Whim W’Him’s Winning Debut Weekend

Kaori Nakamura of Whim W’Him. Photo by Marc von Borstel.

It feels completely redundant to heap more praise on Olivier Wevers at this point, since nearly everyone else has been in a full-blown love-fest since his new company Whim W’Him‘s sold-out debut this last weekend at On the Boards. But as much as I’d love to be the odd man out in this orgy of praise, I just can’t: Wevers & co. delivered a pretty stunning evening of dance that was at once accessible and charming as well as subtle and thoughtful.

The evening was split between two shorter works that have been presented before—X stasis, part of PNB’s 2006 Choreographer’s Showcase, and FRAGMENTS, created for Spectrum’s Studio Series in 2007—and the premiere of 3Seasons, a new work set to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with a bit of pure chance thrown in: each night, one of the seasons was swapped for an original composition, based on Vivaldi’s structures, by local composer Byron Au Yong.

The word most frequently used to describe Wevers’ choreography is “whimsical” (hence the company name, I assume), and that’s definitely true. His vocabulary is primarily balletic, but looser and informed by contemporary dance, and lets the personality of the dancers shine through. Half the charm comes from the expressions on the dancers’ faces, which isn’t something you normally associate with ballet, not least because PNB’s house is too large for the audience to see them. Comparatively, OtB’s mainstage was downright intimate.

For instance, FRAGMENTS opens with a duet between Kelly Ann Barton and Vincent Lopez, both in tutus, lip-syncing to opera. Largely they perform the same movements, but Lopez, exaggerating a coquettish expression, comes off as aping the (sometimes) more serious Barton. But FRAGMENTS also shows off Wevers’ ability to create powerful drama. The fourth suite, a solo by Lopez set to Mozart’s Requiem, ends with the dancer contorted on the ground, back arched, caught somewhere between agony and ecstasy. The finely sculptured tableau is a powerful and beautiful image, achieved with neither the humor nor the light, athletic movements that are generally associated with Wevers’ work.

But the main event of the night was, of course, 3Seasons, the longest, most ambitious work by Wevers to date. The thematic through-line is an exploration of our consumer culture’s cycle of desire to possess that which we nevertheless consider disposable. In one sequence that seems inspired by Steve Martin’s The Jerk, dancer Jim Kent rushes around the stage desperately collecting objects dropped off by other dancers—a pillow, a lamp, a pair of women’s shoes, a water bottle, and even a revolver. All of them eventually wind up in a garbage can, though, and Kent spends the rest of the show with a bird cage on his head (even when pulling double-duty playing violin during the extra section with music by Byron Au Yong, which was performed live).

In another segment, three couples come onstage, the women wearing wire-frame hoop skirts covered in plastic grocery bags. One by one, the bags are pulled off and dropped to the floor, until finally the women go into a mad dash collecting them all and stuffing them into their bras to give themselves bigger breasts.

What 3Seasons shows, in particular, is that there’s a similarity between Wevers’ approach to dance and the way writers like Dave Eggers or Aleksandar Hemon approach a novel: in both cases, the themes are wrapped tightly inside works that propel themselves forward by dint of their virtuosic execution, and while they experiment and play, they never become an empty act of formalism, experimentation for its own sake. And like an Eggers or a Hemon, Wevers peppers his work with rich little details—an errant breast grope, a deadpan joke—that reward the audience’s engagement with the piece while adding to the overall effect.

Whim W’Him has been generating excitement in Seattle since the group was announced, and the performances were sold-out with waiting lists. It’s great to see a dance artist and a burgeoning company find that much support (including financial support, in an economic downturn) in the community, and speaks to Seattle’s ability to cultivate and support world-class talent. It’ll be interesting to see where Wevers goes from here.