Some months ago, KUOW reporter and dance critic Marcie Sillman wrote on her blog about an evening of dance she witnessed at Velocity Dance Center’s NW Nextfest. Sounding a bit exasperated by a particular choreographer’s lack of clarity and resolve, she discreetly asked her readers the question, “Does dance have the equivalent of an editor?” I must admit that the same thought has entered my mind as I’ve sat in the audience of dance performances in Seattle.
One existing editing mechanism is the concision-inducing format of the Ten Tiny Dances project, a series that has been occurring around Seattle since at least 2005. Choreographers are invited to create three- to eight-minute works that must be performed on a 4 by 4 foot table, closely surrounded on all sides by the audience.
Not surprisingly, the rigid constraints of space and time prove less restrictive than they do liberating for the participating artists. For the ten choreographers featured in last Friday’s Ten Tiny Dances 2015 at Velocity, these conditions appeared to enhance rather than diminish their powers, especially when it came to the more established artists on the bill. What’s more, the unusual juxtaposition and diversity of the pieces showcased in the program made each of them stand out in sharper relief.
The show began with Aaron Huffman and Sarah Paul Ocampo’s low-key vocal and electric guitar duet, Echo Park. The dance element consisted primarily of Ocampo’s intermittent high-kicks, which took place as she held the microphone and slowly rotated on her stool. Huffman stood with his back to her, shifting his position as he strummed. While the movement wasn’t much, the work left me considering the idea that a dance piece might be best if it kept to the length of a pop song.
Crispin Spaeth, the former longtime director of Ten Tiny Dances, collaborated with dancer Kathryn Padberg to create the next piece, Open Circuit. The work, performed by Padberg, was a solid and well-executed dance solo. Her body engaged the tension that existed along the outer limits of the dance space with an alternating sense of danger and relief. Like all of the pieces that followed, the physical parameters of the space became a means of exploring the parameters that exist in art, and life itself.
Kokou Gbakenou’s Element was an exuberant, ecstatic counterpoint to Spaeth’s introspective take. He bounded back and forth across the square with such fearlessness and self-assurance that one could easily forget its small size. An inner force seemed to pulse and surge through his hips and shoulders before bursting out into his fast-moving arms and legs. He would then leap, spin, flip and turn, occasionally landing upside down on his left shoulder or vaulting his whole body on a single palm. Element was about establishing an alignment with your environment while joyfully resisting the barriers it places upon you.
The program switched gears with Danya Hanson’s x(y), a nuanced theatrical piece in the spirit of Samuel Beckett. Hanson appeared on stage looking disheveled and confused in an oversized tuxedo shirt, long red socks and a worn pair of gold heels. With her hair in a messy topknot, she chewed gum and gazed out as if in a trance. Hanson’s character made no attempt to push up against the boundaries of the stage like Padberg or Gbakenou did. Instead, she appeared too frightened to go near them. Her furtive, unpredictable movement was inward and self-protective, but she spoke to us through the engrossing rhythm of her distressed shoes tapping and scraping on the minute stage. Hanson has a masterful ability to physically dramatize the psyche of an individual lost in a dystopian world. On this small stage, the effect is both fascinating and unsettling.
The tone of the program changed again with Diana Cardiff’s humorous solo Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, set to the Carpenters’ tune of the same name. Taking full advantage of the song’s ridiculousness and gauzy languor, Cardiff employed a series of props to make contact with her imagined alien life forms. These included a ’70s vintage bouquet of fiber optic light-emitting diodes, an aluminum foil hat and a plastic illuminated light saber. Her comic, over-the-top movement was reminiscent of dance numbers from Carpenters-era television variety specials, but the absurdity quickly evolved into a celebration of sincerity and artistic expression. In Cardiff’s hands, the song itself became a compelling metaphor for artist’s objective of connecting with a distant and yet unseen audience.
Wade Madsen and Alia Swersky delved into epistemological geometry with their collaborative work, Where Do I Come From? Swersky, immersed in semi-darkness, was encased inside a phone booth-like prism mounted atop the stage. Her ability to move freely inside this space was further limited by the presence of an illuminated thread that cut diagonally across it. Sounding like Carl Sagan, she looked out into the distance, gestured broadly with her long arms and exclaimed, “Here is time,” Here is space,” Here is consciousness.” Inside her rectangle, she plotted her personal history along the axis, pointing to specific spots and telling us, “Here’s where I was born” or “Here’s where I am going.” The movement she was able to execute in this cramped, narrow space was convulsive and precise, more internalized than outwardly manifest. The work was an ironic and beautiful attempt to show how one might map the essential process of creating dance in a physical, explanatory matrix. It was the most novel response to the limitations imposed by the program’s format.
Chimera was a three-headed, six-legged dance choreographed by Jenny Peterson and performed by Peterson, Kaitlin McCarthy and Annie McGhee. Bound together in one large, striped, scratch-inducing sweater, the dancers moved together in writhing, shambling unison on a stage that could barely contain them. At the end of the piece, they engaged in the orgiastic consumption of some jelly-filled pastry that remained smeared across the floor after they departed. Peterson has answered the program’s mandate of restraint with an outrageous, funny and terrifying piece about appetite, body image and sexual fear.
Cakemenko, choreographed by Kristina Dillard and performed by Echo Norris, was a more triumphant and less shame-ridden exploration of these same urges. Norris, outfitted in a gorgeous black and red dress embellished with roses, began by slowly slapping the floor, first with her hands and later with her feet. As her tempo quickened, so did the frequency with which we heard Julia Child repeat the words “butter,” “sugar,” “champagne,” and “coffee” in the audio track. Norris twirled across the stage with drama and great force, and her long flowing skirt spun out far beyond its edge. But her shoulders, wrists, and fingers ultimately stole the show. Here was proof that the diminutive footprint of the stage need only apply to the ground level and not the upper stories of a dance work.
In his piece Haiku, choreographer Mark Haim demonstrated his uncanny ability to create a sense of wonder from the smallest gestures and gentlest tone. At the outset, Haim stands on half the stage in dim light, doing a series of slow, repetitive movements while another man (Koushik Goush) sleeps beside him in the darkness. One after another, a series of familiar songs began to play (Dancing Queen, Here Comes the Sun, Let’s Dance, I’ll Be Watching You), but each sputters out after the first few notes. When The Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice? finally kicks in, its warm promise of love and domesticity quickly transforms the scene. Haim kissed Goush on the cheek, the stage lights brightened, and the two suddenly found themselves wearing shorts and sunglasses on a warm, sunny beach. As the song continued, they leisurely began to read and do puzzles. For Haim, the boundaries of this stage are as agreeable as those of marriage and home.
The final piece in Ten Tiny Dances was a traditional Indian dance by Pankaj Charan Das, adapted and performed by Douglas Ridings. It was an astonishing piece rooted in a deep visual vocabulary virtually undecipherable to this audience. Riding’s body executed a complex array of movements even when he remained almost stationary on the stage. In the company of this diverse collection of contemporary work, it served to remind us that when it comes to the history of choreography, less space and time can mean more dance.