Whim W’Him…woot woot!

15 Jan

I attended the opening performance of Seattle based company Whim W’Him’s program, Shadows, Raincoats, & Monsters (even though the actual order for the evening went Raincoats, Monsters, & Shadows!) and after previewing an excerpt of Monsters in October as a part of Men in Dance, it was a treat to see the finished product, which for many reasons looked completely different from what I remembered seeing only a few months ago.  This is where I must insert magnanimous praise for the lighting designer, Michael Mazzola—the full effect was truly astounding.  I briefly met artistic director Olivier Wevers before the show, who essentially said that he can’t imagine working with anyone else now and I can see why.  In that meeting, Olivier also jokingly asked me not to write anything mean and while dancers tackle their own set of stereotypes (i.e. in negative reactions to Black Swan) it seems as a dance writer I have a few of my own to deal with…but far from offended, I found the experience quite exciting because it makes me sense my place among the circle of dance writers as well as the dance community as a whole.  Legitimacy is awesome (and a little addictive).

My overall comments are that this is a show with an invigorating, multi-faceted appeal that is sure to relate to broad audiences.  Whether intentional or not, I was fascinated by the order of the dances themselves, which seemed to mature as the evening progressed.  The first piece, This is Not a Raincoat was the most youthful, followed by Monster, which showed a marked jump in sophisticated subject matter, and then Cylindrical Shadows displayed a mellowed, genteel character.  The journey was an artistic progression that is easily understood and showed a genuine concern for really creating a relationship with the audience (hence a well-deserved standing ovation by the evening’s end!).  What I also liked was the elementariness of the costumes, which is always something that draws more attention to the choreography itself (most effective in Monster, through the use of socks in solid, primary colors) and a distinctive style among Wevers’s two pieces.  Sometimes I find that choreographers favor saturating their works with variety in order to show versatility and/or for fear of being deemed monotonous, but I like to see some familiar movement characteristics because to me that says the choreographer is not afraid of distinguishing a unique voice.

The first piece, This is Not a Raincoat, choreographed by Wevers and performed by Andrew Bartee, Ty Alexander Cheng, Chalnessa Eames, Kylie Lewallen and Lucien Postlewaite, began with only the rhythmic sound of footsteps and swishing raincoats.  When the dancers were finally illuminated in their peach velour cowl-neck and black raincoat glory, the barriers are first made apparent, like when the dancers ran full force downstage, and came to a complete halt on relevé at the very edge.  When they shed the raincoats there was a noticeable change in mood, and sprinting off in other directions ended in smooth slides.  First of all, how one does this without completely wiping out is one feat of timing and control, but the overall impression is that the movement has no rough edges, no harshness and takes on an air of warmth and invitation.  Much of it seemed to glide just above the floor, grazing the surface occasionally and offered lighthearted, playful gestures.  It was a display of childlike spirits, of people allowing themselves to indulge in merriment, after ridding themselves of conventional expectations.  As someone who has been told on several occasions that I have the intelligence of an adult with the mind of a child, it’s a message I fully appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe that who we were as children is the truth that we should seek as adults, because that reveals more about who we are than the things people tell us we should be.

Next came Monster in full, which began with the duet dealing with despair in homosexual relationships when disapproval rains terror upon them.  I stand by my description of the piece from the first round so I won’t rehash it (though the casting was slightly different this time, with Bartee and Vincent Michael Lopez), just know that the fluorescent lighting, provided by vertical tubes on the sides of the stage gives the dance a starkness that makes it all the more haunting and each duet is also preceded by beautiful poetic readings by hip hop artist RA Scion, which is both a wonderful collaboration between contemporary artists and informative in providing further context for the dances to thrive in.  The next duet fired immediately like an electrical current, jolting Lewallen and Cheng to life (the costumes for all of the duets were gray shirts with colored shorts and matching socks, red for the first and yellow the for the second).  Their movements were contorted and spasmodic, staying earthbound as their bodies seemed to take on a life of their own.  As if drug induced, movements were erratically initiated by any and all parts of the body, with Lewallen becoming increasingly lethargic as her life ebbed away.  At one point, Cheng was essentially manipulating her through the motions, prodding her with his leg, until eventually the addiction claimed her.  The final duet conveyed a dysfunctional and abusive relationship (with blue socks).  I should note that the reason why I keep mentioning the colored socks is because they revealed a lot of articulation of the feet, particularly in demi-pointe (stretched ankles with flexed toes), which is normally used only when standing on relevé but is instead used in many air-borne extensions of the leg in this piece, which is both unusual and eye-catching.  The work featured an incredible amount of tension between Postlewaite and Melody Herrera, pushing and pulling at each other with mixed feelings of love and contempt.  A moment of particular interest was the use of a motif from the first duet, with one dancer kneeling down, reaching out one hand to hold the other dancer up as he leaned forward, to highlight the commonalities between both homosexual and heterosexual relationships.

The last work, entitled Cylindrical Shadows and choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa was born out of news she received of a friend of hers (and dancer) who had suddenly died at a young age, and explores emotional reactions and the enduring renewal that is intrinsic to both life and death.  Four men (Bartee, Lopez, Postlewaite, Wevers) and two women (Eames, Herrera) started in a triangular formation, moving in unison as dancers would intermittently break away to dance their solos away from the group.  Ochoa created fantastic manipulations of patterns here, to make the transitions seamless while the shapes changed.  She utilized different groupings, including a lithe and weightless trio that had Eames hovering through space, and a heartrending pas de deux between Herrera and Postlewaite that I shall describe as soulful.  What interested me most was the quartet with just the men, because female ballet choreographers are far outnumbered by their male counterparts, and it was gratifyingly refreshing to see such liberated male movement from a female perspective.  With sweeping gestures of the leg and huge penchées, elegance was paramount to the overall aesthetic.  It helps that Bartee, Postlewaite and Wevers have eighty-five miles of legs between them, but the choreography speaks for itself.  Some aspects of the piece confused me at first, but I have to say that after a few hours of processing, I’m enjoying the cerebral playground.

Living up the company’s name, Whim W’Him’s Shadows, Raincoats, & Monsters will make you think, but not ask too much, in both playful and erudite queries.  The dances are loaded with texture, color and narrative but remain unfettered by unnecessary complexities.  The trick to great choreography is to have too much material and trim the excess rather than extend something of little substance, and this show is definitely the former, which leaves you craving more.  Two performances remain at the Intiman Theater, though Saturday’s performance is sold out, so I suggest you get tickets for Sunday (5:00pm) ASAP! (Purchase Tickets at BrownPaperTickets).

For more information about Whim W’Him and its dancers, visit their website at www.whimwhim.org

(Disclaimer: The title of this entry doesn’t make a lot of sense, but alliteration is fun.  Deal with it.)

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