When an acclaimed musician and a well-known choreographer collaborate, it’s exciting. New music from Perfume Genius alone would cause anticipation, and every successive production from choreographer Kate Wallich seems to increase her circle of followers. The two making work together is a big deal—and I was here for it. But the resulting evening-length production, The Sun Still Burns Here, became an exercise in self-congratulation. It felt like one of those shows where the cool people would inevitably like it because the cool people made it. Many of the audience members whooped and clapped, and got to their feet at the end. But it didn’t land for me, and I left feeling disappointed, frustrated, and confused.
The artistic team clearly worked hard on this production, and deserve recognition for that. The music by itself should make a decent album if and when it’s released. Parts of the choreography were compelling. And the draw of a major work involving Perfume Genius, a queer artist, is intoxicating—an opportunity for a large-scale piece of queer art to appear on one of Seattle’s major stages. But the dynamics of the characters within the piece seemed to uphold, rather than deconstruct, the patriarchal model. The whole package created a specific world, a gauzy industrial forest, with Perfume Genius as king nymph and Kate Wallich his most loyal subject.
Multiple times during the piece, Perfume Genius was placed physically above the rest of the dancers and musicians, whether on top of a ladder or on their actual shoulders. The piece seemed designed around his ego. In some scenes Perfume Genius acted like a drunken playboy, stumbling around with his microphone, stroking a rope of golden tassels. His sensual moments with men in the cast were tender—if languid and self-satisfied. But when he and Kate Wallich coupled, both of them endlessly thrusting, it was violent and hateful. Their crotches banging together, Perfume Genius trains his deadpan gaze on the audience, asking us to acknowledge what’s happening. A moment later, Wallich grins, dead-eyed, out at us. My stomach turned.
It was refreshing, on the one hand, to see a queer artist take up so much space at a major venue. On the other hand, the dynamics between the characters played by Perfume Genius and Kate Wallich came off as alarmingly sexist—a woman subservient to and almost in worship of a man. And the rest of the dancers’ movements contributed to this artist-worship.
If I focused on the sonic performance, rather than the visual one, I was more pleased. We got a nice helping of Perfume Genius’s signature high, breathy vocals while a flute and saxophone skittered over heavy synthesized bass, turned up so high my heartbeat was shaken out of rhythm. The music incorporates piano, too, and layers, loops, and distorts various recorded tracks. The musicians played from the stage, and sometimes left their instruments to dance.
The dancers, to their credit, were committed throughout. A favorite moment has Lavinia Vago perched on Perfume Genius’s rear (he’s on all fours) as she uses him as a stripper chair, taking a drag off a mimed cigarette before holding it out to him and Thomas House, lying on the floor beside them, for a puff. Vago draws the eye whenever she performs, and her exceptional endurance was on display in this show as well, as when she flung her legs into the air in grand battements that propelled her downstage again and again, for minutes at a time. Andrew Bartee and David Harvey showed off their ballet backgrounds with high extensions, clean lines, and neat turns. Near the middle, there was a section of fast, coordinated, technically-advanced choreography, and this was by far the strongest part of the show. The structured dance sequence was helpful in pulling the piece out of its dreamy haze onto its feet. If only there had been more of this.
More often, the dancers and musicians rolled and tangled and gyrated. A group sex scene went on for multiple songs—and we’re past the point where an orgy on stage feels edgy. Now it just feels unnecessary. After Perfume Genius and Kate Wallich are finally, excruciatingly, exhausted by the mimicry of fucking, the cast carries Perfume Genius to the piano and then clumps at his feet (again, he’s the point of the pyramid). Someone kisses Kate Wallich’s hand in the afterglow. And then it’s over.
The Sun Still Burns Here was a unique opportunity for a choreographer and a musician to create a full-length work together. And the evening was candy, perhaps, to Seattle’s arts scene, particularly those who enjoy artists that occupy the trendy space between locally-known and fully mainstream. It was fun to be part of the sea of fans dressed in urban-chic, purposely ill-fitting outfits—with my middle part, oversized glasses, and black boots, I looked like most people in attendance. But I wasn’t swept away. Part of the problem was that I did look like most other attendees. Queer or not, I was a thin white person watching a bunch of other thin white people in a pretentious fantasy world having an orgy on stage. It glorified the nature of a clique, when it could have invited community.
A lot of the music worked, and some of the dance sequences worked, but the slick, elitist attitude left a bad taste in my mouth. I hope that future productions by both artists can be inclusive, rather than exclusive; warm to everyone, instead of only those in on the action.
The Sun Still Burns Here, by Kate Wallich & the YC and Perfume Genius, appeared October 4-5, 2019 at the Moore Theatre. More info HERE.