Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Seattle contemporary dance company Whim W’him entered its 11th season under the COVID-19 pandemic with the plan to move all their performance online. The experimental season featuring original dance films by some of the world’s most in-demand contemporary dance choreographers kicked off August 13 with the virtual production XALT.
Originally planned for live performance, June 2020 at the Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, it was to be the last program the company’s 10th season. And while the program had to be retooled for the virtual stage to open season 11, in some ways that may have been of benefit for its first dance film offering, choreographer Penny Saunders’ “Manifold”.
A spoof about becoming or being a television newscaster, the work lent itself to the small screen and afforded Saunders the opportunity to have the work exist in that world of camera angles, close-ups, multi-source material and editing that may not have been possible or as effective in a live production version.
Saunders, a former dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, has been busy during the pandemic creating virtual dance works for Grand Rapids Ballet and fellow Seattle troupes Seattle Dance Collective and a soon-to-be released work for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Akin to a skit on TV’s Saturday Night Live, “Manifold” was the cleverest of Saunders dance films to date. The laugh-out-loud work set to an original soundscape by Mike Wall opened with Saunders’ highly animated choreography for the dancers that included over-the-top facial expressions and a host of comedic sight gags including a tutorial on proper TV news reporter hand placement that had a not-so-subtle reference to them creating a diamond or a “v-jay jay” pattern placement. The scene then switched to the dancers onstage with microphones and mic cords zipping through fast-paced spinning moves and boxing-like punches that were shot in close-up and danced to audio taken from TV newscasts and movies featuring news reporters.
Filmed and directed by Quinn Wharton, “Manifold’s” underlying message of how current day news reporting has strayed from neutral and factual in its approach to editorialized and sensationalized was impactful. From our current president’s attacks on the news media as being enemies of the state, to Edward R. Murrow’s prophetic 1958 speech warning of just such a degradation in standards of news reporting, the 15-minute work shone a light on where we have come as a nation in the reporting of news and in those entrusted with reporting it.
Next, Whim W’him artistic director Olivier Wevers’s 12-minute “The Way It Is” opened on dancer Mia Monteabaro in a blue dress and sneakers beginning a dance journey along a winding paved path flanked by greenery underneath the convergence of several highway overpasses.
As she bounded along she was soon joined by several other dancers forming a single file line along the path performing Wever’s springy contemporary choreography to an original composition by Brian Lawlor that had them jumping, sidling and outstretching limbs as if careening in and out of control. Lawlor’s music for the work gradually built in intensity and drove an underlying tension in the work.
The scene then shifted to Monteabaro emerging from the path and running through a field straight into the fence surrounding an old abandoned tennis courts where, on the other side of the fence, her fellow performers danced in unison in a back and forth, twisting and turning movement phrase.
An abstract, almost surreal dance film, “The Way It Is,” also filmed and directed by Quinn Wharton, had the feel of a waking dream perhaps brought on by the anxiety of a world under pandemic.
With grand scenic vistas of green fields and blue water, “The Way It Is” while perplexing in its overall messaging, was brilliant in its execution, especially in the fierce and beautiful performance of Monteabaro.
Next up on Whim W’him’s IN-with-WHIM virtual season will be Choreographic Shindig VI, Thursday, September 24 featuring works by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Madison Olandt and Mike Tyus. For more information and ticket access whimwhim.org/performances.
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.