Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Seattle may have been ground zero for the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., but it was also ground zero for one of the more ambitious dance projects to stem from the global pandemic’s aftereffects on the dance world. Seattle Dance Collective’s (SDC) Continuum: Bridging the Distance was a free month-long virtual series of world-premiere dance works/films performed by members of SDC and shot by Seattle-based filmmaker Henry Wurtz. Five choreographers and ten dancers, mostly members of Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), collaborated on five dance films that ran one each Thursday in July and are now receiving an encore showing through the month of August on SDC’s website.
The project came about when SDC founders/artistic directors Noelani Pantastico and James Yoichi Moore “embarked on a reimagining of how to carry out their vision for the company by finding unconventional ways to foster collaboration between choreographers and dancers. The resulting creations were choreographed and rehearsed via multiple video calls, and then captured on film. Dancers involved in the same piece were already sheltering-in-place together or filmed separately to maintain safe social distance from each other.”
The format for the five filmed works called for each piece to be under 7-minutes in length and take place mostly in an outdoor location. Each film also included a separate companion “making of” documentary also available on SDC’s website.
The series first film offering was choreographer Penny Saunders’ “Home”. Danced to atmospheric music by Michael Wall with voiceovers from its two dancers, PNB soloists Elle Macy and Dylan Wald, “Home” opened with the pair walking into a lush green field of high grass and densely-limbed trees that had an ancient feel to them.
Bringing a sense of indoor life to the outdoors, we hear in voiceover Macy and Wald discussing having been stuck in their 600 sq. ft. apartment, talk of breakfast, computers and the fear of coughing around others. As this goes on, the pair melted into Saunders’ soft, elongated contemporary dance choreography that moved like a breeze across that idyllic landscape. The dancers’ feet swept aside large swaths of grass that rebounded with ease, conjuring up a metaphor of hope underlying the film that our collective sense of normalcy could also bounce back from being swept aside by the global pandemic.
“I miss dancing…I miss my friends” were sentiments repeated as Macy and Wald’s bodies intersected and intertwined with one another exploring something missing in the world these days, levels of physical intimacy with others. The charming yet telling film about life under pandemic ended with the image of Macy and Wald walking hand-in-hand across a welcome mat that read “Home” lying in the middle of the grassy field.
Having created a similarly themed virtual dance work for Michigan’s Grand Rapids Ballet, Saunders, in her short time as a dance filmmaker, has begun to develop a knack for bringing to them what she regularly brings to her stage works, art that touches audience hearts through a combination of beauty and humanity.
Next, “The Only Thing You See Now”, by brother and sister creatives Miles and Sydney Pertl, a.k.a. SeaPertls, took place at Seattle’s Don Armeni Boat Ramp with the city’s waterfront and skyline as its backdrop. Perhaps the most “Dance Film-looking” of the five included in Continuum: Bridging the Distance, it was shot in close-up with live music. In it, we see dancers Miles Pertl and Leah Terada performing on an overcast day along the wobbly boat ramp dock to original accordion music from Jason Webley who sat perched atop a wooden piling wearing a pork pie hat. Nearby a wooden rowboat tied to the dock bobbed up and down as Pertl and Terada costumed in street clothes and sneakers, did the same. At the outset, the two appeared strangers but soon came together as would-be lovers. They dipped and swayed in twisty full-body movement augmented with signal-like hand and arm gestures.
The short 4 ½ minute piece, lovely as it was, “missed the boat” in the area giving the viewer a fuller sense of these two individuals. Just as they began to reveal themselves to the viewer and each other, the film ended with the two holding hands and walking down the dock. Then again, the work’s brevity may have been purposeful on SeaPertls part. As the work’s title reads, “The Only Thing You See Now,” perhaps indicating that more of the pair may be to come in future installments.
A man (PNB principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite) wearing a white hoodie, black gloves, red lipstick, and mascara lies prone in the dirt, head to one side and stares glassy eyed off into the distance as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata begins to be heard. This dramatic beginning scene in former Ballet Austin dancer Beth Terwilleger’s “A Headlamp or Two” unfortunately held more promise for the rest of the film than it was able to deliver.
As Postlewaite began to stir and roll about the dirt in front of a sign that read “Jumps Closed,” an image of dancer Stephan Bourgond in all black and similarly made up lying at the bottom of a skate park bowl was layered in with Postlewaite’s. The two performed the same tortured-individual choreography that had them writhing, rising up and collapsing down as if with hearts heavy with despair. If they were to represent the light and the dark of the same person, perhaps because of the pandemic, both appeared equally melancholy. Where the film mostly faltered was in the constant use of the layering of the two dancers’ images atop each other. It proved more of a distraction than a re-enforcement that these two people were two sides of the same coin. In addition, beyond that one simple plot point, the choreography, and consequently the film, went basically nowhere. “A Headlamp or Two’s” only saving grace came in the heartfelt performances of Postlewaite and Bourgond.
“Musings” by Amanda Morgan (in collaboration with Nia-Amina Minor) took us back among the trees with images of green canopies and the sounds of nature to open. Those tranquil scenes were then cut together with images of the small patches of greenery dotting a few city apartment buildings. Moving between those two worlds was dancer Amanda Morgan. Set to Sacramento-born singer/songwriter Hannah Mayree’s folksy music, Morgan performed her illustrative contemporary dance choreography with a natural ease and fluidly.
Voiceovers of interviews with multigenerational Black women speaking of life and living were then heard along with the music as Morgan danced on and we begin to see brief glimpses of a barefoot woman in a red dress (Minor) passing by.
“Musings” as a dance work and film captured the viewer’s interest quite effectively with its carefully edited transitions between scenes/locales and its varied camera angles capturing Minor and Morgan’s sharp and brilliant dancing in the work. The film reached its crescendo when the recorded audio chants of “Black Lives Matter” ignited a flurry of dancing from the two women and brought us home to our current public discourse on race and equality. A jewel among the works/films shown, “Musings” proved the complete artistic package one worthy of repeated viewings.
Closing out Continuum: Bridging the Distance, Bruno Roque’s “The Space Between Us” took its inspiration from the social distancing edict we are all living under. The film began with SDC founders Pantastico and Moore dancing indoors along a building hallway to pulsating electronic music by former National Ballet of Portugal principal dancer Alexander Hoeppner.
Costumed in matching-ish solid colored t-shirts, long pants and white sneakers, Pantastico and Moore separately moved along the length of the hallway grazing its side walls with their shoulders and limbs in up-tempo contemporary dance choreography. Midway the scene shifted to the pair dancing at what appeared to be an empty, glass-walled café. Pantastico continued her shoulder-rolling, torso-dipping and leg-lifting dance movement inside the café while Moore mirrored her movements on the other side of the café’s glass walls in a rainy outdoor seating area.
A fitting closer to the dance film series, “The Space Between Us” was vibrant in its approach and that of the dancers’ performances.
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Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.