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“You can see the work. It’s tangible. I want to create pieces like that.”

SeattleDances caught up with Cameo Lethem, DanceCrush winner for her 2017 work, Isla, which debuted at On The Boards’ Northwest New Works last June. Hailed for its structural complexity and attention to detail, Isla bears Lethem’s signature precision and intricacy. The piece’s title, both the Scottish word for island and a woman’s name, reflects the five dancers’ isolation in their own spheres, but also the sense of female strength and power that Lethem harnesses throughout all of her works. “I want to portray badass women doing some hard shit!” Lethem laughs. “That’s real women.”

Isla. Photo by Photon Factory.

Isla, Lethem explains, is the sequel to her 2016 work, Sundowning, which was inspired by her studies in neuroscience at Skidmore College. Also tapping into her family history of short term memory loss, which she encountered while growing up through her grandmother and step-father, Sundowning centers on this symptom of Alzheimer’s Disease, exploring how a cognitive rift can become “tied to a new identity.” Lethem likens the deteriorating mental state of sundowning, also know as “late-day confusion,” to having a static identity. Those suffering from this illness experience only what they are going through in the present, while their family and caregivers know that their condition is only going to deteriorate. Meanwhile, a caregiver might sometimes force his or her reality on the person with the illness, saying, “No!” or correcting their memories. This dynamic can be terrifying and isolating for the person experiencing sundowning but also for the caregiver as well.

Sundowning. Photo by Jazzy Photo.

Isla, then, focuses on the caregiver, telling the other side of the story, which Lethem reveals has been inspired by her mother. Using this stimulus as a jumping off point, Lethem delved deeper into the physical feeling of being disoriented, isolated, and alone. Visually represented by the five dancers in the work, each does not realize that others may be going through the same struggle. In order to create a sense of confusion and instability, Lethem used Steve Reich’s “Violin Phase,” a repetitive and complicated work in which two violins play the same melody at slightly different tempos, creating a new melody that gradually shifts and evolves over the course of 15 minutes. Isla is “a visual representation of the music,” Lethem says.

This direct relationship ended up guiding the choreography, providing quite the challenge for both Lethem and her dancers. “The dancers did an amazing job of keeping track of where they were in the music. Once you lose your spot, it is so hard to get back on. The feeling of being lost and not knowing where they were, those were the realest moments.” Lethem even went so far as to create her own written score for the dancers, one master sheet of notation and one for each of the cast. When experimentally she tried out a section of the piece herself, Lethem says ruefully, “I couldn’t do it at all! The dancers’ contributions were amazing and vital. They were so supportive; I couldn’t have done it without them!” One of her dancers, Lethem relates, told her that performing Isla was like a math test: you can study and study but you still don’t know what is going to happen.

Isla. Photo by Photon Factory.

This feeling of never being settled or comfortable in performance is a sensation that excites Lethem. She recalls from college an influential piece by Brian Brooks in which every minute, “I felt like I was dancing for my life.” Brooks’s detail-oriented work inspired Lethem then and now to create difficult pieces that mentally and physically exhaust her dancers. This is why instead of continuing with the two works, Sundowning and Isla, and perhaps showing them on the same evening, Lethem is already on to her next project. “I need to keep challenging myself,” she says.

This time, Lethem is telling her own story, a major departure which both thrills and terrifies her. In her new project, Lethem is taking on perhaps her biggest challenge yet, her own #MeToo story, as “an act of empowerment and an act of expression.” Referencing the Greek myth of Leda to highlight one of the myriad examples of the normalization and romanticization of rape culture, Lethem will be directing, performing, and editing a solo dance film with help from her primary collaborator, Erik Molano. The work, Lethem hopes, will help guide her journey toward understanding and healing: “I will share my story with my own body; the same body that holds the trauma of having been violated, shamed, and blamed. It’s also the same body that holds beauty in its strength, resilience, and survival.” Exploiting the power relationship between the camera lens and the subject, Lethem intends to explore changes of perception using the camera’s movement as choreography.

Cameo Lethem. Photo by Brit Ruggirello.

“I’m still learning about myself as a choreographer,” Lethem says thoughtfully. Conscious of the paradox between her dual interests in formalistic patterning and also the emotional content that guides her choreography, Lethem admits she still wonders what kind of creator she is. In addition to her upcoming dance film, Lethem also plans to create a duet for a showcase in June and also looks forward to performing a humorous piece for Battle of the Dance Belt. Although Lethem may not have settled on a clear answer to the questions she grapples with as an artist, SeattleDances is more than happy to watch her work them out onstage.

For more information on Lethem and her upcoming works, please visit HERE.