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Top 11 in ’11: Remarkable Companies, Individuals, and Events

Written by Anne Lawrence

2011 was a very good year for contemporary dance in Seattle. I attended 106 different performances—or 120, if you count multiple viewings of the same work. Almost every performance I saw was enjoyable, and some were truly outstanding. Here are my 11 favorite companies, individuals, and events of 2011—the ones I consider most remarkable, noteworthy, or exemplary. In alphabetical order:

 Alia Swersky/Cornish Dance Theater, Beneath Our Own Immensity (I-5 ColonnadePark). Take 12 talented Cornish dancers, put them in the mountain bike course underneath I-5, and ask them to writhe around concrete pillars, careen down hills through clouds of dust, execute elegant adagios amid the walls and arches, and much more. The result: One of the most entertaining and moving site-specific works of 2011.

(Photo: Zettei Domenech Dance.
Photo by Tim Summers) 

·         Anna-Lizette Conner/Zettei Domenech Dance, Beautiful Recluse (Erickson Theater). What if they gave a gorgeous, unsettling, evening-length dance performance about sexual oppression of women and (almost) nobody came? That’s what happened when Conner’s company presented Beautiful Recluse: A few dozen lucky attendees got to watch a dream cast of Cornish students and recent graduates give two technically demanding, emotionally riveting performances. Conner is trying to remount the piece with her original cast; if she succeeds, go!

·         Corella Ballet (World Dance, Meany Theater). Corella Ballet performs with all the panache and virtuosity of its renowned artistic director, Angel Corella. The Meany program—a flamenco-influenced pas de deux for Corella and his sister Carmen, a neoclassical piece by Clark Tippet, and two marvelous works by Christopher Wheeldon—effectively displayed the company’s strengths. The result was a thrilling evening of classical ballet.

·         Crystal Pite/Kidd Pivot, Dark Matters (On the Boards). Dark Matters is what dance theater ought to be but seldom is: well-crafted movement that skillfully explores dramatic ideas. The theatrical elements of Dark Matters were engaging enough, but the movement was sensational: devilishly difficult and at times seemingly contrary to the laws of physics, but always executed with grace and the illusion of effortlessness.

(Spectrum Dance Theater in Mother of Us All
Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki)

·         Donald Byrd/Spectrum Dance Theater (multiple performances). Byrd, Spectrum’s artistic director, is the dean of Seattle choreographers. He is uncompromising, passionate but unsentimental, and master of a vast, versatile movement vocabulary. The Mother of Us All, Byrd’s meditation on Africa, was a misunderstood masterpiece. The remounting of his 1996 work, The Beast, demonstrated that contemporary ballet can address the “monstrous” nature of dysfunctional relationships with intelligence, nuanced emotion, and overwhelming power.

·         Kate Wallich/Company Wallich (multiple performances). Wallich is the most exciting emerging choreographer to appear in Seattle in years. The three works she presented in 2011—A Wood Frame, –frequency, and Room with Themes—were mysterious, dazzling, and compellingly watchable. Wallich’s choreography often manages to appear both mechanistic and fluid, and she and her dancers sometimes move like a family of unpredictable, exquisitely beautiful machines. Wallich has said that she aspires to “dehumanize movement—but humanize it, too.” She succeeds brilliantly.

 (Dancers Michele O’Neill, Gabby Bruya, and
Christin Lusk in 
Marlo Martin’s ask different questions  
Photo by Tim Summers)
·         Marlo Martin (BOOST dance festival, badmarmar). Martin is a hugely influential but underappreciated force in Seattle dance. Her eXit SPACE studio provides rehearsal space to several companies and affordable classes to students of all ages. She founded and produces the acclaimed BOOST dance festival. Her new company, badmarmar—a bigger, stronger reincarnation of her previous one, oaklanDrive—gave a spectacular performance at NextFest Northwest. Martin choreographed for Redd Legg Dance and Full Tilt in 2011, and a work she made on her students—My Turn, in the takePauseshowcase—was one of the coolest jazz pieces of the year. Martin is producing a show for Kate Wallich and herself in April 2012; it should be phenomenal.

·         Merce Cunningham Legacy Tour (Paramount Theater). Cunningham is one of the three great choreographers of the last century (with Balanchine and Graham), but his works are rarely seen in Seattle. The six pieces presented during the Legacy Tour—especially Quartet—reminded us why Cunningham has been so influential and remains so essential. We ought to see a Cunningham work at least once a year—for pure pleasure, certainly, but also to sharpen our perceptions. How about it, Peter Boal?

·         Sarah Michelson, Devotion (On the Boards). Michelson’s 100-minute homage to Cunningham, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, and châiné turns (14-year-old Non Griffith performed hundreds of them) demanded dancers with almost unbelievable endurance and technical prowess. The closing words from Richard Maxwell’s spoken text described the movement perfectly: “Invincible. Literal. Kind. Taut. Undivided. Voluminous. Yours.” Yes.

(Betsy Cooper in Molissa Fenley’s Planes of Air
Photo  by Tim Summers) 
·         Seattle Dance Project (multiple performances). For sheer enjoyment, it’s hard to beat Seattle Dance Project. The company commissions and acquires terrific new works by local and internationally recognized choreographers, but it is the dancers themselves, unmatched in their intelligence and élan, who are the real attraction. I’ll mention just two. Artistic director Timothy Lynch resembles a more intense version of Fred Astaire: quick, precise, flashy when he wants to be, and incredibly smooth. Betsy Cooper combines striking presence with remarkable transparency on stage. When she performed Molissa Fenley’s Planes in Air, she seemed to embody the work completely, dancing with elegant lyricism and sharing her delight with an equally delighted audience.

·         zoe|juniper, A Crack in Everything (On the Boards). The big ideas underlying this work—something about the Oresteia and temporal discontinuities—never became clear to me, but I loved Zoe Scofield’s idiosyncratic modern ballet idiom and Juniper Shuey’s complex, almost hallucinatory video effects. There was more adagio and repetition here than in past zoe|juniper works, making it easier to appreciate the intricacies of Scofield’s choreography and the amazing flexibility and control she and her dancers possess.

With so much great dance in Seattle, it seems only fair to mention 11 alternate selections; I could make a case for any of them deserving a top spot.
  • Catherine Cabeen and Company, Into the Void (On the Boards)
  • Coriolis Dance Collective (multiple performances)
  • Cornish Dance Theater, Merce Cunningham minEvents (multiple performances)
  • Crispin Spaeth, Dark Room Trio (WesternBridge)
  •  Cyrus Khambatta, Seattle International Dance Festival (Raisbeck Hall)
  •  Katy Hagelin Dance Project (multiple performances)
  •   Maya Soto/Soto Style, Collage Pink (Annex Theater)
  • Pacific NorthwestBallet, Concerto DSCH (McCaw Hall)
  •     tEEth, Home Made (On the Boards)
  •  Tesee George/Dance Contemporary (Erickson Theater)
  •    UW Dance Program, MFA Concert 2011 (Meany Studio Theater)

Are there any unifying themes here? I’ll suggest three: The wide-ranging influence of Merce Cunningham; the essential role that CornishCollege of the Arts plays in attracting, training, and promoting emerging artists; and the preeminence of On the Boards as a presenter of exceptional contemporary dance.