|Dancer Jon Boogz|
Friday, January 12, 2018
I’ve been thinking a lot about the line between technical mastery and true artistry, if such a line really exists. It’s a topic that moved to my front burner this week when I spoke with dancers Charles Riley, aka Lil Buck, and his artistic partner Jon Boogz.
A little background: Lil Buck and Jon Boogz met almost a decade ago, when both men were dancing on the streets of LA, working for their big breaks. Buck had moved from Memphis where he’d honed his skills in a technique called jookin. By all accounts, this fluid, gravity-defiant style was an anomaly on Santa Monica’s Third Avenue Promenade. Lil Buck works the room
That’s where Boogz, who grew up in Florida, was showing his stuff as an animator/popper.
I’m telling you all this because in the years between then and now, Buck and Boogz have each climbed the dance ladder. Lil Buck became a media (and ballet) darling after he teamed up with
Yo Yo Ma in a performance of Dying Swan.
Boogz has choreographed for the likes of Baryshnikov and Naomi Campbell.
But commercial success wasn’t really his heart’s desire. Boogz wants to use what he does to create emotional, narrative dances, to make people think about the world around them.
“I know thousands of great movers,” he told me in a recent interview. “What turns you into an artist is what you do with what you’ve been given, and how do you use that gift to create something bigger than yourself?”
To that end, Boogz and Buck have formed a company called Movement Art Is: MAI. They’ve created a number of films together, most notably a collaboration with visual artist Alexa Meade called Color of Reality
But this week in Edmonds, the duo premiered a live stage version of the work they’ve done together. Yep, world premiere at the Edmonds Center for the Arts. “Love Heals All Wounds” is built on content from their film collaborations, addressing the mass incarceration of black men, police brutality, our divisive society and the state of the environment. As I write this, it sounds like the work is preachy. Really, the only things Boogz and Lil Buck are preaching are love and understanding. And they’re doing that in the most artful way.
The two creators are joined by five other artists: four dancers: Nao Campbell, SHEstreet, Ron "Prime Tyme" Myles, and Keviorr, plus spoken word artist Robin Sanders. Her text, superbly presented, provides the continuity between the dance segments of the work. All of the dancers shone, but Jon Boogz and Lil Buck demonstrated why they have achieved national, even international, recognition.
Buck floats across the stage, his feet in pristine white sneakers twisting around each other, balancing on the toes or the sides of his feet. In what has become a signature move, he drops to his knees and spins in a wide circle on the floor, as if not subject to the same gravity that rules the rest of us.
When Boogz dances, he articulates each body part, from his long, graceful fingers up through his forearms, elbows, shoulders, neck and head. It is really remarkable to watch.
More remarkable, though, is the synthesis of their total mastery of movement with the narrative they’ve created. Boogz and Buck come out of hip hop, but they’ve created a contemporary dance piece in the art-world sense of the phrase. It wasn’t perfect; the transitions between themes sometimes felt a bit awkward. But by the second half of this intermission-less piece, when the dancers, in groups of three, alternately embodied the four elements—water, air, fire and earth—I was didn’t want the evening to end.
And judging by their faces as they acknowledged the small crowd at the Edmonds Center for the Arts, neither did the dancers. Lil Buck’s smile was electric; Boogz clasped his hands over his heart and out to the audience. In a post show conversation, he called dancers "God's athletes."
“For me, it’s a freedom when I’m dancing, and I love being in that space,” he told me before the show. “I love performing, I love it.”
He and Lil Buck also love showing kids a way to live that doesn’t involve violence, or gangs.”
“Inner city kids, let’s be honest, there’s not many options for them,” says Buck. “My dream was to be a back up dancer. My life is so much bigger than that.”
Friday, January 5, 2018
|Jade Solomon Curtis, photograph by Megan Farmer for KUOW radio|
When Jade Solomon Curtis arrived in Seattle in 2012 to dance with Donald Byrd’s company, Spectrum, everyone who loves dance noticed.
How could we not?
Curtis is, in her own words, a beautiful, bald, black woman. But more than that, she’s one of the most charismatic movers to hit Seattle stages.
Curtis was in her mid-20’s when she got here, and she'd just landed her dream job.
A dance major at Southern Methodist University, Curtis moved to New York not long after graduation, with two suitcases and $500 in savings from a restaurant job.
“I had honestly no idea who I wanted to dance for, or who I wanted to dance with.”
What she did know is that she needed to dance.
Curtis found work with choreographer Alison Chase, helping Chase build a company called Apogee. Then Donald Byrd came to town to audition dancers for Spectrum.
Curtis knew his choreography; she'd taken a workshop from Byrd during college. She set her sights on joining his Seattle-based company.
Apparently, the enthusiasm wasn't mutual. Curtis didn't make the cut.
“I auditioned three times for Donald Byrd,” says Curtis. “The third time I got in.”
Which says something about her tenacity, and about Byrd's work. Often topical, and occasionally ferocious, his dances spoke to Curtis.
|Jade Solomon Curtis, with Spectrum Dance Company|
“It was the first time I felt like I could really express what was deep down inside of me,” she says. “and not be penalized or looked at in a different manner because I moved more aggressively. Because I was angry, because I wanted to express myself and bring in traumatic experiences that had happened to me. He welcomed that.”
Curtis was—and remains—a stunning dancer, and she earned critical accolades during her four years with Spectrum.
She wanted something more.
“I just got to a point in my career where I was more interested in making my dreams, as opposed to contributing to somebody else’s.”
Curtis wasn’t new to choreography; in high school she won a national competition and a scholarship sponsored by the NAACP. But she wasn’t ready at that point in her life to create work. Her time with Byrd provided both the inspiration and insight she needed. She says Byrd taught her to pursue her artistic visions without hesitation.
“To do what speaks to you,” she says, “to not concern yourself so much with what the audience thinks, and to not stray away from reality; what’s happening right now, right here.”
Curtis freelanced for other choreographers, and she found work with the 5th Avenue Theatre. More importantly, she formed her own company: Solo Magic.
She didn't choose the name because she's strictly a solo artist.“It’s what it takes to be an individual in your own right and contribute to the greater good." Curtis says. "You have to believe in the magic that exists in yourself.”
Last spring Curtis premiered her first evening length work in Seattle, “Black Like Me,”inspired by an incident on Capitol Hill; somebody called her n****r.
“Yep, in white liberal Seattle,” she says matter-of-factly.
"Black Like Me" addresses race and identity head on; all three performances sold out. Curtis was particularly satisfied that so many audience members stayed after the shows to talk about what they'd seen and how to address it in the world around them.
“I understand a lot of us want to escape from the reality we’re in, and some art can provide that, but I don’t think that should be the primary focus,” Curtis explains.
In mid-January, Curtis will be in New York for the annual APAP conference, the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. APAP is a place to showcase work to potential presenters. Curtis will perform excerpts from "Black Like Me." She’d like to tour it nation-wide, then present it again in Seattle.
For now, Curtis, a Texas native raised in Florida, calls Seattle home. She says it's a great place for her to test out ideas during the dark, gray winter months.
"This is one of the few places I can create and no one's watching. And I think that has a lot to do with the weather."
She’ll bring out her new work when daylight returns, inviting people to experience it not so much as passive audience members, but as witnesses and collaborators in social change.
“That’s my role as an artist,” says Jade Solomon Curtis. “I don’t want you to leave and forget. I want my work to stay with you.”
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
|Stephanie Saland in her NYCB years|
You’re never too old to dance.
That’s what former New York City Ballet soloist Stephanie Saland says.
Actually, she never used that phrase in conversation with me; that's the attitude, and the reality, I saw when I sat in on a class she leads most Wednesdays at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center.
Saland shies away from calling this a ballet class, but the ten women who were there were quick to tell me that, of course, it IS ballet. They focus on ballet technique, and execute it to the best of their abilities.
All of these women are over the age of 30; a couple are over 50. Most have been part of Saland's Wednesday group for several years at the very least.
I think of Stephanie Saland as a ‘dance whisperer.’ I was assigned to profile her for Dance Teacher magazine, and as soon as we met I felt a spark of recognition. Although we have led vastly different career paths, Saland is, like me, une femme d’un certain age.
(That translates into ‘middle aged woman” for those of you who don’t speak French. Actually, we have both ascended into early senior status, but that’s another story.)
Saland danced with NYCB for more than two decades. After she retired in 1993, she swore she was done with ballet. But after she moved to Seattle with a romantic partner, Saland was tapped to teach classes at the Pacific Northwest Ballet school. Although you’d think that would be a perfect fit for a Balanchine-trained ballerina, you’d be wrong.
Saland discovered she was less interested in traditional ballet teaching methods, and more interested in developing the skills she needed to help her students discover their inner artists. Not to say that she doesn’t understand and teach great technique, just that she’d rather help her students unleash their love of movement and self expression.
Which leads me back to the Wednesday class.
Saland started things off with a slow warm up done to music that you might hear in a yoga studio. Yes, it’s true, older bodies need more time to stretch stiff muscles.
This class doesn’t work at the barre; Saland wants the women in the center of the room because she feels its the best way for them to work on core strength and balance.
That said, one woman spent most of the 90 minute class dancing while seated on a wooden stool. Her arms and upper body glided to the music, which Saland had switched to more traditional ballet accompaniment. Another woman steadied herself by placing her hands against the studio’s brick wall. Like their classmates, they focused intently on the combinations Saland set for her students. Everyone smiled, everyone was thrilled to be there.
I sat and watched from the floor in the corner of the studio. And wished I was up dancing with the rest of the women. Unlike most people who write a lot about dance, I was never a dancer. I just love the art form, so I spend a lot of time watching dancers.The last time I took ballet I wound up herniating a disk and aggravating the arthritis in my knees and hips. I was never very flexible, but grand plies after 50…in my experience not the best idea.
Stephanie Saland’s class was the first one that made me think, oh, maybe I CAN dance, despite my age and my physical limitations.
That glimmer of possibility is something to hold onto in these short dark days at the end of this challenging year.
Monday, December 11, 2017
|Tom Weinberger and Kate Wallich in "Dream Dances"|
photo by Stefano Altamura
A few years ago I asked the inimitable Amy O’Neal which young choreographers she had her eye on. O’Neal rattled off a list that included Kate Wallich.
It just so happened that Wallich and her dancers, a fledgling group called the YC, were set to perform a short piece as part of that year’s Bumbershoot festival. I went to check it out and was most impressed (in all ways) by the dancers’ unbridled energy.
I finally met Wallich in 2014, before the premier of “Super Eagle” at Velocity Dance Center. I was struck by her intelligence and her self-confidence and by her vision for herself and the YC. I was less impressed with the dance, although it did whet my curiosity about where Wallich would take her art. Each of her subsequent works for the YC tantalized with moments of originality, and with the talents of her troupe. But I left each performance dissatisfied, sure that Wallich had more in her.
Fast forward to 2017, and “Dream Dances,” which Wallich and the YC performed December 7-10 at On The Boards. This work for five dancers and two live musicians has been more than a year in development, and it reveals that the promise O’Neal saw in Wallich was not misplaced.
“Dream Dances” begins unobtrusively; so unobtrusively that it takes the audience a while to realize the performance has begun. We’re lit by bright white strips overhead, while the stage is left in relative darkness. So we don’t immediately notice the young man lying on his side, gently moving his extended arm across the floor. The other dancers enter, one by one, and lie down as well, taking up his movements.
Arms and legs brush across the floor. A leg is bent at the knee, the foot lifted. A dancer arches her back, in yoga’s cobra pose. Another rises into downward dog. None of these movements is done in unison; it's more like the movements reverberate across the bodies on the stage in a very slow, dreamy, wave.
As the dancers rise up to their feet, the music shifts from a gentle drone to a louder throb. The lights over the audience (I hesitate to call these house lights) dim and the stage lights come up. Individual dancers step forward, most notably Wallich’s longtime collaborator Lavinia Vago. This tall, lean woman seems made of rubber rather than skin and bones. Her body bends in every direction with, to me, astounding flexibility and control. She is mesmerizing. But her fellow dancers, David Harvey, Thomas House, Tom Weinberger and Wallich herself, are equally skilled.
One signature of Wallich’s work which continues to perplex me is the isolation of her dancers from one another. Even when performing duets, often they don’t look one another in the eye, and rarely do they acknowledge the audience. I’ve often wondered what this says about contemporary America and our increasing reliance on social media and virtual community.
This social isolation is again apparent in “Dream Dances,” with two notable exceptions. First, Wallich has created an intimate sexual duet for herself and her newest dancer, Tom Weinberger. And she’s choreographed haunting, extended unison work for the other two men in the YC, Thomas House and David Harvey. These two men move together toward the audience, as a bright white rod of light lowers to bisect the wall behind them. They seem like ghosts, partly because they're dancing in front of the white light and my eyes had a hard time focusing on them. That served to make me concentrate even harder on them, though.
“Dream Dances” can be tightened a bit; a section with a spray hose and a misshapen wading pool felt interminable. But this work is Kate Wallich and the YC’s most sophisticated to date. I am partial to movement-driven dance, and this piece delivers that. It also doesn’t wallow in trendiness, or take aim at a meta-message for the audience. By eschewing those paths, Kate Wallich succeeds in delivering a more nuanced piece of art, one that allows each audience member to to take it on on their own terms.
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
|excerpt from Zoe/Juniper's "A Crack in Everything"|
If you love contemporary dance in Seattle, then you already know Zoe/Juniper, the artistic duo of Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey. Last year they presented their evening length dance “Clear and Sweet” at On The Boards. In addition to some amazing dance plus Shuey's video projected on long strands of material, a group of shape note singers performed live, creating an all together other worldly experience for me, at least. The show gets a New York debut this month. If you live near there you should go see it.
|Zoe/Juniper's "Clear and Sweet"|
Zoe herself is in the middle of a couple other big projects. She recently got a Princess Grace Fellowship to collaborate with choreographer Bebe Miller on a dance about how we see and perceive people (and things). They’ll work long distance, and then convene next spring at Jacob’s Pillow.
Zoe is also the recipient of the inaugural Kawasaki Artist Residency at the University of Washington Dance Department. She’s creating a work for more than 20 undergraduate dance students. The three-year residency project continues next year with another Northwest choreographer; the third season brings an artist from out of the region.
Zoe’s (and Juniper’s) work fascinates me, and this seemed like a perfect time to commit to follow her creative process. I’m going to try to document it for this blog, and maybe other outlets. So, voila installment #1!
On a rainy Saturday I went over to a UW studio to watch Zoe work with the students. It’s not a totally novel experience for her (she’s worked with students at both Velocity and Cornish, I believe), but perhaps not for such an extended period of time.
Given her hectic pace, it’s not surprising that Zoe was felled by the nasty upper respiratory virus that’s been circulating around town. So she showed up that morning still coughing and with very little voice. Somehow, she summoned the energy to corral the young women and start rehearsal.
Every choreographer I’ve watched has a different studio method; Zoe is incredibly analytical, even studious. She keeps detailed notes, including some drawings and movement notation. Some choreographers stand up and move through their ideas, a very kinetic approach. If that's part of Zoe's practice, I didn't witness it that morning.
Just before the students were set to run through the piece, Zoe and Juniper gathered them together, to remind them that movement is only part of a performance. Intent, attitude and approach are just as important and for this work, the young women needed to own their power. Some of the young women seemed doubtful, but most looked ready to tackle the work at hand.
This dance begins with the full cast standing, spread evenly across the stage. Zoe has started a digital metronome; she’s still weighing music possibilities, and will bring in what she calls 'ballet music' at some point, to judge how it fits with the movements. This was interesting to me; some choreographers draw their inspiration directly from a musical composition. Others collaborate in real time with composers. Another way to approach movement!
The students start slowly, shifting their weight from foot to foot. There is a distinctive “Zoe” foot that I’ve seen in some of her other dances. It’s flexed, rather than pointed, with toes splayed. Some of these young women have it down; a few others still point rather than flex. Here's that photo from "A Crack in Everything" so you can look at the feet again.
|I'm putting this photo back in: look at the dancer on the left, who may or may not be Zoe. Check out those toes!|
Zoe isn’t focused on anybody's feet, though. She’s looking at the spacing, counting movement repetitions, talking to Juniper and UW Dance Department Director Jennifer Salk about musical options.
I can’t help but be reminded of a scientist in her lab, carefully monitoring experiment results. Especially when she put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. So studious!
This dance is still very much a work in progress, but you get a sense of what she sees in her mind’s eye. There is power in the sheer number of dancers; there's also a raw emotion in the movement, and a sophisticated syncopation that emerges as the run-through unfolds. Zoe has crafted a section of overlapping solos; each soloist is carried onstage by two of her classmates. One particular entrance amazed me: the soloist is perched atop her colleagues’ shoulders. She looks like a carousel horse. That image gave me chills.
And it made me excited to follow the progression of this work. The students will perform it for an audience, and I plan to go see it. But I’m also eager to watch this artist create, the collaboration with Bebe Miller, and to try to get a glimpse inside Zoe Scofield’s amazing mind.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
|Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"|
photo by Angela Sterling
I walked into a parallel universe as soon as I came through the McCaw Hall doors on the opening night of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
An hour before show time, and the lobby was already crammed; families posed in little scenes culled from the fanciful sets Ian Falconer designed for this production in 2015. Actors and magicians worked the crowd. Little girls twirled madly in their new holiday finery.
The energy was so palpable I felt like I was at the start of a marathon race. And in a way, I was. This November 24th opening was the first of 30+ PNB performances of this holiday classic.
I had planned to write a a learned screed about the Nutcracker’s history; how the legendary Marius Petipa conceived it in 1892, inspired by the French version of a German folktale (although most of the choreography was created by Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov).
I was curious why this particular story, this particular ballet, has become so beloved. It really wasn't intended to endure the way it has.
According to PNB’s resident dance historian Doug Fullington, composer Peter Tchaikovsky was less than thrilled with the whole concept of the Nutcracker; he says the ballet was intended as a divertissement to follow Tchaikovsky’s new opera, “Iolanthe.”
But 125 years later, Nutcrackers abound, from elaborately beautiful productions like PNB’s, to community performances at local dance schools. In the greater Seattle area alone you can choose from almost a dozen renditions. I’m excited about “Land of the Sweets: a Burlesque Nutcracker.”
Somehow, though, my serious intent was hijacked by the emotional response I have to this ballet.
First off, PNB’s three year old production of George Balanchine's Nutcracker, originally choreographed in 1954, is swell. This year I was impressed with the innate grace and stage presence of student Samrawit Saleem in the role of Clara. It was especially nice to hear she's a product of PNB's Dance Chance program. Dance Chance reaches out to kids with physical and artistic aptitude, kids who might not have an opportunity to study ballet, and offers them free ballet training for two years. If they like the discipline, and if their teachers agree, they can continue their training, often with the help of scholarships. The beautiful corps de ballet member Angeli Mamon is a Dance Chance alum.
Also noteworthy for me on opening night: Price Suddarth as the Toy Soldier, Candy Cane James Moore, and the lovely Elizabeth Murphy who was born to dance the role of Dew Drop.
And I can’t omit the dancing Orzas: Sarah and Seth, as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. Sarah was promoted to principal dancer in September and I can’t think of a dancer who deserved it more. In this ballet, she gets to twinkle around waving her wand, dressed in a sparkly purple outfit. I am certain every little girl in the hall went home and dreamed she got to trade places with Sarah.
In any case, when Sarah vaults backwards from the floor onto Seth’s shoulder, not once but TWICE, I held my breath. You really have to trust your partner will be there for you.
Many longtime Seattleites miss Kent Stowell’s darker Nutcracker, with costumes and sets by Maurice Sendak. They prefer it to Balanchine’s sugar coated confection. I confess I am Switzerland when it comes to this holiday chestnut.
Every time I see the Nutcracker (too many to count) I’m like a little girl with my face pressed up to the plate glass window of a chocolate shop. So many tempting goodies that I don't get to eat.
The lavishly trimmed tree, the rich egg nog, the happy family gatherings; they’re all part of our country’s dominant religious tradition, one that I don’t share. I appreciate the artistry of PNB’s dancers and its orchestra under Emil de Cou; I’m dazzled by the people who build the fantastic costumes in Larae Theige Hascall’s costume shop. Truly, those waltzing flower skirts are miraculous to behold.
But when I am in the middle of all that holiday cheer, I feel like an observer from outer space, or Margaret Mead on an island in the South Seas, observing very foreign cultural customs.
Ok, that's enough bah, humbug for one post.
If you can, go see The Nutcracker at Pacific Northwest Ballet, or at your favorite local dance company. Take a child, watch her face light up when the snowflakes start to waltz. Try to see the magic through her eyes. If nothing else, do what I do: dream of owning your own tiara someday.
|I confess, I miss the boat from the Kent Stowell Nutcracker, don't you?|
photo by Angela Sterling
Monday, November 6, 2017
|PNB Principal Dancer Noelani Pantastico in Crystal Pite's 'Plot Point'|
photo @ Angela Sterling
We toss that word around so cavalierly these days that sometimes, when we encounter a real genius, the accolade doesn’t feel strong enough.
Genius really is the only word that adequately describes choreographer Crystal Pite and the magical worlds she creates.
Perhaps you first encountered Pite at Seattle’s On the Boards. Or maybe in 2013, you saw Pacific Northwest Ballet’s presentation of her large-scale ballet ‘Emergence.’ Contemporary dance fans who thought they didn’t like ballet snapped up tickets; traditionalists were introduced to a new way of thinking about a classical art form.
Then local audiences got to see ‘Betroffenheit,’ a collaboration between Pite’s dance company Kidd Pivot and Electric Company Theater. This harrowing performance about love, loss, grief, madness and redemption won Pite even more fans.
If you have yet to discover Crystal Pite, get yourself tickets to one of this weekend’s performances of PNB’s latest program, ‘Her Story.’ In addition to satisfying dances by Jessica Lang and Twyla Tharp, you’ll get a chance to see the American premier of Pite’s intriguing ‘Plot Point,’ originally created in 2010 for Nederlands Dans Theater.
PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal says when he invited Pite back to the Seattle, she suggested revisiting this particular work, an exploration of the meaning of story.
With ‘Plot Point,’ Pite creates a mysterious, almost hazy, film noir aesthetic, animated by Bernard Herrmann’s famous score for Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 horror film, ‘Psycho,’ with additional sound design from Owen Belton.
The curtain goes up on two men in trench coats, running, semi-obscured by a gauzy scrim. Who are these two? What are they running from? We don’t know yet. And, are they really both men? One of the figures is pure white, from his fedora to his shoes; a white mask obscures his features
Soon, we meet an amorous couple, only to discover each is married to somebody else. A jealous husband seeks revenge; a spurned wife wants to end her own life. Each of these characters is ‘mirrored’ by another faceless white doppelganger. Sometimes the replicant moves in synch with her human partner; sometimes she watches then repeats the human’s movements. When the replicant moves, she is not human but something else entirely.
The replicants move across the stage with exaggerated articulation of elbows and knees, ankles and wrists, so that we see the mechanics of each footstep or turn of the head. Their fingers are splayed and stiff, like Star Wars’ C3 PO. Are they robots, like him? Do they have free will? Do these replicants actually serve to set a story in motion?
Part of ‘Plot Point’s’ genius is that--although there is no real plot, only a series of instigating actions and the ramifications of those actions--Pite has opened the curtains and ushered us into the secrets of a hidden world. It’s mysterious and fascinating, demanding and rewarding.
PNB’s stellar dancers rise to Pite’s choreography. In a conversation after the Saturday, November 4th matinee, principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite explained that Pite has a clear idea of how every movement should look, and where it should begin in the dancer’s body. Sometimes, he said, the movement starts with the face; other times with the pelvis, or a foot, or a shoulder. This choreography is physically challenging, but thought provoking as well. Pite never throws in a gratuitous move, everything is where it is for a reason and the entire cast embraces it fully.
It seems fitting that an artist as talented as Crystal Pite would explore the mechanics of storytelling. Every work of hers that I’ve had the good luck to see has carried me on a full journey. In my mind, her greatest gift is her ability to create non-traditional narratives that fully captivate her audiences. With‘Plot Point’ or ‘Emergence’ or ‘Betroffenheit,’ Pite transports me into new worlds both beautiful and strange, and always profoundly moving. I want to travel with her again, and again, and again.