What happens when two sisters produce a whole evening of dance together? What happens when those sisters live 3,000 miles apart? Danica Bito of Seattle and Ilona Bito of New York City have been producing Sisters Show as an answer to those questions since 2017. The stated goal is to bridge their respective dance communities—they perform a given program in both cities each year. This weekend, the latest iteration appeared at Base in Seattle.
Before and after the show, the question of the impetus for Sisters Show nagged me. I found myself wondering if the fact that two of the dancers were sisters was enough of a reason to put on a show. Was there a broader reason behind the collaboration? Why here, why now? What’s in it for us? And then I realized that I don’t always ask these questions about other dance shows. What was it about Sisters Show that prompted me to ask how and if it mattered?
The show itself offered possible answers to these questions. Danica Bito asked the audience about the purpose of art in her solo piece Why Did You Stop?. She quoted Oscar Wilde, who (somewhat infamously) wrote, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” The audience was then asked to vote, vocally, making a certain sound depending on whether each member believed that art was useless, useful, or somewhere in between. “There must be a lot of artists here tonight,” Danica laughed. “I was hoping for a bit more dissonance.” The piece went on to address the concept of revolution, of achieving small goals in the face of the huge machine of capitalism and the military industrial complex. A recorded interview with James Whitney Kahn played in the background, the gist of which was that big structural change in our current era can feel hopeless, but small wins are still possible. When these concepts are bridged with art, it seemed to mean that art can indeed have some small usefulness—or, even if it is “useless” (as Danica put it, “you can’t pick up this piece and use it as a shovel”), that’s not a reason not to make it. So what if this show exists because two sisters want to make work together, miss each other, want to share their communities? Maybe that’s enough.
Watching the show felt like putting one’s eye up to hallway’s worth of keyholes and seeing inside a few different rooms. Or maybe more like a bar crawl—we experienced a few very different scenarios, with some of the same familiar faces. The pieces formed intriguing worlds sufficient in themselves, but disjointed from each other. The sisterly connection allowed them all to be served up at once, but otherwise the full program felt a bit happenstance.
Many dance shows, of course, feature work by more than one choreographer, and have pieces that feel different from each other—that isn’t new. What was interesting in this show was that the six pieces seemed to fall into three buckets.
Ilona Bito and Lydia Love’s pieces fit together, each of them performing in the other’s work. The moods of their pieces differed wildly (Ilona’s was angular and screeching; and Love’s was sensual and communicative), but they shared an introspective quality, and the visceral sense of taking risks with their bodies in space.
Noelle Price’s We Begin Here and Amy J Lambert’s Powerhouse felt like sister pieces to each other with their kicky, youthful energy, though Price’s asked questions about how we communicate with and without words, and Lambert’s seemed more of a feminist anthem. They both had lively momentum and were enjoyable to watch.
Danica Bito’s aforementioned solo piece recalled the collaborative opening piece Sisters in Residence, a collaboration between both sisters. Just as Danica’s solo was a conversation with the audience, their duet was a conversation between two dancers—two sisters. They shared qualities of strong fluid movement with a martial arts influence (both Bitos study Kung Fu).
In some ways, the show was an exploration of choreographic difference and artistic integrity. It conveyed strongly how one artist necessarily has a completely different stamp than another—even when those artists are closely related. It captured different styles in one microcosm of a show and showed clear choreographic fingerprints, fascinating in their specificity.
Casting a warm glow over the whole production was the lighting design. Meg Fox worked small magic in a white box performance space, adding distinct colors, shadows, and moods for each piece. In a memorable moment during Sisters in Residence, Danica and Ilona Bito pursued their own shadows, which were magnified along one wall by strong angled lighting. Their physical playfighting, reflected large, morphed into something more sinister. In Love’s To Be Thoroughly Suspended, green lights from one side and pink from the other bathed Love and Ilona Bito in two tones at once. This gorgeous color dichotomy split their bodies as they tangled slowly in sensual, acrobatic defiance of gravity. Where the two colors met, the dancers seemed almost on fire. In Ilona Bito’s Tantrum Alchemy, oozing red light tangled with the ominous soundtrack of crunching cello layered over insect screeches to make the body seem a wild, untamed thing.
That small, personal connection of one sister to another let the rest of us glimpse some of their interior worlds, and brought the spotlight to the other art makers and dancers on the program. Sisters Show unfolded elements to challenge the viewer about what they’re seeing and why it matters. A desire for sisterly connection has become a broader effort to communicate to the world, to share art on two coasts, to publicly explore a relationship so common it’s often overlooked. And to examine the people behind the art—the dissonance, the fighting, the desire, the pain, the dancing. It might not be “useful,” but it is human, and it is art. It is, as Wilde would say, admirable.
Sisters Show, presented and produced by Danica Bito and Ilona Bito, appeared February 16, 2020 at BASE: Experimental Arts + Space. For more info, click HERE.