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REACH ACROSS THE RIFT

After the show, I asked Zane Ellis about the impetus for HERE BECAUSE. “We basically decided to make our mission statement into a dance show,” he says. Ellis is the Managing Director of The Seattle Project, which he co-founded with Artistic Director Amanda Morgan in 2019. Any dance fan worth their salt knows Morgan, a soloist at Pacific Northwest Ballet who’s known for both her exquisite dancing and her activism for racial and gender equity inside the ballet world. And now she’s becoming known for her crossover projects in the contemporary dance scene, collaborating with non-ballet artists and establishing her contemporary choreographic voice. HERE BECAUSE continues that path as part of Velocity Dance Center’s spring season at 12th Ave Arts.

Photo by Jim Coleman

So what’s The Seattle Project’s mission? Let me tell you about the show.

It begins with a collage of recorded voices speaking to why they find dance interesting. If you don’t recognize the voices, they’re Seattle dance luminaries Donald Byrd, Alice Gosti, Peter Boal, Olivier Wevers, and Zoe Scofield—each a representative from a different pocket of the Seattle ballet and contemporary scene.

Then five dancers enter, swirling and shifting together like a murmuration of starlings, they freeze momentarily in sculptural tableaus before spinning off again, a cooperative ensemble of individuals. Like the voices, the dancers come from different parts of Seattle dance— Morgan from PNB, Symone Sanz and Rodrick Barnes from the freelance contemporary scene, Jane Cracovaner, a member of Whim W’him, and Zsilas Michael Hughes from both from PNB and the ballroom/vogueing scene. In this first section we get sneak peaks of what each of these dancers will bring to the show, from Hughes’ wicked fast turn to Barnes’ buttery smooth integration with the floor.

Over the course of the evening, a series of short films by Henry Wurtz feature each dancer in the rehearsal room. The dancers voice accompanies the footage, speaking first to why they love dance, and then their connection to the Seattle dance scene. Following each film is a solo choreographed and performed by the dancer. First up is Barnes, who is fairly new on the scene but what an amazing performer—please find a way to go see him dance. He is constantly playing with qualities, a quick release of the foot leads to an ooze of the spine. His body seems to wind and unwind through his solo, falling in and out of silent acrobatics as if he controls gravity. Everything is so smooth even impressive tricks become understated, and big moves are focused by tiny details—the twitch of a finger or an arrestingly human gaze peering from beneath his red hooded costume.

Rodrick Barnes. Photo by Erin O’Reilly

Cracovaner is next, another compelling performer and talented new choreographer. Her work to a haunting old-west sounding tune by Molly Lewis feels almost narrative as she defines the space around her with her head, her limbs, her spine. Like navigating some circuitous maze. Cracovaner’s movements are incredibly detailed and articulate, clearly defined and quickly changing, interacting with some world we cannot see.

Hughes enters in elegant silk evening gown and crown to stand in the spotlight, their hand rising in a half hearted, Miss America-style wave. They lose the restrictive dress and crown, and begin their dance that alternates between demoralized and indignant, a dramatic and conflicted persona coming through between moments of incredible technical facility. The lines! THE TURNS. A fast sequence of aggressive, grounded gestures cut to a smile and a classical petite allegro. The crowd goes wild for this clear audience favorite.

Of the solos presented, Sanz is the only one that takes on a more experimental structure. Working with a hard metal soundtrack by Anti-God Hand, Sanz whips both her arms in fast circles, repeating until she falls. Then she returns to pound her thighs. Physically demanding and repetitive tasks take center stage, cut with interludes where Sanz moves almost casually through the space, drawing invisible boxes with her arms and legs. The piece is in a similar research path to the one she presented (and I loved) last year as part of Black Collectivity’s To Gather at On the Boards. For me this one didn’t quite capture the same focus, but I was glad to see the risk of something like this in a show that undoubtedly drew crowds who are less familiar with experimental dance.

Jane Cracovaner. Photo by Jim Coleman

Morgan’s dancing concluded the solos. Suspended shapes and balanced extensions break into angular actions. The pull of the shape constantly disrupted as Morgan gets caught in some rhythmic machine of tossing and swirling, arms thrown and then re-caught. As if she is alternating between exerting power over her form, and then letting go to the riptide of forces that pull and crash around her.

The evening ends with a collectively choreographed group section accompanied by soaring music and more luminary interviews. Now they speak to their hopes for the Seattle dance scene, which are excited and optimistic. The future is bright! On my more cynical days I might have found the idealism and heavy use of minimalist music a touch too iPhone commercial for my tastes, but I don’t even care because I’m very touched by this love song of an evening dedicated to something that I, too, care a great deal about: local dance.

The ethos of this show and The Seattle Project is part of a significant shift inside the dance scene I have noticed since coming out of the pandemic. Five to ten years ago the scene was notably siloed into genre and institutional pockets with very little cross over, and the general attitude (at least in the contemporary scene) was often one of resentment over opportunities given to artists that didn’t align with one’s own aesthetic values.

But I don’t hear that kind of talk anymore. Now I see individual and institutional leadership uplifting area dance. It’s eXit SPACE including community shows in their newsletter. It’s CO— productions and Black Collectivity connecting the Afrodance community with contemporary dance spaces. It’s the deepening connection between performance art and drag in Seattle. It’s The Seattle Project bringing ballet dancers and audiences into spaces like Northwest Film Forum and 12th Ave Arts. And it’s just a general social agreement. Supporting one another is in. Scarcity mindset is out.

Zsilas Michael Hughes. Photo by Erin O’Reilly

After the initial warm fuzzies of HERE BECAUSE, I got to thinking about why it felt significant for people from the ballet world, specifically PNB, to acknowledge the existence of Seattle’s contemporary dance scene. Like a reach across a rift. But, what exactly is the rift?

I can only speak from my experience inside the contemporary scene, but I’d like to do my best to pull apart a perhaps delicate and complex issue. Despite a lineage of acclaimed choreographers—from Merce Cunningham to Pat Graney, to zoe|juniper, Donald Byrd, and Dani Tirrell—contemporary dance in Seattle is constantly playing second fiddle to ballet. And while many of us love ballet, it can also be very frustrating.

This frustration has never been directed at dancers, but at institutions, economic, and social factors at play. It’s knowing this city has a place like McCaw hall, with beautiful studios and dedicated support staff. Comparatively, Velocity Dance Center’s previous home (now eXit SPACE’s NOD Theater) has a roof that has leaked onto the dance floor for over a decade. Velocity was priced out of that space. Ballet dancers are advertised on the sides of busses, contemporary dancers design, fund, print, and hang their own posters. Once I made work for a contemporary evening in a well-known local dance festivallater I learned pieces made for the companion ballet evening were paid nearly three times as much. I’ve known several locally famous and nationally recognized contemporary artists who struggle to afford rent in this city. And is it a coincidence that the show featuring PNB dancers is the only show in Velocity’s season, this year or last, to be covered by Seattle Times?

Symone Sanz. Photo by Jim Coleman.

In their post-show speech, Morgan and Ellis were very specific to point out that they were not and could not hope to represent all of Seattle’s contemporary dance scene. But the sampler platter of artists did feel like a careful act of diplomacy, with Sanz and Barnes coming from different pockets of the scene, and Cracovanor from Whim W’him. Whim W’him is another contemporary dance project that emerged out of the ballet world in 2009, and an interesting case study to this point. They brought a following of ballet lovers with them, ready to eat up their still-balletic but more modern work. I remember a decade ago I wrote a scathing review of their show, irritated with the dissonance between their advertisement as “edgy” and “contemporary” and their complete lack of engagement with the zeitgeist in the contemporary scene at the time. A commenter on that article claimed I had a “chip on my shoulder” and I did. It was this issue—that a ballet dancer could just decide to do contemporary work because of the privileges of ballet, and seemingly not understand that contemporary dance is more than just doing moves outside the ballet cannon. In the time since that review, Whim W’him has grown artistically and earned my respect as an asset to our city that does quality work. And there seems to be greater interest from Whim to better integrate with the rest of the scene, especially since opening Whim W’him Contemporary Dance Center in Queen Anne early this year. That being said, the fact that they were able to purchase their own building and can pay dancers to take daily class is certainly due in part to their origins with the ballet. At their concert last fall I overheard an audience member remark, “I’ll see Whim W’him, but I wouldn’t see other contemporary dance.” I don’t blame Whim W’him for this remark of course, but it reflects an attitude that feels inescapable in Seattle and the world-at-large, that contemporary work is best if it originates from a ballet lineage.

Ballet dancers are elite, highly talented and trained athletes and artists. But contemporary dancers also have lifetimes of training that ballet dancers generally do not have, in specific movement modalities, in improvisation, in compositional studies. It is no less rigorous, though by design less exclusive. The contemporary scene should not gate-keep, and contemporary dancers want everyone—including ballet dancers—to engage with contemporary dance. But I’ll admit there’s a small part of my secret heart that says, Did Velocity, pillar of the contemporary community and champion of experimental art, really give one coveted spot in their season to ballet dancers? Who regularly get to perform for thousands at McCaw hall?

But of course that is scarcity mindset, which doesn’t serve us in the long run because it misses the long view of the issue. The issue is the prevailing attitude that ballet’s successes reflect the relative merit of the two forms. That people like it more, or it’s less “niche.” But I don’t think that’s actually true. What I do think is true, is that ballet generally aligns with aesthetics of whiteness and misogynistic/heteronormative structures of power. And how historically ballet upholding these values has lead to a relative economic security for the form and broader institutional support, not to mention wider availability. Like so many arts that come from a European tradition, we see it poised as the pinnacle of achievement and a standard through which all else must be viewed. I love ballet. I teach ballet. But it’s important to widen our view of dance so that we can experience other value systems. Contemporary is part of that widening. And inside the ballet world, more progressive policies (like some PNB has recently embraced) is part of that widening too.

Amanda Morgan. Photo by Erin O’Reilly

It’s worth noting that “contemporary” as a genre means almost nothing—it’s just referring to current work being made outside of codified vocabularies that comes from many artistic lineages. Which means it differs widely in aesthetics. But generally, contemporary dance reflects contemporary values, or is expected to. As the adage goes, all art is political, and Modern dance lineages are rooted in values of questioning, innovating, and subversion. It’s also a form that’s been lead by women and people of color since its early 20th century origins. Of course, issues relating to entrenched misogyny and white supremacy (along with its descendants—fat phobia, agism, and ablism) are present in the contemporary world too, as they are in all things. But these issues are especially prevalent in ballet world. Given that context, it does not surprise me that Morgan, a Black dancer who has faced her own challenges in the predominately white world of ballet, is able to see the rift between the two scenes. Nor does surprise me that she is the one to use her hard-earned status as a star ballet dancer to extend a hand. By bringing PNB and contemporary dancers together on the same ticket, there’s not just connections being made between artists and audiences, but a value of equivalency being put forth, and an act of healing.

I so whole heartedly agree with the vibe of this show, that is so art-positive and actively manifesting the kind of community they want to see through their art. It was wonderful seeing ballet dancers in a contemporary context through Velocity. (The ball’s in your court PNB! Personally I would love to see what Heather Kravas or Cameo Lethem would do if hired to choreograph the ballet.) Dreams and excitement aside, there are still elephants in the room for me. If the dancers and five interviewed luminaries had been asked different questions for this show—not what you love about dance, but Who is making a sustainable living from their art? Who has consistent institutional support? Who has day jobs? Who can afford to have kids? Who has dealt with housing insecurity? Of course I can only speculate how these questions would break down.

I suspect that some of us are more supported than others. But I am sure that all of these institutions and individuals are hustling to keep making art in this city, and probably no one is doing all that great in the context the of tech salaries that drive Seattle costs of living. A dollar for ballet is not one from contemporary. Someone else’s success is not our downfall. Scarcity mindset is out. Supporting one another is in. Is the future for Seattle dance bright? I think depends—can we work together to build audiences? Learn from each other to stay relevant and accountable? Advocate for a world where dance of all genres is valued and funded? It’s an uphill battle. We’ll need each other.