Friday, October 31, 2014

Fred Or Gene? Or Both...


Fred Astaire in "Daddy Long Legs", photo Creative Commons
A couple of weeks ago I flipped on the television. 

"An American in Paris" was on. I love Gershwin, and I love this film, so I got into bed and watched it for the umpteenth time.

This time around, I was taken by Gene Kelly's solo tap dance to "I Got Rhythm." It's cute at the beginning, with the bevy of grinning children. But almost at the very end of the dance, Gene lets loose with some fancy fancy dancing.

Which is a long-winded way of saying the man had serious chops.

But, so did that prince of smooth moves, Fred Astaire.

Fred had this upper body thing going on, where his arms just seemed to float along with his torso. I love watching how he makes those hard, hard routines look effortless.

I've always preferred Fred's smooth moves to Gene's muscular hoofing. But "I Got Rhythm" reminded me it takes all kind of dancers to make the world go round.

And thank goodness for all of them.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Artist's Impulse

"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
I freely admit I don't know heaps about hip hop culture or b-boys. But I do know when a dancer is technically skilled with a full-on commitment to his, or her, art form. That commitment was on full display on the parts of the performers in choreographer Amy O'Neal's 'Opposing Forces' at On The Boards, Saturday October 25th, 2014.

O'Neal assembled five of the Seattle area's most respected b-boys, along with musician/DJ WD4D, to create a performance that both opens the door to hip hop culture for a (mostly) non-hip hop audience, while at the same time allowing the cast members to explore both their art form and themselves as artists. The result was an electrifying evening.

B-boying (yeah, it's a noun), emerged as a way for dancers to demonstrate not only their performance prowess, but also to establish their macho creds. Dance crews compete; they win trophies around the world at this point. O'Neal explains in the program notes that she and the cast "needed to show their complexity as dancers, that they are not just machines or clowns who do tricks for entertainment purposes."

"Opposing Forces" begins with a competition. Members of O'Neal's "crew" line up against three guest performers from Dogg Pound Crew. Each side tries to top the other with everything from dizzying head spins to one-armed handstands to lightning-quick footwork. The audience's role is to cheer on our favorites.

From that opening, though, the performance slows down and starts to unfold into a kaleidoscope of solos and ensemble work. Each man has a chance to showcase his particular moves to the accompaniment of music and recorded voices that reveal to the audience tidbits about the dancers' personal lives and their thoughts about art and dance and hip hop culture.

We see Michael O'Neal Jr.'s brawn and beauty, as well as Mozeslateef's exploration of how to move beyond society's limits. Fever One shows us the meaning of gravity defiance, while Alfredo "Free" Vergara Jr. and Brysen "JustBe" Angeles define the meaning of smooth, oozing their bodies across the floor.

And while we continue to gasp in appreciation of their virtuosity and strength, we start to think about this particular art form in the context of other dance genres.
"Opposing Forces" by Amy O'Neal
photo by Gabriel Bienzycki

I spoke to Amy O'Neal and Brysen Angeles in September. At the time I was curious to know why they dance. O'Neal says she needs it for her spiritual and physical health. Angeles told me that, when he dances, when he's truly committed to the movement, there is no separation between his mind and his body, that he channels something deeper than himself. You can think of that as an artistic equivalent of yoga or meditation, I guess.

In November, Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform David Dawson's beautiful dance "A Million Kisses to My Skin." Dawson says the title refers to the way dancers feel when they are "in the zone"; Angeles doesn't use that same terminology, but I get the sense he feels the same way when he's dancing; that each movement is a caress.

I left "Opposing Forces" invigorated on so many levels. This tiny window into a form of cultural expression left me with huge appreciation for its practitioners. More than that, it left me thinking deeply about what drives any artist to create and to perform.

I was struck again by Amy O'Neal's unique vision and her unique choreographic expression of that vision. "Opposing Forces" can be enjoyed for its sheer physicality, for the contagious beat WD4D creates with his sound design. But O'Neal also pushes her audience beyond simply enjoyment. She wants us to question our assumptions about art, and about society. I left "Opposing Forces" thinking, which is perhaps the highest compliment I can pay any artist.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When Worlds Collide: Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"


Amy O'Neal, photo by Gabriel Bienczycki
Amy O'Neal is a force of nature.

She's also a pillar of Seattle's dance community.

Trained at Cornish College of the Arts, O'Neal teaches regular classes at Velocity Dance Center; she's traveled around the country to present her choreography; she was a finalist for the 2013 Stranger Genius Award for dance.

But Amy O'Neal says she feels more at home with hip hop culture than she does with the Western dance traditions she studied at Cornish. And as she matures as an artist, she considers her work in the context of the larger culture. O'Neal is somebody who thinks a lot about gender, race and equity issues. Those questions find their way into the dance she makes and performs.

Two years ago, O’Neal prodded audiences to consider those issues through the lens of an evening-length solo work she called (rather audaciously and only half-facetiously) “The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade.” O'Neal performed everything from break dancing to pole dancing to twerking, in order to explore those traditional “sexy” dance genres, and how they define her as an artist and as a woman.
Amy O'Neal channels Ciara
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki

Amy O’Neal’s newest dance explores gender and race from a different angle. “Opposing Forces” is a work for five acclaimed Seattle area b-boys: Fever One, Alfredo “Free” Vergara Jr., Brysen “JustBe” Angeles, Mozeslateef, and Michael O’Neal Jr. It's the first dance she's created for an all-male cast.

O’Neal says this new dance initially came out of her desire to work with male dancers. But she was also inspired by her increasing affinity for hip hop culture.

“I had been thinking a lot about the value systems between competitive dance, commercial dance, contemporary dance,” she says. “B-boy battling and hip hop specifically.”

Her ideas started to take shape when O’Neal met Brysen Angeles at The Beacon, a dance studio and school Angeles co-founded with other members of his award-winning Seattle dance crew, Massive Monkees. Angeles had seen one of O’Neal’s dances, and he was intrigued with her idea to create a work that would fuse hip hop and contemporary dance styles.
Massive Monkees crew
Brysen Angeles, center in fleece jacket

“I wasn’t completely sure what it was gonna be,” he confesses. But he was intrigued by the questions O'Neal asked him, both about movement and about race and gender identity in hip hop dance.

Brysen Angeles has been dancing since 1995, and competing with Massive Monkees since ’97 or ’98. The crew has won a slew of international competitions; posters, trophies and plaques decorate the walls of The Beacon. In 2007, Massive Monkees were honored with the Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award.

By the time they met, both Angeles and his crew and Amy O’Neal had forged respected artistic careers in their respective dance communities.

The thing is, those communities don’t often mix.

 O’Neal’s new dance, “Opposing Forces,” will bring Angeles and his fellow b-boys into the heart of Seattle’s contemporary art scene, On The Boards.
Amy O'Neal's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, courtesy On The Boards

Angeles says he’s been to OTB once before, part of a hip hop-specific performance, for a hip hop audience. This time he’ll be dancing in front of some of Seattle’s most insider-y art insiders. And he’s looking forward to the experience of broadening himself as a performer and a dancer.

“Getting involved with choreographers like Amy in places like On The Boards is a growing experience for myself and, I think, the other cast members.”

Brysen Angeles and four fellow b-boys appear in Amy O’Neal’s “Opposing Forces” October 23-16, at On The Boards.

It's gonna be some kind of awesome.
 
Amy O's "Opposing Forces"
photo by Gabriel Bienczycki


Monday, October 13, 2014

Why I Love UW Chamber Dance Company (And More)

UW Chamber Dance Company
"Cloudless" by Susan Marshall
Why don’t more people go to see the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company’s
performances?

Led by Hannah Wiley, these MFA students-all former professional dancers-recreate important works from the last century of the modern dance canon. In its 20 plus years, Chamber Dance has presented the work of choreographers ranging from Isadora Duncan to Twyla Tharp and beyond. The idea is to reconstruct, perform, and archive these seminal dances.

If that sounds a bit academic, well, it is. But set on the bodies of Wiley’s experienced dancers, these works shine as bright as they did when the choreographers created them. And they give audiences a chance to see historic dances as living, breathing art. I have attended these performances for years, and each one is usually a thrilling experience.

Maybe the problem is that Chamber Dance presents only one program each year, just four performances every October, in the middle of a busy season for every Seattle area arts organization. Chamber Dance has to fight to be noticed amidst all the other activity. But the programs hold their own. If you haven’t seen a Chamber Dance performance, put a reminder into your calendar for 2015.

This year, Wiley selected 3 works, all relatively contemporary: excerpts from Susan Marshall’s 2006 evening-length “Cloudless”, Nacho Duato’s haunting 1983 dance “Jardi Tancat,” and Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s “To Have and To Hold,” choreographed in 1989.

Some Seattle audiences have seen Marshall’s “Kiss”, presented at both Pacific Northwest Ballet and UW Chamber Dance performances. “Cloudless” is equally inventive and emotional, with standout performances by all the dancers. It would be heavenly to see the entire dance!

Shapiro and Smith's “To Have and To Hold” is a rumination on love and loss. It is, in a word, stunning. Six dancers, in long sleeved white shirts and white pants, slither, vault and caress three plain wooden benches arrayed in parallel lines. This dance demands technical and timing precision, strength and artistry. All were present in abundance. It was a fitting end to a fabulous evening.

Seriously, if you love dance and you have never seen UW Chamber Dance Company, you owe it to yourself to be at a performance next fall. You won’t be sorry.

Autumn is always busy in Seattle’s dance community. Another gem this past weekend was the premier of Michele Miller’s revamped “I AM the Bully.” This piece for seven women is part rumble, a la Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story, and part prison yard shake down. It was like a dope slap upside the head, full of anger, fear and some very strong dancing.
Michele Miller's "I AM the Bully"
photo by Joseph Lambert, courtesy Michele Miller

“Bully” was part of an evening at Velocity Dance Center called “Modus Operandi.” Miller’s company Catapult Dance shared a bill with the Alana O Rogers Dance Company. Rogers’ premiered “Rewind,” a dance she calls “an ode to memory, slowing down, getting lost and running.” Her earlier work “Sight” opened the evening. Both works are abstracted narratives, featuring a strong ensemble of dancers. 

Miller is a longtime member of Seattle's dance community (Velocity co-founder, D-9 Dance Collective member, Cornish faculty member). She calls her work a mashup of contemporary dance, martial arts and contact improvisation. It is highly physical and, in the context of Velocity’s intimate performance space, very much in your face. Paired with composer Nico Tower’s live-mixed “Vox Humana,” “I AM the Bully” has stayed with me days beyond the performance.