Reviewed by Steve Sucato
The global pandemic caught many dance companies big and small flat-footed when it came to alternative ways to do what they do. And while some of the big budget troupes may have the capability of throwing more resources into creative virtual performance solutions, it has been forward-thinking smaller dance organizations that have been making the most noise and producing some of the best work out there in the virtual world.
Seattle’s Whim W’Him is one of those dance companies whose savvy in making superior dance films is bound to raise their profile in the dance world. Their latest offering, Choreographic Shindig VI was a shining example with two uniquely imaginative and high caliber dance films shot and one directed by former dancer and rising star filmmaker Quinn Wharton.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Grassville” led the program off. The 5th work for Whim W’Him by the Amsterdam-based choreographer, the 10-minute dance film set to music by Franz Shubert, opened on a wooden picture frame hanging on a white wall flanked by house plants. Within this frame was the image of dancer Andrew McShea with his back to us and with sprouts of grass and yellow flowers atop his head in place of hair. As Schubert’s piano music accompanying the film began, so to did McShea, revealing the picture frame to our window into the live-action film about to unfold.
As dance’s reining prop queen, Lopez Ochoa this time turned to nature for inspiration. A work about our current lack of physical contact with one another and with nature, Lopez Ochoa choice potted plants as her prop du jour along with delightfully vegetative head pieces created by Mark Zappone for the dancers to wear and to drive the work’s meaning home.
The meat of Lopez Ochoa’s contemporary dance choreography then began with company newcomers, McShea, Ashley Green and Michael Arellano, all graduates of Point Park University, dancing in an apartment around a sectional sofa with house plants in their hands. They tumbled on, around, and off the sofa kicking up their legs and collapsing onto to one another in flouncy, free-flowing movement. It was a surreal environment where Whim W’Him’s dancers not only danced with the plants but partially became plants themselves.
Meanwhile in another room in the dwelling, dancers Liane Aung and Karl Watson, similarly costumed as the others, performed wiggly, skittering choreography around a Television stand. The two dancers crawled about the floor an Watson inched his way up a side wall with his bare feet.
Soon the two groups of dancers merged into a trot around the apartment, stopping to swirl their heads round and round and bat their eyelids in a fantastical vision of what house plants might do if they could move and let loose as we do.
Spirit-lifting and joyous to watch, “Grassville” was a much-needed lark for our current dark times.
Next, a solid contender for top dance film of 2020, Madison Olandt and Mike Tyus’ 17-minute “Elsewhere,” began in an empty warehouse space with a handful of Whim W’Him’s dancers with their heads completely covered in shrouds of black stretch fabric. Appearing tethered to something out of camera shot, the dancers were being pulled headfirst by the fabric that stretched taut in long horizontal lines across the room, looking like a nightmarish scene from a sci-fi horror movie.
Caught in this the dancers twisted, tumbled, and dove down in rapid movement phrases to industrial music from Los Angeles music artist Emmit Fenn’s wide-ranging original sound score for the film.
Recalling imagery from music videos of the 1980s, “Elsewhere’s” second section replaced the black stretch fabric with the heads of several dancers being obscured by old portable tube televisions. The effect made it seem those dancers heads were encased by the TV’s and on each TV screen were live images of their faces or that of another dancers. Olandt and Tyus’ clever use of the prop took something familiar and gave it new life in a marvelously interesting way.
It is perhaps Olandt and Tyus’ taking of familiar visual motifs and creatively re-envisioning them in high definition and on a modest budget that is the film’s most impressive feat. “Elsewhere” sets a benchmark for other dance companies just getting into dance filmmaking to aspire to.
The film’s final scenes then took place outdoors with the dancers performing in marsh grass and along a long stretch of beach. They began a continuous movement sequence that had them running on the beach and then somersaulting backwards repeatedly in the wet sand and into rocking positions that sent their legs reaching skyward. The scene continued with the dancers tumbling, spinning, and twistedly darting along the beach in energetic contemporary dance choreography that was as glorious as the vast open scenery around them as sunset approached. As that sequence wound down the film then shifted to dancer Jane Cracovaner moving in and out of partnered duets with her fellow dancers as an instrumental piano version of the 1967 song “Something Stupid” that was popularized by Frank and Nancy Sinatra. It was a satisfying ending to a work/film that was masterful visually, choreographically and in the performances of Whim W’Him’s dancers.
Whim W’Him’s virtual 11th season continues Thursday, January 28, 2021 with artistic director Olivier Wevers’ This Is Not The Little Prince. 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.