by Kaitlin McCarthy

In a city renowned for its futuristic tech industries, the dance scene in Seattle has been looking to the past this season. Pacific Northwest Ballet opened its season with a Jerome Robbins Festival, choreographer Dayna Hanson reprised an early 33 Fainting Spells work, and Hypernova Contemporary  Dance Company presented a nostalgic look at adolescence, ripe with 30-year-old cultural references. Another huge event this fall has been Merce 100 — an international project where 100 artists respond to the Cunningham legacy in honour of his centennial birthday.

Perhaps this interest in legacy was catalyzed by the rapidly changing city and a period of transition in the dance scene. Skyrocketing costs of living and property values have made it significantly harder for artists and organizations to survive. Aside from a few notable exceptions, the dance scene is largely disconnected from the mass of tech wealth, partially because many workers are new to the city and lack the cultural connections that form the basis for philanthropy.

The tide of incoming young dancers moving to Seattle has waned, and there has been a notable uptick in dancers who have decided to relocate. However, Seattle’s more established technical dance companies, like Pacific Northwest Ballet, Donald Byrd’s Spectrum Dance Theater, Olivier Wevers’ Whim W’him and Kate Wallich’s YC Studios, continue to be a draw for exceptional and virtuosic talent.

It is Seattle’s identity as a place for fringe experimentation that is perhaps most at risk. In a facilitated community conversation following the restaged excerpt of 33 Fainting Spells’ 1996 work The Uninvited, veteran artists reflected that a large part of the 1990s Seattle dance boom was due to the affordability of space, describing a daily dance practice that would be completely unsustainable to an independent dance artist in today’s scene.

Julia Sloane and Madison Haines performed the reprised work, choreographed by Hanson and Gaelen Hanson (no relation). A rigorous and economical physicality punctuated escalating tension between the two characters. Complex rhythmic sections in oxford shoes recalled the iconic, boundary-pushing work of Seattle’s dance theatre legacy.

Despite the shifting city dynamics, there is plenty of evidence that Seattle remains a stronghold of experimentation. Several new spaces have popped up in the last few years, including Base: Experimental Arts, founded by Dayna Hanson, Peggy Piacenza and Dave Proscia. Base now hosts the celebrated informal showcase 12 Minutes Max, ongoing since 1981. It still offers a low-barrier entrance point for artists trying out new ideas at any stage in their career. Similar outlets, like On the Boards’ new program Performance Lab, the open mic-style performance night Sh*t Gold or Studio Current’s Sessions series means you can see works-in-progress any week of the year.

Several large organizations are also in periods of transition. Pacific Northwest Ballet hasn’t seen the internal controversies that rocked so many established ballet companies in 2018, but is not exempt from a rising expectation of social responsibility. PNB faced criticism last season for Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU, a double whammy of out-of-touch Asian caricatures and poorly contextualized sexual violence, and its 2018-2019 season embarrassingly includes only one female choreographer. Artistic director Peter Boal says he has “invitations out to half a dozen women and choreographers of colour” for upcoming seasons, which would go a long way toward keeping PNB a relevant and respected institution.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Silent Ghost
Photo: Angela Sterling

On the Boards, the Pacific Northwest’s premier experimental performance venue, is presenting its first season under new artistic director Rachel Cook and executive director Betsey Brock. The 2018-2019 season has been well received so far, with new programming including Solo: A Festival of Dance, which presented 16 solo works over four nights, representing artists from across North America.

Velocity Dance Center’s executive and artistic director Tonya Lockyer, a major player in Seattle dance, stepped down this winter. Velocity is hiring a new executive director and will spend the year identifying the best path forward in artistic leadership.

Velocity’s final presentation with Lockyer at the helm was Merce 100, a showcase of Seattle artists responding to Cunningham. True to the spirit of the innovator, the show took a multi-disciplinary approach, including poetry, interactive lectures and seven dance works with a dynamic range of Cunningham influence.

Taking inspiration from Cunningham’s use of chance, Louis Gervais opened the evening with the perfectly over-the-top Merce Bingo, drawing bingo balls to determine the order and location of 10 scores. He and his showgirl style assistant (Molly Sides) performed dances of accusatory pointing, outrageous clown faces and dive-cartwheeling over the laps of audience members seated in a grid across the stage.

Also using chance as a choreographic tool, Ella Mahler performed Absolute, a solo of constantly changing staccato accents. Every momentary pause felt alive, reconsidering, before shifting intention on a dime between precise rhythm, athletic rebounding and graceful pedestrian gestures.

The delight of unpredictability was also present in Christiana Axelsen’s solo, which took inspiration from the Cunningham Event structure, where old and new material is recombined. For her “MinEvent,” she compiled one minute from seven works she’s performed over the last seven years, all tied seamlessly together with her dropped-in Cunningham technique.

The weekend prior, Spectrum Dance Theater also presented a work inspired by the Cunningham Event. Byrd’s Occurrence #6 may not have been the most cohesive production, but it showed his penchant for choreographic play and experimentation. Clearly, Cunningham’s influence is alive and well in the legend’s home state of Washington.

Even with the many references to the past, there was plenty of new to celebrate last fall. Whim W’him’s annual Choreographic Shindig commissioned three new works as chosen by the company dancers. Alice Klock, Omar Román De Jesús and Brendan Duggan put both the company’s extreme technique and acting ability on display. Duggan’s Stephanie Knows Some Great People, a parodic commentary on contemporary social climbing, was particularly lauded by local press.

PNB’s All Premiere mixed bill showed two works new to the company, Alejandro Cerrudo’s contemplative Silent Ghost and Alexander Ekman’s cheeky Cacti, along with a world premiere, A Dark and Lonely Space, choreographed by company soloist Kyle Davis.

YC Studio’s second company, YC2, presented New Dances II, showcasing six phenomenal young dancers, particularly in the explosive Sidra Bell work Beyond the Edge of the Frame. New company, the gray, lead by Beth Terwilleger, debuted The Midsummer, an intricately choreographed but ultimately confusing take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Velocity.

Also fairly new to the city is Noelle Price, but her work is popping up everywhere, including at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Her evening-length Remember Me Young, a work about teen suicide, was thoughtfully paired with free mental health workshops.

One of the most affecting premieres flew a bit under the radar, but deserves mentioning. The independently produced two hours, by Alexandra Madera, portrayed an intimate look into the relationship between the choreographer and her mother, who passed away from complications of alcoholism in 2017.

Naturalistic voiceovers were paired smartly with stoic ballet sequences that subtly reinforced the story. One performer simply walked away mid-dance. An intertwining pair grew around each other like vines, until one dancer dropped the other like a stone. In one heartbreaking passage, Madera begins a leap sequence over and over, only to stop short of the apex each time.

Madera’s two hours shows dance as a powerful tool to process and communicate complicated histories, transforming hardship and love into something beautiful and profound. 

DI SPRING 2019

33 Fainting Spells’ Madison Haines and Julia Sloane in Dayna Hanson and Gaelan Hanson’s The Uninvited Photo: Michelle Smith-Lewis