Often during the Sunday evening performance of Velocity’s Next Fest NW 2013, I found myself sitting up in my seat. Watching dance does make me more conscious of my posture, but in this case it had to do with following the radical actions unfolding—and as quickly, vanishing—before me. I wouldn’t call myself jaded but as a contemporary art critic and curator for the last twenty-plus years, it’s not often that I am stumped by a work, which is to say, not sure how to read its compositional or expressive language. I mean puzzled in a positive sense, challenging but also uncomfortable like a hamstring stretch. It means you are grappling with a work of art pushing beyond set boundaries or conventions in the service of a new vision or a fresh means of expression, because the known ones can’t speak to current-day experiences. An example from art history is when Picasso and Braque made the first collages. They let bits of the daily paper mingle with oil paint. That was the real world rushing in and changing what could be imagery and material for art. It changed the value of types of representation when the text stands out as representational imagery among fragmented cubist geometry.
Dylan Ward’s Melody Nelson made me sit up straight, but not all the way through, because the piece is pretty long. A veritable mercenary army of casually-dressed performers took the stage; they were all ages and types and sizes. There was a fluid combination of scenes and movements you’d find both onstage and off. Many things were happening at once—it was hard to keep track and make sense of it all and it left me breathless. One minute it looked like the performers were at a party with about twenty people standing or lying around in clusters. Then every so often, a few would coalesce into a dance that may or may not relate to the mixed audio of testimonials, disco, French ballads and talk radio mostly to do with ill-fated love. Afterwards the dancers would melt back into the crowd. It felt like the dissociative array of groupings on stage—whether moving choreographically not, whether coughing, arguing, or doing floor stretches—paired with the equally random-seeming audio sequence and the sudden shifts in lighting and pacing, somehow spoke to the cacophonous simultaneity and universality of experience normally disconnected by time and space but now made possible by the internet and social networking.
The evening started with white chiffon curtains diagonally splitting the stage in three. The staging was simple and effective. Later in this first piece, Nathan Blackwell’s #selfie, there’s a lovely moment when the dancers walk through the curtains, sending them fluttering in space. Each of the three sections offered a kind of boudoir for one or two self-absorbed dancers’ simultaneous vignettes (hence the title) to moody techno music. Dressed in biker black leather and dark sunglasses, the dancers performed everyday actions like applying lipstick and absent-minded hairstyling. With the exception of a spate of coordinated disco dancing among the four protagonists, the actions were for the most part executed with the somnambulent gravity of ancient ritual. At the end, tender face-washing followed by death-defying head-dunking took place using two large buckets—the only props. This juxtaposition of late-night clubbing and dark mysticism made for a heady mix, though the narrative or symbolism at its root could have been less shrouded in mystery.
I was completely taken aback by the slapstick sumo-cum-football match in Gender Tender’s Go/Long. Dressed as twins in collegiate football jackets over a Grecian gold tunic, the pair starts out head-to-head, then moves into a tug-of-war using a jock strap. It was a stand-up comedy as much as dance with extended poses and antics such as letting stiff arm movements turn into baseball and traffic signals. That slippage between references and disciplines was the most gratifying part, as was the way their voguing bodies clad in two-tone red and gold turned into color block sculpture.
Afterwards, everyone cooled down with Matt Drews + Coulliette [the Pendleton House]’s live art installation, || bardo ||, in a white chiffon-walled gazebo set up in a secondary studio. Inside he played a lone albino (his skin was powdered), otherworldly being in a long white sarong undulating with the cadence of crashing waves projected on the fabric walls. It was like watching an exotic animal at the zoo—fascinating but concerning. At the end he dropped to the floor as if dead. You have to walk right next to his prone still body as you exit the theater. We are so used to virtual reality that the close encounter with his staring eyes and pumping chest is a jolt.
In Alana Rogers’ Sight, surrealism takes another turn with multi-colored (as in blue, pink, etc., including painted face and hands) dancers performing ponderous, dead-serious modern, blindfolded. Blindness wasn’t all they were struggling with, because life did not seem to get any better even after the blindfolds were shed.
In the next and last piece, Coleman Pester/Tectonic Marrow Society’s 30 unsure steps to my seat, the audience gets a turn being blindfolded for the first half of the performance (you don’t know that at the outset though—for all you know, that blindfold is staying on for the duration.). The dance is very noisy and active, so there is plenty to imagine and also to startle. It reminded me of overhearing people in the next apartment having a brawl. There’s lots of heavy breathing and every so often a body or two stirs the air and lands with a thump near your feet. Finally a gentle hand removes your blindfold and presumably the dancers dance the whole thing again, which is incredible because the piece is so strenuous. There are multiple slides and lifts. Dancers seem to be thrown/ejected from one position and point in space to another, as if by an invisible force. I had never seen this type of dance and I believe it is called contact improvisation. I found it riveting. It is not the kind of exhibitionist athleticism that you see might see these days, in Alonzo King LINES Ballet, for example. The effort is not hidden as it is in classical ballet. The dancers seem to be testing the limit of physical capability in terms of speed, strength, stamina and grace. It was like a beautiful non-violent wrestling match.
In short, extreme experimentation in costuming, staging and especially the mixing (collaging) of choreographic standards such as Cunninghamesque angularity with real-life references—from clubbing to praying—defined the evening.
Seattle-based since 2012, Melissa E. Feldman is an independent curator and writes for Art in America, Frieze and Photograph, among other art magazines. Her most recent exhibition, “Dance Rehearsal: Karen Kilimnik’s World of Ballet and Theatre,” was organized by the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, Calif. and traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.
Featured photo / Tim Summers