A recent Seattle Times article announced Whim W’Him’s jump this season from a pick-up company to one of only three contracted dance companies in Seattle (the others being Pacific Northwest Ballet and Spectrum Dance Theater). A fiscally ambition decision, restructuring means the eight-dancer company can rehearse together more regularly and the dancers are actually paid for their time—a rare victory for Seattle dancers. Artistic director Olivier Wevers was a principal with PNB before starting his contemporary explorations with Whim W’him, which may explain why he’s well connected enough to pull off such a feat. Or perhaps it’s because he’s so unabashed about asking for donations: starting off the show was a quick visual demonstration of how much a ticket costs a consumer compared to what it costs the company. Either way, the two-spread page of donors listed in the program is an inspiration to those who hesitate to campaign for funding. Perhaps the ballet scene has something to teach the contemporary scene about valuing their own work. In return, perhaps the contemporary scene can offer a few pointers on choreographing contemporary work.
The program, #UNPROTECTED, featured the premieres of three artists, the first of which was Les Biches, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The piece featured four female dancers in swim caps, sparkly nude leotards, and red straws extending from their fingertips. The dancers strutted around each other with sexy over-crossed legs while making “come hither” faces at the audience and vogueing with their alien-looking claws. A ballet movement would suddenly appear without any integration. The idea of “creature” was clearly indicated through finger waggling, but the dancers only play-acted as creatures, without embodying them. The choreography felt like an endless series of poses strung together with music and lights. What the program notes claimed was a “meticulous observation on female behavior” seemed only to be the tired concept of “sexy lady aliens” with no observable subtlety or subtext. The last section verged on redemption when an upbeat Tchaikovsky number came on and the choreography became almost comical, but it would need to be taken up a notch to truly produce any laughs.
I’m here but it’s not the same, the contribution of Andrew Bartee, billed as “Seattle’s darling,” was certainly a change in mood. Dancers entered in a line facing away from the audience—blue hoodies pulled up around their ears. Cool dim lighting illuminated them, cutting to black, then revealing them again in different locations. The movement evolved from wiggly discomfort in one’s skin into a calm fluidity that seemed to navigate a gelatinous atmosphere. Most of the dance focused on solo dancer Lara Seefeldt, whose delicate interpretation of the material added dimension to her character—clearly an outsider as the other dancers became shifting architectural pillars that helped define the space. While there were many well-composed moments, the material didn’t live up to its potential and seemed to simply continue without development. The compelling lighting design by Michael Mazzola carried the story of the piece while the choreography floated on the surface. Additionally, the fancy moving lights were a definite strength of the work, but they also point to the kind of stage magic that’s only feasible with a large budget.
Wever’s piece, Above the Cloud, had seven dancers in sheer white nightie-like shirts, each toting a giant fluffy pillow. Dancers spilled onto their pillows, fell into each other’s arms, and playfully tossed each other and the marshmallowy masses throughout the space. The music choice, an organ piece by Francis Poulenc, was epic enough for any story ballet and a refreshing choice for a non-narrative work. Dancers Tory Peil and Kyle Johnson split off in a duet where Peil struck a position that Johnson then swung and dragged through the space. A few more “man carries woman” duets occurred, but these were interspersed with unison group phrase work. Here is where the piece was at its best. A quick and quirky phrase with precisely flopping arms and allegro foot work made for a delightful interplay between the material and the lively classical music. But despite this and some cleverness with the props, the work was perhaps the literal interpretation of a fluff piece.
What’s confusing about the entire program is despite the cast of highly accomplished ballet dancers, there were zero moments of thrilling virtuosity. It seemed a lost opportunity not to make use of the dancers’ facilities. Instead, the choreography highlighted the ballet dancer’s tendency to be less grounded than one might hope; having the performers wear slippery socks in two of the pieces didn’t help either. The cast, while clearly great individually, felt far from an ensemble. The unison was sloppy and facial expressions were all over the place. Some wore flirtatious glances while others were stuck in permanent gaping-mouthed melodrama. Neither worked in the intimacy of the Erickson.
The Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill is a shift in venue for the company, triggered by Wevers’ hopes to reach “out to a new neighborhood and audience.” One wonders if this is also the goal of the hashtag in the title. It clearly had nothing to do with the content of the evening, so it seemed a weak attempt at appealing to youth culture. Reminiscent of Justin Bieber’s “beliebers,” Whim W’Him has also coined the term “Whimmers” for their fan base. The Whimmers on Thursday night, however, appeared to be mostly wealthy seniors, presumably imported from his ballet following. From the copious bowing to the quaint program notes explaining what each piece is about, it’s clear Wevers has brought a lot of the ballet world along with him and is perhaps new to the cultural norms of the contemporary dance scene. That may not be a bad thing, as the full audience clearly indicates there’s a market for Wevers’ style of work, but it’s troublesome that he has brought some of ballet’s pitfalls with him as well. Choreographically, most of the action was only indicated—the dancers pretend to fall instead of actually falling, or make a show of moving another person instead of actually moving them. The whole evening lacked development and relied heavily on music, props, and lighting to carry the pieces. Contrary to the title, there was nothing at risk here: heteronormative roles and relationships played out by conventionally beautiful bodies doing conventional dance material. Perhaps Wevers should look to Coriolis Dance and zoe | juniper, both of who have managed to push the boundaries of contemporary dance while staying true to their ballet roots. At the very least, if you are going to call your show #UNPROTECTED, take your socks off, get into the floor, and get a little unsafe.
Visit Whim W’Him’s website whimwhim.org to learn more about the company, or see them in action at the Erickson Theater Off Broadway through May 23, 2014. Buy tickets HERE.