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SOTO + TOWER’s opening work at Seattle International Dance Festival’s James Ray Residency showcase, [persIst], offers a dance anthem for our time. The multidisciplinary duo of Seattle dance, longtime collaborators Maya Soto and Nico Tower, capture to a tee the experience of living in our contemporary political environment.

Photo by Jazzy Photo. From previous SOTO + TOWER production, Beautiful Carcass.

The opening scene offers rapid fire soundbites, news clips discussing school shootings, violence at the US-Mexico border, and wildfires in particular, with explicit mentions of devastation, catastrophe, and crisis more broadly. Four dancers stand in a spotlight, one behind the other, stoic through it all. The deluge of news ends, giving way to the sounds of a wind storm–a potent analogy of what it’s like to be immersed in the information age during a time of increasingly volatile climate change, mass scapegoating of immigrants, and chaos in our government. The dancers make their way downstage, arms flailing, struggling to move as if the wind or the onslaught of negative news forcefully blows them back. They wrestle so convincingly that it’s easy to forget they’re only moving through the still air around them.

Tower, stationed upstage with her sound equipment and violinist Jo Nardollio, gently sings over a sound loop. Her words are about persistence, a nod to the title of the piece and a reference to Mitch McConnell’s famed rationalization for silencing and punishing Elizabeth Warren’s opposition of a Trump appointee. Nevertheless, she persisted has since become a rallying cry for the American feminist movement.

In one powerful scene, Tower creates a symphony of small popping noises, like heavy rain drops falling hard onto rubber. One dancer pretends to catch falling objects, each fall denoted by the melodic pops. She struggles hopelessly, in a comedic I Love Lucy-chocolate-factory-way, but also in a way that’s deeply sad and relatable. She sticks out one hand after another, as if catching increasing responsibilities, perhaps a work deadline, or a 3.1% rent increase. She tucks the invisible load under her arm, amassing a pile. Soon, she needs to jut out her foot, like catching her worry for the future in a world of unpredictable and extreme weather. Unable to hold all of the things she must, she collapses.

A motif of exhaustion seeps through the piece. The four performers run in place, anxious to get somewhere, but not moving an inch. Other moments feature floppy, can’t-hold-my-own-body-weight partnering. The dancers crawl on top of each other for minutes, leisurely sprinkling in lazy, yet impressive, back walkovers. One dancer, bent over at a ninety degree angle, swings another over their back, and they hold the seemingly uncomfortable pose for a surprisingly long time, giving focus to being literally doubled over, weighed down, and barely hanging on. Given the opening soundbites, the exhaustion reads analogous to the desperation many feel now: of being trapped in historically high levels of income inequality, unaffordable housing, and prohibitively expensive healthcare.

SOTO + TOWER close the piece with a little tune and an optimistic message. Tower repeats a dulcet “I’m so tired” while calling the dancers to come towards her and the audience to sing along. As the dancers gather around her, they each assist in helping Tower to create the music, one beats the base of the guitar like a drum, another holds the microphone by Tower’s mouth, and others hold down guitar chords and strum. Pretty soon 5 sets of hands are supporting the creation of the tune, a signal to find strength in community and friendship, when the odds are stacked against you.   

[persIst] was the first piece in the Seattle International Dance Festival’s showcase of the James Ray Residency 2018-19 awardees, who received a year long program of support to foster the local dance ecology. The second James Ray residency recipient performing was longtime Seattle burlesque luminary Lily Verlaine, also known as Rachel Gourd.

Photo by Ernie Sapiro. Photo from previous House of Verlaine production.

According to Gourd, her piece, Juliet and Her, Romeo Act I, is a gender non-binary and “sexy feminist” interpretation of the old tale that intends to bring hedonistic classical fantasies to life through a mix of ballet and burlesque. And boy did it deliver.

The gender non-conforming casting had a woman playing Romeo, a man Lady Montague, and  everyone clad in tight, backside-cupping turtleneck leotards with striking black eyeliner and full red lips. An egalitarian approach to costuming that was refreshing in a culture that can tend toward sexualizing female and female-presenting artists more than their male counterparts.

The first scene showed Rosalind giving Romeo and his friends a striptease, but without actually stipping. Pretending to take off gloves one finger at a time and unbutton a shirt that did not exist, the dancer displayed American Striptease technique, which the program notes denote as a unique and complex dance form and inspiration for Gourd. One of the work’s most applauded moments showcased a trio of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio, whipping short pieces of satin fabric around. They flip the fabric around their neck, pulling each side slowly up and down. Amidst Charleston-ing, they interlace a perfect bow tie around their own neck in perfect unison, a feat that must have taken hours of practice. Then they linked arms à la Swan Lake and bounded off the stage. Juliet and Her, Romeo Act I succeeded in reworking a timeless play into a sexy burlesque dance.

Other artists awarded the James Ray Residency and featured performances at SIDF include: Cameo, Forthun + Rome Dance Theater, and Petra Zanki. SIDF runs from Friday June 7, 2019 to Saturday June 22, 2019. SOTO + TOWER and House of Verlaine were featured Wednesday June 12th and 13th.