Tag Archives: whim w’him

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.)

Men + Dance = Men in Dance

11 Oct

I’m pretty sure (as in I know) I write for a predominantly female audience…historically, women have found me more entertaining than men have.  However, I would like to dedicate this post to my male audience…all three and a half of you, and in particular the homosexual readers in honor of National Coming Out Day.  As far as I know, I shall attempt to tie this in with a review of a festival showing I went to yesterday, Men in Dance, featuring all male dancers in works by various choreographers.

First, a little anecdote.  I was in a bit of a foul mood yesterday…but lock yourself out of your apartment, lose your key and not so happy you will be!  Normally I’m a very careful person and I don’t make mistakes but when I do they tend to be of the catastrophic variety.  You know the saying: “go big or go home” and that’s what I manage to do…except I couldn’t go home because I lost my key in the taxi, which of course dropped me off within feet of my doorstep.  Irony tastes like crap, and I’ve been mentally vomiting on myself since (which will probably continue until I fix this mess).  So of course because I’m one of those people that has to beat myself up I didn’t sleep well and was quite tired after a restless night at a friend’s house.  Not to mention I had to do the whole “walk of shame” wearing the same clothes from the day before as my landlord let my roommate and I in with the spare key.  The whole condition was exacerbated by the fact that I had to leave my contacts in overnight thus irritating my eyes, and also because I didn’t have time for a shower before heading to Capitol Hill for Men in Dance.  I don’t even remember how I got there—all I remember is zombie-walking to the bus stop messy-haired and red demon eyed, then somehow managing to appear in front of the Broadway Performance hall.

The show featured a great variety of dance styles, beginning with a preshow where a group of men danced outside, in the lobby, on the stairs leading to the theatre and eventually on one corner of the stage.  As they explored these spaces, sometimes they danced at you…not for you, at you (I almost tripped over one going up the stairs).  The preshow also included a small tap ensemble, clad in black, white and shades of grey pedestrian clothing, executing complicated footwork with such ease I wanted to believe that I too, could do such a thing…but that’s the mark of great hoofers; they make it look insanely easy.  In this sense, I often feel tap is the most deceiving dance form.

Following the preshow came Cypher, a male pas de trois that consisted of a number of dizzying turns and leaps…perhaps, too many.  Here’s the thing about bravura steps…when you have a lot of pirouettes and leaps it’s one of two things; it’s a variation/coda or the piece is being overpowered by an excess of such movements.  When it comes to a modern ballet, I don’t look for specific turns or jumps but what is the effect of a turn or jump?  Does it emphasize a musical phrase or show visual contrast in levels?  I wasn’t feeling much of a sense of purpose, other than to show off…which is an entirely legitimate choice but I felt that the pirouettes and leaps actually detracted from some of the more interesting choreography.  There were wonderful moments of texture—smooth classical lines as well as smaller staccato movements, set to a compelling score entitled Trilobita, which I assume translates into trilobite (and you know I’m a huge fossil geek).  It’s a fine line any time you put in a coupe jeté followed my multiple pirouettes because it can get competition dance-y very quickly.

Following that was an interesting piece with a group of young men performing a…running(?) dance, with a lot of acrobatic maneuvers and tiny jogging shorts.  It was one of those pieces with no music, which tends to freak me out but what’s interesting is that without music, dancers have to tap into a sort of mass, innate, biological rhythm that we often lose touch with.  I imagine it’s the same “force” that informs a school of fish to change directions at the exact same time or a flock of geese to fly in a V.   Speaking of mysterious forces, then came Wade Madsen’s pas de deux, Breath of Light.  This piece was stunning—an intimate duet for two men that really investigated the connection between two people.  There was of course close contact in the partnering but there were also moments where one dancer would run his hand along the contours of his partner’s body without touching him, making tangible the energy that can be felt radiating from another person.

After that sensual pas de deux, came the most amazing pas de quatre…linked to Jules Perrot’s famous divertissement for the four legendary ballerinas, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito.  Using Cesare Pugni’s same score, choreographer Eva Stone made the piece in the image of four modern women with contemporary choreography and set to out to do the same for four men, but decided to keep the women’s choreography and simply had men perform it.  Under the title Me Over You, the new pas de quatre had four men with diva attitudes trying to outshine one another on stage in a myriad of movement styles, from balletic to modern and even gestures of vulgarity (“the finger” if you must know).  The result was a comedic dance that drew raucous laughter from the audience and squees of glee from those who could tell that Stone even quoted a bit of Perrot’s Pas de Quatre.

The first piece after intermission was a nice solo…modern, lyrical, with interesting points of origin and alighting.  The standout of the afternoon however, was an excerpt from artistic director of Whim W’Him, Olivier Wevers’s new work Monster, which debuted at the festival (Whim W’him will perform the full version of Monster in January).  Monster embodied the anguish felt by homosexuals over the disenfranchisement that comes from being a part of a marginalized population.  The performance was dedicated to the teens that committed suicide because of bullying based on their sexual orientation (although the piece was obviously created and rehearsed before—that kind of dance doesn’t happen overnight…usually).  I’m so pleased to see that such a topic is so forthrightly observed in Seattle’s dance community.  I think this subject matter is often avoided because some people in the dance community feel that evasion of it is the best way to combat so called “negative” stereotypes about male dancers while others are so beyond acceptance that it’s completely a non-issue.  There’s not as much open dialogue about the “middle” and I think that’s whom this dance is for.  Not everyone can grow up in a liberal city like Seattle or New York and those who don’t tend to suffer the most.  I certainly had my share (if not the brunt) of it growing up so I could relate to the piece a lot.  For example, normally in a promenade in ballet, the danseuse is in a position like an attitude or arabesque—something expansive that really fills a space but Monster had these low promenades in a tucked, almost fetal position, trying to make the body look as small as possible as if shrinking away from society.  The truth is, sometimes diminishing (and inadvertently belittling) oneself was the only way to avoid being hurt by others.  At other times there were these huge, sprawled out extensions that expressed the impossibility of trying to contain one’s own spirit.  Both dancers (PNB company members) were sublime, and I really enjoyed watching Lucien Postlewaite in this performance.  I remember seeing him in Balanchine’s Square Dance earlier this year and Monster is such a departure from that it’s great to see such versatility in a performer.  Random note, I’d like to ask him what it feels like to have super strong, obedient legs…does it feel as awesome as it looks?

At any rate, I think it’s noteworthy that Wevers and Postlewaite are actually married, and because this is Seattle it’s not gossip but casual information.  It’s interesting because the sexuality of dancers is as I said, often not discussed because most people in the dance community don’t care one way or another.  Unfortunately it’s jerks outside of the dance community that exploit stereotypes and make fun of dancers, both professional and aspiring.  For that reason, I think some dancers also avoid discussing it for fear that public interest in their personal lives will supersede their professional ones…it’s all very “Anderson Cooper” if you will, who is believed/known to be gay and is sometimes harshly viewed by the gay community for not publically discussing his personal life.  The resentment is perhaps understandable—people want role models but at the same time nobody should be required to discuss something so personal and in that sense I think people who take that route represent an ideal, of the way society should be.  On the other hand, society isn’t there yet and we do need role models and for that we can look to Marcelo Gomes who did publically “come out” and it hasn’t affected his career at all—in fact, he’s often crowned “the most in demand partner in the world.”  So young friends who are gay and struggling with confidence, look to the likes of these gentlemen and know that your success is possible, regardless of stupid people around you.

The penultimate piece was a solo by former New York City Ballet principal, who apparently came out of retirement (though the end of the piece seemed like a farewell to the stage) to dance an Agon-esque solo choreographed by Donald Byrd.  There was something oddly Agon-y about the solo, and perhaps because Boal has danced Agon what, eighty-five million times?  I likened it to a “West Coast Agon” though, Seattle-fied with jeans and a t-shirt (a comment from the peanut gallery noted that the only thing missing was the Birkenstocks).  Then came the final dance of the evening; sharp, modern, percussive and with a clear beginning, middle and end.  Lots of changes of direction, reversals and athletic lifts that made for a high-energy conclusion of the afternoon.

So what started out as a crappy day (for me) improved vastly by concert’s end.  The festival goes for two weeks and will showcase a different set of works for this upcoming weekend and if this past weekend was any indication, attendance is highly recommended.  Let me just say the audience simply enjoyed watching men dance…because men don’t dance enough (obviously the world would be a better place if they did).  If you are a man (or boy!) in dance and people give you a hard time for it, know that you are or will be loved, so hang in there.  If ignoramuses give you a really hard time…well that calls for a swift kick to the shins.  What do you think the REAL purpose of frappes at barre is?