by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN Contributing Writer
AT SEATTLE CENTER
In an artists' conversation with the audience following Whim W'Him's exciting premiere of three new dances last weekend, choreographer Lori Landon compared the job of creating a commissioned work to being on 'Chopped,' the Food Network show where chefs open their baskets and find mystery ingredients to make the best dish they can in half an hour. The artistic process is not long and leisurely, she said - 'You work with what you have in the time allowed!' Artistic Director Olivier Wevers allowed fifty hours of studio and rehearsal time for each choreographer to create a new work using as many or as few of Whim W'Him's dancers as they chose. Out of this pressure-cooker situation came works that the sold-out audience at Cornish Playhouse found both savory and intriguing.
As dance lovers in Seattle already know, Whim W'Him is a collective of artists founded by Wevers in 2009. He was then a principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet with a strong interest in choreography and innovation. Now, as the artistic director of a company of seven, he exercises his own dance-making skills as well as creating a platform for new choreographers. In this year's season Whim W'Him will present nine new dances by seven up-and-coming artists - an accomplishment of artist-support as welcome as the dances themselves.
Wevers and his team of donors and supporters have pulled off a wonderful act of managerial creation by enabling young and emerging dance-makers to create new projects, to build their bodies of work, and to be seen by audiences in a first-class venue. In the competitive world of dance, where a handful of successful choreographers tend to dominate major companies, this is a rare gift indeed, both for the company and for its audiences. Wevers is especially interested in dancers having a say in who will build dances on their bodies, recognizing that the dancers are not only interpreters of choreographic artists, but are artists themselves. After all, one of the 'mystery ingredients' in making a dance is the capability of the dancers. You can't ask for moves the dancers can't execute, but you can make wonderful moves if the dancers are flexible, strong, and willing - as the Whim W'Him dancers showed themselves to be in 'Threefold' this past weekend.
'We are not the same' by Olivier Wevers
The first dance of the evening was Wever's own offering, in which two couples - a girl & boy and a boy & boy - enter walking backwards, as though their encounter of one another is random. Soon one boy is left alone on stage taking impossible positions, wrapping his arms around his legs so that he can barely scoot along the floor, much less dance. This metaphor for social limitation and emotional constraint is then deeply explored as one dancer after another arrives to unlatch and unleash their inner lives as individuals and as couples. The steps are very close to the ground in a lexicon of grasping, lifting, and spinning that allowed the familiar Brahms music - altered in fascinating ways by composer Brian Lawlor - to intensify and darken the themes of love and conflict. My favorite gesture came when, after a long sequence of complex, tangled, knotted movements the couples folded into each other and emerged in simultaneous steps, holding each other around the torso and taking deep, kneeling strides together. In a dance with very little simultaneity, this image of two couples walking together in a compelling, difficult way formed an enduring image in my mind.
Later, to a Brahms violin concerto, the boy & girl emerge from conflicted movement to a truly harmonious dance, reflecting a dramatic range of feeling along with the intensifying violin. They are followed by the boy & boy couple, whose duet works in the opposite direction: Wevers contrasts the lush, familiar music of Brahms' 'Symphony No. 3' to show the struggles of passion, as if to forbid the audience to hear sentimental coziness in the gorgeous theme. The whole dance seemed to say to me 'We are not the same, but when it comes to the problems and rewards of love, we're all alike.'
'New Year, New You' by Lori Landon
If bees had music, the opening soundscape by Dylan Ward to Landon's humorous, techno-sculptural dance would be it. The subtitle to this array of scenes for three dancers refers to 'an abstract meditation on the dubious resolutions we make each year.' We can see the difficulties of staying true to our vows when one dancer moves like a statue until another dancer embraces her to explore the surrounding spaces, at which point both dancers become pliable and human. Yet when one of them leaves, the other reverts to angular, restricted movement again. In another sequence two boys move simultaneously in a series of mirroring actions, as if they are in an alternative universe where unseen objects are constructed by air gestures. This form of gestural dance impressed me because it requires flexibility, precision, and command of all parts of the body - an example of how the choreographer is enabled by the dancers' talents.
I also enjoyed the very mechanical, techno-style dance sequence performed by all three dancers together, as though they were part of the same invisible apparatus. One dancer would demonstrate a complex movement, which was then taken up by all three in a very intricate, very satisfying statement on social regimentation. I can see why Wevers selected Landon for this program - her aesthetic is very close to his, with low, angular gestures between dancers that sometimes looked like the game of Twister, but formed increasingly elaborate statements on the capability of the body - in this case, the body as the site of dubious New Year's resolutions. The dance ends with a funny, surprising moment, set to cheesy TV variety show music (the kind that conjures up for an older generation the June Taylor Dancers in a kick-line) and a cheerful chorus singing, 'Let's start the New Year right!' - at which point an off-stage confetti canon booms a shower of gold sparkles over the stage. Since the movement in this dance conveys meaning while resisting a conventional narrative, the corny music and the confetti was a funny, ironic comment on the abstractions of the dance.
'Soir Bleu' by Penny Saunders
This fascinating dance is based upon Edward Hopper's Paris painting, 'Soir Bleu' (1914) considered the turning point in his career of depicting isolated, meditative individuals in ordinary settings. Though Hopper's painting has only six characters - including a prostitute, a clown, a blue-collar workman and a bourgeois couple - Saunders' dance includes the full Whim W'Him company of four men and three women. Though not a literal interpretation of the picture, it does include a window frame and a reflective wall around which the dancers - dressed in simplified 1940 street wear - strain to find and relate to one another, or, failing that, end in a silent scream of loneliness and isolation.
Ending 'Threefold' with this ambitious work was a good move since it was the most narrative of the three dances, and gave the audience the relief and satisfaction of understanding what was going on. At various points we see a woman in red wrestling with the edge of the wall, as if struggling to be free of its immovable restriction; a man literally 'up against the wall,' unable to pull away even as he rolls along it and kicks against it; a couple divided by a window frame as the man tries repeatedly to reach through it, at once a peeping Tom and the victim of unrequited love; a trio, then quartet, then quintet, then a septet swirling over the stage as all of society is engaged, yet fundamentally disengaged, with one another.
My favorite sequence involved all seven dancers as they moved across the stage in broad gestures to the tick-tock of an invisible clock, finally lined up against the domineering wall as if being executed, ending in seven silent screams. It appears broadly obvious when I describe it, but it was subtle and moving when seen on stage. Another favorite moment came at the finale when six dancers crowded in a chaotic scrum within the shadow cast by the hanging window frame. Their complex movements were constrained by proximity, but they were not free to leave the restriction of the window, with the exception of one man, who stood across the stage, excluded. The audience was left wondering whether it was worse to be alone or to be together. All of this was performed to the music of a single guitar, or a guitar and cello - mournful stringed instruments that evoke liminal time, dawn or dusk, when we haven't started out or haven't yet arrived - a powerful collaboration between Saunders and Hopper.
The next Whim W'Him program will be May Production at Cornish Playhouse, May 29-31, continuing the presentation of emerging choreographers with works by Kate Wallich, Mauel Vignoulle, and Olivier Wevers.