It’s there in the title—On the Boards’ annual Northwest New Works festival is all about the latest thing. But even though the emphasis is on the unexpected, over its multi-year history the festival has carved out a few traditions in its programming, from the amount of stuff onstage to the unexpected beauty of a moment.
In line for the stuff award would have to be <sic> by Mother Tongue, Katherine Cohen (kt shores) and Angelina Baldoz’s Sci-Fi/Western non sequitur epic, full of hip flasks, playing cards and attitude. A straightforward description of the action would make almost no sense at all (alien encounter ending in the apocalypse), and yet the audience was transfixed through the whole thing. Alongside it is Petra Zanki’s Pleasant Place, a nostalgic trip for three dancers in a landscape that might have been full of things from my basement. The random collection of old clothes, popcorn machines, and leftover sports equipment comes into focus toward the end as the trio describe photos of themselves from childhood, giving their lonely hats and potted plants a history.
Julie Hammond’s autobiographical Môj Gidget manages to connect her own family of Holocaust survivors with the titular teenage surfer girl in a kind of anthropological travelogue, complete with deck chairs, palm trees, and ocean mist replicated with a spray bottle and a fan. As she describes her trip to an Eastern European ER after a wakeboarding wipeout, her surf board rolls by in a lovely aloha moment.
Balancing on the edge between camp and drama, Waxie Moon’s After the Funeral had another boudoir’s worth of stuff on stage for a melodramatic tableau vivant. As the grieving widow, Moon is dressed in Edwardian splendor—most of which comes off in a cleverly-timed striptease after she’s summoned the gardener to help assuage her pain. Silent movie drama alternates with deadpan humor (and some bawdy sex, mostly behind a backlit screen) and the cast plays deftly with the conventions of the style.
In a contrast to high drama and props, there were several works over the two weekends that made their point strictly through movement. Cameo Lethem’s Isla is a clear-eyed nod to classic post-modern dance, a structural reflection of Steve Reich’s “Violin Phase” for five dancers arrayed in a grid onstage. The material is densely-packed, but their performance made the development easy to follow, as themes and phrases jumped from person to person. Kaitlin McCarthy may have drawn her inspiration from Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible, but her Eight Abigails leaves the specifics of text behind in an evocation of religious intensity and group hysteria. Her ensemble builds slowly from simple locomotion to mania, and then seems to fold in on itself, so that we’re left with the uncomfortable idea that they could easily explode again.
A counter to these more austere works, Kim Lusk’s Quartet for the Dead Set has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Lusk and her colleagues bounce and shimmy like prize fighters at a disco. Erin McCarthy tears through multiple references from classical ballet to Soul Train in an opening solo, only to finish in the splits like a implacable cheerleader. Lusk and Shane Donohue, pinky fingers barely linked, slither and jitter through a kind of inebriated sarabande. All this time, Alex Pham has been grooving to the music in his head upstage. The work is highly musical, but has an elastic connection to the rhythm —the performers pull and push the beats just as they do each other, looking for all the world like a concertina made of human beings.
Wade Madsen has been making dances in Seattle and elsewhere since the 1970s, and his People is like a photo album of the dancers he’s worked with through those years. In a tender collection of movement fragments and phrases, Madsen shows us the essence of each person in the cast of seventeen. If it’s someone you’ve watched for years, you recognize their core identity—if it’s someone you don’t know as well, it’s a tiny, exquisitely crafted introduction.
Moments in several other works caught the collective eyes and ears of the audience. Will Courtney promising us all artisanal smoothies in Syniva Whitney/Gender Tender’s manic The Renovation. In Ella Mahler’s Really, It’s This, piles of exquisitely folded t-shirts contrast with dancers Jenna Eady and Anna Krupp’s soaking wet hair. And the final tableau of I Want to Hear the Sea by Earth and Ceremony, where, after a singer in a long white dress walks incredibly slowly down a long ramp, the train of her skirt is hoisted up behind her like a sail, transforming her into the bowsprit.
On the Board’s NW New Works Festival 2017 featured 16 new works over two weekends: June 9-11 and 16-18. More information at ontheboards.org.