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CHOP SHOP: Always a Sure Thing

CHOP SHOP: Bodies of Work, now in its eighth year running, has established itself as an important, heavily-curated Seattle/Eastside institution, and is known for delivering a strong representation of choreographic voices both locally and regionally. This year’s showing, February 14-15 at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center, demonstrated that being a safe bet pays off at the box office, but can be devoid of the true risk-taking that defines (and continues to redefine) the contemporary genre. Nine different choreographers’ works rounded out the lengthy evening; the few pieces that showed aesthetic diversity starkly stood out in this event, which was likely considered by many to be another great contemporary show.

Dancers of The Foundry in Alex Ketley’s Poem Triptych at CHOP SHOP 2015.   Photo by Rex Tranter.
Dancers of The Foundry in Alex Ketley’s Poem Triptych at CHOP SHOP 2015.
Photo by Rex Tranter.

Jamie Karlovich’s The Deeper Side opened the evening, after Eva Stone, the festival’s founder, spurred the audience into an impromptu dance party to commemorate CHOP SHOP’s continuation despite budget concerns during the previous year. In Deeper, eight self-possessed dancers in character shoes and vintage 1940s-esque dresses, waltzed thoughtfully to a sultry jazz recording, as if listening to music in their own living rooms while preparing for an evening out. Karlovich’s conspicuous use of floor work alternately created an interesting juxtaposition and jarred with her collage of early twentieth-century movement references. CHOP SHOP’s high point arrived second in the evening: Alex Ketley’s Poem Triptych, danced by his San Francisco-based group, The Foundry. In a nod to Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, three female dancers in severe updos, black leggings, and socks intricately gestured, slashed, pushed, and cartwheeled across three folding tables, completing intricate tasks to a driving electronic musical score. Their movement, weaving away from the maze of tables, ate up the space as the dancers flung limbs in every direction, curled into tiny shapes and deep squats, and fell to the floor only to sequence back up rapidly. The dancers sailed through fresh and expansive movement vocabulary, including a breathtaking series of triplets encompassing both high levels and the very lowest, the dancers’ pelvises barely skimming the floor. The three women manipulated each other, pressing hands to one another’s hearts in evocative partnering sections, confirming both choreographer Ketley and the performers as powerhouses in their craft.

Coriolis Dance in madness, to speak of nothing at CHOP SHOP 2015.  Choreography by Joshua Beamish.   Photo by Rex Tranter.
Coriolis Dance in madness, to speak of nothing at CHOP SHOP 2015. Choreography by Joshua Beamish.
Photo by Rex Tranter.

A confusing arrangement in the program of the show’s third and fourth pieces added to the unsettling nature of Asher Lev’s The Kettle. The work began with Lev emerging from the house, only to place the audience on hold while he waited for a pot of water to boil. Lev’s thought process failed to develop after the piece’s sluggish onset, as he gesticulated, flailed, and flopped like a fish out of water. All of this begs the question: are Seattle’s dance audiences underexposed enough to be impressed by a gimmick so trite as this? Coriolis Dance’s madness, to speak of nothing was another disappointment, despite choreography commissioned from up-and-coming hotshot Canadian Joshua Beamish. Wearing brown, flowing dresses reminiscent of a tuxedo jacket with tails and bright blue leggings (with matching socks), the three dancers showed off their exquisite lines without power or emotion. Lyrically set to several movements of Vivaldi, the work came off as overly controlled, as if the dancers were too preoccupied with precisely executing the neo-classical vocabulary to attack the phrases, travel, or meaningfully connect with one another.

gR33N (excerpts), by Donald Sales of Vancouver, BC, closed the first half on a high note. Four dancers showcased their versatility as performers in enticingly varied sections of unexpected gestures, vocalizations, and virtuosic, tightly-wound movement phrases. Their deep grand pliés and high arabesques demonstrated the female dancers’ strong physicality, while the musical score, full of ping pong ball noises and other jokes, meshed well with the charming uniform of shorts, button-up shirts, bowties, and this time mismatching socks. The piece was a window into a teenage clique’s silly and uninhibited after-school antics. After intermission, Alana O’Farrell Rogers presented REWIND (excerpts), another strong work. “Inspired by stories of those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” the piece told the story of a day played backwards, the dancers searching for something they’ve forgotten, spilling coffee on the kitchen table (a part of the elaborate set), getting frustrated, and tearing at their hair while spinning around and around. At the end of the work, a soloist turned off the three lamps and crawled into bed to the sound of birds chirping at dawn, a quiet and profound ending to a well-developed piece.

Choreographer/Dancer Gabrielle Revlock in Halo at CHOP SHOP 2015.   Photo by Rex Tranter.
Choreographer/Dancer Gabrielle Revlock in Halo at CHOP SHOP 2015.
Photo by Rex Tranter.

The nine pieces on the bill made for a show pushing two and a half hours in length, which, regardless of quality, taxes an audience’s endurance, especially when interrupted by a raffle drawing between the penultimate and closing piece. The evening ended with three final works: an amusing duet integrating dialogue that questioned the actions appropriate to manhood by Portland’s Lindsey Matheis; another duet between creator Gabrielle Revlock and a silver hula hoop; and producer Stone’s own large group work, showcasing lofty extensions, excited expressions, and a splendid Baroque score by Corelli, her grey-clad dancers flitting about like a school of fish.

CHOP SHOP offers an opportunity to see pieces polished and well-rehearsed, as the application process requires finished works, somewhat of a rarity in the Seattle festival circuit. Although a few of the works were outstanding, a festival aiming to please a crowd of those who have little familiarity with the contemporary genre inevitably underwhelms audience members looking for something more out of the ordinary. While it is difficult to break ground without risk, CHOP SHOP, as usual, certainly delivered much to like.

More info about CHOP SHOP: Bodies of Work available here.