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With the brilliant A Dance for Dark Horses, choreographer Kim Lusk has cemented her place in the top tier of Seattle’s dance scene. Her ability to masterfully combine a variety of elements—athleticism, power, humor, and absurdism—in just an hour and a half program speaks to her strengths as a choreographer and mover. The world premiere of her piece, which took place at Velocity Dance Center this past weekend, was packed with Lusk’s supporters, family, friends, and fans, who sat in the stands and on cushions lining the stage. Audience members were prepared for something great, but what they came away with was a compelling, jarring tour de force of movement, sound, and energy.

Photo by Marcia Davis

The first take away from Lusk’s piece is the formidable technique and artistry of the dancers, who masterfully wield Lusk’s choreography while still infusing the movement with their own idiosyncratic qualities. Lusk and her dancers, Alexander Pham, Erin McCarthy, and Shane Donohue, easily adapt between smooth, legato sensibilities and sudden, powerful jump sequences. Their range of movement span the gamut: powerful and fierce, they simultaneously maintain an air of grace and quiet. In modern dance classes, trying to capture this luxurious quality might be described as “wading through honey.” Lusk and her dancers take this image to the extreme—their arms, languid and calm, contrast sharply against the hard-beating, pulsing rhythms created by their stomping feet.

Photo by Marcia Davis

In A Dance for Dark Horses, Lusk draws on her ancestral lineage of “cowboys, homesteaders, and mountaineers.” Tongue-in-cheek images of her roots, such as prancing horses and rodeo-like wrangling, peek out through the grandiose movement. Against the backdrop of incredible athleticism, these small moments pop with humor. In Pham’s solos, he masterfully infuses his dancing with small hops, macho hip thrusts, and flicks of the wrist. In a duet where Lusk and Donohue are connected at all times by their index finger, Lusk poses in arabesque with the posture of a regal show pony, while Donohue frantically frolics side to side. The intensity and stone-cold expression with which the dancers perform these absurd gestures add to the dark humor: in one completely farcical section, Donohue’s equine stomping is suddenly interrupted by a figure clad in a Superman costume who hands him a tambourine. Donohue takes the tambourine calmly and begins to stamp it all over his body; on his head, along his shoulders, and even down the inside of his leg as he stands in arabesque.

A group of five female dancers provide a short interlude midway through the piece. Wearing pink sweats, these women move fiercely and unabashedly, staring the audience down and highlighting their power with masterful synchronicity to Ryan Hume’s upbeat, techno musical accompaniment. The soundscape throughout the work plays an integral part in the environment of the piece. Along with the sound of the dancers’ pounding feet, the minimalist score plays brilliantly by mirroring the dark humor of the choreography.

Photo by Marcia Davis

Much of the choreography returns again and again to the same motif where the dancers appear stuck inside a crowded dance club, throwing their own private dance parties. While prancing, they bring their arms close to their chests and pulse them lightly, letting their eyelids droop, as if in private reflection. Oblivious to the audience, the dancers look at one each other knowingly, slight smiles emerging on their faces as if they know something the audience doesn’t. Their movement grows and grows—the inward focus turns outward—and the dancers encourage one another to emerge from within their private little worlds with high-kicking legs and loud claps. As the dancers fall to the floor breathlessly, the audience, enraptured by the athleticism of the dancers and the playfulness of the choreography, break into wild applause.