Seattle dance company Whim W’him celebrates its sixth season this year with the addition of its first fall performance which is also the first of an annual series, Choreographic Shindig. The concept of the Shindig is simple: Have an international open call for choreographers, then have the seven company dancers select three to each choreograph an original work and premiere them all together. It’s an ambitious way for this fledgling company to continue expanding its reach and output through collaboration, as artistic director Olivier Wevers is already creating two pieces a year for the company, in addition to other commissions and, of course, fund-raising to keep the operation running.
This inaugural trio of works comes from Vancouver, B.C.-based Joshua Peugh, San-Francisco–based Maurya Kerr and Zurich-based Ihsan Rustem. It was a mixed bag, but I definitely consider the program a welcome addition to Seattle’s dance card.
Joshua L. Peugh: “Short Acts on the Heartstrings”
The night began on a campy, charming note with Joshua L. Peugh’s “Short Acts on the Heartstrings.” It seems every Whim W’him performance has something in this vein, often to start the night. It is comforting to have that consistency, and aesthetically it was fun to see it all presented with 1950s flair—the men in collared shirts, white dinner jackets and black trousers, the women in gorgeous dresses, whose bodice and outer skirts were sea foam green layered over lots of other pastels. The costumes (by Peugh himself) made the men’s more contemporary, sliding movements a tad stiff, but the women were a vision.
“Short Acts” had a skewed nostalgia that seems inevitable when treating the mid-twentieth century, at least since David Lynch got to it. Indeed, there were moments that felt distinctly Lynchian. Such tropes included affected facial expressions while lip-syncing, austere lighting (red or white) with quirky solos, and the breaking of the fourth wall, most notably with a blinking studio applause sign at back, to which the audience implicitly responded. (Well, everyone but me, it seemed.) It was specifically the ballroom dancing, the studio entertainment, the era of the dawn of TV that was the referential matter, all of which could have gotten a more compelling treatment than it did.
The rousing third movement (set to a song by Plavi Orkestar) and the fifth (a gentle pas de deux) were highlights, but the duller moments were unfortunately what stuck out most—most saliently, when dancer Justin Reiter goes solo at center stage, stands in a lone spotlight and just whistles (badly) for a minute. The applause sign blinks. The crowd dutifully responds. I check my watch. I am not sure what the point is (perhaps that we were more/too easily entertained back then, or that we are Pavlovian with our praise?). The campiness of the design and soundtrack allows for some playful ventures into absurdity, sure, but too much of it felt arbitrary by the end, and this was just grating.
To end giving credit where credit is due: Jim Kent showed some really impressive footwork. The dancers showed good chemistry and energy overall in their interactions. Mia Monteabaro was made the odd one out, acting as a sort of sidelined “presenter” when others were paired off. She did a good job of putting on a happy face that looked ready to slide off, a touch of resentment toward the other characters. At the very end, as everyone leaves the stage, she pauses, doubles back, and the piece ends with her finally grabbing a bit of the spotlight for herself. It brought a smile, even gave the sense of a more satisfying narrative arc sketched out, but not developed. Perhaps another time.
Maurya Kerr: “into the wide welcome”
Maurya Kerr’s “into the wide welcome” was the most fully matured work of the night, doing a lot with very little. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola did a first-rate job with every piece in Choreographic Shindig, but it was especially crucial that he get it right for Kerr, whose piece demands alternating between a diffuse twilight and stark light and shadow across movements.
Kerr creates and sustains enormous tension throughout. Moments that verge on the erotic eschew carnality in favor of alterity—a cold but profound desire for union that goes beyond the flesh. The costumes (by Rob Newton) were all shades of grey, flattering and comfortable-looking, a sort of fashion-forward, casual modernity fit for the street or the set of a sci-fi feature. Even the facial expressions of the dancers were quite perfectly neutral. I was struck at one moment by Kyle Johnson’s thousand-yard gaze, his face inches from the floor, somehow both melancholic and oblivious.
That moment came during the gorgeous third movement (of five), set to music by Biosphere. It begins with Johnson and Tory Peil desperately trying to cram themselves together at the chest. They become more graceful, detached, yet insistent on maintaining touch with one another, floating and palpitating around the stage. That palpitation is implied by a specific gesture repeated to good effect: the rapid beating of fingertips over their heart, creating an audible, fleshy counterpoint to the droning of the soundtrack.
That soundtrack (also including Alva Noto, HTRK, Philip Jeck and Dalmacio Payomo) is essential to the tension of the piece, and Kerr works with its staticky blank slate to create a vision of humanity as discrete forms seeking harmony and union in a vacuum. The greyness, the half-light, the liminal space makes everything feel abstracted and bodiless, and Kerr’s choreography helps to extend that illusion, turns the dancers into distinct energy patterns, not bodies, then snaps you back to an awareness of the actual, inescapable body with something as simple as those palpitating fingers. It was hallucinatory to experience.
It made me think of another sort of grey—painter Alex Grey, whose hallucinatory paintings show the human body flayed to organ systems and energy streams, sometimes in divine union, sometimes solitary, always bursting with bright colors and flaming eyes. Aesthetically, Kerr and Grey could not be more opposed than they are here; Kerr works in limbo, while Grey is in the seventh heaven. Out of all the possible associations to make, I think this one came to mind because of this stark opposition and a shared sense that life bends toward union, beyond the erotic and physical to something impossible to define. Some might say that there is already union; it need only be recognized and realized, through pantheism, hylozoism, etc.
That brings us to the final piece…
Ihsan Rustem: “The Road to Here”
I had high hopes for the last piece of the night, as what I have seen of Ihsan Rustem’s work was wonderful. That piece, “Mother Tongue” was commissioned by Northwest Dance Project in 2012 and will be performed again in Portland next month, October 20 – 22. I am planning on going down to see it again. As for “The Road to Here,” Rustem’s new work for Choreographic Shindig, I would not walk down the street to catch a repeat performance.
In the program, it came with a quote from Alan Watts’ most famous speech on choice, in which the late spokesman for psychedelics calls upon us to think of ourselves as clouds “in the flesh,” for there are no “misshapen clouds,” no “badly-designed waves.” The quote Rustem includes: “Choice is the act of hesitation that we make before making a decision.” The sum of Watts’ dictum is to trust one’s own brain, to have faith in and compassion for oneself as a sovereign being. The entire speech was played during the third movement, and in addition to making me feel like we were all being spoon-fed Watts’ middling mysticism, it included a stock phrase more apt for what we were seeing: “going through the motions.”
Rustem’s choreography is consistently challenging and there were plenty of moments that were a pleasure to watch in “The Road to Here.” There were intricate group movements and lots of sensitive pairings. Dancer Tory Peil gets MVP for nailing two really stunning solos. Points might also be awarded for being inventive with the staging and using two doors that open onto the backstage for an interlude in the second movement. But we aren’t keeping score here. We are asking whether these parts came together to tell a more complete story, if they cohered and complemented each other. They did not.
I left with the impression that Rustem started more from the music he chose than any consistent idea or theme. The first and third pieces are sentimental, post-minimal compositions, Max Richter’s “Infra 5” and Ludovico Einaudi’s “Experience.” The latter was overlaid with Alan Watts’ speech. Richter and Einaudi are both of that generation that came up composing for film and commercials, pioneering nothing but turning out genuinely pretty work that lends itself to positive/romantic/escapist imagery. It is self-consciously pleasing on its own, but becomes cloying when accompanied by a visual rehash of its inherent sentimentality. That is what happened in this piece. Rustem took no chances, playing to work that was already safe, and the addition of Watts’ speech (amusing on its own) only made matters worse. Even though the dancers were at their most polished for this work—especially in the livelier middle section, set to electronica by Aussie producer Ben Frost—”The Road to Here” felt at best like a scenic detour for the audience, the dancers and Rustem himself.
As I left the theatre, I thought to myself that in a strange twist, Watts’ pantheistic notions (hinted at in his calling us “clouds[s] in the flesh”) had more resonance with Kerr’s piece as I saw it. In so many ways, that duet between Kyle Johnson and Tory Peil at the center of Kerr’s piece was the the central point of the night, thanks to the sequencing. The random interaction between the three works made for a better feeling in hindsight, one that allows me to say it was a good show overall, even though Kerr’s work was the only really complete piece on its own. Call it luck, or call it the anima mundi—whatever you call it, I wouldn’t want to rely on it happening again. Let’s hope next year’s is even better.
Performances of Choreographic Shindig continue through September 19 at Erickson Theatre off Broadway (1524 Harvard Ave). Check dates and buy tickets online.
For dancers: A master class examining the choreography in these three works is also being offered at Velocity on September 19 with Thomas Phelan, Olivier Wevers and Ihsan Rustem from 2-4 PM in the Velocity Founders Studio (1621 12th Ave). $15 for the public. See the full list of master classes on the Velocity website.