modern techniques. Peter de Grasse’s duet for himself and Rafaelle Exiana, We wanted to be machines again is also a study of a relationship that uses spoken text to add a deeper context to ballet-inflected contemporary virtuosity. Exiana’s monologue, about searching for a sense of engagement with other people while performing abstract material, was itself a kind of search for that same engagement. All of these works come with a meta-level attached, as dancers talk about making the dances they are dancing while they are dancing them.
In several works, meaning comes in an actual narrative. Some of it, like the implied boy meets girl of Tesselation’s Don’t Sweat It, illustrate characters without complex backstories. Choreographers Jeremy Cline and Blair Elliot create a sunny relationship out of a jazzy vocabulary for a shiny duet that shows performers Cline and Meredith Sallee Qua to advantage. Erin Nichole Boyt’s film The Navigator follows a more elusive path, combining realistic images of a ship and shoreline with more suggestive footage of submerged men and women. Their hair and dresses twist and float, illustrating the complex currents in the water—they lack the fishy tails of mermaids, but seem at home under the surface, unlike the ship’s captain, who thrashes and struggles when we see him there. Some of the material is intensely beautiful, but the through line of the work can get lost in the shimmer of light on the water and the scenic panorama from the wheelhouse of the boat.
Constanze Villines and Kaitlin McCarthy are both unabashedly working with serious issues, and approach them with straightforward narrative techniques. Villines’ Divisible by 2 opens with Ian Howe seated on the floor, surrounded by little cards that he re-arranges, but the work catches us up when a recorded female voice states “Straight away I knew I wanted an abortion.” The two performers, live and recorded, have an antiphonal sort of conversation, both vocal and kinetic. Charly McCreary appears in a video of her aerial work, spinning and soaring above Howe while he is more earthbound. Eventually he dances with a length of red fabric, possibly a metaphorical extension of the silk McCreary uses in the video. While the text implies a relationship between the two dancers, we only see the aftermath, where they are well and truly separated.
McCarthy originally created Please Send Snacks as a humorous perspective on current events (the occupation of the Mahleur Wildlife Refuge last winter), but found herself in a difficult situation when the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando happened a week before the concert. Her pre-performance comments on the unhappy coincidence helped put a little distance between the real world and the theater, but in the best of situations, comedy is a serious business. The work vacillated between smart and silly, with slapstick moments next to satire. While some of the dancers looked like they were on a casting call for Duck Dynasty, and weapons came from the Nerf section of Toys R Us, the overlying message about gun culture could have used a lighter touch to make a more telling impression.
Some of the other works in the two programs have a more problematic relationship to meaning. Although choreographer Ethan Rome supplies extensive program notes for B(e)-Theory for Khambatta Dance Company, he would like the audience to watch the work before reading anything about it. On its own, the dance appears to be about personal relationships—two women try to exert themselves on a third, who manages to elude that control for a time, only to have the entire sequence repeat. But after reading the notes, what seemed to be an illustration of power dynamics is supposed to be an example of non-linear time—physics, rather than psychology.
Liz Houlton’s Is done with parenthetical citations seemed to have as elusive a relationship to meaning as the title itself. Houlton and Sabina Moe dance for each other more directly than for the audience, communicating in long gestural phrases that resemble ASL. Houlton’s use of structure and stagecraft helps organize the space and gives the dance a framework, so that when the pair returns to the original movement phrase we have a sense of completion. Anna Conner shows an even more distinct interest in pattern with The Machine, using very simple, repetitive movement phrases to set up a kind of steady-state background. The work opens with a solo figure in an even-paced turning phrase, crossing the stage back and forth multiple times, revising her gestures until eventually she’s joined by others with the original phrase. Even as the gestures become more agitated (hands at throats) there’s still a predictable tick-tock phrasing underneath it all until finally the soloist exits and we’re done.
Among all this exploration of meaning, both Elby Brosch and Stephanie Liapis seem to have found a dynamic balance between what they want to say and how they want to say it. Brosch’s solo, It’s Only Right, is full of agitation (feet tapping, fingers snapping, hands running through hair or covering mouth) while Markeith Wiley’s sound score whispers sotto voce, not quite making the words clear. The action gets more intense until finally Brosch seems to tire, or to settle down. We can’t tell if this is a resolution or a momentary pause, as he lifts an arm up to shade his eyes while the lights begin to fade. Me and Her, Liapis’ solo for Alicia Pugh, is even more ambiguous—Pugh swings her arms in big gestural phrases, digging her hands into her pockets and scattering little beads across the floor almost like she’s sowing seeds in a field. The clatter of the beads on the floor acts as a counter-rhythm to the looping surge of her arms and legs, a mysterious ritual that we don’t quite understand, but that moves us nonetheless.
For more information on Seattle International Dance Festival, see their website.