“We expect you to expect nothing” reads the sign above the door to On the Boards—an apt and succinct motto for the ongoing Northwest New Works Festival. Following the regular season of local and international acts—covering every conceivable form of performance art—On the Boards is now in the midst of a two-weekend long showcase of seventeen short works by some of our region’s most talented artists in dance, theater and experimental performance. It is a much anticipated program, but one never knows what to expect.
Some acts play to a small crowd in the intimate studio theater while others fill the main stage for a much larger audience. Acts are roughly twenty minutes long, a duration that allows for emerging performers to show a polished piece suggestive of work to come. The selection process is rigorous and each act has earned a coveted position in the lineup, a chance to show their talents to as broad of an audience as exists for experimental performance art.
Week one of the showcase was a thoroughly enjoyable variety show—so much so that I ended up seeing the main stage showcase twice. Dialed down in spectacle from last year’s show with Waxie Moon, but no less impressive, it was a dance heavy program with no two acts being remotely similar.
Elia Mrak presented Los Samurai, an improvised piece with some structure and a great deal of athleticism from its performers. It began with a dance warm-up routine known as “lumberjacking” and quickly grew to intense, frenzied activity in martial art style while Rage Against the Machine blared from the speakers. The improvisational aspect generates a different performance each time, but each is thematically the same, ending with a somber monologue referencing spirituality—a one-sided conversation with someone in critical condition with a strong will to live. Elia transformed a routine mostly devoid of musical accompaniment into a captivating performance with only footsteps and breathing to supplement the movement of an international cast.
Allie Hankins showed a piece titled Misshapen Pearl that was aided by strong light design and innovative costuming by Rose Mackey. The dancers were dressed in suits emphasizing bodily deformities, such as large lumps, protruding spines and flippers, completing the look with unibrows. The music was something of an old time chorus girl routine with each member of the dance group given a moment of attention washed in the warm spotlight. It was a sincere piece that made me question the notion of beauty. At the end when the girls filed out, their backlit forms eloquently cast long shadows on the wall behind them which confirmed the beauty we had all witnessed despite the blemishes.
Maxie Jamal’s project Mystiquesterium combined a great many collaborators and was something of a hybrid of dance and narrative theater. The piece Sankofa’s Womb was an all-encompassing work attempting to express the African American experience, including the atrocities of slavery and the empowerment of black Americans. It’s such a vast subject, and the performance was overall too broad and could have benefitted from editing to bring out the stronger components. This piece might open the door to exploring this narrative through more focused performances, as Jamal has the talent to do this and a group of equally capable collaborators.
Ending the mainstage showcase was Josh Martin in a solo work of rigorous movements to an electronic soundtrack titled Leftovers. As Martin moved about the stage in the controlled and choreographed ways that only a dancer can. Although it was not a work that could have captivated the crowd for any substantially longer period, it was one piece that seemed to be universally enjoyed by the audience.
The studio theater showcase was the stronger of the programming on week one, with more performers involved in the works, and a higher level of spectacle and intensity. The more intimate setting of the studio brings the viewer face-to-face with the show and the acts made a point of successfully using this to their advantage.
Claire Thomforde-Garner choreographed a work titled The Wrestling Match, which was just as it was called—an actual wrestling match. Taking an activity that is of standard six minutes in length and drawing it out over a twenty-minute span involved moves that required great strength to execute. At one point in the match, the opponents found themselves to be wrestling against their own strengths as they became entwined in their singlets—a predictable metaphor but originally conceived through the scope of costume design and choreography.
By far the most intense showing in the line-up was a piece by AJA (the A is silent). Titled slugs do it real slow and pretty, the piece gave the audience no chance for distraction as something bizarre and fascinating was happening in multiple locations at any given time. The audience saw a video component with credits that hyped the piece from the start—an exhaustingly slow stripping from both a male and female performer, and the communal use of a toothbrush performed nearly in the front row. This all culminated in suggested masturbation and actual glory holes created in a drywall board at the back of the stage. It was emotionally intense, and thoroughly enjoyable, and—as I have begun to expect—another great piece with involvement by Alice Gosti.
Pony World Theater brought the weekend’s only true staged theater piece titled A Compelling, Unknown Force. The cast of characters dramatized an unexplained catastrophe that occurred to a group of college-aged Russians in the late 1950s while out on an alpine excursion. The troupe successfully created an immersive environment and told a riveting tale with a minimal set of only white sheets and lighting.
PE|Mo ended the showcase with feats of strength, an endurance competition that had in previous days eliminated three original cast members due to injuries, and no doubt left the remaining performers physically tired and exhausted. The audience was given some respite from the harsh marathon by the truly talented Pol Rosenthal, who classed up the performance in a full suit and nonchalant attitude all while sipping wine.
What we can expect in week two is yet to be determined, but if you were wise, you should expect nothing and you will be amply rewarded with another two showcases of riveting performances with gorgeous choreography and most certainly some bizarre twists. The performance troupe Wood will be providing mid-showcase entertainment that may involve torture rituals and a man that has not been informed that suspenders need not be worn with a belt.
Jeremy Buben goes to art galleries, museums, performance dance shows and the best gumbo restaurants in Seattle. All of the time. You can read more of his suggested events and short subject posts at his blog Le Dandysme.