The evening begins with a series of grand jetes. Dancers clothed in tight, black costumes leap out of the wings of the theater, accompanied by spliced music that stutters the word “Que” over and over again. Swift bourres en pointe in parallel are a clear emblem of the piece as the dancers travel around the stage in linear patterns.
ARC At 20: A Twentieth Anniversary Retrospective features the ARC Dance Company and the choreography of Artistic Director Marie Chong, along with fourteen other choreographers across two programs. This evening’s program presented works by Kabby Mitchell III, Marika Brussel, Kirk Midtskog, Marie Chong, Gérard Théorêt, Mark J. Kane, Jason Ohlberg, Ilana Goldman, and Bruce McCormic. Chong founded ARC Dance Productions in 1999 and opened Arc School of Ballet five years later. ARC Dance Productions maintains a 9,000 square foot facility in Ballard, supporting dance education, performances, and ARC Dance Company.
The opening number, QUE! (1999) is performed in loving memory of Kabby Mitchell III, a Seattle choreographer who passed away in 2017. The program notes explain that, though it was originally a different title, “as the piece formed, Mr. Mitchell decided on Que, meaning “What” in Spanish. ” The title feels appropriate in conveying the unapologetic nature of this unlikely pairing of music and movement. The mood of this piece is lively from the music, which eventually progresses to an upbeat song in Spanish, but the choreography remains geometric and clear cut. The cheerful soundtrack alongside abstract, serious dancing is intriguing. I had the feeling that the steps would break into more playful territory at some point, but this never occurred. QUE! is technique-forward, setting the stage for what is the main focus of most works in the program of contemporary ballet works.
A Short Bouree (2010), choreographed by Kirk Midtskog and danced by Hamilton Nieh, is classical and repetitive in structure. The choreography is mostly comprised of ballet grand allegro, petit allegro, and adagio segments with lots of port de bras. This piece precedes Something Fun (2010), choreographed by Marie Chong and also danced by Nieh. According to the program, the second was conceived as a counterpoint to the first. Chong’s work is more playful choreographically and modern in vocabulary. It begins with Nieh walking out while putting pants on over his ballet tights. He briefly looks down at the ground, then out at the audience, and then immediately walks off stage, a moment that warranted giggles from many audience members. Nieh returns with more clothes on, and then begins a sequence of movement with audible breaths, sweeping hands along the floor, and many grounded pliés. The musicality of this piece is cheeky and more nuanced in nature, whereas A Short Bouree is very even and predictable in its use of music.
Presented back to back in this order, A Short Bouree comes across as restricted in expression. Nieh is more reserved in this piece, seeming to enjoy the movement much less than its modern counterpart. In Something Fun, Nieh opens up to a greater range of expression and appears to be more satisfied with the range of steps he embodies.
Ilana Goldman’s Gaining Ground (2015) is “inspired by the investigation of gender norms and the obstacles women still face in a post-feminist society.” In this piece, men and women are clothed in gendered costumes and given separate choreography for most of the work. It begins with male dancers holding female dancers back as they lean forward out of the wings. This slow-moving holding back continues until the men eventually dropped the women on the floor.
Goldman’s choreography consists mostly of gendered stereotypes. All of the partnering in the work is male/female with the men performing all of the lifts and the women draping themselves over the men. Men carry women off stage while the women lean over their shoulders, gesturing out desperately. In one section, the men push the women limb by limb across the space, and while the women display resistance, they consistently move in the direction that the men are leading them.
More than halfway through the piece, the women suddenly push the men to the floor where they stay on their knees while the women dance separately. The women eventually return to help the men off the ground. While I can understand the choreographic intention of this section, it came across as gimmicky and contrived. After so much sameness in display of gender roles, it felt like a decision the dancers were told to act out as some resolution rather than a warranted choreographic choice with a message to convey. It is disappointing that a work meant to investigate gender norms instead focused on presenting gender stereotypes for the majority of the piece without adequate commentary. If choreographers continue to display stereotypes in this way, they are only reinforcing the issues they claim to be addressing.
Palatial Vestiges (2018) is the closing piece of the program and the clear standout of the night. Choreographed by Bruce McCormick, this piece relies heavily on short solos within unison stillness of a large ensemble. Highlighted in spotlights, dancers individually break out into quick, dynamic choreography with geometric arm placements and stark changes in timing. One soloist, pressing one hand to the floor repetitively, is joined by others until the group evolves into an undulating mass. This image is returned to at the end of the piece, but it accumulates from a duet instead of a solo. This choice creates a recognizable difference that contributes to the narrative of the work. Community leadership can be collaborative, not just followers to a single leader.
Overall, ARC at 20 highlighted what seems to be the main focus of the company: presenting ballet technique at the front and center of its choreographic works. The caliber of the dancers is impressive, but the program lacks the ability to be captivating over time. Many of the pieces were incredibly similar in choreographic structure and dynamics. That, in addition to vocabulary that rarely strayed from codified contemporary ballet, made for a long show. As ARC continues forward from this notable anniversary, they would do well to challenge themselves and their audience with more variety in work as they continue to grow.