June is probably the most infamous month in Seattle for its packed dance schedule. Here’s a few note-worthy items and hot takes on recent happenings.
Lynn Tofil’s Things That Need To Be Done
Tofil’s choreographic treatise on high-functioning anxiety and depression took the form of a nearly six-hour solo heroically performed by Alexandra Beatty Spencer. One can imagine a durational solo being a real bore, but this was surprisingly captivating. Spencer’s performance was so entrancing, and Tofil’s choreography so finely tuned, that during my two and a half hours in attendance I could barely look away long enough to take notes.
Tofil uses duration to create states of perpetuity in which she can show the rituals and exhaustion of surviving and maintaining. In one section, Spencer repeats a quick, high-precision gestural phrase as she steps every few counts, making the shape of a square. After a long time in this established rhythm, a simple shift in facing feels huge. New facings and short pauses gradually complicate an already demanding phrase. Spencer never waivers, but I feel a growing tension around how long she can keep this up. After a long time the phrase simplifies down to just shifts in facing, the square getting smaller and smaller. It’s as if I’m watching Spencer disappearing, her agency fading, subsumed by the task.
After hours of regimented, precisely-placed and task-oriented movement, the opening drum beats of The Ronette’s “Be My Baby” cut through the space and Spencer breaks into a soulful, internal jam. Swinging her hips and tossing her head carefree to the side she seems to finally let loose. (Even writing about this moment now I feel my eyes welling up.) My heart breaks double, then, when after a few minutes this idiosyncratic, formless, seemingly-improvised solo dance party repeats again, exactly. Spencer’s organic performance of joy had so convinced me and then its replication revealing that it is yet another strategy, a carefully crafted image of carefree. We are five hours into a solo, and the full-bodied phrase loops again and again to a litany of upbeat oldies, each time Spencer’s endurance becoming more miraculous. Between songs, as one fades out and the other in, you can hear an underlying dark and haunting tone. Is the tone there always, but most of the time covered by the music? All these elements and more came together to make an experience that communicated the internal world of another person on a visceral level. What a tremendous gift.
Holy Crap, Cameo!
Of the people making physically technical, design-forward dance in this city, no one is doing it better than Cameo. Cameo (formerly Cameo Lethem, but now making work under her first name only) has been steadily rising with quality work in festivals all over town that show remarkable choreographic skill and clarity in point of view. Cameo’s works fall into that category of dance I personally have a hard time relating to, because it’s too abstract for me to pull out a moment and analyze it for meaning. Often during abstract pieces I am left wondering Who are these people? Why are they moving like this? What is it all for? As I sit through Cameo’s recent work at Seattle International Dance Festival, In Process, I never ask these questions. The exquisite design of space and rhythm speaks for itself. Like a master composer, Cameo’s bread and butter is dynamics, detail, and an acute sense of space and time. Her work is rigorous and replete with fancy-ass dance moves and yet it never becomes a trick pony show or technique for technique’s sake. Each movement is necessary, contributing to a whole. It helps that she’s also working with some of the best dance talent in Seattle—Charmaine Butcher, Molly Levy, Maya Tacon, Erica Badgeley, Alicia Pugh, Maeve Haselton, and Drew Gorospe all performed in her most recent work. In Process blew me away. Someone please get this woman her own show already.
In the News: New Names and Companies
Cameo isn’t the only one rebranding. Alice Gosti is now making work under her new company name, MALACARNE, a reclaiming of a derogatory term assigned to non-conforming women during Italian fascism. (Disclosure: I dance with MALACARNE). Another new-ish company is The Gray, Beth Terwilleger’s pickup company that’s pumped out an impressive number of works since their premiere last fall. The former Ballet Austin dancer is fairly new to Seattle, but Terwilleger has already been in Bridge Project, Converge Dance Festival, Seattle International Dance Festival, a self-produced split bill at Base, and a co-production with Velocity. If you’re into moody, character-driven technical dancing be sure to follow The Gray.
PNB principals Noelani Pantastico and James Yoichi Moore recently announced their new independent company, Seattle Dance Collective. The name is choice is curiously reminiscent of the now defunct Seattle Dance Project, which was also led by another couple of PNB dancers, Timothy Lynch and Julie Tobiason. SDC’s first show, “Program One,” features some very talented dancers (Angelica Generosa! Liane Aung!) including nine from PNB and two from Whim W’him. The show is a festival lineup with five choreographers from around the globe playing July 12-14 at Vashon Center for the Arts. The lineup claims to “challenge expectations,” and while the generic-ness of the title Program One by Seattle Dance Collective doesn’t feel especially boundary-breaking, there is a piece set to music by The Cramps, so we’ll see.
Coriolis’ Danses des Cygnes
Speaking of breaking ballet norms, I’ve long been a supporter of Coriolis because they stay true to being unapologetically balletic while tossing out many of the useless conventions that much of ballet can’t seem to shake. Their latest show, choreographed by Natascha Greenwalt, continued that history. Unlike many ballets that feature rape scenes, Danses des Cygnes portrayed the victim’s perspective and the perpetrator is banished from swan society. Read Richael Best’s excellent analysis of the show’s take on Swan Lake HERE.
Despite the moral triumphs of the show, however, I personally struggled with the choreography. One ballet convention sadly not left behind is the cartoonish playacting meant to communicate story to the far reaches of an opera house. In intimate Velocity Dance Center, however, the dancers come off more like puppets than humans we’re supposed to be connecting with emotionally. The movement, while technically impressive and well rehearsed, functions primarily in service of conveying the story and broadcasting the dancers’ birdiness. The nuance of the story is never developed within the choreographic concepts themselves. All movement ideas (and there are many) come and go quickly. There’s a delightful take on the famous “four swans” dance, where the dancers have joined hands and bop their hips, but it lasts all of 10 seconds. And while I’m glad the swan rapist gets kicked out of swan land, something about this idealistic society feels vastly oversimplified. A cloying afterschool special that fails to acknowledge the complications of actual society. I am sure the directors of Coriolis are well aware that rape is a product of a deeply entrenched patriarchal culture and not just bad individuals, but from my perspective, it didn’t come across that way in the construction of this particular work.
Highlights from Northwest New Works
Survival and healing, in one form or another, seemed to be an ongoing thread in the dance works presented at On the Board’s Northwest New Works this year. Imana Gunawan’s tribute to victims of systematic violence, vestiges, to those who couldn’t hold on, was a softly beautiful work of bodies perpetually tumbling and circling, mimicking the rose petals that fell from the ceiling throughout the piece. Little Brown Language, a trio by Naomi Macalalad Bragin, wove together rhythmic stepping and vocalized mantras that referenced religion and colonization. Powerful movements that claimed space contrasted with finding precarious points of balance on top of wooden boxes. The final moments focus on the three dancers in a tower-like counterbalance, holding one another to sustain the precarious position. Anvil, Jenny May Peterson’s duet with Hendri Walujo, navigated a growing paranoia through absurd circuit training that incorporated self-soothing strategies such as EFT tapping (a technique where tapping on the body is believed to reduce anxiety) and original ASMR audio. Rigorous and repetitive, rising tension studded with laugh-out-loud moments captured a rollercoaster of existential dread. (Disclosure: I sometimes collaborate with Peterson).
Additionally, the festival as a whole was making an effort towards healing by honoring some protocol of the Coast Salish Peoples, beginning each showcase with a land acknowledgment and passing around a collection for Real Rent Duwamish. This engagement was guided, in part, by work with one of the presenting artists, Dakota Camacho, who’s piece, -|- Tåno’ Dxʷdəwʔabš -|-:-|- MALI’E -|-, blended hip hop, history lessons, breaking, and indigenous practices. The work’s title is completely unreadable to me as an English speaker, but it does something very important. It makes us confront that there are languages and ways of knowing that preexist the dominant culture, and that they survive and continue. Letting English speakers struggle over the words reaffirms that precedence.
A real highlight of this year’s festival, something I and I’d guess many people found very healing, was Weighted Bodies by Body Home Fat Dance, a fat-celebrating collaboration out of Portland, OR, led by KT Kusmaul. I am embarrassed for our community to admit how radical it is to watch fat bodies on stage, not performing shame or comedy, but allowing their bodies to move in the way that they move. Sometimes this meant kneading and shaping bellies with their hands, curiously exploring and openly displaying. Other times this meant jumping, stomping, and shaking, their increased capacity for reverberations a feature of the choreography. A cannon of bouncing power poses from the cast of nine built to a triumphant finish that made me want to stand up and cheer.