Week One of Northwest New Works is Hairy and Hungry

by on June 18, 2011

The New York Times has called On the Boards one of the best venues in the country for contemporary dance, and the first dance-heavy week of the Northwest New Works Festival left me cheering OtB on. Last weekend began the theater’s 28th year of showcasing the freshest artists in the area, and this weekend the second set of artists bring their 20-minute pieces to the festival (June 17-19, tickets $14).

Last Friday night’s sold-out Studio Theater Showcase included Kate Sanderson Holly’s Multiverse, in which the narrator (Holly) looks at the new ring on her finger and contemplates the possible existence of other non-engaged, French-speaking, treadmill-chasing selves. With her picnic blanket standing in as the space-time continuum, Holly muses that the square dollhouse on stage contains the entire universe. She uproots the house and puts it on her head (her head is therefore the size of the universe, right?). Strapping the house on like a helmet she whirls around like a tornado—imagery which, when combined with her gingham dress, made me think of The Wizard of Oz. To already ambitious conceptual content she added her light voice and guitar-strumming, which might have been whisked away along with the tornado, but finished with a strong image.  Tying the yards of material around her waist like an apron, Holly walked off stage, turning the stage-length blanket into a conveyor belt of picnic baskets, an assembly line of props cranked out by the universe.

Coriolis Dance Collective’s try to hover (or Private Practice 7) opened with a vertical-turned-horizontal bed-turned bench that reminded me of the Feist’s lighthearted “Mushaboom” video, but from there went to places of intense dependency and meditations on medication. The six dancers, with pasty faces and fitted hospital gown-esque costumes by Sylvian Boulet, executed Christin Call’s choreography with arresting honesty, blending illusory bodily weakness with elegant dynamism. In the loudest part of the piece, an ambient roar, the dancers yelled what sounded like, “Is this it?” and as they were lifted up repeatedly, screamed “Yes!” as if each lift was the moment they were ready to heal. Later, stripped to nude underclothes, video showed hair pooling in the drain,  and three of the girls—blonde, brunette and red—donned hair pieces on their foreheads that seemed to be made out of their own discarded hair.

Kyle Loven’s jittery puppetry invited the audience to imagine the nighttime world of a wide-eyed character in When You Point at the Moon. Loven periodically covered his clown-white face and protruding prosthetic nose with black nylon, burglar style, and took up a head and loosely-jointed hand, giving body to the character. Through a series of activities and accidents—spilling milk, swatting flies, a rope swing breaking (sounds by Kevin Heard)—Loven becomes virtually invisible, except when the jumpiness of the puppet takes over his whole body and breaks the illusion. Unmasked, Loven was the casual moon smoking in the window, feigning nonchalance, that he wasn’t the force controlling the puppet. But in the end the work became a twisted children’s version of a “don’t challenge the Puppet Master” fable. A child’s voice warns, “Don’t look at the moon or he will cut your ears off,” which of course the moon does, separating the ears from the head we’d started to grow attached to.

Thank goodness there was a splash-guard surrounding Alice Gosti | Spaghetti Co.’s Are You Still Hungry? With breath-synchronized movement that reminded me of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas, the dancers (Gosti, Devin McDermott, Anh Nguyen) navigated sharp and slow choreography, lowering McDermott to the table, easing her into a plate of sauce. They spilled wine on themselves and slung sloppy noodles at each other, which hit the clear plastic that separated them from the audience with a wet splat. In a moment when the three broke into a full-on food fight, McDermott grabbed a face-full of spaghetti with her mouth and shook it vigorously like a dog might a newly-captured toy. Though the audience was engaged, laughing and egging on the performers, in this moment the performance became spectacle, and almost ruined the reserve and muted sensuality that was the crux of its effectiveness.

Saturday night’s Mainstage Showcase opened with Holcombe Waller‘s Surfacing, Chapter 2 (a work in progress), which had a much longer subtitle that I won’t quote here. Waller wandered in a tundra, a hooded yet well-to-do vagrant, singing in recitative style the (fictitious) story of his grandmother and Dorothy Day, the Pope, and “The Beautiful Peaceful Anarchist-Communist Revolution.” On stage musicians Ben Landsverk (viola/guitar) and Steve Kennon (french horn, glockenspiel) accompanied his silky tenor tones and were joined for a moment by their missing band-mate, cellist Galen Cohen via projection on the traveller’s triangular tent object. One of the more lovely moments was the trio’s a capella verse—refreshing simplicity.

Also hooded was Paige Barnes’s in a portion of her solo piece, War Is Over, a video-dependent piece comprised of fighting for fighting’s sake. That the conflict was with herself was clear—she punched and ducked from the simulated shadow self, but the reason for the conflict was fuzzy. In a moment similar to when Alice Gosti’s girls almost let it all go, Barnes, facing one of the front corners of the stage, began to laugh at herself then shake her body completely, letting out all the sweat and drool that would naturally accompanysuch exertion. The unnerving abandon was a bit alienating because I was unclear on the nature of the self-conflict.

I first saw Allie Hankins at last year’s NW New Works in Marissa Rae Niederhauser’s work and her earnest gaze and refined movement kept my attention throughout. I was thrilled to see her own choreography in Part & Parcel’s By Guess & By God, a piece that became almost a solo after collaborator Mary Margaret Moore’s hit-and-run scooter accident. Hankins plays with illusion, often through the use of slow motion. The lights dawned on Moore and Hankins, in suspenders and high-waisted pants. Bending at the knees, their legs appeared to shorten, then their heads melted into their necks, and their bodies sunk into themselves. Contrasting with such softness, there’s a poise and stability to Hankins’ hard-hitting movement and her hands evoke a playful seriousness; she gives as much attention to what isn’t seen as to what is.

Jessica Jobaris & general magic presented you’re the stuff that sets me free, and I ended up with a water-doused, naked, and crying Rosa Vissers on my lap (that’s what I get for sitting in the front row). With an unparalleled rawness that evening, among scattered of trash and miscellaneous objects thrown onto the stage, the piece explored self-punishment (Niederhauser sitting bare-bottomed on a block of ice, Mike Pham lowering himself into a pan of boiling water), and how we hurt each other (whips, ridicule). The performers yelled their frustrations and interacted at a real-life pace, compressing any theatrical time with consecutive and overlapping relational events—Amelia Reeber giving birth to a blown-up beach ball globe, for instance.

This weekend, there’s more, and this Sunday there will be $1 porters for Dad. Cheers to NW New Works, which will feature eight new artists tonight and tomorrow, among them Degenerate Art Ensemble’s Haruko Nishimura (DAE’s Frye exhibit closes this weekend if you haven’t seen it yet), as well as Quark Contemporary Dance Theater, Danielle Villegas, Lori Hamar, FINGER, Shannon Stewart (Adam Seukler’s video based on “A Better Container” here), The Blank Department, and aluminum siding & mattisonthemove.

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