Friday, September 16, 2022

With Fresh Eyes and Heart


Andy McShea, front with fellow Whim W'Him dancers in Dolly Sfeir's hard times for dreamers.
photo @ Jim Coleman, courtesy Whim W'Him

One of the pandemic’s upsides (you read that correctly, there were a few) has been the opportunity to see artists with new eyes. Or at least, eyes that have had a protracted break from live performance.

Last weekend I was happy to be in the Erickson Theater audience for the opening night performance of Seattle contemporary dance company Whim W’Him’s 13th artistic season. 

I’ve followed artistic director Olivier Wevers and his dancers since their first show at On the Boards. Like so many performing arts groups, Whim W’Him pivoted to digital presentations during the pandemic, and I watched those. Although the company returned to live shows last season, I only attended one in person, so this season opener gave me a chance to renew my admiration for Whim W'Him's very fine dancers. 

I was so happy to see two veteran company members, Karl Watson and Jane Cracovener, back on stage, along with five other talented dancers. But, to borrow a phrase from the publication Seattle Dances, I have a brand-new dance crush on Andrew McShea.

Andy McShea
photo @ Allina Yang

I’d seen McShea perform before the pandemic shutdowns, and I watched him in Whim W'Him's streamed offerings. But I can trace the start of my new crush to August 10th, when WW was part of an evening of wonderful dance presented free at the renovated Volunteer Park Amphitheater. 

That evening McShea performed a solo Wevers had choreographed for him. You know those social media posts, the ones with little arrows drawn on a photo to grab our attention? Watching McShea dance, I felt as if somebody had highlighted his body in flashing lights: Look at this dancer, Marcie!

I’m pretty sure it was the first thing I told friends about that evening.

Anyways, back to the Erickson Theatre, where Whim W’Him’s Fall 2022 program opened on September 9th.

As I mentioned, it was wonderful to see Watson and Cracovener. Nell Josephine and Michael Arellano are back this season, and equally adept. I was also struck by new company members Leah Misano and Kyle Sangil (who we actually got to see last May when Josephine was stricken with appendicitis). Everyone was great. But I couldn’t take my eyes off McShea.

To be fair, in the first dance, created by Nicole von Arx, the dancers’ heads were covered in black balaclavas for much of the time, so I wasn’t always sure who I was watching. Believe me, I did spend some time trying to figure out who was who. But in Dolly Sfeir’s hard time for dreamers, the final work of the evening, the masks were off, the dancers were distinctly visible and McShea just mesmerized me.

Michael Arellano, left, Jane Cracovener and Andy McShea
photo @ Allina Yang

hard time for dreamers, theatrical and slightly absurd in a Pina Bausch-esque way, is set on and among a collection of early 20th century furniture, with costumes reminiscent of that same era. The three women wear brightly colored dresses with puffed cap sleeves and waist sashes, designed by Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Mark Zappone. For the men, Zappone created suits and vests cut from wide patterned plaid fabrics, paired with a variety of hats, from straw boaters to bowlers. 

Sfeir, who is also a filmmaker, gives each dancer a character to inhabit. Josephine was a sort of haughty socialite; Sangil, a tough. McShea was a sort of bittersweet clown.

I was gobsmacked by his ability to seemingly melt his bones. One moment he’d be upright; the next, his body had dissolved to the floor, his legs and arms heading in directions that defied anatomy.

Andy McShea, photo @ Jim Coleman

McShea has sharp, high cheekbones, and an intensity in his eyes that contrast with his body’s fluidity. It was fascinating to watch how he paired those with the singular qualities of the other company members, qualities that transcend the dances they perform, like character traits that define us as individuals.

That's been one of my favorite things about watching Whim W’Him over the years. We may never meet Wevers’ skilled dancers one one one, but we get to know them because they bring their full selves--and their considerable technical and artistic gifts--to every work.

Jim Kent, center, supported by Whim W'Him company members in Olivier Wevers' 
This is Not the Little Prince, photo courtesy Whim W'Him

Dancers' performing lives are short, so we’re constantly meeting new artists at Whim W'Him and every other dance company. It's bittersweet indeed. The great Jim Kent left Whim W’Him last year after almost 12 seasons; Liane Aung departed last spring and both of them will be sorely missed. 

Liane Aung, photo @ Bamberg Fine Arts

But where wonderful artists leave, new talents step up to fill the void. I look forward to getting to know the new company members, and to stoke my dance crush on Andrew McShea.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Moving Beyond Time, Place, and Circumstance


Leah Terada, rear, looks over Liane Aung's arm in A Liminal Space
photo @ Henry Wurtz, courtesy Seattle Dance Collective

When the pandemic started two and a half years ago, I (like many fans of live performance) wondered what it would be like to live without the very particular thrill of settling into my seat, alongside fellow audience members, collectively anticipating a new dance, a new play, a new concert.

Somehow, we all adjusted to art’s new digital delivery system. The dance world offered up everything from older recordings of live shows to odd Zoom pastiches. As the pandemic dragged on, artists adapted to the new norm, moving beyond simple video captures to create ingenious new work for our small screens.

This fall most performance venues are welcoming back live audiences, but Seattle Dance Collective’s latest film offering, A Liminal Space, conceived and directed by Henry Wurtz with choreographer Bruno Roque, reminded me, first, that digital offerings are here to stay. Second, that they can be as evocative and satisfying as a live performance.

Leah Terada crawls out from the white fabric cube
photo @ Henry Wurtz

A Liminal Space begins inside a white cloth cube. Dancer Leah Terada lies on a bed of soil, her off-white pants and sweater covered with dark loam as she rolls and writhes. She rises from the dirt and spots a pinpoint of light, ripping through her fabric enclosure with the help of fellow dancer Liane Aung, who is just outside. Together they dance on a wide Puget Sound beach, their curved arms seemingly gathering in the sun and salt-water breezes as they revel in their freedom.

The film moves both the cube and the dancers onto a grassy meadow, then into a lush forest grove. Aung and Terada are dressed alike, in light slacks and sweaters, their dark hair styled into identical single braids that hang down their backs. Are they doppelgangers? Mirror images of the same person? As Fabian ReimAir’s original score builds in momentum, the two women dance in unison, circle one another, lie side by side, fingers lightly brushing up against the other’s body.

Terada and Aung working together to escape the cube
photo @ Henry Wurtz

The concept is simple, maybe even simplistic: here’s what it’s like to be caged up, then released. We all remember how it felt when we first emerged from pandemic quarantine; how we felt when we first met up with friends, family, even strangers, after months of enforced social distancing. We were confined in our own versions of the white cube; slowly we were freed to experience the wider world and to enjoy human interaction again. Roque’s choreography performed by these two dancers, plus the magnificence of a Pacific Northwest summer, combine to give A Liminal Space more heft than it might have had in the hands of lesser artists.

Liane Aung, who left Olivier Wevers’ company Whim W’Him this spring after several seasons, is a standout dancer. She imbues each movement with a crisp clarity that draws the viewer’s eye. Leah Terada, a corps de ballet dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, has a softer approach to Roque’s choreography, although she’s no less compelling to watch. Together they create a physical harmony that elevates this short film.

Leah Terada, photo @ Henry Wurtz

Terada is having a moment of sorts, emerging from the relative anonymity of PNB’s corps. Two years ago, she danced on a dock with fellow PNB company member Miles Pertl in a lovely short film The Only Thing You See Now, another Seattle Dance Collective commission. Terada was featured in several PNB offerings last season, giving ballet audiences a chance to see her versatility. And I was awed by her complete dedication to her art form while watching her earlier this summer as she performed choreographer Eva Stone’s punishing solo, one of a series created for Stone’s site-specific Sculptured Dance on Whidbey Island.

The joy of a dance film like Wurtz’ A Liminal Space is that we get a close, even intimate, view of Terada and Aung. We savor the expression on Terada’s face when she first escapes her white cube, watch them watch each other as they start a duet. We see how Aung gives a physical weight to Roque’s choreography, the way she angles an elbow or crouches low into her knees. Meanwhile Terada almost seems to float above Aung, her version of these same movements seemingly weightless. These are details we’d miss if this dance was performed live. In fact, A Liminal Space could never be live; it’s a piece of art created by a camera intended for a screen. It’s beauty is fleeting, like the tangy scent of the salt water carried on the breeze.

One of the many lessons the pandemic has reinforced is the myriad ways performance can pack an emotional wallop. I now cherish each opportunity to sit in a darkened theater, the tingle of anticipation before the stage lights come up on a live show. But as I watched Terada and Aung whirling on the sand in the early morning sunshine, I felt a different kind of joy. I’m grateful for the way artists adapted to changed circumstances, the way they found new ways to illuminate our collective human experience. Thanks to Seattle Dance Collective for making a space for this to continue.