by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
SEATTLE CONTEMPORARY DANCE
'CHOREOGRAPHIC SHINDIG V'
ERICKSON THEATRE OFF BROADWAY
Sept 13-15 & Sept 18-21
Whim W'Him Seattle Contemporary Dance has caused three new dances to enter the world via the annual 'Choreographic Shindig.' This year it's a set of triplets, each as welcome as the other - one funny, one more curious, another more dramatic - but all equally worthy to take their places in the roster of new works by rising young choreographers. What makes this annual event so interesting is that the seven dancers who bring these works to light have chosen which applicants for the commissions are selected to build dances on their bodies.
In the past there have been up to eight choreographers using anywhere from two to seven dancers, but this year there were only three dances, each deploying the full complement of seven in fascinatingly different ways. For me, it's a miracle that these dancers can remember so many moves - all so different, all to sound-and-music-scapes that defy easy memorization. I always come from these events admiring the Whim W'Him dancers as much as the choreographers, especially because improvisation is a large part of some of the dances.
Here, in order of appearance, are the three new-born works, presented in the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, which has the distinctive characteristic of no backstage - which means the dancers have to 'exit' by standing against the side walls waiting for their cues. No protection there - no chance to grab a swallow of water or a band-aid, or to sit down and catch their breath - or even to look at the ceiling and try to recall what comes next. They are 100% exposed.
Choreography: Joshua Manculich
Music: Michael Wall
This dance began with a bulletin board facing the audience on which we were invited to post something from our 'bucket list' - an achievement we hope to accomplish before we 'kick the bucket.' Quite a few audience members complied, and the dancers came on stage, collected the notes, and passed them out to the audience, so that each person who received one got a desire that they had not expressed. It was an interesting idea, but as abstract as the dance that followed was, so that the gesture seemed somewhat arbitrary. Program notes told us that Manculich was thinking about childhood dreams, and what happens to them when adult responsibilities crowd them out. There were some very playful, childhood movements - cartwheels, twirling - and some very disciplined, grown-up movements - coordinated balances, group constructions over and against solo dances - which supported the ideas in the program. But I wonder what I'd have thought about the dance if I hadn't read the notes? It was certainly a work about the evolution of consciousness, and the two-steps-forward, one-step-back pattern of growing up. The ending was particularly beautiful, with one dancer falling into the arms of his companions as each one set him up again so he that could fall into the arms of the next person. It was a wonderful evocation of group care and support - how it takes a village to raise a child. I guess if my post-it note had said 'I hope I grow up before I die' I would have come close to the message in 'See-Saw.'
'The Smile Club' (2019)
Choreography: Kyra Jean Green/collaboration with dancers
Music mixed by Pascal Champagne
Kyra Jean Green's very funny, very clever dance would certainly stand alone without program notes, but the notes in this case were illuminating. She was inspired by how the city of Budapest, in the desperate and dreary years of the 1930s, tried to cheer up its citizens by forming 'Smile Clubs,' on the theory that if people would just smile, even if they were miserable, they would feel better. It was a common idea during the worldwide depression, famously expressed in the Charlie Chaplin song 'Smile' (1936) with lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons:
'Light up your face with gladness/Hide every trace of sadness/Although a tear may be ever so near/That's the time you must keep on trying/Smile, what's the use of crying?/You'll find that life is still worthwhile/If you'll just smile.'
But Green's dance exposes the magical thinking of masking stress and sorrows with pretended happiness. She enlisted the acting talents of the dancers to use facial expressions conveying a tremendous array of emotions, and incorporated these extremes of feelings into each phase of the dance. It was truly funny to see the dancers plaster fixed grins on their faces while moving like robots through repeated motions, or trying to maintain grins that melted into tragedy. The veil of happiness became thinner and thinner as the dance progressed, and as Green manipulated classic theatrical tropes like the wind-up doll whose feelings wind down and the mask of Joy hiding a face of tears.
My favorite moment in the choreography came during a sequence to 'Mr. Lonely' (1964) by Bobby Vinton, about a soldier stationed far from home and wishing for a letter. The central dancer was a man weeping, as the six other dancers lined up on either side of him, rotating around him like spokes of a wheel making all kinds of solo contortions and grotesquely happy faces as the song, and the central dancer, became increasingly sad. In another brilliantly weird move, Green has the dancers place artificial smile masks over their mouths and do a Broadway style chorus dance with head pops and arms flung wide like the June Taylor Dancers. (You're probably too young to know who they were - YouTube it! The effect was ironic, as though you could cross your eyes and see happiness, uncross them and see sorrow. I love to see this kind of inventiveness in dance, and to see the dancers themselves willing to be so vulnerable as to make faces and gestures so far outside their normal vocabulary. I can hardly wait to see Kyra Jean Green's next project.
Choreography: Yoshito Sakuraba
While both Manculich and Green have won prizes and fellowships for their choreography, they are emerging artists, while Sakuraba seems to have arrived already. He is the most internationally commissioned dance maker in this group, with works made for companies all over Europe as well as Israel and the U.S. His project for Whim W'Him was inspired by the Laurentide ice sheet, that covered all of Canada and the Northern U.S. twenty thousand years ago. It was two miles deep and very heavy - Sakuraba claims in his program notes that as the weight of the ice decreased by melting, the gravity in parts of Canada became lighter than in other places - a claim my dance buddy scoffed at, giving me a mini-lecture on why that wasn't possible. I can't pass it on to you, because I didn't understand it, and it doesn't matter to the dance, which was fascinating in its own right. The dancers mentioned in the post-performance talk that they weren't told about the subject of the dance directly, but given instructions to think about weight and heaviness at certain sections.
The choreography opened to an apocalyptic soundscape of screeching that could hurt your ears as the lights came up on two dancers making desperate, fending-off gestures. Metalic and machine sounds dominated for a while and then ran down as though the plug was pulled - a message about endings, loss, and finality. I was less interested in the narrative dimension, however than in how Sakuraba moved the dancers through a series of inventive constructions and patterns. There was an ingenious circle walk in which dancers created concentric circles that changed patterns as the relationships of dancers to one another changed. There was a vertical line of all seven dancers in which the first dancer started a sequence of movements that were taken up in turn by those behind him one-by-one, which allowed the viewer to see each movement not once, but seven times, while the line created an ever-more complex pattern. There was a sequence around a horizontal line of all seven dancers in which alternate individuals were doing two different patterns of gestures, one-two, one-two down the line, like a checkered table cloth.
Sakuraba has a really amazing ability to move groups of dancers. I'm glad he was inspired by an idea that caused him to make this dance up, but the idea is far less interesting than the dance itself. This is lyric dancing - the feeling is primary, the story is implied. The dancing is great.
See Whim W'Him's next performance, XPRESS, at Cornish Playhouse from January 17-25, 2020 with dances by choreographers Sidra Bell, Ihsan Rustem, and Olivier Wevers, Founder and Artistic Director of Whim W'Him.
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