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Flash Dispatch, 4-4: Ramblin' 'Round Seattle
If a Dancer Rises and Falls on the Boards, and No Critic's Around to Hear it, Does She Still Make a Noise?

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen

SEATTLE -- Last weekend I hopped on a jet plane to visit some friends in Seattle, intending to get away from the dance bubble I have been living in, and to gather strength before going into an intense production week. I ended up seeing, both deliberately and accidentally, more dance in one weekend than many people see in months: Lingo dancetheater (formerly KT/Dance), Pacific Northwest Ballet, and the World Rhythm Festival. What's more, I learned that despite the lively scene, Seattle is currently hurting for dance critics. So, partly out of guilt, partly for my love of dance and partly because of my masochistic need to over-commit myself, I give you, Dance Insider, a recap of my marathon dance weekend in Seattle.

The scoop on the critic situation, according to local choreographer KT Niehoff, is that the Seattle daily newspapers, after a long strike, have returned with minimal staff and huge cutbacks. Translation: no dance writers. Pacific Northwest Ballet publicist Judy Kitzman gave a slightly more optimistic view of the situation. According to her, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just put a dance writer back on staff, and, (unconfirmed) rumor has it, the Seattle Times will have one aboard by May. This does not, however, help companies who are going about their business and putting up work in the meantime. Without a critical response, artists have little feedback to work with should they want to edit and improve upon a piece; they have nothing to give presenters and bookers should they want to tour the work; and, since critics also serve to document and therefore, in the eyes of many, legitimize work, performances which may have taken years to make disappear and are rendered invisible if they are not reviewed. With an art form as ephemeral as dance, particularly given the reality of one-weekend runs, this situation hurts the dance artists. Still too, the differences between Niehoff and the PNB's publicist's views may point to an underlying issue: ballet gets reviewed even when times are tough, and even if a paper has to recruit a theater critic to do it. Local modern choreographers do not. This is an issue back home in the San Francisco Bay Area (and I'm sure in your town) as well. When Ailey, Morris, and Taylor come through town, the papers get the reviewers out in large numbers and give them plenty of space to write. Smaller, local voices present work every weekend, yet because their work is not reviewed, it is being discounted and delegitimized.

In considering the Seattle scene, as both a writer and an artist, I feel torn; can I review my peers, my mentors, and my students openly and honestly? Do I just stay away and not review them at all, or is this worse? Where do my obligations lie? To an audience (or potential audience of a given performance), by giving them an honest breakdown and review? To artists, by building audience participation/understanding/awareness, by providing productive feedback, or by supplying them with positive, catchy phrases which they can use in their press kits? Or is it to myself, by allowing for personal time and space to see, think about, and process other work relative to the work I do?

I digress, but my dilemma is relevant: A friend performs with Lingo dancetheater, one of the companies I saw in Seattle. Does this mean I cannot give an accurate review? Some see this as a conflict of interest, but I see it as a challenge to look deeper and write even more clearly. The dance world is a small world after all, and everyone knows each other within probably two degrees. The Dance Insider, by relying on dancers and choreographers for our writing, opens up this potential for conflicting interests all the time, but we as insiders also have the ability to look closer. Part of our mission is to tell the stories not told anywhere else, so here it is from Seattle: a promising local choreographer, a big ballet company's community outreach program, and a gathering of music and dance enthusiasts:

Lingo Dancetheater

The first item on my Seattle agenda was to check out Lingo dancetheater, which presented "Faulty Ground: an evening of two dance theater works" at On the Boards in the Bhenke Center for Contemporary Performance. The program included the premiere of "Dysfunction" along with last year's popular "Attracted to Accidents," both directed by Lingo's artistic director, KT Niehoff.

I am always a little wary of anything called "dancetheater." In my experience, dance theater falls into one of the following undesirable categories:

1) European (influenced) Dance Theater: women running around in their bras, men beating up on the women, everything taken to the extreme. The goal: to comment on humanity. My reaction: feminist wince.

2) "I'm still stuck in the Judson Church era": talented dancers sit around and eat a chicken bone on stage. The goal: to push the boundaries of what is considered performance. My reaction: I'd rather go see this at my local KFC or, if I must pay to see it, can't I watch a trained actor do it? We are over the whole Yvonne Rainer "no to spectacle/virtuosity/technique" paradigm. Stop standing around in that dress and MOVE!

3) Shock value performance art: performers defecate into a fan, or perform acts of self-mutilation. The goal : to elicit a reaction of anger/shock/etc. My reaction: I'll stick to the Fox network for that.

4) Schizophrenic dancetheater: Half dance/half theater where the occasional movement phrase is completely unrelated and irrelevant to the action and narrative of the theater. My reaction: try again, and please be more clear and intentional next time.

In "Dysfunction," Niehoff occasionally falls a bit into the problems of the last category, but overall, she manages to make a cohesive work that is accessible and provocative without being trite. In doing so, Niehoff has really found a clear and refreshing voice in the realm of dance theater. Her work is focused on individual eccentricities, but never descends into slapstick humor, and the characters never deteriorate into exaggerated, grotesque caricatures. The exciting and kinetic movement most often complements and unfolds from the narrative, which concerns and illustrates how our personal idiosyncrasies affect our lives and our relationships. In the few times that the movement erupts inorganically, Niehoff reigns the physicality back into the narrative quickly enough so that it is not distracting for long. The piece is at once humorous and tragic, profane and universal, quirky and real.

Niehoff has assembled a tremendously colorful company of powerful performers who all shine, yet manage to never seduce me into watching only them -- a coupe in ensemble performance. Pablo Cornejo is a sweetly charming character, and his movement quality is gently lush. Scott Davis bounds around the stage with an unbridled excitement and energy, and his acting, among the most developed of the bunch, is moving as he draws every action from a very genuine place. Niehoff's ownership and commitment to the piece are obvious, as the work's hard-edged movement style seems most at home in her body. Shane Szabo is gutsy, dynamic and charismatic -- lush yet sharp, and always full-bodied in her movement. Michelle de la Vega's polish and precision is unmatched, and her unpretentious line delivery is poignant. The fact that every performer can both act and dance gives Niehoff the ability to push dance theater to an evocative place -- to use movement to describe what can only be told viscerally, and to use text when only words will do.

Bob Barraza's score adds wonders to the work, giving it shape and depth. His rich composition combines strategically layered text snippets which foreshadow live action sequences, goofy sing-songy tunes delivered in a hilarious deadpan, and an ambient soundscape. The set, tastefully designed by Etta Lilienthal, consists simply of three plush red carpets strung from above and scooping out partially into the floor space.

"Dysfunction" evolves over 45 minutes almost like a surreal jump-cut film. I was riveted by each scene, from the woman who freaks out about a man reading over her shoulder at the Safeway supermarket, to a man who can't deal with all the commitments in his life, to a woman trying to laugh about being left out of the group. I felt like I had been taken on a journey overall, but when it ended, it felt abrupt, almost as if there was no lead up into the ending -- though somehow this was fitting.

"Attracted to Accidents" is a hilarious and fast-paced meditation on our sick attraction to carnage. Emotionally less dense, but physically more dynamic (particularly the partnering) than "Dysfunction," "Accidents," which has the same design team of Barraza (music), Lilienthal (sets) and Meg Fox (lights), felt similar enough to "Dysfunction" that the evening felt long by the end. Still the gutsy, full-force performances demanded my attention for the duration.

Pacific Northwest Ballet

On Sunday, I made my way to the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle, several large concert arenas and performance spaces, and that new multicolored, amoebae-shaped behemoth of a building, the Experience Music Project. My destination was the Seattle Opera House, where the Pacific Northwest Ballet was presenting a Community Performance in a program which included the PNB company, the professional student division of the school, students from DanceChance (a program which enables talented third graders to study on scholarship at the PNB school), and Discover Dance participants (an outreach program which places artists in residence at public elementary schools). While the professional dancers gave lovely interpretations of pieces by George Balanchine and Phillip Otto throughout the performance, the day really belonged to the Discover Dance kids, who came alive in the huge performance hall. Some of the pieces simply manipulated the space (kids running around in circles and bobbing up and down in cannon), but others really brought out the personalities of the individual performers (allowing moments of improvisation, break-dancing, etcetera.). I was moved to tears when one student from Graham Hill Elementary broke into a tango with such charisma and confidence that he had the opera house roaring with approval. While the overall audience enthusiasm was partly attributable to school pride ("Eastgate Elementary in the HOUUUUSE!") I'd like to think that the exposure to the opera house venue, and the level of professionalism displayed by everyone from the third graders through to the company must have affected the participants -- the students, parents and teachers -- positively, and, hopefully, turned them on to dance.

Phillip Otto, Pacific Northwest Ballet's Director of Outreach, working with one of the DanceChance classes.

World Rhythm Festival

After the PNB performance, I wandered back through the Seattle Center and marveled at the number of hippies who had gathered, playing hacky-sack and jamming in small drum circles. I soon learned that this was actually an organized event. Turns out that the 9th Annual World Rhythm Festival and Days of Percussion was taking place all around the Seattle Center that weekend. The festival, featuring renowned drummers and percussionists from all over the world, offered over 60 free workshops in percussion and dance, and more than 25 free performances --not to mention the informal drum and dance circles which inevitably erupt when hundreds of djembe-toting percussion enthusiasts assemble. So, I grabbed a $5 pad Thai and red curry plate, sat down, and was treated to some of the most ecstatic displays of spontaneous virtuosity, playful improvisation, and athletic musicality I have seen in awhile. The African Drumming Ensemble, Thione Diop and Yeke Yeke performed on a makeshift stage in the corner of the food court as audience members danced, bopped, whooped and clapped. Occasionally some would jump onto the stage and bust out in some kick-ass Senegalese dancing. One young man dove off a banister, rolled onto the stage, and proceeded to flip and tumble around the stage narrowly missing the musicians, yet still keeping the driving pulse of the music in his body. The musicians were always delighted with the participation, launching into an improvisational play with each new dancer. One of their performers, in an impressive display of virtuosity, entered on one stilt and in a heavy headpiece. He danced and tumbled around with impressive and exciting agility.

Outside, there were Capoeira circles, African, Brazilian, and Taiko drummers, people grooving, people passing by, and families stopping -- it was quite a scene.

Flushed with excitement and energy, I returned to On the Boards, where I watched Lingo dancetheater again -- this time just for fun.

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