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Romanticism of Ballet in Approaching Ecstasy

Written by Christin Call
Dancers Chalnessa Eames and Andrew Bartee in Approaching Ecstasy
Photo by Bamberg Fine Art 
On Friday, May 18, 2012, Whim W’Him presented Approaching Ecstasy, a collaboration of Artistic Director Olivier Wevers with Eric Banks, The Esoterics, and the St. Helens String Quartet.  Realizing a long-discussed idea to turn the poems of Greek 19th century poet Constantine Cavafy into performance, this evening-length work turned eighteen selected poems into song twice, once in English and once in Greek.  In the English incantation, simpler and more somber in arrangement, the chorus filled the stage.  Dancers took to the stage as the chorus sang the more complex Greek arrangement.  Like a rotating display, the stage was constantly shifting with ambulatory singers moving in and out of formations and the dancers coming and going by dodging in, around, and under sculptural props.

In Cavafy’s poems, Wevers has found an affinity with a man who admired the young male physique, reveled effusively in nostalgic recollections of past lovers, felt stifled by having to keep his sexuality secret, and above all romanticized everyday scenes with equal doses of tragedy and fantasy.  These genteel and effusively poetic tones fit like a glove with the aesthetic values of ballet, giving the work a patina-ed surface that it is sometimes difficult not to gloss over.  However, in eighteen different scenes, each with two parts, the series is quite expansive and filled with many strong images that could only have been achieved in the delicate and savvy integration of all of its collaborative parts.

One such section, “Walls,” is a poem where Cavafy discovers he has allowed others to confine him within a boundary he didn’t realize was being constructed around him.  A box-like sculpture with moveable hinges, two semi-transparent walls, and two open frames provides the setting for the dancers to hide and reveal themselves as the box is endlessly turned, opened, and closed.  Lucien Postlewaite has a seamless and stealthy floor phrase inside its frame that moves him around the whole stage as the box is pushed by the others in a kind of challenge to see if he can keep away from its edges.  At one point, Chalnessa Eames bursts through the semi-transparent walls only to be swallowed up again.  This action against the backdrop of a starkly suited, bowler hat-wearing quartet and chorus in full reverie, was striking and engaging.

Dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Andrew Bartee
Photo by Bamberg Fine Art
The fierce, Amazonian Tory Peil, formerly of Spectrum Dance Theater, was able to show a more tender side in places here.  Interpretively, her performance was as richly textured as it was genuine.  Choreographically, however, Wevers excels best in the setting of male duets, especially evident in the pairing of Andrew Bartee and Lucien Postlewaite during “In the Vestibule” and “As If He Never Existed.”  Both statuesque and elegant, the fluid and rotational nature of the choreography on these two allowed the audience to gaze at every well-defined angle as a lift unfolded into a slide, surged into a battement, then floated into a hand over the eyes.  The movements themselves may be tropes used by Nacho Duato and William Forsythe, but they are put to good use in these moments.  

One of the strongest, most raw images of the evening came by surprise at the end of some heavy-handed pantomiming of the poem “By Chance.” Two men attempt to hide their attraction for each other, but immediately at the moment of being obscured by the public eye behind the semi-transparent walls, the audience sees the couples’ shadows unleash on each other in furtive grappling before the lights black-out.   

Overall, there is a lot of material in Approaching.  In terms of exploring love from a gay man’s perspective, Wevers seems to have found a subject both personally relevant and culturally important. Friday night’s opening was a strong foot forward artistically for a company already experiencing solid success in other ways.  There are sections that treat dance too preciously, such as Kaori Nakamura’s uninventive solo and pas de deux.  Yes, she is impeccable, but the use of pointework should no longer be necessary to validate the virtuosity of a company’s work or dancers.  There are also missteps in the use of the sculptural objects: watching grown men shuffle coat hangers around like floats in a parade without a hint of irony is disappointing. What is heartening is that Wevers shows no tendency towards a macho Ballet Boyz superstar aesthetic, and he is genuinely interested in working on artistic problems, especially to the inclusion of other artists.  Approaching enlists an intriguing combination of Seattleartists; Wevers adds in his own whimsical way, something meat-y to the dialogue.

Whim W’Him’s final performance of Approaching Ecstasy, is Sunday, May 20, 2012, at the Intiman Theater at 5pm. Tickets are available at the door.