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Sweat is flying! Dancers glide across the stage in duets of athletic virtuosity, sliding over one another’s bodies in glossy feats of partnering. Quick, buoyant leaps and powerful grand battements are sprinkled into the smooth movement vocabulary. 

Laurentide. Photo by Stefano Altamura.

Laurentide by Yoshito Sakuraba (New York City) is part of Whim W’him’s Choreographic Shindig V, another edition of the annual program in which company dancers select three choreographers to make new works from an open international application process. This piece uses the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which weighed down heavily on the earth and slowly melted over a period of 10,000 years, as a metaphor for “perfect conflict or balance between two states of being,” with the two states represented by two halves of the work.

The first half reads like a movie trailer, packed with fleeting moments of action and drama. A soundtrack of crescendos fill the space with anticipation. The demeanor of the dancers is tense and urgent. Pools of light illuminate short sequences of movement before blacking out. 

The second half of Laurentide maintains the tense demeanor but allows movement to build and develop over time, taking away some of the immediacy and drama of the first half. The dancers perform unison with sweeping arm movements and sleek texture. In my opinion, Laurentide does not evoke the imagery that comes to mind from melting, disappearing, or weighing down on the earth, but it does bring two states of being into existence. They are two worlds that hold the same mood but vary in the execution. Both present dancers in conflict—the first is a vanishing conflict that thrives on short vignettes of movement, and the second is less noticeable initially, but builds over time. 

Jim Kent and Liane Aung in See-Saw. Photo by Stefano Altamura.

See-Saw, a work by Joshua Manculich (Houston), also explores two states. Aptly named, this work investigates “an interplay between the immediacy of a child’s world and an adult’s more complex and wider view.” This concept is demonstrated clearly in the facial expressions of the dancers, movement quality of the choreography, and lighting design by Michael Mazzola. The child’s world features imagery of a classroom, referenced in the text of the soundtrack as well as a chalkboard on the stage. This playful, explosive world includes warm side lighting, upbeat chaotic movement, and joyous faces. The adult world includes dramatic white lighting from above, terse facial expressions and calculated choreography. Dancers embody structure and line, making clear that each motion is a premeditated decision. At one point, a dancer deliberately stares at their hand, representing a moment of contemplative thought. These worlds alternate until, towards the end, they are blended together, both in lighting design and a choreographic melding of the two movement styles. The piece concludes in a striking duet between dancers Jim Kent and Cameron Birts. It appears that Birts is taking on a parent role, teaching Kent how to navigate the world. In the end, Kent relents to gravity, falling in several directions, always led back to his feet by a fellow dancer until he learns to stand on his own. See-Saw is well-developed in concept, evoking both nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood and illuminating the necessity for the transition to adulthood. 

Adrian Hoffman and Jane Cracovaner in The Smile Club. Photo by Stefano Altamura.

In collaboration with the dancers, Kyra Jean Green (Montreal) choreographed The Smile Club, a piece that asks “Can we teach ourselves to be happy?” The work answers that question with firm no, adding that things will become quite weird if we try to. The dancers embark on a carousel of robotic movements. Rotating around center stage, dancers perform quick dance phrases before sticking in an exaggerated facial expression. These expressions cover a range of emotions, from cheesy happy winking to scrunched mouths with narrowed, angry eyes. The use of exaggeration shows dancers embodying a world where they are trapped in forced emotions. The Smile Club is the highlight of the night for its adventurous presentation and original, animated movement. The piece leads the audience through a curious, sometimes literal, sometimes abstract journey that is gloriously woven together. It is cringe-worthy in the best way.

In addition to the remarkable dancing and exciting choreography, another aspect of this program is worth paying attention to. Choreographic Shindig is atypical in that it places the curation in the hands of the dancers, instead of the company’s leadership. It represents the start of what could (and should!) be a progressive change in the larger contemporary dance world. Current contemporary dancers are expected to be active collaborators in the works that choreographers create on them. They are asked to invent movement off of prompts or directives, problem-solve innovative ways to make the work come together, and often offer their own feedback and insight throughout the artistic process. Since this collaborative nature is integral to how most contemporary dance is made, it only makes sense to give the dancers an important role in selecting who they work with. Year after year, Choreographic Shindig yields a varied yet cohesive program in which the dancers (who already seem to be able to do anything) are pushed to move in even more new ways in risk-taking choreographic works. This program proves that beyond their fabulous performance skills, dancers are intelligent and thoughtful artists who can excellently curate a show! Inviting dancers to the decision-making process for company programming is an important step forward in recognizing their full value. Props to Whim W’him Founder and Artistic Director Olivier Wevers for pioneering this valuable program.