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Humor and Horror at Next Fest NW 2014

Seattle is a city of innovation and exploration—a theme tested in many of the new works presented at Velocity Dance Center’s Next Fest NW this year. Many look to Next Fest as a sign of what’s to come in Seattle, although it is hard to hold it as the gold standard considering the number of festivals in town that focus on new talent and new ideas in progress. This year, however, the festival’s theme was the “New West” and the region’s environment for creation, so it could more feasibly be examined as a harbinger of what our city is ready to produce.

Kim Lusk's The Full Bounty Photo by Tim Summers
Kim Lusk’s The Full Bounty
Photo by Tim Summers

The show opened on Kim Lusk’s The Full Bounty, inspired by the “and” culture of the west coast dance world, which demands a little bit of everything from its dancers. The first glimpse revealed Lusk cowering in a spotlight as a sinister chant of “Carrie! Carrie! Carrie!” kicked off Ryan Hume’s sound design. Though interesting, this section and a few other moments scattered throughout the dance seemed completely disconnected from the rest of the piece which carried a sense of playfulness with fun technical phrasing accompanied by Hume’s electronic pop. Between the pure dance sections and unexplained bits of pathos, there was room for growth. Still, Lusk proved that risk-taking dance can profit from going back to basics.

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Mariah Martens and Alexandra Maricich’s Ask Me About My Ass
Photo by Tim Summers

With Ask Me About My Ass, Mariah Martens and Alexandra Maricich zoomed into new concert dance territory, performing on roller blades in a piece that landed somewhere in the Venn diagram of post-modern philosophy, roller derby, and pornography. With the mirror on the upstage wall exposed, Ask Me started off with a graphic display of intimacy. Dressed in grey underwear, loose tank tops, and roller blades, the performers embraced—pulling at each other’s clothes, peeking curiously into their necklines and waistbands. It stopped short of voyeurism, but also just shy of authenticity. Later, they picked up speed, turning the stage into a roller rink and flipping the audience reckless glimpses of boob, ass cheek, or obscene gesture. In the most exquisite portion of the piece, the duo stripped of their tops entirely and stood facing the mirror (effectively obscuring their breasts). Their backs rippled and shoulders shrugged as one inched away across the stage. From the brusque spectacles to the moments of sensitivity, Ask Me explored and celebrated female physicality and psyche.

Colleen McNeary's Mistake #1 Photo by Tim Summers
Colleen McNeary’s Mistake #1
Photo by Tim Summers

Colleen McNeary’s Mistake #1 didn’t reach the bar set by the first two pieces or that of her personal mission to create new female archetypes for the modern world. It started on a strong note: a brilliant characterization of a schizophrenic in a bright yellow jumpsuit by Marlys Yvonne. Muddled whispers manifested as pained tics, and when the voices focused into a conversation, Yvonne’s movements developed into recognizable dance. This pattern of character development could have gone a lot further, so McNeary’s entrance as an uptight neurotic bent on putting the “crazy” woman back in line felt like “mistake #1.” The piece struggled to identify a relationship between the two women and their confusing interaction at the end of the piece drew laughs from the audience by virtue of being completely baffling.

In reference to his piece Atemwende, Choreographer Carl Lawrence wrote, “The shades of grey that run between life and death, creation and destruction, beginnings and endings; this is the place in which my generation can be found grasping and groping beneath the night sky left only with transgression and tragedy as our guiding lights.” The word atemwende is a German phrase meaning “turning of the breath”, coined by German poet Paul Celan. Atemwende may be the most terrifying performance piece to grace Velocity’s stage. In darkness, seven shadowy forms lined the edges of the stage. Viewers felt the deep, pulsing bass line as more a vibration than a sound. Throughout the piece, Cameron Armstrong’s sound design was crucial in making the experience real for the audience. A dancer in a green and blue horned owl hat moved forward onto a crisply lit while circle—the hat unnervingly out of place. As the dance progressed, the remaining six dancers framed an environment of ritual sacrifice. Two figures in white robes smeared his face in a bowl of blood-like paint leaving him, dripping, as they slowly moved toward the audience. Meanwhile, in the red wash of lights forming the outer circle of the stage, two bare chested men framed the back of the stage with graceful and shuddering choreography, and two actors in black street clothes shook and shouted incomprehensible monologues. While the title Atemwende implied a highly cerebral process in the development of the piece, the final product succeeded as an appeal to primal emotion rather than an intellectual statement.

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Ariana Bird’s Remedies for Aching Bones
Photo by Tim Summers

Ariana Bird’s Remedies for Aching Bones kicked off the second act with an eerie and lavish world of sequins, painted horse figurines, knickknacks, and kimono-like robes. Three women lounged in front of a mirrored vanity table, dressed in outlandish getups (think fur and lingerie covered in large pom-poms) and overdone make-up, gold legs, and platinum blonde bobs. Each dancer took her turn at the front of the stage, displaying sultry strength in mesmerizing and creepily unnatural movements, emphasized by Andrew Powell’s sound design. Remedies was like Mean Girls with washed-up alien divas. Unlike Ask Me, Bird’s exploration of the feminine seemed to point toward unease with objectification and the feminine capacity for destruction.

Luke Gutgsell's First Take Photo by Tim Summers
Luke Gutgsell’s First Take
Photo by Tim Summers

In First Take, Luke Gutgsell explored a sweet and lighthearted gentleness that, like all pieces of humanity, had a discordant side. The piece combined Gutgsell beautiful lines and strong dance technique with Fatha Green’s acoustic music and honey-like voice. The differences between their artistic languages as dancer and musician illustrated the universal difficulty of communication between two people not on the same page. While their relationship was caring, it was also inadvertently hurtful. With the work’s environment, Gutgsell successfully captured the laid-back vibes of the region; a factor that often has a big impact on the art created on the West Coast.

Anna Conner's Surrounded and Static Photo by Tim Summers
Anna Conner’s Surrounded and Static
Photo by Tim Summers

Anna Conner’s Surrounded and Static made a foray into isolation and confusion in the noise of modern digital age. It also acted as a living example of how technology is influencing the world of dance and performance, pushing that envelope a bit with an almost gratuitous use of strobe lighting. The stunning dancers successfully communicated through the Conner’s combination of pedestrian movements, abstracted gestures, and technical choreography. This combination proved especially powerful when excruciatingly loud static filled the room. One dancer, isolated from the others for most of the work, covered her ears in pain while the rest continued dancing as if nothing changed, indicating, perhaps, that only a few of us are truly paying attention to the realities of modern life.

This performance was not without controversy—even beyond what any experimental art is bound to provoke. The choices to include Ask Me About My Ass and Atemwende particularly drew concerns about the responsibility of artists and curators to be socially conscious in the art they present, especially within a charged political and social climate. Each piece was clearly chosen for its creative content and marked departures from common expectations of concert dance; however, taken as a group, they also raised the question of whether or not art in Seattle is reflecting the city’s evolving populace.

But Next Fest 2014 did hint at some changes to the Seattle Dance scene: an updated aesthetic with a stronger focus on technical precision and clean, yet innovative, choreography and a trend toward composers/sound designers being fully acknowledged as collaborators. This, however, is also only a tiny slice of what is happening in Seattle. It may well be an indicator of what’s next, but anything could happen on Seattle’s stages next year.

More information about Velocity’s annual Next Fest NW can be found at Velocity’s website.