A review of Olivier Wevers' new company and their first major performance.
written by Mary Murfin Bayley
Photos of Olivier Wevers and company by Marc Von Borstel
I did not buy a ticket in time to see the debut of Olivier Wevers’ new company Whim W’Him and the premiere of his ballet 3Seasons, at On the Boards. Okay, mea culpa.
Lucky for me I was able to attend the dress rehearsal the night before the big opening. Having previewed the program, I came out wishing I could go back for all three performances (January 15 - 17).
What was all the excitement about?
Wevers rounded up dancers who have been knocking us over for years at Pacific Northwest Ballet: Kaori Nakamura, Chalnessa Eames, Jonathan Porretta and Lucien Postlewaite. The repertoire at PNB mixes demanding classical ballets with contemporary choreography, a practice that started during the Kent Stowell and Francia Russell years and has continued and expanded under the current artistic director, Peter Boal. This repertoire and emphasis on new choreography has created dancers with a spectacularly wide range of styles and capabilities, and the willingness to take big risks. For his new company, Wevers also pulled in terrific dancers who have been wowing us at Spectrum Dance Theater: Ty Alexander Cheng, Hannah Lagerway, Kylie Lewallen and Vincent Lopez.
Finding modern dancers who can step into choreography as ballet-oriented and particular as Wevers is in large part due to Donald Byrd’s presence at Spectrum over the last seven years — and the grueling expectations he has of his dancers. Sometimes, sitting in Spectrum rehearsals during the years I was writing for the Seattle Times, I would wince at the demands Byrd could make of his company, but now they can dance any damn thing anyone gives them. They, like the PNB contingent, have been tempered in a tough forge.
So seeing these dancers from very different companies, (with the terrific addition of independent Jim Kent, who has performed with Scott/Powell and Mark Haim) partner under the intense specificities of Wevers’ choreography is to get a sense of the way depth in a city’s dance community can evolve.
We’ve had previous sightings of Wevers’ choreography at PNB, Spectrum and the Seattle Dance Project. Out of curiosity I checked back for my first impression in my review for the Seattle Times of his choreography in 2006. “X Stasis, set to the music of Thomas Ade, is as original as its title (elements of ecstasy and zero stasis),” I wrote then. “Wevers' choreography is full of the unexpected, the theatrical and imaginative.”
First impressions can be right. Wevers’ choreography still strikes me as witty and surprising, but in his later ballet, Fragments, and the imposing new 3Seasons I am also struck by the expansive way he uses space, creates onstage geometries, distance and perspective and by his musicality. Above all I am struck by the distinctive look and cadence of his movement.
In after-show discussions with OTB audiences and on various blogs, there have been complaints that Whim W’Him is too balletic to be considered contemporary dance and too contemporary to be thought of as ballet.
These commentators aren’t going to see ballet enough.
There has been much collaboration between ballet and contemporary dancers and choreographers. Ex-PNB dancer Julie Tobiason dancing for Maureen Whiting a couple of years back is just one example.
More importantly, the hard lines between ballet and contemporary dance no longer have meaning. Ballet choreographers have been experimenting with “non-balletic” movement, both on point and off for years now. Wevers’ choreography is not about breaking some kind of taboo or shaking up the world of classical ballet. It is about exploring his own particular artistic vision and aesthetic. He uses ballet moves and asks for more: a hugely elastic back, small pinpoint gestures, and includes the facial expression, or mask, as part of the movement.
"More importantly, the hard lines between ballet and contemporary dance no longer have meaning."
What struck me, having watched Wevers dance for over a decade, was how very much at times the dancers moved exactly like Wevers himself. If you squinted, you could imagine him dancing each of the roles. Wevers has been slipping specificities of focus into his big dramatic roles at the ballet for years. He’s been subtle about it. The turned down wrists and splayed fingers; moving sideways like a cat; the sudden sharp look to the side; the backs of the hands placed on the small of the back making a swaying duck walk — all movements that could suggest high tragedy or slapstick. These fleeting jagged designs of peripheral movement were part of the purposefully frayed edges of his big dance moves.
I would argue that all great dancer/choreographers bring their own stylistic way of moving, their inner rhythm, to their own choreographies so that their pieces look like the way they themselves dance. I’ve seen it in the dancing and choreography of Paul Taylor, Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham. Of course, we don’t have the opportunity to watch a Marius Petipa or Michel Fokine dance, but if we could, I just bet we would see the individualistic movements of their own bodies that are familiar to us now in the bodies of the dancers performing their choreography.
Mary Murfin Bayley's play-by-play of this program:
This imaginative piece, set to the music of Thomas Ades, included a dynamic, powerful, yet vulnerable-feeling duet between Lucien Postlewaite and Jonathon Porretta, Chalnessa Eames’ delightful seduction of a dressmaker’s dummy and Kaori Nakamura in a compelling partnership with Karel Cruz. The lifts and jumps made me gasp.
In this ballet set to bits and pieces of Mozart, dancers Kelly Ann Barton and Vincent Lopez wore fluffy operatic skirts and swanned like opera divas. Barton’s lip syncing to “The Magic Flute” is funny at first, but Wevers gets the laughs out of the way right at the beginning so that then you could enjoy the surprising beauty of this strange new creature made up of opera and dance. When Lopez slips out of his skirt and performs a writhing, twisting, solo to “Requiem” it is both scary and gorgeous.
Picked out in drenching light by designer Michael Mazzola and costumed by Michael Cepress in sculptured men’s collars, a bedraggled tutu or bird cage skirts, nine dancers moved in intense pairing or threesomes, or stopped to grasp at props strewn across the stage, to stuff plastic bags into their brassieres, or drag objects attached to their bodies with string.
This felt like a landscape full of detritus swept ashore and where possessing and craving material things had become a kind of curse. Briefly the humans remaining in this landscape provided the natural beauty. An endless kiss between Ty Alexander Cheng and Kylie Lewallen while their arm positions flowingly changed, suggesting some kind of mutant tree tossed in a wind.
In the last image, even the humans turn to refuse when Nakamura is turned upside down and left with her legs and tutu sticking up from a trash can.
There are references to earlier ballets: bits of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring in a narrow hieroglyphic walk with the hands set sideways. My favorite sequence was a frieze-like moment when all nine dancers, maintaining contact by touching hands or knees or backs, brought to mind those familiar nymphs on ancient Greek vases, while at the same time the human chain became a down-to-earth and playful interaction. It was lovely. This ballet, over forty minutes in length, is set to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” with the exception of one season which is randomly chosen before each performance. The bumped Vivaldi is replaced by an equivalent section of a score by Byron Au Yong who was commissioned to write a piece of the same structure and length so that the dancers could perform the same steps to different music. Au Yong’s toy piano, violin and delicate percussion were played by a trio who took up positions in three corners of the stage. The effect of the replaced season was of a breath of air being opened up into the score. It made me hear the work in a whole different way.
3Seasons is Wevers’ best yet — one of the most intriguing dances I’ve seen in a while and the reason that I, for one, will be getting my tickets for his next program well in advance.
Keep up with W'him W'Him's current work at the company's Web site: www.whimwhim.org.
To see more photos from both the rehearsals and performances of this show, visit La Vie Photography.
Mary Murfin Bayley is a writer and actor living in Seattle. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.