Experimental Shifts at Seattle International Dance Festival

 Cherdonna ShinatraLast week the Seattle International Dance Festival—one of the city’s largest and most diverse contemporary dance programs—brought together dozens of performers, choreographers, and companies for 10 days of performance art around the city. In the pieces I saw there was a noticeably strong infusion of theatrical and pedestrian movement—a turn away from classic ballet influence to a more experimental mode of choreography.

In the middle of SIDF was a three-day series called Spotlight on Seattle. For this sequence three local choreographers were chosen to each curate one night of the series with companies or dancers from Seattle. The choreographers were Andrew Bartee (Pacific Northwest Ballet and Whim W’Him), Jerome Aparis of the Massive Monkees, and KT Niehoff (Lingo Dance). At the end of each night, the audience voted for the artist they would most like to see more work from, and combined with votes from an expert panel, one of the artists received a $500 grant. The Crystal White Gaer, G. Kusnick and J. Steward Artistic Development Awards winners were: Cabin Fever ( on Tuesday, curated by Bartee), Marlo Martin (Wednesday, curated by Aparis) and Markeith Wiley (Thursday, curated by Niehoff).

Andrew Bartee’s lineup started with Gender Tender, a burgeoning interdisciplinary performance project that, according to their website, “began out to the desire to make work in a safe and rigorous environment for trans*, queer*, questioning and allied artists of all kinds.” They had two pieces in the program. The first, PA/CK used the standard high school stereotypes—jocks and cheerleaders—and moved through a series of pantomimed actions from sports like football, bowling and boxing. You’re not quite sure if some of the dancers are male or female, and given those traditionally rigid gender roles, it’s a little disarming. This group has an excellent sense of physical comedy: in one section a dancer mimes all major sports game moments from the crazed fan screaming and crying at a winning goal, to the Gatorade pour at the end of a game. After the sports montage, the piece redirected with several minutes of Brokeback Mountain and Sound of Music references, which were a little disjointed from the majority of the piece, but still kept up its energy and comedic bent.

Following Gender Tender was Scraping for Joy, a delightful piece from Cabin Fever that used the “slow dance” to show the tenderness of quiet moments between two people. It opened with an entirely relatable scenario: four people together, smiling, several of them with their arms around each other posing for a photograph on a rectangular carpet. A track of café sounds—talking laughing, silverware clinking—played in the background. The performers slid into dance, coupling up into intimate, waltz-like movement, tender moments of affection such as one partner playfully tweaking the other’s nose capture the real-life playfulness and friendship of intimacy. Spoken word (poetic phrases such as “We need the chance to dance with exquisite strangers”) brought in a theatrical element, but didn’t detract or distract.

Colleen McNeary’s Scene Story #1 was another piece combining theatrical elements with dance, including a recorded monologue that she acted out. Scene Study #1 was darker than the others, with McNeary’s angular movements seeming almost unnatural, her hands continuously running all over her body, pulling at her face as she offers up various parts of her body by pulling aside sections of clothing. She is giving herself away piece by piece: ribs, legs, wrists, neck, back, but with the movement and flow of her body, she is doing so in a hauntingly beautiful way.

Niehoff’s selection featured several standouts including the stunning Emily Sferra, Jody Kuehner aka Cherdonna Shinatra, and The New Animals’ artistic director and choreographer Markeith Wiley. Cherdonna performed was outrageously costumed as always (gigantic sweeping wig, huge platform heels, excessive glitter makeup), but this was the first time I’d seen her without her former performance partner Lou. The solo contained the same humor as The Cherdonna and Lou Show, but gave more breathing room for the performance. There was the usual striking of various pinup-inspired poses, the beauty pageant waves, the tiny piano, and an inexplicable box of Nilla Wafer cookies tied to one shoe. Kuehner’s facial expressions and comedic timing are as spot-on as ever, even if parts of the performance left me scratching my head.

Emily Sferra is one to watch. She formerly danced for Niehoff in Lingo, and is a co-founder of Cabin Fever, but for Spotlight on Seattle she performed an acrobatic solo highlighting her flexibility and grace. I’m Here to Unfold was rooted in balletic movementand Sferra was mesmerizing, her body striking poses—a single hand or arm shooting out in front of her or to the side, leading the rest of her body into graceful, rhythmic movement. The use of lighting was dramatic: her body, clad in a black leotard, was shadowed against a white background creating a double showcase of Sferra’s dancing. It was an outstanding use of simplicity as a way to highlight the amazing potential of the body.

Closing out the SoS series, Markeith Wiley seemed to present the audience many facets of himself, from a hopeless romantic waiting at a café table with a bouquet of flowers to a feminine persona, dancing in a dress. He had one of the most effective openers I’ve seen in a while, and it consisted of him simply sitting in a chair for several minutes while a rap song played in the background. But it built an incredible amount of anticipation. People around me in the audience were bobbing their heads, unable to sit still. When he did get up and eventually start moving around, Wiley demonstrated a keen sense of timing and pace—he knows how to control his movements and not get ahead of himself. Like many of the other performers he integrates spoken word into his piece, as well as audience interaction.

Certainly there have always been companies toeing the line between theater and dance—zoe | juniper, Lingo Dance—but it seems to be coming more prevalent among fledgling companies emerging artists in Seattle. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people are moving away from classical dance or eschewing it altogether, and this is the first time I’ve really noticed it in a large showcase, but I will flag it as a trending shift. Perhaps there is a rising need to reinsert the actual voice into the artistic voice—something I’ll look forward to seeing, and hearing, in the upcoming years. 


Above:  Jody Kuehner aka Cherdonna Shinatra. Photo by Eric Paguio