Whim W’Him: A New Season Begins

'Limitation Etudes: 7-10' by Banning Bouldin

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Contemporary dance company Whim W’Him is reshaping. The company performed its first program of the season, Choreographic Shindig III, in the artsy Erickson Theater off Broadway, which gave the show an intimate vibe. Dancers Justin Reiter and Patrick Kilbane have left the company for new pastures; Kilbane to Ballet British Columbia and Reiter for unknown and hopefully local new projects. And with his third iteration of Choreographic Shindig, artistic director Olivier Wevers brings three promising new choreographers to town to put a new spin on Seattle contemporary dance performance.

Whim W’Him’s choreographic shindigs begin with an open, global invitation to choreographers to submit ideas for new works; Wevers and company dancers choose three artists to set their choreography on Whim W’Him dancers, sometimes collaboratively. This year’s program opened with new work from Portuguese choreographer Bruno Roque titled The Background Hum of Stimuli. Roque, a former soloist with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, uses a device to deliver his choreography that would be poignant did it not override the dancing to the point of distraction. His message—put down your cell phone and interact with your fellow humans!—begins with a voiceover from a Siri-like presence who instructs the audience to move into their seats and then continues to instruct the dancers in their movements.

After arranging themselves into a loose triangle on stage, dancers introduce themselves as though reading aloud short bios on social media profiles. While clearly meant to caricature the plasticity of online identities, the exercise serves only to caricature vulnerable personality types. Roque makes his point about the lack of depth in virtual human relationships but the shots taken at people who might resemble these caricatures (poking fun at introverted gamer girls seems cheap and misogynist at best) doesn’t add to the artistic merit of Stimuli.

A lively score from jazz great Art Blakely accompanies much of the piece, which could stand on its own without the social media stuff. The generous drum solos give the dancers a chance to let loose and show off their individual strengths, a nice audience introduction to the newer members of the company. Cameron Birts, recently graduated from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, repeatedly busts out a stunning arabesque and lines that extend far beyond his frame. Adrian Hoffman, hailing from the Ailey School and Los Angeles professional dance circuit, shows an artful amalgamation of his martial arts background and classical dance training in high, graceful kicks and quick changes of direction with his torso during brief solos.

Summoning, by Brooklyn-based choreographer Adam Barruch, takes more advantage of the mature artistry of Whim W’Him’s dancers but still relies too heavily on a theme, described in the program notes as a study on male strength in nature and “in magic.” Set to an original electronic score fit for a post-apocalyptic thriller, Whim’s seven dancers perform in simple black outfits with a series of props that harken to caveman days: a ring of stones set to look like a campfire, a bunch of tree leaves, a giant branch used as a weapon. The dancers move in sharp, robotic series of small steps and full-body quivers between vignettes about love, physical confrontation and food preparation. A duet between Tory Peil and Mia Monteabaro holds classic Whim W’Him intensity. Facing one another, Peil and Monteabaro curl forward and backward and each time they touch an imagined electric current spurs the other’s body part into small, quick movements. Their natural artistic chemistry is a hallmark of Whim W’Him artistry, noticeably absent in this performance following Reiter and Kilbane’s departures, but which will hopefully return as the new company roster comes into its own.

Glimpses of a budding new chemistry among Whim W’Him dancers can be seen in the third piece of the evening, Limitation Etudes: 7-10 from Juilliard graduate Banning Bouldin. In Etudes, Bouldin successfully melds heavily emotional themes with skilled, unique choreography so that her device completes the piece rather than distracting from the dancers’ individual artistry. As described in the program notes, Bouldin was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis nine months before creating this work for Whim W’Him. Exploring fears of facing MS-associated blindness and paralysis, Bouldin collaborated with the dancers to create a series of four short pieces illustrating the loss of physical autonomy. Liane Aung is carried onstage by a group of four or five dancers, her limbs wrapped loosely in a white ribbon. The remaining dancers follow the slow-moving tableau, crouched over and holding the ends of the ribbon. The dancers separate, and each dancer performs soft, balletic movements punctuated with small but violent shaking of their arms, legs, feet or midsections. The shuddering midsections continue throughout the piece and are disturbing to watch. A dancer’s core is her physical and emotional center, and the loss of control of this part of the body would be deeply traumatic. As Laung gradually becomes more dependant on the other dancers to marionette her body around the stage, their interactions become more intimate, more hopeful, and ultimately, inspiringly collaborative.

Choreographic Shindig III runs through Sept. 16.

This post has been updated.