The January 2020 iteration of UW Dance Presents featured works by University of Washington dance faculty and guests and performed by dance department students. Formerly known as the Faculty Dance Concert, the festival presented five works driven by collaboration among dance artists.
Search History, a live composition piece performed by guest group AVID (A Vehicle for Improvised Dance, comprised of Scott Davis, Aiko Kinoshita, Rachael Lincoln, Aaron Swartzman, and Tamin Totzke), was a refreshing reminder of improvisation’s ability to stand on its own in performance. I rarely see improvisation as the main meat of a performance piece, rather than a tightly scored section of a larger work or as a means of generating movement for later use. It is delightful to see experienced, confident improvisers creating together, live.
Its strongest moments were ones in which multiple pairings and groupings of the dancers coalesced thematically; in one section, dancers seemed locked in argument, communication breaking down, hinting at a moment of talking past one another. In another, they morphed into a clumped tableau, a kind of moving family portrait. Props were picked up and explored but not fully exhausted, keeping them fresh and exciting; often they were left on the ground, gathering potential while the action continued elsewhere.
The strength of Search History lies in its sense of internal rhythm and control; though improvised, it did not seem unstructured. The dancers’ movements seemed to have internal meaning without becoming fully pedestrian; they believed what they were doing, so I did too.
Vita Activa featured Adele Nickel and Alethea Alexander as “co-directors/performers/sculptors” in a work inspired by labor, effort, and conversations between organic and inorganic. Twenty 10-foot stick-like PVC pipes and a bag of concrete brought the concepts to life; Nickel and Alexander rearranged the pipes along the floor, suggesting building and structure, while in other sections their twisting, expansive movement and flowing floorwork were extended by the long, parallel lines of the pipes when they danced in unison.
One drive of the piece was a sense of anticipation. Two of the most powerful moments used this; Nickel stacked PVC pipes on Alexander’s back as she crawled slowly forward, one by one the sticks falling as she moved, keeping the audience in suspense for each crash to the floor. The final moment carried the same build of potential energy: Alexander comes onstage with a bundle of the PVC pipes in her arms and hands them to Nickel, leaving her burdened.
Rachael Lincoln’s Our Paper Shadow is at once haunting and funny, strange and delightful. In the first moment dancers streamed down ladders, flooding the stage and surrounding a pair of dancers locked in a tight, synchronized duet.
The ensemble dancers rolling across the floor crinkle like rain or static in their plasticky dresses; they echo the sound with their voices, with their fingers tapping on the fabric, and a static noise plays in the Ivory Smith-composed sound score. Later, when a duet mimes hitting a baseball in unison, the dancers vocalize an “aaaahhh” imitation of a cheering crowd—it’s the same staticky sound as before, taking on new meaning in context. These echoes carry throughout the piece. There is a satisfying rippling quality to the movement as well, featuring quick, sharp gestures paired with a slow, juicy follow-through. All these sounds, emanating from different sources and taking on different meanings over time, have the effect of morphing through motifs and hints of vignettes. None linger long, just enough to imply an event or scene, before shifting easily into the next moment.
Part of the brilliance of Lincoln’s work is her ability to approach obvious metaphors, and then complicate them, walking the line between the familiar and the unpredictable. The result is a binding emotional tension. The two duetting pairs featured throughout the piece are in sync, eerily mechanical, but with a strong undercurrent of tenderness and fondness beneath the sterile surface of the movement. When the partners embrace, the quality of movement is still robotic, yet charged with secret emotion. It’s this sense of personal connection and mystery that pushes the work out of the territory of cliché and beyond it, into something else completely novel.
Alethea Alexander’s Anarchy in Flight also featured an unusually large ensemble. Beginning with exaggerated movements imitating birds hopping, twitching, and shifting around as individuals in a flock, Alexander draws on the classical motif of ballerinas as birds as well as ballet vocabulary to pull these elements apart.
The company morphed in and out of formations and groupings, at times scattering into the titular anarchy, flocking closely together, or breaking into trios. With so many dancers onstage, and anarchy and diffusion as major themes, the piece becomes hard to track at times, and I found myself losing focus. The concepts—exploding and reimagining classical ballet imagery, bird behavior, and socio-political concepts of anarchy and postmodernism—are fascinating and quite high-level, leaving us with a work that is perhaps overambitious. As it is it doesn’t quite find its feet; I would love to see it developed as a longer piece.
The program concludes with Pink Matter Volume 2: What is Love?, a collaboration between Dani Tirrell and “Majinn” Mike O’Neal, Jr. Opening with one dancer facing upstage, the rest of the cast crowds around him, all speaking at once, until he convulses – information overload, the weight of their stories too great a burden for one person.
Sharing stories is central to Pink Matter Volume 2, as is the theme of community support. Shifting in and out of movement sections, the cast took turns delivering personal anecdotes and songs that focused on the many layers of love and relationships. Illuminating the depth and breadth of life experience of the dancers, their stories felt refreshingly off the cuff. The performers spoke authentically, vulnerably, from the heart, with a tendency towards self-reflection and analysis of their own feelings.
The ensemble members shifted in and out of the central performance space, arranging themselves, when not dancing or speaking, in groups around the outskirts of the space. Like a big community slumber party, they leaned on one another in snuggly groups, gathered around the speaker, watched their fellows dance. The cast felt unified, stronger as a whole for the sense of support and community.
This sense of unity shone through in the choreography as well; unison movement phrases set on dancers with different movement backgrounds highlighted their strengths without compromising the integrity of the movement. O’Neal and Tirrell’s choreography translates between bodies in a way that honors many ways of moving, inviting dancers to perform simply as themselves.
The program aimed to question hierarchies in art and life. Thematically, this came through in some but not all works; Tirrell and O’Neal’s centering stories from the African American diaspora, Alexander’s prodding at the predominance of ballet and its power in the dance world, Nickel and Alexander’s exploration of women and work. What struck me, however, was how many of these pieces depended upon partnership in the creative process; dance artists joined forces as director-choreographer-composers, and dancers were credited as collaborators in the process. A concert with collaboration as its connective tissue seems itself to bear a message, urging us as an artistic community to put our creative forces together, and make something good.
UW Dance Presents ran January 23-26, 2020, at Meany Hall Studio Theatre, University of Washington.