Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Olivier Wevers: The Benefits Of Baggage

You can take the boy out of the ballet company, but you can't remove years of immersion in ballet culture from the boy's psyche. In the case of choreographer Olivier Wevers, that's a great thing.
Choreographer Olivier Wevers, @ Bamberg Fine Art

Wevers calls his years as a classical ballet dancer the "baggage" he brings to his four-year old contemporary dance company, Whim W'him. That baggage was evident in Wevers' recent deliriously loopy reworking of Michel Fokine's early 20th century ballet "Les Sylphides," part of the program "Instantly Bound", January 17-19, 2014 at Seattle's Cornish Playhouse.

Although you can talk about Wevers' "Sylphides" on its own merits, a little background on the original helps a bit. Fokine's ballet, billed as a "one-act romantic reverie" at its 1909 Paris premiere, is set to a beautiful Chopin score. A bevy of dancers in long, white tulle skirts moves about the stage as a lone man, the "Poet", romances the prima ballerina. The two dancers waltz, they glide, they linger in one another's arms. It's all very beautiful.

Wevers says he was inspired by Chopin's lush music. But instead of a romantic reverie, an abstract fantasy, Olivier Wevers brings us a very modern dinner party. Inebriated by lust, jealousy, revenge and the general excitement of a social gathering, the six dinner guests plus one late arrival, weave their way across the stage. They mingle, they fight, they gossip, they flirt, all the time manipulating a large white table. The only set piece, the table transforms from the front door to a boudoir, a settee, and of course, a dining table. And that table, like the centerpiece of Wevers' earlier dance, "Sofa," is a foil for the humans who prance around it.
Choreographer Olivier Wevers, in red, works with Whim W'him company dancers.
Photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

Lara Seefeldt is a preposterous drunk, enamoured of her date, Jim Kent. They are a daffy couple, hot for one another but still slightly innocent. That's not the case for the evening's hostess, danced by Tory Peil. She and her partner are clearly at odds when the evening begins. That irritation is exacerbated by the arrival of another man who captures Peil's interest and eventually her body. Meanwhile, late arrival Geneva Jenkins delicately spins around the party, as she tries to reorganize the scene to her liking.

Wevers' version of "Les Sylphides" is a sly, puckish, very 21st century ballet. His dancers (the first on season contract for Whim W'him), stagger drunkenly around the stage, but their every limb twitch is carefully thought out, and meticulously planned. This ballet builds on Wevers' earlier "Flower Festival." That strong duet is also a hilarious reimagination of classical ballet, but with "Sylphides", Wevers demonstrates his growth as a choreographer. He confidently deploys seven dancers instead of only two, creating multiple concurrent scenarios on stage, and, all in all, gives the audience the gift of both laughter and beauty.

"Les Sylphides" closed out the evening, which opened with the title dance, "Instantly Bound." A reworking of a piece Wevers choreographed in 2013 for Philadelphia's Ballet X, this abstract exploration of the impact of gun violence had some powerful moments. In particular, the middle section features all six dancers moving in unison, shrugging first one shoulder then the other as their feet tap out a repeated rhythm: Ta-da, Ta-da, Ta Ta, a little like a cha cha. They are strangers who've come together, reeling from experience violence, sharing a common beat.
Choreographer Olivier Wevers works with Whim W'him dancer Geneva Jenkins. Photo @ Bamberg Fine Art

Several years ago, Wevers told me ballet as a dance form wouldn't survive unless it moved beyond the canon of works that are still performed in theaters around the world. His company, Whim W'him, is most definitely a contemporary dance ensemble. But Wevers' background positions him as someone poised to enliven ballet, to build on the past artistry and transform it for the 21st century.

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