ISIS: Women Arts Festival took place Sunday, October 27, at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, presented as part of the October Arts Crush month in the Puget Sound area. Kathryn Hightower and Jah Breeze of Steel Grace Dance started ISIS five years ago as a platform to present the work of female artists. ISIS 2013 showcased five visual artists and eight performing groups. Hightower spoke to open the performance segment of the event, an emotional speech asking the audience to set aside value judgments—appropriately, as many of the performers were student artists.
Taiwanese-born Joyce Liao performed a solo work to the taped soundtrack of her own voice, a poignant exploration of childhood memory and the weight of maintaining dignity for aging family members. With mostly pantomimic gesture, Liao delicately articulated repetitive ordinary moments of everyday life, unwrapping layers of emotion with increasing desperation. In a beautiful moment of happy accident, the sun shining through the window of the performance space illuminated the seated Liao’s cheek and cast a shadow on the floor—understated natural scenic design.
Fusing liturgical lyricism and hula, Miranda Swan Veenhuysen’s solo to music by Libbie Schrader displayed Veenhuysen’s graceful classical training and especially elegant port de bras. Although Veenhuysen used the small space well choreographically, much of her solo was performed at a low level below most of the audience’s view. Song lyrics provided thematic material, and the choreography responded conventionally.
Steel Grace Dance presented two works, one during intermission and one to close the festival. Intermission’s Womannequins was performance art for four women staged in an aisle of the lobby at the Burke Museum. Live mannequins in dress clothes, heels, and even sequins shifted slowly between poses. The arrangement adjacent to museum statues and in front of stuffed birds arrayed in their colorful plumage highlighted the contrast between department store ideal and female reality as the mannequins slowly changed into lounge clothes and slippers, still posing. Groups of museum and festival guests walked through the performance, adding to the ludicrous quality of the scene.
The festival’s final performance piece, Steel Grace Dance’s second work was a collaboration with Karin Stanley, a healing guide from Ellensburg. Using Stanley’s childhood trauma as inspiration and text, dancers and co-choreographers Hightower and Natasha Burrowes performed to Stanley’s spoken word and to Jah Breeze on the African jimbe. Like Veenhuysen’s piece, some choreography low to the ground made for difficult audience viewing. Although Stanley’s emotional connection to the material was apparent, the piece stopped short of connecting with the audience in a meaningfully transformational way, as if viewed through a strong fourth wall. As with many of the performances, the artists themselves seemed more affected by the emotional undercurrents of the work than was effectively relayed to the audience.
In a festival specifically designed to highlight female artists, many elements seemed geared toward conventional aspects of femininity. Many works were investigations into highly personal, emotional circumstances, often bringing the artists themselves to tears. The words love, support, and inspire were themes throughout all the short artistic statements, perhaps underscoring a larger message about the isolation often inherent in artistic creation and the way in which female artists cope.
In its fifth year, ISIS still needed work on a few logistical details: the festival ran overly long at two and a half hours of seated performance; volume issues existed in the small performance space; and distribution of information concerning details of the event was minimal. These issues may stem from the difference between a traditional festival setting and an established theatrical venue—the difference between an ebb and flow of patrons matched to a schedule of performers versus a captive seated audience. Nevertheless, ISIS 2013 provided local artists of all ages and experience a venue to present new work.
Find more information about the festival at the ISIS Facebook page, www.facebook.com/isiswomen.