Catherine Cabeen is, at what seems to me a young age, a significant choreographer and, colloquially, a smartypants. Her MFA from the University of Washington centered on 20th century history and feminist theory, and locally, she belongs in that group of dance makers (other names jumping to mind are Spectrum’s Donald Byrd, Whim W’Him’s Olivier Wevers, Salthorse’s Beth Graczyk and Corrie Befort) whose works tend to engage their audiences in a battle of wits.
“Battle” might be too confrontational; “wits” too specific. Said another way, Cabeen’s choreography treats your brain as an erogenous zone.
In Hyphen (through March 24 at Velocity Dance Center; tickets: $20), you also get the pleasure of watching Cabeen herself perform in her new work “5 Windows” and an encore of “Composites.” In the latter, particularly, you get to see the twin currents of choreography (Martha Graham and Bill T. Jones) that appear so prominently in Cabeen’s dance history: The dance is set to music by Julian Martlew and a fascinating spoken word performance by Jay McAleer (at least, it’s his text, I’m assuming that he’s reading the bulk of it).
As Michael Upchurch writes in the Seattle Times, Cabeen took things a step further than you might have expected, devising “a ‘phonetic movement vocabulary’ that corresponds to the sounds of McAleer’s words.” It’s not the sort of thing that necessarily “reads” to an audience, consciously, but, watching Cabeen, you do feel spoken to in gesture. You sense a complementarity to what you’re hearing. And every inch of Cabeen is expressive, from the shape of and tension in her fingers and toes, to a sinuous wave kicking up as if from the pelvic floor, to her fondness for arabesques forced past the pretty.
In “Composites,” her phonetic approach yields a quick-paced, punchy–sometimes martial–declarative stance, while McAleer references the fact that prior to 1883, railroads had to deal with up to 150 different time zones in the U.S., since many localities used “local solar time.” (Assembling the many into fewer is a theme of composites.) The result is incredibly chewy, rumination-friendly choreography.
“5 Windows” unites Cabeen with composer and accomplished oud musician Kane Mathis. It begins with him seated on a small bench, Cabeen prone on the floor in front, then arising with a cat-like stretch. There’s also something feline in the way–anyone with a home office and a cat will recognize it–she incorporates Mathis into her choreography even though it is clear that he is busy doing something that requires attention. Cabeen doesn’t simply circle around Mathis, she balances her leg on his, perches one-legged behind him, frets her arm in imitation of his playing, and even reaches through his arm to strum the oud, one-fingered, herself.
Twice, Mathis glances up and offers his hand–the timing required is to the second–to a falling-away Cabeen. At other times, Cabeen moves across the floor from Mathis, only occasionally glancing his direction from under lidded eyes, and dances out something between ritual and reverie, with that compellingly precise articulation she possesses.
There’s not much to look at besides the dance, at Velocity; sometimes curtains are pulled into use, but it’s the lighting by Amiya Brown that recasts the space: sometimes in sharp rectangles, sometimes lights steadily diminishing into shadows.
In “All of the Above,” Cabeen switches gears a bit. For a quartet of dancers (Karena Birk, Brenna Monroe-Cook, Ella Mahler, Sarah Lustbader), the piece reminded me strongly of what a yoga class led by bonobos might look like. I don’t want that to sound deprecating; the effect is like an oxytocin dance-bomb. The quartet, pairing off, roll over each other, form lean-tos that a third climbs upon, spoon, and always respectfully touch, touch, touch. Every interaction seems greeted with a slight smile, an appreciation, a “thank you for being here.” In a sort of counterpoint, there’s a recurring movement where a dancer slowly threads one outstretched leg through the curved ankle of the other. The music by Nat Evans and Ross Simonini speaks to the fun observed.
“On the Way Out” and “Gravitas” are, perhaps, the most like exercises, a working out of a “What if?” Both are new. The first is a solo for Sarah Lustbader, and is site specific, making use of an upstage doorway at Velocity. Kane Mathis makes beautiful music on the kora, with what looked like thumb- and forefinger-picking technique, while views of Lustbader are cropped by the doorway. Cabeen says she was thinking about how a camera sees dance, but as I say, she can easily think about two things at once, and her choreography charges the liminal space, with Lustbader pressing up against the frame, conforming to it and springing back. It’s a kind of pas de deux with the audience’s desire to see her.
“Gravitas” features a trumpet composition by Chad McCullough, performed by Brian Chin, with emphasis on the range of trumpet noises we think of as correct, and those considered extraneous. You hear a lot more breathiness, squeaking, and falling off from the trumpet’s clarion sound, before Chin gathers himself to step up and play. His efforts are mirrored by Karena Birk’s–she hops, skips, and jumps about the stage (in addition to some strenuous arm swinging), circles the stage with Chin, and then does it all again. If the technique is balletic, it’s mostly low-orbit, a display of Birk’s invisible coiled springs and flashing footwork, rather than grand, gazelle-like leaps. The growing risk of fatigue shadows each kinetic burst.