Visible effort has rarely been considered a compliment when it comes to watching professional dance performances. Because it might threaten the illusion of grace and power, performers are taught to “never let them see you sweat.” Vaseline is coated on young competitive dancers’ teeth to keep them smiling. It’s just not cool to look like what you’re doing is actually really hard to do.
This reluctance to show the strain behind graceful movement was challenged at Velocity’s annual Next Fest NW. Specifically aimed to present progressive works, this year’s fest proved to be no different in its pursuit to uncover relevant, confrontational art. Operating under the theme “pastFORWARD,” the choreographers’ task was to research how our past informs our future. Each piece, at one point or another, openly showed the strife behind every task—whether emotional, social, or physical. As if to say, “this is how it really is,” each performance emulated unapologetic honesty—a concept finally bubbling to the surface of our current socio-political landscape after a long past of brutal denial.
Quinn Andrew Hallenbeck’s solo serenade in c contemporarily used George Balanchine’s Serenade to redefine performance. Clad in a simple tank top and bright purple shorts, Hallenbeck danced parts of the original choreography, methodically speckling it with moments of rest and images of traditional ballet warm up techniques. Simple tendus and Pilates mat exercises let us witness the physical discipline of every dancer offstage, dismantling the magical illusion of ease.
Hallenbeck skillfully shifted between internal and external focus—eyes downcast in concentration followed by snapping back into a pleasant facade. This continued acknowledgement of effort mutated to an almost drill-like sequence. An eloquent petit allegro escalated into an intense display of plyometrics. Hallenbeck jumped high in parallel, using her arms to propel her away from the floor and tucking her knees into her chest. At one point, she ran suicide sprints upstage and downstage, her face unmasked, communicating pain. serenade in c took a (literally) vigorous look into the sheer physical and emotional exertion behind any performance, on or off a stage.
Sabina Moe added to the honesty of the night with her piece BECOMING THE BEST. Dancers Elby Brosch, Alyssa Casey, and Shane Donohue frantically groomed themselves, wearing suit jackets with white collared shirts underneath. As they manually nudged their own mouths into smiles, straightened their jackets, and brushed invisible dirt off their fingers, it became obvious this piece was addressing forced societal personas. The trio moved in and out of pedestrian walking patterns, bird-like twitches, and frantic full-bodied solos. They danced along the spectrum between composure and agitation. Scoffed laughter juxtaposed dead faces, and a very business-like handshake between Brosch and Donohue sealed an unseen agreement. While noble in its investigation of “becoming the best,” the piece seemed to present no further insight into the subject.
Introducing themselves as two thirty-something guys living with their parents, Ethan Folk and Ty Wardwell humorously addressed current social constructs in guys like me. While the belly of the performance contained many intelligent and sometimes shocking moments, what was most interesting was how they began and concluded the piece. In order to begin the performance, the duo required that select audience members with envelopes of money under their chairs vote on one of three options. Representing the power of money, this portion of the piece requested that the audience make their voices heard with “cold hard cash.” The two delivered a playful and task-driven piece mostly involving popcorn and at least two minutes of solid bouncing from foot to foot. An unused ladder sat slightly off center stage and a blue sack-like object hung from the ceiling. Their environment created an interesting disruption of space, even if the objects weren’t interacted with. As the two began to clean their set up when finished with the piece, the audience started to clap. This prompted Folk to say, “It’s not done, please hold your applause.” By making the strike of the set a part of the performance, Folk and Wardwell showed the work of deconstruction to be as deserving of attention as construction.
The idea of construction was tackled more literally in The Renovation, choreographed by Syniva Whitney. This stand-out piece added a bizarre twist to the night by bringing our attention to the venue itself. An endlessly clever interaction with the physical space of Velocity, the piece utilized impressively constructed costumes that mimicked the wooden floors and red brick wall of Founders studio. The peak of the performance was Will Courtney walking through each area of the space with the exuberant confidence of a CEO, describing how it would be changed to provide a “full sensory experience.” The ridiculous sounding additions he proposed echoed through each corner of Velocity as we turned our heads to follow his direction. Dark humor became a useful tool to comment on the frivolous, commerce-driven elimination of what once were sacred spaces. With Capitol Hill rapidly undergoing this type of gentrification, a relevant piece such as this prompts even more dialogue about the future of our artistic community.
With our country in such social and political disarray, it is comforting to know that Seattle is home to fervent, tenacious art-makers. If we hope to serve the greater advance of social justice, it takes every effort—not just from artists, but everyone—to keep us moving forward through the war of oppression and inequality with honest confrontation. Next Fest NW is just one example of how brave members of our dance community are making work that shows that the cause is worth the effort.
Next Fest NW was performed at Velocity Dance Center December 9-11, 2016. More information on Velocity and NFNW can be found here.