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Chamber Dance Company’s Snapshot of Postmodern Dance

One great part of the Seattle dance scene is that there is a lot of dance happening: from big shows staged by PNB to small performances at the new Pocket Theater in Greenwood, with everything in between. With so much dance being produced, choosing what performances to attend can be a daunting task. The University of Washington’s annual Chamber Dance Concert each fall—tenured professionals performing historically curated works—is often a safe bet. This year’s programming centered on mid-1960s/early-70s works by Judson Church dance artists (with one closing piece a more recent addition to the modern dance family tree), creating a visual primer in early postmodern dance.

Joseph Blake and Fausto Rivera in Zvi Gotheiner’s Chairs.
Photo by Steve Korn.

Joseph Blake in Trisha Brown’s 1971 solo Accumulation was a study in layers: calm ease over strong muscular control, gestural phrasework that expanded each time a new body part became involved (the titular “accumulation”), the visual contrast of Blake’s shadow cast upon the theater walls. Accumulation mesmerized through gently hypnotic and repetitive loop after loop, with the starting gesture (almost a hitchhiking thumb) always signaling a satisfying return to the beginning as the phrase grew in length. Blake’s skill made the difficult task of repeating each motion exactly as before—at the same level in space, with the same energy—look effortless. Brown’s seemingly endless series of movements finished strongly, with a final finger gesture pointing into the opposite palm: done only once, a moment elevated by its relative ephemeralness.

Satisfyin Lover, Steve Paxton’s 1967 silent work, highlighted the pedestrian qualities closely associated with postmodern dance. The curtain opened on three empty chairs situated across downstage right, the black backdrop raised halfway to reveal a steely blue-lit cyclorama. Dancer-participants in street clothes walked across midstage from stage left to right, a parade of humanity striding, being carried, wheeling, ambling, strutting. The large cast of participants included a wide swath of Seattleites, non-dancers alongside well-known artists such as Wade Madson in rain boots and a contemplative Mark Haim. Occasionally, someone would pause to sit one of the folding chairs or just stand facing the audience.  Especially as viewed against the half cyc, Satisfyin Lover was a live-action widescreen silent film. This staging of Paxton’s work successfully achieved a sense of authenticity: a street scene plucked from everyday life, the details brought into focus on a proscenium stage devoid of the extra hustle and bustle aggregation of “stuff.”

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Brandin Steffensen (and others) in Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin Lover.
Photo by Steve Korn.

Lucinda Childs’ dark Carnation, the most dada-esque of the evening, featured the exquisite Laura Halm as a housewife-type character. Beginning seated at a small table downstage, Halm engaged in a series of absurd tasks: upending a filled wire basket; meticulously arranging and rearranging brightly colorful sponges and foam hair rollers like a child playing with building blocks; placing the upended basket on her head like a Sunday hat, the wire now acting as a mesh veil. Performed with eloquent articulation, each seemingly innocuous gesture gained weightiness. By presenting each object like Vanna White, Childs’ choreography implied a value statement: “What is this worth?”, therefore leading to “What is this housewife worth?” The latter question’s dark implications became apparent as Halm crammed the ends of the sponges one by one into her mouth and fed the rollers into her wire hat like electrodes for a lobotomy. Halm’s manipulation of objects connoted an objectification of her housewife character. (In reference, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the year before Childs premiered Carnation.) In the most disturbing visual moment, Halm lay supine after covering herself with a white sheet—both laundry and shroud—as pink foam hair curlers rolled slowly across the stage. With an inflated garbage bag as “partner,” Halm elegantly leapt over, posed perched atop, and performed a controlled back roll over the bag. Ending with this playful spoof on classical dance forms kept Carnation from melodrama.

The staging of Yvonne Rainer’s 1969 Chair/Pillow (excerpted from Continuous Project—Altered Daily) featured all six current UW Dance Program MFA candidates, including pregnant Leslie Kraus in a visual representation of Rainer’s dedication to presenting “real life” in dance (read her No Manifesto here.) The curtain opened as the dancers raced onstage carrying the pillows and chairs from the excerpt’s title, an abrupt start when compared to the silences within earlier pieces. The energy of Ike & Tina Turner’s River Deep—Mountain High played a strong contrast to the often pedestrian movements. The cast maintained unison well, even while jumping over chairs at a deceptively fast pace. (Kraus, at centerstage, sat during more strenuous moments.) Chair/Pillow was inexplicably humorous and lighthearted, especially in the cast’s exaggerated drama of attempting to pull the pillow out from under their bottoms while still mostly seated on chairs.

Leslie Kraus in Lucinda Child’s Carnation.
Photo by Steve Korn.

Featuring the MFA candidates alongside current and former UW students, excerpts from Zvi Gotheiner’s larger 1992 work Chairs flowed between group work and duet and solo work. Chairs were used both as props and to define the stage space. While the movement was at times aggressive and confrontational, it contrasted well with the classical, religious, and movie music score. A highlight was the female duet section, danced with elegant smoothness through circular patterns over two chairs. Orbiting around each other, a mother/daughter relationship emerged as one first supported, then was supported by the other. The other duet, with Blake and MFA graduate Jason Ohlberg (a surprise delight to see back on the Meany Hall stage), began with both of the dancers on a single chair, carving space with their limbs, flowing through shapes while maintaining contact. Blake and Ohlberg, while very different dancers, were well-matched in fluidity and strength.

Chairs was a strong closer for the program. Not only did it show an evolution of postmodern dance in the decades since the Judson Church artists first presented work, it balanced out what could have become a merely thought-provoking (albeit beautiful) evening. Although every piece prior required a very high caliber of technique and artistry, Chairs allowed the dancers to show off their chops—and with most having long performing careers already under their belts, these artists had much to show off.

Laura Halm in Zvi Gotheiner’s Chairs.
Photo by Steve Korn.

These works have aged exceptionally well. The recurrent minimalism and compulsory focus throughout the evening became a mandate to stop, look, and pay attention—a call to mindfulness within this ever-increasing technological age. The 2016 program was smartly curated, both thematically and given the available dancer resources, while paying attention to the details of these historical works in presenting them for current audiences and preserving them for future audiences (part of CDC’s mission is archival). CDC is a jewel in Seattle’s crown, a blending of higher education and the performing arts for the greater benefit of dancers and audiences locally and beyond.

Find more information on UW’s Chamber Dance Company here.