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Karin Stevens Dance: Visual Jazz

Jazz music and modern dance took the stage last weekend with the encore presentation of Karin Stevens Dance and the Sam Boshnack Quintet. Presented as part of the University of Washington Dance Program’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, the evening featured choreography by alumna Karin Stevens, Adjunct Faculty and Teaching Artist Penny Hutchinson, and former professor Jürg Koch. Set to an enthralling live jazz score composed by Samantha Boshnack and performed by the Sam Boshnack Quintet, the performance held appeal for music lovers and dance enthusiasts alike.

Karin Stevens in her work, Free-Flow Interchange
Karin Stevens in her work, Free-flow Interchange
Photo by Craig van den Bosch

The evening opened with Hutchinson’s Body & Soul Part I & II. Beginning with a duet and later expanding to a quartet of dancers, the piece focused on partnerships, often with one dancer physically supporting another. The music harkened to an effortlessly cool, casual jazz lounge. Though the movement was marked by beautiful lines and percussive jumps, Body & Soul struggled with a stop/start quality, and some uneasy partnerwork. Stevens’s Currency of Evolution, created with the support of a 2015 Velocity Creative Residency, followed. A note-for-note rendering of the jazz score, Currency used classic modern dance shapes and group structures which brought to mind modern choreography of the 1960’s. In this case, the musicality was so closely tied to the score that the work didn’t always live up to the potential of marrying dance with music. Large, sweeping gestures and flexed feet were in abundance as the dancers moved in and out of varying group configurations. A highlight came during a self-contained shifting dance that started with a decisive jolting quality and ended with half of the dancers moving fluidly—the precise moment of the change remained imperceptible.

In a collaboration between Koch and performers, off/set had a mythic quality; the dancers in loose dresses could have been pulled from a Greek urn. The lighting design by Sara Torres cycled through distinct phases: a looming red, panels of white sidelight, and a flood of brightness from downstage. The repeated pattern suggested a passage of time and added to the mythic atmosphere. The ever-forward facing choreography paired with perpetual smiles from the performers made the work feel particularly geared toward a classic Greek proscenium stage.

The music shifted for Stevens’ Free-flow Interchange, with Isaac Castillo’s longing, plaintive bass calling up the image of a wild and empty natural landscape. The choreography was a physical translation of the musical score, which often left hesitations where the dancers sought to match the live instruments. As with the other pieces of the evening, the movement itself was beautiful, though these moments of hesitation gave the piece a work-in-progress feeling.

Naphtali Ann Beyleveld in Karin Steven's Dormant-Exploding Syndrome-Ashcloud Photo by Craig van den Bosch
Naphtali Ann Beyleveld in Karin Steven’s Dormant-Exploding Syndrome-Ashcloud
Photo by Craig van den Bosch

Dormant-Exploding Syndrome-Ashcloud, while rather crowded onstage, offered the most action of the evening. Ashcloud opened with a rhythmic section filled with angular elbows and flexed feet, but the real excitement began part way through the piece when the performers formed a circle and one dancer took center stage to perform a series of wild and virtuosic leaps. The dancers then made a mad dash to the back of the stage to roll towards the audience at once in a stampede. The stage erupted in movement as Quintet-member Beth Fleenor wowed with aggressive and percussive scatting. Though chaotic, Ashcloud was the most engaging piece of the night, exhibiting strong dynamics and a fresh approach.

Both Velocity Dance Center (as the performance venue and sponsor of Stevens’ Creative Residency), and the larger Seattle dance community are unrelentingly forward-thinking and innovative. Classical modern dance, however, also holds a unique place in our city today. Stevens’ alma mater, the University of Washington Dance Program, is known for their Chamber Dance Company that focuses solely on the history of modern dance. Stevens is a product of both worlds; she uses the choreographic tactics of the past and strides forward into the future, although sometimes with mixed effect. Though music-driven dance is tried and true, several of the works had an old fashioned feel. The fresh take Stevens used in Dormant-Exploding Syndrome-Ashcloud stood out from the rest of the concert, and it shows her ability to make the past and present coexist.

More information on Karin Stevens Dance can be found on her website.