Everyone knows it takes skill to dance well. What many don’t know, even dancers, is that it also takes a different kind of skill to put together a dynamic show.
Thankfully, Whim W’Him dancers know how to dance and assemble a great show. The second annual Choreographic Shindig continues a new tradition by the small but explosive company to let the dancers curate a program based on an applicant pool (this year they received 100 applications from across the globe). It’s a risky move by Artistic Director Olivier Wevers, but the result pays off.
Shindig, Whim W’Him’s season opener, features works by three choreographers: Joseph Hernandez (currently of Semperoper Ballett in Dresden, Germany), Lauren Edson (of Boise, Idaho-based LED), and New York City’s MADBOOTS Dance (co-founded by Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz). With each piece, the audience gets a taste of just how versatile the dancers are.
Edson’s From Under the Cork Tree, for example, highlighted Whim W’Him dancers’ uncanny ability to embody the hive mind, becoming a robust unit while still maintaining individuality. Throughout the piece, the group, clad in form-fitting black outfits with cutouts and red socks, moved through poses and small isolations in striking unity. The inimitable Patrick Kilbane, glided in and out of the floor, making the simplest steps feel important and compelling.
What started out as a seemingly serious study on individual versus group dynamics increasingly turned into a more playful exploration, which feels exciting especially given the high technicality that Whim W’Him dancers possess. At one point, Kilbane executed a fast and rhythmic solo while the group performed gestures to a recording of a “Simon Says” exercise. At another point, the iconic (and sometimes overplayed) “Bolero” played and the group started marching. To close, the dancers zoomed through a series of athletic trios and duets to Judy Collins’ playful folk-rock tune “Both Sides Now.” While cheerful and sometimes even cheesy, the dancers’ serious faces looked like they were all deliberately trying to play the straight man as they turned, leapt, and lifted each other with ease. The choreography was deliberately corny at parts, but crafted intricately and performed with so much gusto that it felt satisfyingly lively.
On the flip side of the cheerful coin is Hernandez’s SARO, a darkly theatrical piece complete with text and props. SARO started out with several dancers in masks with Tory Peil’s face and cutout eyes. Then Peil herself entered and answered questions from Jim Kent: How are you complete? Are you free? How do you belong here? The work featured vignettes of tense characters within Peil’s mind—Justin Reiter and Kilbane zooming through the space like thundering storms, a restless and agitated Mia Monteabaro, the indifferent interrogator Jim Kent, and newcomer Liane Aung commanding space and manipulating other characters with rawness and alacrity. SARO is clinical in feel but full of moments of humanity. We audience members were left feeling tense as we witness these characters unravel into disarray trying to find settlement between seemingly warring sides and impulses within them. The work reached a satisfying resolution as Peil calmly took over the space and delivered a slinky yet disjointed solo. What a treat to see the dancers tackle a dramatic but cerebral work like SARO.
SWAN SONG, by Campbell and Diaz of MADBOOTS, is visually stunning and executed with great skill, but perhaps the most compositionally underwhelming compared to the other two works. Campbell and Diaz’s vocabulary—which blends graceful linear elements with a grounded and almost herculean physicality—exhilarated the dancers (Kilbane and newcomer Karl Watson were particularly exciting to watch as they reveled in equal parts euphoria and serenity). Throughout SWAN SONG, Reiter stood over a fan and spread blue flower petals across the space, with each dancer joining him in parts, like a tranquil but sober ritual. This seemingly ceremonial act, complemented with the image of dancers fluidly gliding in and out of the floor and each other, is a beautiful sight in and of itself. Yet the work never reached a pinnacle as new ideas kept being introduced but never fully developed.
The choreographers also inserted moments that suggest a commentary on ballet traditions: Peil dancing a short rendition of the iconic “Dying Swan” solo, Watson doing dozens of entrechat deux (small jumps with feet beating), crossed arms in front of the chest a la Giselle. But these moments were so few and far between that it never became clear what that commentary was. Even touching moments—like a tender and tactile duet between Kent and Kilbane, or a heart-wrenching pairing of Kent supporting a continually broken Peil—lasted too short as Campbell and Diaz quickly shifted between images without fulfilling the emotional potential they introduced.
Even with the emotional and compositional roller coaster that each choreographer presented, managed to, once again, emphasize Whim W’Him’s rising importance in the region. Especially in Seattle’s smaller and more tight-knit dance scene, often prone to groupthink and sharing of aesthetic influences, these doses of new artistic ideas are a satisfying breath of fresh air.
Choreographic Shindig runs September 9 to 17, 2016 at the Erickson Theatre off Broadway. Catch the show second run this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm. For tickets and more information about the company’s programs visit its website.