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Happy New Year!

SeattleDances is busy preparing for our annual DanceCrush celebration, in which we will honor local dance artists who made 2019 such a spectacular year for dance in Seattle. Please join us on January 18th! In the meantime, we’re long overdue for a bit of local dance news (New companies! New platforms!) and notes on a particularly favorite work of mine from the last few months.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Donald Byrd’s Love and Loss, which PNB premiered as part of LOCALLY SOURCED. November 8 – 17, 2019.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

A Love Letter to Love and Loss

While Meredith Pellon provided an excellent overview of the whole show, please indulge me to wax additionally on Donald Byrd’s Love and Loss, presented at PNB’s Locally Sourced program in November.

The work begins dramatically with streams of men emerging from tall upstage doorways, walking in interwoven grids. Groups emerge and dispel and regroup again, contrasting flurries of movement and stillness that emphasize a rare comprehension of dynamics that Byrd employs throughout the work. Much like his choreography with Spectrum Dance Theater, the fast material is almost impossibly fast, and often accented with crystalline, instantaneous stops that not only show off these dancers as incredible technicians, but show Byrd’s understanding of how to construct an image that lands, a rhythmic tension that catches the breath and then yanks us, heart-first, into the world of the piece.

Out of what seems to be a highly abstracted street scene, a birds-eye-view of a world at large, one man emerges out of the fray, walking slowly forward, zooming the lens of the piece from macro to micro, a fitting introduction to a long series of duets, each a story, as the title suggests, of a man loving and losing a woman.

Each partnership describes a complex and specific relationship dynamic. Lucien Postlewaite and Leta Biasucci’s opening duet is full of quick-fire, angular partnering with sharp looks and loaded stillnesses. A relationship that burns bright and fast, almost competitive, until Postlewaite takes it too far, bucking and kicking as Biasucci’s character struggles to hold on, eventually giving up on his wild antics. In another pairing the woman is always just out of reach, partnering for a moment but always clearly wanting something more as the man trails her around the space. In the one trio of the evening, the woman alternates between one man and another, unable to decide between the two. She eventually bourrées away from one, but as she arrives at the second she just keeps going, leaving them both in her wake.

Byrd uses ballet vocabulary to not only communicate the essence of each relationship, but to show the development of story over the course of the partnership. How energies aligned at the beginning become mismatched overtime. Each a story of how lives intersect, how we support and misunderstand each other, and how this leads to each devastating departure.

Particularly heart wrenching is Dylan Wald and Cecilia Iliesiu’s duet. Unlike many of the other pairings, this so clearly lives in the world of mutual adoration and support. She waits and watches patiently as he solos, then he kneels and watches her, both shining in their individual lives. They join and bound through the space perfectly in synch, holding hands, a vision of cooperation. They leap together in a broad sweeping circle, until suddenly she is two steps behind, then four. He turns to find her, but she is invisible to him now, a ghost that can join him no longer, a reminder of how a tragedy can take away what we hold dearest when we least expect it.

I have to admit I was not expecting to be genuinely moved at the ballet, and especially not by a piece largely about the feelings and stories of straight men. I am often critical of contemporary ballet’s default to heteronormative pairings, but the difference here is that it isn’t a default so much as an intentional focus—a bittersweet reflection on the brilliant women who come into men’s lives and then leave them, forever changed. My date to the show said it reminded them of their parents, and while I don’t think it describes all kinds of relationships out there, these stories are certainly ones that feel like a reality in the world. It is also notable that while clearly presented from the man’s point of view, the woman’s role is always specific rather than generic: a vision of women with dreams and desires and inner lives, so unusual to see on the ballet stage.

And the brilliance is that all this story and character development is accomplished not through costuming, program plot descriptions, or miming, but through the choreography and performance of ballet. The work allows PNB’s dancers to shine both in the technically demanding material and in giving convincing, human, individual performances, showing them to be the world-class performers they are. And while there is nothing revolutionary about subject matter or vocabulary here, Byrd uses the building blocks of choreography to demonstrate the capacity for ballet to communicate: rhythm, dynamics, image, spatial design, pacing, arc, relationship… I won’t waste your time talking about the other two choreographers on the Locally Sourced bill, except to say they are distinctly lacking a comprehension of many of these choreographic elements. Byrd, by contrast, had the vision to imagine something big enough and grand enough for the McCaw stage, but an understanding of how to focus in on something precious and intimate.

There is often the question of how to make ballet relevant to contemporary audiences (or there should be) and much of the time its commercial success is due to riding its own coat tails of fame. From a contemporary art perspective, ballet is lagging, due much in part to entrenched institutional power structures, choreographic works reliant on imperialist attitudes and exotification, and a long history of exclusion and diversity issues. And many contemporary ballet works seek to “shake things up” by being “edgy” or irreverent, but largely end up being vacuous. Byrd shows us that compelling, relevant ballet works come from good choreography, and from artists who understand the methods through which movement communicates.

P.S. It’s not lost on me that Byrd is both Black, and has a contemporary dance background. Ballet companies take note as you curate future seasons!

Vladimir Kremenović’s CommonForm Dance Project premiered at Velocity’s Next Fest. Photo by Jim Coleman.

One On Ones: A New Opportunity for Performance Mentorship

In the Seattle scene, development of craft is often emphasized for choreographers, but what about performers, who bring each work to life? Local dance artist Emma Lawes noticed an absence of opportunities for dancers to research from a performance perspective, noticed how her peers and colleagues craved intimate and rigorous mentorship. In response, she initiated a project being co-produced with Velocity this spring. One on Ones will offer four movers 10 research hours with a personal mentor, creating time to develop skills released from the weight of executing a choreographer’s ideas.

A pool of pre-selected mentors are already on board with the project, or an applicant can suggest their own. The pool is a who’s who of Seattle dance icons, from Wade Madsen to Markeith Wiley to Lavinia Vago, plus some influences from the theater world, like Tim Smith-Stewart. It’s important to Lawes that the opportunity be accessible to “different ages, generations, circles, not just for dancers, but for people who identify as other kinds of artists who are bringing the moving body into their practice.” Or, she suggests, a dance technician might be interested in working with bringing more theatricality or voice work into their physical tool set. For Lawes it’s an opportunity to take advantage of the “many incredibly accomplished performers with a wealth of knowledge” that make Seattle home.

Applications for One on Ones goes live January 3, available through the Velocity website, and are due February 3. The resulting research will have an informal showing this May at Velocity, along with each partnership presenting a master class centered on their research. Follow the project on Instagram: @_oneonones.

Meredith Pellon’s SLOWBURN Dance Company. Photo by Devin Muñoz.

New Company Alert!

Several Seattle artists officially launched their companies this fall. Meredith Pellon’s SLOWBURN Dance Company presents “choreographic works that value subtlety, precision of detail, and innovative movement vocabulary. Pellon (who also writes for SeattleDances)has been all over the festival circuit since her arrival to Seattle only a few years ago, and since establishing her company earlier this fall it’s already performed at Drove VII (a San Francisco collaboration produced by Chlo & Co Dance), 12 Minutes Max, and the site-specific series Soft Concrete, which Pellon is also involved in producing.

Vladimir Kremenović premiered his new brand CommonForm Dance Project just this past month at Velocity’s NextFest, which presents “Time (durational) and space (site-specific) based works inspired by the politics of home, society, and pursuit of freedom. Engaging, but not entertaining, rigorous, but not technical, political, but not transparent, approachable, but not simplified.” The hour long work at NextFest took inspiration from Brutalist architecture of Yugoslavia, with repetitious phrases performed in four corners of the space, the dancers phasing in and out of sync with one another. Kremenović, who grew up in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, strives for his work to connect audience in the US to Eastern-European people and vice versa.

Sandbar: New Low-Stakes Performance Platform

Ben Goosman, longtime co-organizer of Sh*tGold, is starting a new platform for performance-in-development. “Sandbar is a free, low-tech, low-stress one hour performance night for movement research. It’s an attentive audience and up to four focused performers at any stage in their creative development. We aim to be a free and regular gathering for showing, talking, and practicing work.” With each of the evening’s four artists curated in advance, and works at 15 minutes instead of five, the night serves a different stage of development, perhaps a mid place between Sh*tGold open-mics and presenting work at 12 Minutes Max or Studio Current’s Studio Sessions.

The next Sandbar is January 9, 8pm to 9pm at the Artspace Hiawatha Lofts community room.