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Dance Innovators Showcases Pure, Unadulterated Dance

Written by Imana Gunawan

Andrew Wass and Shelley Senter on stage at SFDI’s Dance Innovators in Performance
Photo by Tim Summers

As part of the 20th anniversary of the Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation (SFDI), world-renowned SFDI faculty showcased their dance improvisation talents at a packed Broadway Performance Hall on August 2, 2013. The annual week-long program of intensives, performances, community jams, and discussions have attracted movement practitioners from around the globe to bask in the aesthetic of dance improvisation. This year’s showcase, Dance Innovators in Performance, featured eleven works, ranging from spontaneous dance solos to devised theatre pieces and even to spoken-word poetry reading.

The evening opened with Sacrilege is Needed. Competency is Hell. by Stephanie Skura. Her piece served its purpose as a show-opener, as it allowed viewers to dip their toe in the art of improvisation before experiencing its full potential. Cleverly crafted monologues of death, life, learning, and power entertained the ears while the eyes feasted on Skura’s lilting movements. Yet as the evening progressed, Sacrilege became a distant memory overpowered by the impacts of the pieces to follow, each more emotionally arresting than the last.

Louis Gervais’ This is Fred, performed by Gervais and Fred Fossek, began with both men walking and dancing in suits and fedoras reminiscent of Gene Kelly or Donald O’Connor circa 1950. Then, one introduced the other with statements such as “Fred is my father” or “Louis is my hairdresser.” The other would follow with an improvised phrase to match the statement. Gervais and Fossek masterfully transitioned in and out of their roles as “father,” “hairdresser,” or, at one point, “sweet pickle.” And just like Kelly or O’Connor, Fossek and Gervais went back and forth between being regular persons and being technically adept dancers and performers. Their seamless transitions between characters made This is Fred an entertaining play on identity, context, and personality.

Gervais charmed the audience a second time when he performed in We Know Nothing, created by John Dixon and Heidi Henderson. The piece began with Dixon and Henderson executing movements of contrasting quality and feel while Gervais described the situation with spot-on precision. Gervais’ word choices not only evoked specific imagery for the audience, but also for Dixon and Henderson. Sometimes they moved based on Gervais’ word pictures, and sometimes Gervais evoked imagery based on their movements. The play on absurdity, spontaneity, and clever usage of imagery created an entertaining piece that juxtaposed what one knows about what’s happening during a dance, and how much more there is to know about it.

Blind Lovin’, created by Karen Nelson and her collaborators, played with the idea of human sight. Through her score, Nelson and four other performers, with the latter quartet having their eyes shut, explored the meaning of sight––or lack thereof. The score also emphasized human reliance on visual perception and the tendency to disregard the power of other senses. The well-developed concept and score, along with the dancers’ organic relationship with each other, contributed to a satisfyingly thought-provoking work.

The show also presented devised theatre pieces like Salt Horse’s Frankenthaler and Perma Study 1 by Jill Sigman and Paige Barnes, joined in performance by Scott Davis. The two works were arguably the more experimental of the bunch, interweaving props such as fabrics and even cake in Frankenthaler or strips of soil tied to the bodies in Perma Study 1. Despite the more avant-garde and, at times, strange theatrical elements, the dancers took command of the stage and performed with dark and poetic beauty.

Corrie Befort and Beth Graczyck perform in Salt Horse’s Frankenthaler
Photo by Tim Summers

Stark stage lighting was a strong suit for both We Do Our Part, created by Lower Left Performance Collective, and From The Bench by Michael and Thomas Schumacher. Stark shadows behind Lower Left’s dancers created majestic, ever-changing pictures as the group danced with technical virtuosity to a witty score that dictated each dance movement. In the Schumachers’ piece, the lighting outlined the two figures in sharp suits sitting in front of a grand piano. One then started dancing while the other played jazzy tunes. As they danced, the lighting blended the image of the pair with the piano’s silhouette, creating the image of a beastly yet beautiful mystical creature improvising its own rhythm and grooving to its own tune.

7 Minutes from Tribes/Dominion by Sara Shelton Mann was a spoken-word poetry performance originally set to a score to accompany a dance. However, for SFDI, Shelton Mann simply let the words speak for themselves and allowed the audience close their eyes to imagine whatever they would like on stage. Despite its simplicity, the poetry text itself was a poignant commentary on identity, on history, on nature, and on society.

Merce Cunningham once said, “[Dancing] gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show…nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” These words more than adequately describe the feeling of Chris Aiken’s solo, Untitled. Aiken stole the show by displaying dance in a pure form where the mind, body, and soul merged into one. His energy never dissipated as he flowed from one movement to the next––not even when he simply shifted his gaze. Even when all he had were constantly fleeting moments, he filled it with life and with spirit, and he always brought the audience with him along for the ride.

Another highlight of the evening was Faculty Group Improv, performed by all SFDI faculty and facilitated by Chris Aiken to open the second half of the show. The piece started with separate individual movements and led to a range of interactions between performers, from a simple stare to a complex lift. Throughout the piece, relationships formed and unraveled, bodies heaved and breathed, and minds played and explored. The improvised piece represented what SFDI stands for: a community brought together by their love of pure, unadulterated dance.

This year, SFDI ran July 29-August 4, 2013, at Velocity Dance Center. A SFDI Closing Night Performance featuring participants was held August 4 at Velocity. For more info on SFDI, go to