Monday, February 4, 2019

Jonathan Porretta, I never want to say goodbye!

Jonathan Porretta, center stage as Carabosse in PNB's "The Sleeping Beauty"
photo @ Angela Sterling

A few years ago, Jonathan Porretta's misfortune was my good luck.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer had a severe injury; he'd finally opted for surgery that put him out of commission for months. While Porretta was sidelined, a good friend decided the time was ripe to approach him about being the subject of a book she tapped me to write. He agreed to a series of interviews.

Long story short, I spent a lot of time with him, talking about his early childhood, his amazing mother Jane, how he was bullied, and how ballet saved his life. Our conversations resulted in a book called “Out There: Jonathan Porretta’s Life in Dance,” designed by Rosie Gaynor for Seattle Scriptorum, with Angela Sterling's beautiful, beautiful photographs.

I’m telling you this because at the time, I asked Porretta what kind of plans he was hatching for his life OUT of dance. He couldn’t answer because, I think, he didn’t want to consider the future.
Jonathan Porretta, right, is Puck in George Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo @ Angela Sterling

For 20 years, Jonathan Porretta has been a fixture at PNB, dancing roles from Puck in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to a sailor in Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” to Mercutio in Jean Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette” to the masterful soloist in Molissa Fenley’s “State of Darkness.”
Porretta in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" for PNB
photo @ Angela Sterling

Unfortunately, ever since his surgery, Porretta has struggled with a parade of other injuries, most recently to his Achilles tendon. Earlier this year he announced he would retire from the stage in June.

We get a chance to see him this week in PNB’s final production of Ronald Hynd’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” He’s cast as the evil fairy Carabosse, the one who doesn’t get invited to Princess Aurora’s christening and is so angry he casts an evil spell on the baby. You know the rest of the story, right?

On opening night, I barely restrained my applause when Porretta took the stage, face shrouded in a ragged cloak. Once Carabosse throws off the hood to reveal her face, Porretta stole the show, whirling like a dervish with a snake in hand, fingers wriggling like a pot of eels, cursing everyone he saw. My very favorite moment comes at Aurora's 16th birthday party, when Carabosse is seated downstage center, the hood covering her identity. She lifts her head and peeks out at us as if to say 'hey y'all, it's ME!' 
PNB Principal Dancer Lesley Rausch as Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty"
photo @ Angela Sterling

There’s no denying that Lesley Rausch was a beautiful, and technically stunning, Princess Aurora; her Florimund, Jerome Tisserand, was as princely as ever. Lindsi Dec was a lovely Lilac Fairy, and her retinue of fairy friends were all gorgeous, but special props to Angelica Generosa as the Fairy of Joy, Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan as the Fairy of Temperament, and newly promoted soloist Elle Macy (congratulations) as the Fairy of Generosity. Big kudos as well to Dylan Wald on his promotion. 

But frankly, I had come to watch Jonathan Porretta chew the scenery, to revel in his joy onstage. PNB has six more Sleeping Beauties this week at McCaw Hall; Porretta will dance in four of them, Thursday through Sunday evenings. Get a ticket to one of those shows; it may be your last chance to see him in his element, seemingly larger than life, a true performer.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Searching for grace in a world gone crazy

Whim W'Him company members in Zoe Scofield's "This Mountain"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

I’m sitting in a pew in Seattle’s All Pilgrim’s Church, waiting to celebrate the life of a dear friend’s mother. Two musicians, on piano and cello, play Faure’s “Apres un Reve,” After a Dream, in English.

I feel a bit dreamy as I sit here, because I’m still thinking about a performance I experienced the evening before, Whim W’Him’s “3 X 3,” featuring three strong new works by three choreographers, including WW Artistic Director Olivier Wevers.

For the past several years I’ve been fixated on the connections between what happens for the audience at a live performance and the experience at spiritual gathering such as this. I think both provide insight into our collective humanity; at their best, they offer a glimpse of the divine, however you define that term. Performance happens to be my church, or synagogue.

The connections were hammered home for me at ‘3 X 3,’ particularly by Seattle-based choreographer Zoe Scofield’s new dance “This Mountain (announcing your place in the family of things)."

I spent the past year traipsing after Scofield, following her from her Kawasaki residency at the University of Washington Dance Department to her Princess Grace fellowship residency at Jacob’s Pillow. She and I have talked about grace, about the ephemeral divine, and about the role of live performance. I was particularly eager to see her first creation for Whim W’Him.

“This Mountain” did not disappoint.

The dance was sandwiched between Yin Yue’s provocative, spidery reflection on human connection, “The Most Elusive Hold,” and Wevers’ “Trail of Soles,” a cry for compassion for the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who’ve been forced to leave their home countries for some safer place. Both dances showcase Whim W’Him’s fine performers. I’m always impressed by Liane Aung; Cameron Birts shone in a solo in "Trail of Soles."
Cameron Birts in Olivier Wevers' "Trail of Soles"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo

“This Mountain” is much quieter than either of those two works, and in its quietness, it made a loud statement for me.

The dance began with the dancers clustered at the rear of the stage, framed by two large, black cloth screens. Slowly they begin to move toward the audience, their only accompaniment the rhythmic stamping of their feet, like the pulse of their collective hearts. Each dancer separates from the group, reaching out for something we can’t see; they are reeled back gently to the group’s embrace.

Scofield then creates a series of linear patterns; four dancers face the audience as three others emerge diagonally from the wings, into a large, almost blindingly white rectangle of light. These two groups repeat set series of movements, until dancers break away, one by one, seemingly pursuing the beat of their individual hearts.
Liane Aung and fellow Whim W'Him company members in "This Mountain"
photo by Stefano Altamura @salt.photo
I found myself riveted by the movements. In their simple repetitions, they carried me beyond my seat in the Cornish Playhouse.

Back at All Pilgrim’s Church, the pastor takes the microphone to reflect on the concept of hospitality. He defines this as the offering of what he calls ‘relational grace,’ generosity that provides the space to find your true self.

I don’t know if Scofield had this concept in mind as she was working on “This Mountain.” But as the pastor spoke, his words resonated with my experience of her dance. In the program notes, Scofield asks ‘how do people come together? How do we choose to find ourselves and each other in the every day?’ I think part of the answer to that question is for humans to create generous communities that provide both a structured shelter from the world’s cruelties, and the space to embrace our true selves.

In a larger sense, that’s what Whim W’Him Artistic Director Olivier Wevers seeks to provide his audiences. In his curtain speech before the performance, Wevers asked us not only to silence our cell phones, but to turn them off. With a smile, he acknowledged that it might be difficult to disconnect from the siren call of the virtual world. But he, and Scofield, recognize the even greater power of humans sitting together in the same place, sharing the same experience.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Cerrudo's Little Gems

Pacific Northwest Ballet company members in Alejandro Cerrudo's Silent Ghost
photo @ Angela Sterling

In March, 2016, I was sitting in McCaw Hall, waiting for the curtain to go up on Pacific Northwest Ballet’s annual contemporary bill, Director’s Choice.  A dear friend had passed away the day before, and I was filled with both sadness and anticipation for the program that was about to begin. I love contemporary ballet.

I don’t remember where it appeared on the bill, but when Price Suddarth ran through the house and jumped up on the stage, the beginning of Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little mortal jump, I was shaken from my own moodiness and I set off on the kind of emotional journey I crave at a performance: I transcended my grief. Rather, I lost my self in what I saw to be a contemplation of all the possibilities that lay before us as human beings.

Does that sound high falutin’?

Maybe, but it’s an accurate description of my experience of Cerrudo’s work. And that’s why I was excited to learn that PNB would present another of his ballets, Silent Ghost, as part of its 2018 All Premiere program.
PNB Principal Dancer Leta Biasucci and company dancers in Kyle Davis' A Dark and Lonely Place
photo @ Angela Sterling

Ghost was sandwiched between PNB soloist Kyle Davis’ ambitious world premiere, A Dark and Lonely Place, and a hilarious sendup of pretentious arts writers like me called Cacti, from choreographer Alexander Ekman. Cerrudo’s work was quieter, far more intimate, a palate cleanser if you will.

PNB provided no choreographer’s statement or any other information about the ballet in its printed program, except to say Silent Ghost was the third piece by Cerrudo to be presented by the company. That left me free to experience it any way I wanted. That is to say, I could immerse myself in Michael Korsch’s exquisite and atmospheric lighting, and the cast’s equally exquisite and atmospheric performances.

I saw two different casts, but each included Lucien Postlewaite, Noelani Pantastico, Elizabeth Murphy and Dylan Wald performing two pas de deux that serve as bookends in this dance; for me they were also examples of how we humans interact with one another.
PNB Principal Dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite in Silent Ghost
photo @ Angela Sterling

The first duet featured a kind of powerful coming together, exemplified by an amazing lift: the male dancer bends at the waist, with the woman balanced on his back. She extends her legs back behind her, veed out from her body. Here’s a photo, but really, you need to see this in person. 

For me, this wasn’t only technically stunning; it really illustrated the kind of interplay that we bring to our relationships. (I should say that I saw both couples perform both pas de deux, in two separate performances; the effect was the same.)

Cerrudo has a great talent for creating interesting movements. I loved what I can only describe as a prone ‘wave.’ On opening night, Noelani Pantastico and Leah Merchant lay in a line, Merchant’s feet next to Pantastico’s head. Pantastico started to ripple, from her feet up through her legs, lower back, arms and head, then Merchant echoed this wave of movement.

The dancers kneel in a row facing the audience, then bend their arms at elbows with fingers pointed upwards. Forearms pass in front of faces, heads tilt in unison, then syncopation. It resembled a kind of sign language, but I couldn't translate it. No matter; it was fascinating to watch.
PNB dancers Dylan Wald and Elizabeth Murphy in Little mortal jump
photo @ Angela Sterling

Finally, as with Little mortal jump, Cerrudo creates an ending duet that reminded me how fragile our relationships can be. In Little mortal jump, Elizabeth Murphy and Dylan Wald dance a duet of possibilities; they spin around the floor, and soon the set begins to spin with them, opening wider and wider, inviting me to contemplate the next step in life. In Silent Ghost, the two dancers circled one another, establishing their bond and questioning it at the same time. This dance isn't really about hope and possibility; it's about our coming together then moving apart.
Wald and Murphy in Silent Ghost
photo @ Angela Sterling

Silent Ghost doesn’t really have a narrative; I’m prone to creating stories for myself where none exist, so this ballet might mean something completely different to you. Or maybe you'd simply enjoy the stellar performances PNB's dancers bring to the stage. This little gem of a ballet might be obscured by the pomp and scale of Kyle Davis’ opening work, or the tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness of Cacti (which I loved, for the record). But Silent Ghost is the dance I’m still pondering, a dance that left me wanting more.

Friday, November 2, 2018

RE:33/RE: Dance History

Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson, upside down in "The Uninvited," created 1994-96
photo @ Peter Mumford, courtesy Dayna Hanson

I’ve been watching Seattle artists for a long time. L.O.N.G., more than 30 years. Theater companies have come and gone (RIP Empty Space, Alice B., Group Theater etc). I’ve also seen the exponential growth of the city’s contemporary dance community.

Normally I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about past glories; so much is happening now, there isn’t really time to mourn what came before. But last month, the connection between our past and present, at least when it comes to dance, was illustrated beautifully, and thought-provokingly, by Dayna Hanson. If you don’t know Hanson’s work as a creator of live performance and film, you may know her as the co-founder of Base, a relatively new venue for experimental arts, located in the fabulous Equinox complex in Georgetown.
Dayna Hanson, left, with Gaelen Hanson, 33 Fainting Spells, in "The Uninvited"
photo @Peter Mumford, courtesy Dayna Hanson

More than 20 years ago, Hanson and fellow artist Gaelen Hanson (no relation) formed a dance/theater company called 33 Fainting Spells. At the time, Europe had its share of dance/theater artists; so did New York, but 33 Fainting Spells was the first of its kind here. The two women developed a distinctive movement vocabulary, and a distinctive look, complete with matching pairs of oxford shoes.

33 Fainting Spells eventually expanded to include Peggy Piacenza (also a Base co-founder); the group produced work until disbanding in 2006.

This year Dayna Hanson set about remounting 33 Fainting Spells’ body of work. Installment One looks back at the duo’s first piece, “The Uninvited.” As Hanson described it in a post-show conversation,this duet is the story of an unknown visitor whose appearance triggers a series of mysterious events. But that makes the piece sound very literal, and it’s not.
Dayna Hanson, front, with Gaelen Hanson in their piece "The Uninvited"
photo @ Peter Mumford, courtesy D. Hanson

The 2018 recreation picks up midway through the original, with Madison Haines and Julia Sloane reprising the roles Gaelen Hanson and Dayna Hanson created for themselves. These two young dancers were compelling in their own right; at the moment I have no photos of them.

When the audience enters the theater, Sloane is standing under a thin waterfall that drips from the ceiling. She collects the water in a glass, then carries it away, only to reappear with an empty container. She repeats the motions. Meanwhile, a stranger, Haines, comes in with a large bag, which she sets on the floor next to a chair. Repeatedly, she tries to attract Sloane’s attention, to no avail.

From this point forward, "The Uninvited" invites the audience into their mysterious world. They dance on a wooden table top, under a suspended chair, and across the floor. The work mesmerized me.

I couldn’t describe the entire piece to you, even if I remembered it from so long ago. What the recreation does so well is evoke the original: the lighting, the suspended, straight-backed chair, the wooden table. And those oxfords! The shoes are integral to the choreography. Sloane and Haines execute a sideways tap-shuffle: the dancers click their heels together, and that click propels their bodies sideways across the floor. Watching these young dancers transported me back in time, to when Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson were the heel-clickers.

The remounting of “The Uninvited,” or at least this portion of it, is the first in what could be a series that resurrects 33 Fainting Spells’ complete works. Or not. Either way, I was struck by the singular movement vocabulary, the vision, and the fact that the dance stood the test of time. It felt as fresh, or fresher, than a lot of what I see around town these days. 
Gaelen Hanson leads creative partner Dayna Hanson in 33 Fainting Spells' "The Uninvited"
photo @ Peter Mumford, courtesy D. Hanson

I’ve been thinking about "The Uninvited" since I saw it; so thankful to have had a chance to witness the past-made-present. More than a stroll down memory lane, RE/33: 33 Fainting Spells Revisited Installment One gave me the jolt I needed to consider the past, present and future of contemporary dance as one long, continuing strand, each bead beautiful on its own, but strung together forming a magnificent whole.

Monday, September 24, 2018

A Ballet Binge! It's PNB's Jerome Robbins Festival!

PNB Principal Dancers Seth Orza and Noelani Pantastico in Jerome Robbins' "Other Dances."
photo @ Angela Sterling

If you’re a regular at Pacific Northwest Ballet, you’ve had the chance to experience work by a bevy of choreographers. You’ve also gotten to dive more deeply into the dances of William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp, and of course, George Balanchine. 

But PNB’s two-part celebration of Jerome Robbins' centenary, continuing this weekend at McCaw Hall, is something new and most welcome. Although PNB presented only seven of Robbin’s many ballets, the chance to see them in this format was exhilarating and illuminating.

PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, who worked with Robbins during Boal’s tenure at New York City Ballet, has designed two unique programs that share only one dance—a brief bit of cotton candy called “Circus Polka,” featuring 48 young girls and a ringmaster (Peter Boal on opening night).
From left, Laura Tisserand and William Lin-Yee, Benjamin Griffiths, and Jerome Tisserand lifting Noelani Pantastico
from Robbins' "In the Night," photo @ Angela Sterling

Program A features four other Robbins’ dances: “In the Night,” a work for three couples set to Chopin piano music, “Afternoon of a Faun,” a haunting pas de deux inspired by Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 work, the iconic “West Side Story Suites,” and a new to PNB pas de deux, “Other Dances,” originally created by Robbins in 1976 for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.

I could write at length about any of these four ballets. Each is distinctive and we've seen most on other mixed bills. Seen consecutively on a single program, they provided so much insight into Robbins’ aesthetic.

“In the Night” is actually three separate duets about relationships. Leta Biasucci, (newly promoted to principal dancer) floated in new love with Ben Griffiths. Laura Tisserand and William Lin-Yee were more earthy; Jerome Tisserand with Noelani Pantastico were fireworks onstage, enacting a passionate and volatile couple.

Pantastico was equally dazzling with Seth Orza in “Other Dances.” It must be hard to tackle work created on such stars as Makarova and Baryshnikov, but that didn’t seem to daunt either PNB principal. Orza was solid as always; Pantastico moves across the stage like a smooth-flowing river. Watching her, I don’t think “wow, that’s hard,” or “wow, look at that intricate lift.” Well, I do think those things, but mostly I am awed by the way she owns the dance and the music, melding her body with it all so that the sum is greater than any single part. Watching a dancer at the height of her artistry performing work created by a choreographer at the height of his own is reason enough to go to the Robbins’ Festival.
From left William Lin-Yee, Leah Terada, Angelica Generosa, Dylan Wald, Leah Merchant and Dammiel Cruz
in "Dances at a Gathering" by Jerome Robbins. Photo @ Angela Sterling

Program B offers its own compelling draw: “Dances at a Gathering,” created for NYCB in 1969. Many dance writers acclaim this work for ten performers as Robbins’ ballet masterpiece. Set again to Chopin piano (performed by Christina Siemens), “Dances” examines human relationships and emotions in their varied forms.

From Lucien Postelwaite’s almost wistful entrance to Kyle Davis and Noelani Pantastico’s intricate and demanding scherzo, “Dances” provides the PNB dancers with an opportunity to shine. They didn’t disappoint. I expect PNB’s principal dancers to excel; in addition to Pantastico and Postelwaite, the family Orza (Seth and Sarah) provided some breathtaking work. I mean that literally. At one point, Sarah Orza is lifted into the air then spun around like a baton. She ends up head down, legs together straight up in the air. What??? In fact, the lifts, throws and carries in this work deserve their own essay. They are intricate, thrilling and, in the hands of these dancers, masterfully executed.

In addition to fine work by soloists Davis and Joshua Grant, company member Elle Macy demonstrated once again that she deserves every solo role offered her. Macy is all tensile strength, but she has a musicality and a charisma that really distinguish her work. (More Elle Macy!)
God I love this photo by @Angela Sterling!
This is from Robbins' "West Side Story Suite." Ezra Thomson, center in the white tee shirt, is dancing the role of Riff

Watching “Dances at a Gathering,” I couldn’t help but think about the prior evening’s performance of “West Side Story Suite,” when the entire ensemble takes the stage to the song “Somewhere.” In “Dances” the ensemble enter in a similar fashion, strolling to their marks, almost the way people walk into a room in non-ballet life. The pieces couldn’t really be more different, and yet, they share a freshness, almost an American-ness, if there is such a thing.

Years ago, a Frenchman I know told me he could always tell an American; he said we have open faces, we smile more than Europeans, we anticipate the possibilities. I don’t know if that’s still how he thinks about Americans, or if he meant only white Americans. I do know that Jerome Robbins’ dances have that same feeling of anticipation and possibility. Even the Part B closer, "The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody) has a silly, slapstick anything-goes quality. The characters in this dance are more "Fancy Free" than "West Side Story," but they share that quintessential American quality of hope for the future. If I had any quibble with PNB’s Robbins Festival, it’s that it’s not comprehensive enough. Where were “Glass Pieces” and “Fancy Free?” And the 60-odd other works we didn’t get to see?
Miles Pertl, with umbrella, and PNB company members in a scene from "The Concert"
photo @ Angela Sterling

That may have to wait until his bi-centenary. For now, you still have a chance to catch the Jerome Robbins’ Festival September 27-29th at McCaw Hall. By the way, Program A only has one performance, Saturday evening the 29th so get your tickets now.



Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Let the Games...er Arts...Begin

Whim W'Him dancers in Alice Klock's "Before/After"
photo courtesy Whim W'Him

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: one of the biggest gifts Whim W’Him Artistic Director Olivier Wevers brings to Seattle dance fans is the opportunity to see new works by contemporary choreographers from around the world. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Last weekend Wevers’ company kicked off its ninth season with its fourth annual ‘Choreographic Shindig,’ a program curated by Whim W’Him’s seven dancers. The three works on the program highlighted the dancers’ technical and artistic range, and they delighted Whim W’Him fans on opening night.

This Choreographic Shindig was bookended by two very kinetic works, each stunning in its own right.
Cameron Birts, kneeling in front of Mia Monteabaro and fellow Whim W'Him company members in Alice Klock's
"Before/After"
photo courtesy Whim W'Him

Alice Klock’s “Before/After” opened the show. It’s a hauntingly evocative dance, enhanced by Michael Mazzola’s lighting design that seems to place the dancers in an undersea world where they tumble and float beneath his watery illumination. I say tumble, because from the get-go, when Karl Watson catapults onto the stage, these dancers energetically propel themselves across the floor: somersaulting, pushing up into handstands with bent knees and flexed feet.

There are also moments of stillness, moments where you feel as if the dancers embody ancient Greek or Egyptian mosaic murals. Whim W'Him newcomer Jane Cracovaner, slightly crouched, holds her arms bent out at the elbows, her hands nearly touching, face angled every so slightly. 

But moments of repose are few in this work, a chance for the dancers to breath before leaping, literally, up from the floor in sequence, each dancer tapping or butting the next into movement. It’s a bit like watching one of those domino lineups, where every tile tilts into its neighbor, causing it to fall down into the next and the next, until all the dominoes are flat on the floor. In this case, though, instead of falling to the floor, the dancers jump up, one by one, in kinetic unison.
Whim W'Him company members in "Welcome to Barrio Ataxia"
photo courtesy Whim W'Him

Omar Roman de Jesus ends the show with the equally kinetic “Welcome to Barrio Ataxia,” a rumination on the physical condition that causes imbalance and muscle tics, among other symptoms.
That sounds grim; “Barrio” is not. The dancers enter to peppy Latin dance music, shimmying and shaking and mouthing the song lyrics. The cheery song gives way abruptly to a slower, more introspective, sound track, and the shimmies evolve into something more deliberate as well: the dancers ooze across the floor, their hands slowly tapping out a rhythm on their upper thighs.
Adrian Hoffman and Jane Cracovaner separate themselves from the collective dance drone, performing a duet that serves as a highly physical counterpoint to the movements that surround them.

For me, though, Cameron Birts’ final solo is this work’s indelible moment. I wish I had a photograph to show you, but that wouldn't capture the magic of the live performance.

Birts is short, with disproportionately long arms for his torso. He’s able to isolate his limbs, imbuing them with independent motion. Have you ever seen those plastic human or animal figures, each limb connected to the other by elastic filaments, the whole figure mounted on a small pedestal? The ones where you press the pedestal and the figure sort of collapses, limbs jangling? Well, Birts can make his human body do something like this, long arms flapping independent of tilting shoulders and undulating lower back. 

Meanwhile, he’s transferring his weight slowly from leg to leg. All of this takes place under a ghostly white, diffuse spot light, while Birts’ fellow dancers slowly move upstage into the shadows.
As I said, indelible.

Equally indelible was the program’s third work, created by Brendan Duggan in collaboration with the dancers.

“Stephanie Knows Some Great People” begins with the house lights on, as Karl Watson mixes drinks for an upcoming house warming. We soon learn that Watson and his partner, Cracovaner, are two of the most pretentious people. They've thrown this party to show off; we see them herd their guests around their new digs, pointing out such highlights as vegan fur drapes and fancy appliances. Oh, and the view! Wow.

The guests are a mixed bag: from Jim Kent’s nerd who can scarcely believe his luck to snare a date with Mia Monteabaro’s gum-cracking hottie, to wonderful Liane Aung, so fizzy and tipsy that her long-suffering date (Birts) literally holds her up. I suppose I could carp on the implications of a drunken woman and the potential for sexual violence. I won't, because that's not the intent behind the imagery.
Karl Watson and Adrian Hoffman in "Stephanie Knows Some Great People"
photo courtesy Whim W'Him


The superficial chatter is smashed all at once when Adrian Hoffman’s odd-man out character boils over in frustration. And when the  mask cracks, we can see the person who hides behind it. Hoffman is actually Watson's alter ego. They move in tandem, not so much mirror images but rather a reminder that things--and people--are not always who they seem to be.

I’m writing this essay several days after seeing "Choreographic Shindig IV", and I can still see so much of the evening in my mind’s eye—always a sign of a successful performance. I love Whim W’Him’s Choreographic Shindigs, and this 4th installment may be the best one yet. It’s a great way for the company to start a season, and a great unofficial kickoff for the fall arts season. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

We Are Not Small Women

Catapult dancers in Michelle Miller's 2018 dance, "Skin"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos

At the start of Michelle Miller’s newest dance, “Skin,” a woman in a tight beige tank top and shorts enters the stage, followed closely by another dancer dressed in a demure skirt. They engage in not so much a duet as a struggle that’s probably familiar to many women of my generation, the Baby Boom.

'Sit like this', the skirted woman seems to instruct the other. 'Don’t splay your legs, for god’s sake! Tilt your head like this, so seductive. Smile. Smile. Smile.'

As I watched this push/pull unfold, I was reminded of my mother’s instructions to my teenage self: 'if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Comb your hair off your face. Look how much prettier you are when you’re smiling. Do this, not that. Be agreeable. Don't take up space.'

“Skin” was the last of four dances in the evening length program “I am not a small woman,” performed by Miller’s company, Catapult dance, at Seattle's Erickson Theater. Taken as a whole, the program was an athletic and intriguing exploration of the relationship between women and contemporary American cultural norms.

“I am not a small woman” opened with a 2003 work, “The Lottery,” created by former Seattle dancer/choreographer Amii Legendre. I saw this dance when it premiered 15 years ago; it was still just as resonant as it was then. Legendre writes in the program she was inspired both by the onset of the Iraq War and by Shirley Jackson’s chilling story of the same name. "The Lottery" was well paired in the program's first half with Miller’s “I am the Bully,” an abstract rumination on power dynamics.
 
Catapult dance company members in Michelle Miller's "I am not the bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
My favorite dance of the evening was “Resistance,” created in 2014 by Miller in collaboration with her cast. Like “Bully,” this dance explores power dynamics. Miller physically tethers pairs of dancers. As one woman pulls at her leash, she’s restrained by her partner/captor. But this physical restraint also allows some gravity-defying movements, akin to rock climbers who have spotters below them. 

Miller’s troupe of dancers are noticeably strong and technically adept. They seize her movements with what I can only describe as ferocity. Whether they are raising their fists into the air, yelling in unison, or trapped together inside the confines of a wooden box, “Resistance” offered a combination of movement and human interaction that was both engaging to watch and thought provoking when it ended.
 
Catapult Dance company members swing free in "Resistance"
photo by Joseph Lambert/Jazzy Photos
“I am not a small woman” tackles cultural questions that face women--and men--in 21st century America, but instead of getting mired in didactic literalism, Miller spins out from her starting ideas with fresh energy and intriguing movements. I am a sucker for very physical dance, I admit, but with this program Miller and her dancers offer more than gravity defiance and gee-whiz moments. Miller has drawn on her many years as a dancer, healer and martial artist to create a very distinctive aesthetic. I’m eager to see what she and Catapult offer in the future.