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Divine Dancing at the Fremont Abbey

Written by Kaitlin McCarthy
project29 in Ode 
Photo by Kara Mercer
Last Thursday, May 3, 2012, was the one-night performance Ode to an Exhalation and a Spark at the Fremont Abbey. The evening began with choreographers Victoria McConnell and Kenaniah Bystrom, of Project 29, welcoming the audience and beginning the dancing with some improvisational games. Although the audience seemed uncomfortable at first with the informality, ease and laughter filled the room once the improvisation began. Joined by dancer Erica French and musician Caleb Talbert, the four responded to audience suggestions and interacted with props they had never seen before. Bystrom jumped right in, turning an ironing board into a surf board, his goofy antics highly entertaining. French later twirled that same ironing board like a giant, terrifying baton, and McConnell used a hairspray can to style Talbert’s hair. This opener was a fun way to introduce non-dancers to dance improvisation, but could have benefited from a bit more showmanship. Overall it felt too casual—the props were clearly just items lying around the theater, the costumes were too pedestrian, and it needed to move along a little faster.

Next up was a trio from McConnell and Katy Hagelin, with Bystrom also performing. Toil consisted of repeated phrase-work of swingy, modern dance, very much in timing with the looped cello music of Zoe Keating. There were surprisingly high jumps from Bystrom, perfectly balanced headstands, and precise unison. Well-rehearsed and athletic, this piece was lovely to watch, but fell short on substance. The piece had little to no arc, and no established relationship between the dancers. The costumes seemed like an afterthought—colored tops and black skirts, with the women’s black sports bras showing. This piece either needs to develop a human element, or decide to go completely abstract and add more original vocabulary and staging.

After a musical interlude by Russell Fish of Ruby Parasols, the concert returned to dance with a duet choreographed by Bystrom, performed with McConnell. Anathallo the Roses (Full Color) began with Bystrom embracing McConnell’s back in a hunched bound position. From there they struggle, stretch away, return, and separate. There were many moments of stunning partnering: Bystrom slid McConnell across the room on top of her toes, and then lifted her clear over his head. Their relationship is developed as they reach for each other’s faces, then attack, then twig out independently. The mood is angst ridden: the struggle of a couple who can’t seem to let go. Perhaps it is because the audience had already seen these two in different roles earlier in the program, but the relationship was not convincing. The lighting was too dark, and the costumes again seemed arbitrary, with colorful knee-high socks distracting from the moodiness of the piece.

After the intermission came the main event of the evening, Ode to an Exhalation and a Spark.Bystrom began the piece by lighting a candle in a downstage shrine and reciting his poetry, “Do we have the hope, to hope? The hope to hold this?” His delivery was dry, strange, yet understated. The poetry reappeared throughout the piece, but every other time the delivery felt generic and was never as effective as this first moment. Bystrom is joined by McConnell, his co-choreographer, and dancers Christin Lusk, Tara Dyberg, and Mariko Nagashima. Dressed in effective pedestrian costumes, seated on a row of white folding chairs, the sense of Americana is immediate. Crucial to this is the Gundersen Family, who stand upstage and perform enchanting Bon Iver-esque soft folk. The songs are originals by Noah Gundersen, lead singer/guitar player and collaborator on Ode. Along with Gundersen, McConnell and Bystrom did a wonderful job developing the feel of this piece—intrinsic to this is the choreography. The genius of Ode is in the vocabulary—built on repeated gestures, the movement is at once evocative and non-specific. Dancers press their palms into their thighs as they arch backward, watch their outstretched finger as it sweeps around and points to their chest, and hold their wrists together over their heads while undulating their spines in a jilted, falling, step. These and many other motifs capture the nuanced relationship to religion the piece addresses. Going far beyond “dance moves,” Bystom and McConnell created a world accessible to the audience, and immersed them in it by returning to recognizable images. The choreography mixes moments of tension with buoyant limbs, and maintains dynamic energy and interesting rhythms. This was particularly effective when the dancers were in counterpoint, but, sadly, unison was so overused that what would have otherwise been powerful moments of togetherness went unnoticed. The dancers each performed the movement beautifully and with their own style, but within the context of the unison, this individuality came across as sloppy and not together. Facial expression, ranging from anguished and melodramatic, to vacant, to stony, also needed clarification.

Dancers Kenaniah Bystrom and Christin Lusk in Ode
Photo by Kara Mercer 
The arc of the piece developed in several key moments. At one point the dancers flailed, momentarily possessed as they spoke either “devil” or “divine,” breaking down the poetry and effectively communicating personal crisis. In another section, the group manipulated Lusk into a position, and then assumed the position themselves in an interesting demonstration of conformity. Throughout, the dancers continued to light candles, and the ever-brightening shrine became a focal point for the struggling dancers. The dancing ended when each dancer took a candle and passed it to an audience member, asking them “to hope.” This cringe-worthy act of preciousness weakened the ending of the dance, but fortunately as the dancers exited, the Gundersens stepped center stage and began to sing a capella. Their voices were incredible, harmonizing and filling the beautiful acoustics of the Fremont Abbey. As the lyrics turned to the familiar old spiritual, “Wayfaring Stranger,” Noah Gundersen asked the audience to join in, and without hesitation the entire room was singing in an exceptionally beautiful and moving moment that spoke to the power of religion, despite the struggles it might bring.

Information on this new Seattle dance group can be found on Facebook.