Much of the boring art in galleries and on stages in Seattle gathers there because artists are afraid to risk. Many people say this with a half-hearted detachment but very few seriously believe in the creativity that arises out of total abandon.
Instead they talk about how “risky” they are simply because they perform in front of a live audience or work with physically dangerous materials. That level of “risk” is so low as to be beside the point. It is akin to saying it is risky crossing a street because one might get hit. That is not the kind of risk I am talking about. I am talking about the risk of complete, miserable, abject failure. Failure to receive even polite applause. Failure to make one’s point. Failure for material to take a shape at all. Failure to make anything comprehensible either to an audience or even to oneself.
Performing arts in Seattle especially have this problem, and theater moreso than dance. Young artists often remind us of this when they put together their first pieces.
In those works, they show us what is on their mind, what they see, how they think. Their grasp of their craft is on whatever level they hold it, naked and unashamed. What they offer they offer in earnest. They struggle with whatever they wish, and whatever they understand is what they give.
Sometimes this is shocking. But this is what reminds us of is possibility. Out of that possibility an audience may get the shock of recognition. Sometimes people find this the worst thing ever–as in “This is the worst film ever!” Behind one’s protest, however, lies the fact that the film challenges one’s own ideas of just what it is that “film” looks like.
I like to call these experiences “WTH moments.” For me, such moments are the core of art. They rattle, they disturb, they upset. Above all, they engage. They force an audience to confront their own clichés about what is acceptable. They are also the first sacrifice of artists who are looking for “stability.”
The joy of the BOOST Dance Festival is that in putting older and more experienced artists alongside younger, greener artists, one may always get a shock of contrast. A good ol’ fashioned WTH moment is always possible.
The second weekend of BOOST had at least two. The good news is that, for the most part, the audience went along with them. The first came during Alicia Mullikin’s piece Iron Daisies. For most young artists, artistic strength lies in restraint. Ms. Mullikin’s piece shows no such quality. It’s brash, chaotic, excessive, loud the way a rock concert or a high fashion show is loud. And it is powerful just the same. Music and monologue overlap and constantly threaten to overpower the physical performance. To me the central imagery of the piece looks like a massive quinceañera gone horribly wrong.
Having seen the piece back in October, I knew what was coming. What gives it a WTH moment quality is its placement immediately after Catherine Cabeen’s TORN. Ms. Cabeen’s work is dense as always but tightly controlled. Certainly she could hardly find a better dancer to interpret this than Sarah Lustbader, whose expressive gifts have matched Ms. Cabeen’s work many times before. It is thoughtful, as ever; crisp, as ever; fiery, as ever. And for all of that it is exactly what one would expect. She has explored the theme of paper before. This time she uses it not as a physical medium but as a metaphor for psychological strength. Ms. Cabeen is obviously in her comfort zone with this piece.
Placing Ms. Mullikin’s dance immediately after that creates a hard contrast between two approaches that seemingly have nothing to do with each other. Yet of course they do. The challenge for an audience is to figure out how.
In curating this weekend of dances, Kristen Legg and Marlo Martin obviously thought about this contrast, and others. Contrasting styles between works seems an obvious duty, yet many have failed miserably at it. The particular contrasts of BOOST’s second week give a sense not only of what is happening now, but also what is possible. Rather than showing there is only one type of acceptable modern dance, it is clear that Mss. Legg and Martin have an interest in many types of dance. As discussions about dance become more and more dogmatic, I find such a lack of tendentiousness quite refreshing.
After intermission Elia Mrak’s From Silence opened the second half. During Mr. Mrak’s piece, which I greatly enjoyed, I decided to start watching audience movements. I could sense among them an element of impatience as Mr. Mrak drew out the experience of silence which was the substance of his piece. That made me smile.
Last year Mr. Mrak’s piece for Erica Badgeley was completely silent. Movement was everything. This time, in his piece for himself, movements are often reduced to nothing, and speech is everything. Or rather, silence, is everything. The dialogue between speech, silence and movement is far from novel, but Mr. Mrak is so smooth with his movements that watching him is hypnotic. Adding to that the music by FeverOne creates the spirit of a deep house or trance music club that suddenly goes silent as the spotlight comes up on one dancer and the DJ. And once FeverOne really gets going, the b-boy in me wants to bust a move. I love that stuff.
Again, however, there is no preparation for it. The first half of the program is, in many ways, very simple. Except for Ms. Mullikin’s wrench in the works, Iyun Ashani Harrison’s elegiac The Leaves Have Fallen, Kaitlin Dye’s lovely solo I was and still am build on a fairly straightforward modern dance vocabulary, the kind that one expects to be called “modern dance” and is approved by academics everywhere. Mr. Mrak’s work comes from another tradition completely. It is no less powerful for that, but the jolt of it is a little like seeing a barefoot hobbit in a tuxedo at the black and white ball.
So thank goodness for hobbits.
The younger artists are often at their best when they restrain themselves, instead of having the usual problem of having far too much to say and trying to say it all at once. This is most clear in Babette McGeady’s solo, Take A | Part This. Giving herself a limited area of movement and limiting her movements themselves, Ms. McGeady creates a fragile world in a single square of white fabric (meant, I think, to represent light against the black/darkness of the stage). It hearkens back to Erica Badgeley’s piece from the first weekend, but the purpose here is quite different. The protagonist of Ms. McGeady’s piece does not seek to peel away layers of unconscious material, but rather to escape from a place of mental confinement. While it has a certain reductive quality to it–space and place are very different things to treat in a dance–I think it shows a promising young dancer in mid-exploration. The piece has a real elegance to it and its simplicity intensifies the emotion present.
All in all, I found both weekends of BOOST to be excellent showcases of the talent Seattle has at its disposal. I am a big fan of the festival’s eclectic ethos. I also support its status as a kind of safe haven for young dancers to make mistakes when they need to. The mistakes are few this time out but there is no guarantee that next year will be the same. Young artists need a place to grow, and, too, young artists benefit from being partnered even tangentially with mid-career artists.
While it might seem that the benefit goes only one way, I think the older artists stand just as much to gain as the youth, if they are sufficiently pliable. Established artists, too, need a chance to re-examine their identity and if necessary completely start over or go in a direction no one expects–or accepts. Just because they rarely do so does not mean that they need not try. The more festivals they have where they can legitimately experiment in front of a public, the better it is for artists and audiences alike.
Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net