Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Dancing With Abandon: The Zoe Diary Part 2

University of Washington dance students in
Zoe Scofield's "How come he gets to ride while we have to walk? (Hey GIRL!)
photo by Tim Summers
In early December I spent a couple of rainy hours one Saturday morning in a rehearsal room at the University of Washington Dance Department. I was there to watch choreographer Zoe Scofield work with 20  undergraduate students.

Scofield is the inaugural recipient of the Kawasaki Guest Artist fellowship. She was fine tuning her residency project, a dance she called “How come he gets to ride while we have to walk? (Hey GIRL!).

Scofield had been working on the piece for a few months by the time I saw it; she was sick that morning, feeling bleary. The students straggled into the studio one by one, and I could tell this wasn not at all how she was accustomed to working. But the rehearsal started, and when they finally ran  the dance, I got that little prickle of excitement, my spidey sense, that tells me I’m watching something special.

Almost two months after that rainy Saturday morning, the young UW dancers unveiled Scofield’s work as part of the annual Faculty Dance Concert,this year a four-dance program at the Meany Studio Theater. All the offerings had something to recommend them, but Scofield’s work was the highlight for me. (I did enjoy Rachael Lincoln's "Shrinking Violet", which was a whimsical companion piece to Scofield's dance.)
UW dance students in Rachael Lincoln's "Shrinking Violet"
photo by Tim Summers

I’m always thrilled to watch large groups of dancers moving together, and 20 certainly fits that description. The performers were dressed in loose gray shift dresses that flowed from their shoulders and swung gracefully around their knees. In a way, the costumes were metaphors for the freedom the young women sought throughout the dance.

“How come he gets to ride…” (great title) begins with the performers in staggered rows across the floor, counting out their steps in unison. One by one, dancers break free from the regimentation to move to what seems an inner melody. Scofield then breaks the ensemble into sub-groups. A half dozen women, arms linked, move in a horizontal line across the floor, the formation reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s 1910 painting “Dance.” Different combinations of women repeat this sequence, while others come forward to express themselves individually, their movements a counterpoint to what seemed like the dance equivalent of a Greek chorus.

At one point the entire ensemble lays supine, raising bent legs, then folding them over the torsos of the dancers on their right. It felt like a more eloquent version of the June Taylor Dancers I used to watch on television in the 1960’s.

The most emotionally resonant moment for me was, seemingly, the loosest. Freed from counting out beats, from moving in unison, the pack of young women tears wildly around the stage, with flying manes of hair and sporting huge grins. They’re like children released from stuffy classrooms on the all-too-rare sunny afternoon. Instead of a schoolroom, these young women have been released from expectations, from self-discipline, from self-consciousness. It made me want to weep, for its beauty and for what it says about the all the possibilities that lie ahead for these undergraduates.
"How come he gets to ride while we have to walk? (Hey GIRL!)
photo by Tim Summers
(What can I say? I’m a mom and I get sappy about the potential of youth. Or maybe jealous?)

I have no idea whether these dance students enjoyed performing Scofield’s work, but I do know how much I relished watching them do so. Partly to witness the performance itself, but more to soak in Scofield’s mastery of her craft. She told me after the show that there were things she would have done differently (she was away from Seattle for most of the month prior to this performance). Maybe so. But “How come he gets to ride while we have to walk? (Hey GIRL!) demonstrated Scofield’s skill as a dance-maker: crafting transitions, melding movement and music, assembling dancers on a stage then moving them in such a way that carries the audience on a journey. 

Even more than that, is something Scofield and her artistic partner Juniper Shuey have delivered so well for more than a decade: creating thoughtful reflections on the wide, wide world and our place within it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

When Dancers Shine

Whim W'Him dancers Adrian Hoffman and Tory Peil in "Joinery" by Gabrielle Lamb
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts
I’ve often wondered what makes some performing artists shine while others, equally talented, don’t register for me in that same way.

I got to thinking about this again this past Saturday evening, at a performance of contemporary dance company Whim W’Him’s latest offering, “Configurate.”

The three new works on the program—by Gabrielle Lamb, Ihsan Rustem and Artistic Director Olivier Wevers—offered the very accomplished Whim W’Him company members both challenging and beautiful choreography. But two of the evening’s offerings gave me the opportunity to think specifically about each Whim W’Him dancer, because Lamb and Wevers’ choreography really highlights individuals and duos, rather than ensemble movement.

Lamb’s piece, “Joinery,” was about just that: joining, and ‘un-joining.’ Much of her choreography is angular: elbows and knees act as pivot points for arms and legs. Lamb also emphasizes articulation, with toes alternately pointed and flexed, fingers splayed. “Joinery” is moody and contemplative, with a wonderful wow of an ending.
Cameron Birts, left, with Jim Kent in "Joinery"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts
Most impressive to me were Jim Kent and Cameron Birts in a duet lit from the front, which cast their large shadows on the bare wall at the rear of the stage. From Whim W’Him’s inception, Kent has been a steady, sometimes brilliant, presence. Birts, a new company member this season, matches Kent in height, but he possesses super long arms that fascinated me. Together in this shadow dance, they were riveting.

In his latest offering, “6 love letters,” Wevers demonstrates his skill with the pas de deux, something longtime Whim W’Him fans have seen since his earliest work. I was particularly struck by the section ‘to an ex’, performed by Tory Peil and Adrian Hoffman. Hoffman, another recent addition to Whim W’Him, is a delight. Not only does he bring technical competence; he’s got an inner spark that really elevates him as a performer.

In this particular pas de deux Hoffman is a great match for Peil; they’re both tall, elegant movers. But Hoffman brings the added dimension of dramatic flair, as well as musicality. He didn’t dance to the music, he embodied it in a way the best dancers do.
Adrian Hoffman, left, with Tory Peil in '6 love letters'
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts
I should say that all seven of the Whim W’Him company members are talented and well-trained. They dedicate themselves to the material at hand and always deliver excellent performances. But it’s a special treat when a dancer like Hoffman shows up in town.

Although I’ve singled out Lamb and Wevers’ works on the Configurate bill, I have to say that Ihsan Rustem’s “Seed” was the evening’s highlight for me, despite technical difficulties that required the performance to stop, then re-start.
Ihsan Rustem's "Seed"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts

“Seed” is the kind of dance that surprises and, for me, delights. It’s a narrative, of sorts, full of ensemble action, and quirky humor. And it showcases the dancers in the best possible way, playing to each of their individual strengths. Rustem has worked for companies around the world; lucky for us that Wevers has brought him to Seattle twice (so far).

Friday, January 12, 2018

Dancing with Intention

Dancer Jon Boogz
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.
Jon Boogz in a solo version of "Love Heals All Wounds"
“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.
Cast of "Love Heals All Wounds" take a bow at Edmonds Center for the Arts, photo courtesy ECA
Lil Buck is second from the right, Jon Boogz is center with the hat
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

A Conversation with Jade Solomon Curtis

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.
Jade Solomon Curtis in "Black Like Me"
photo by Nate Watters courtesy Jade Solomon Curtis
“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.
Jade Solomon Curtis, photograph by Nate Watters
“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.”