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Spotlight on Seattle: Take the Bad with the Good

The Spotlight on Seattle series forms a weeknight core of the Seattle International Dance Festival, organized annually by Cyrus Khambatta. Spotlight features three showcases of local artists, each night curated by a different Seattle dance luminary. This year, the curators were Andrew Bartee (recently of Pacific Northwest Ballet, now headed to Ballet BC), Jerome Apparis/Jeromeskee of Massive Monkeys, and KT Niehoff, who is such a longstanding member of the Seattle dance community that she needs no introduction. New this year was the Crystal White Gaer, J. Steward, and G Kusnick Artistic Development Award, which gave $500 to one artist or group each evening, selected by the audience and two invited panelists, Donald Byrd and Dayna Hanson (although the extent of their role could have used clarification). The winners—Cabin Fever, Marlo Martin/badmarmarDANCE, and Markeith Wiley—were some (but not all) of the gems of the festival. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the work presented at Spotlight felt underdeveloped, or in-progress. “In-progress” is a fine place for an artist to be, but when this is the local offering to a much-touted international festival, it presents a skewed vision of the Seattle scene as a whole. This in-progress tone, coupled with some organizational faults, made the series lackluster in spite of a few truly memorable performances.

Scraping for Joy
Photo courtesy of CabinFever 

Cabin Fever walked away with the prize on Tuesday night (curated by Bartee), and rightfully so. Artistic director Elana Jacobs has a really smart thing going with this pick-up company. In Scraping for Joy, a quartet centered around a family photoshoot, two men and two women danced on a rug set downstage, bringing an intimate, homelike, site-specific feel to a traditional theater setting. The work coupled seamless technique and tight choreography with simple but evocative spoken passages. The simultaneously upbeat and wistful atmosphere was reminiscent of a poem, a homey one—something Garrison Keillor or Billy Collins would write.


Wednesday night (curated by Apparis) awarded the prize to badmarmar for Martin’s Look at me with your eyes wide shut. The company has a reputation for fierceness both in technical and emotional performance, and much of Martin’s recent work has been darkly emotional and confessional. In a refreshing change of tone, the first section of Look showed a lighter, more playful side of Martin’s choreography that still made use of raw physicality and expert composition. It was a treat to see the dancers stationary, especially with a bluesy John Lee Hooker song, demonstrating the power of simple unison before the work gave way to solos and duets that tore through the space. The second half of the work returned to more familiar abstractly confessional territory. As always, Martin’s work was well-constructed and well-executed, but the link between the two sections felt severed, lacking a transition in tone from the first to second section.

badmarmar DANCE in Look at me with your eyes wide shut
Photo by Joseph Lambert – Jazzy Photo

 Wiley’s Self-Titled Mixed Tape vol. 4 took the prize for Thursday’s show (curated by Niehoff). The work could stand further development to clarify the snatches of story that arise through monologue, but Wiley’s experimentation with the limits of truth and fiction in performance are well worth his investigation. He abruptly broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience, even bringing an audience member on stage. He has a knack for integrating his audience without alienating them—the woman he invited on stage became a part of his world rather than the butt of a joke. Overall, Mixed Tape skimmed the surface of a philosophical question of whether what we see on stage is “true.” It didn’t go deep—yet.


Other solid standouts, any one of whom would have been deserving of the development award, included Coriolis, Bianca Cabrera, and Emily Sferra. Coriolis (Wednesday) performed an excerpt from Unfixed Arias that included a gripping solo from Christin Call (co-director and choreographer with Natascha Greenwalt) as well as a group section that showcased how stellar ballet technique can successfully cross over into contemporary territory. Emily Sferra (Thursday) drew from Rainier Maria Rilke’s poem in I’m here to Unfold; she created striking silhouettes, her folding angular lines projected and abstracted like a wisp of smoke onto the cyc. Bianca Cabrera’s Blind Tiger Society (Thursday) was as fierce and together as badmarmar in CHARGE. Cabrera’s movement is pure technique, almost Cunningham-like in its precision, but with less abstraction and more emotional connection to each movement, plus a close relationship to the music.


Colleen McNeary and Maya Soto also stood out for the polish of their work—perhaps especially because their dances had been presented before (at the Bridge Project and BOOST, respectively). Two pretty trios began Wednesday’s show, one by Ktisk Dance (Rachael Forstrom) and one by Lilianna Koledin; though well danced and all-around lovely, they suffered for being programmed next to each other. Gender Tender showed moments of sweetness, questioning queer love in a context of heteronormative sports culture.

Maya Soto1
Maya Soto
Photo by Joseph Lambert – Jazzy Photo

Unfortunately, Spotlight on Seattle suffered from many small grievances that marred the series as a whole, despite a few wonderful performances. On the performers’ end, it was distracting how many of them collided with the legs and the cyc. The only performer who could get away with this was Cherdonna (Jody Kuehner), and she, well, she had a box of Nilla wafers tied to her sparkly platform heel. Furthermore, most of the works ran too long: having said their piece strongly early on, they would have increased their impact by ending sooner rather than later, especially in a festival setting with many artists on the bill (something that the curators and SIDF organizers could exercise more control over). On the organizational end, there were an unfortunate number of typographical errors in the programs and inconsistencies with the glossy brochure, making it difficult to correctly identify artists—and while programs were scarce, there seemed to be more than enough festival brochures. Finally, the audience was subjected to a commercial for Umpqua Bank before each performance. While one can forgive the need to thank a sponsor who makes the festival possible, the commercial was screened without introduction, while the ushers were still seating people. More than anything, it was confusing.


SIDF is a wonderful idea and an important annual outlet for both local and international artists to present work, but the whole thing feels scattered—with workshop and artist cancellations, confusing sponsor etiquette, and a perceived lack of concern for crediting artists accurately (whatever the intention, a slapdash approach to print media is unfair to the artists). The idea of having three curated nights of Seattle dance is a fantastic way to see the Seattle scene from different perspectives—let’s have more of that. But let’s have more of that in an atmosphere that frames the programs more completely and with more thorough professionalism.