The Stone Dance Collective in “Carbon Black and Fiber” Photo Rex Tranter

The Stone Dance Collective
in “Carbon Black and Fiber”
Photo Rex Tranter

Back To The Future

Meydenbauer Center Theatre, Bellevue, Washington

February 14th, 2016

Dean Speer

I always feel like I’m returning to my modern dance roots and getting my contemporary dance fix when I look forward to and enjoy Eva Stone’s annual modern dance festival, Chop Shop – Bodies of Work, held in Seattle’s “Eastside” suburb. She provides a forum for regional, national, and sometimes international dance artists to share their work in a friendly atmosphere, with production values that are sometimes hard to get on one’s own – a theatre, publicity, lighting, and indeed, an audience. It’s a collegial experience and one of the region’s most important dance events.

Stone always has a fun and cheerful way of welcoming the audience, and this year it was through the use of informational and amusing hand-made placards, passed to her on stage by her daughter. I also enjoyed managing director Lizzy Melton’s introductory remarks to the second half, telling us if we liked what we saw, when and where we can see more of these artists locally in the coming months, Chop Shop being a sort of Whitman’s Sampler.

This year’s Sampler, as seems to be the case pretty much every time, was mixed choreographically in terms of strengths, results, and approaches. The strongest works were the ones that were rigorously thought out and structured [structure is sometimes considered a negative thing in contemporary dance, but it’s not really] versus those that seemed perhaps better suited for in-studio workshopping and presentation, which were probably more interesting to do than to watch.

Michele Miller/Catapult Dance (Seattle) with What We Have, featured three women using weight-sharing techniques and a casual approach.

Loyce Houlton was an amazing contemporary choreographer for Minnesota Dance Theatre – she was the director of choreography for a mid-70s NARB Choreography Conference that I attended as a dancer, held at Tacoma’s Pacific Lutheran University, where she expounded compositional wisdom and what she called her “10 Commandments of Choreography, “ including, “Thou Shall Not Run.” I was happy to learn and see that her granddaughter, Liz Houlton, is living and working in Seattle – and that she seems to adhere to these great rules for success. Her Close Quarters in a Large World to an altered sound score of a Bach keyboard concerto was a strong addition, using a small center stage table as a focal point and development device.

Stone’s own The Stone Dance Collective in her Carbon Black and Fiber using text and a found sound score, commented on the social loss of the handwritten letter, although the sound score used typewriter sounds – perhaps suggesting its invention and that of the modern computer have made notes on paper antiquated. The dancers collectively used spoken text – and paper, sometimes “reading,” sometimes crumpling and tossing.

Kyra Jean Green from Montreal in her solo, Eytan, not only dressed and mimed in a Chaplinesque way but she herself reminded me of Chaplin’s circus performer daughter, Victoria Chaplin, who does amazing work – some of which are visual non-sequiturs. Green began by mouthing words and some kind of impassioned speech with a few emphatic hand and arm gestures, then progressing into full body movement, returning to these disturbing images. The work perhaps suggested mental health issues or someone or a body of someones who are not listened to.

Coleman Pester’s ritualistic The Architecture of Being was a large group work with himself as the center of his groups [TECTONIC MARROW SOCIETY] “massing” around him, circling, running, breaking off, with Pester occasionally joining them.

SubRosa Dance Collective in “Foibles” Photo Rex Tranter

SubRosa Dance Collective
in “Foibles”
Photo Rex Tranter

Portland, Oregon has some great dance going on, and I was happy to see for the first time its SubRosa Dance Collective in an excerpt from Foibles, set to Vivaldi. It’s a good piece with what I call “real” choreography and nice structure, with a clear arc to it. You could see where it was going and it felt right. Kudos to this strong and delightful ensemble of dancers.

Anna Connor +CO in her The Machine tackled the subject and social commentary of “Are we just cogs in a machine?” and the work itself reminded me of perpetual motion devices and toys. Primarily gestural, it was just the right length and tenor.

Jointly from Minneapolis and Seattle, Alexander Pham in his Repetition is a strong dancer who acted/danced out a text by Phil Kaye, the catalyst for which seemed to be the divorce of either his or Pham’s parents. Pham started out well with one movement that built nicely but perhaps gave too much due to the text. Both music and text can become a compositional/choreographic trap, and they need to be “countered” – used as a jumping off point but not slavishly. His development of his material was good but the ending a bit inconclusive and not as strong as it could have been.

From Boise, Lauren Edson/LED in Edson’s Barbarian Princess is credited as being inspired by the life of Zelda Fitzgerald and certainly had some of the strongest and most excellent dancers of the afternoon.

As they say in human subjects training classes, sometimes our strengths are also our weaknesses. While this is not always true, I find that from a compositional standpoint, this is sometimes the case of Donald Byrd’s work. We were blessed to have his amazing dancers from Spectrum Dance Theatre in an excerpt from Byrd’s The Octoroon Ball. Byrd is an excellent choreographer with good ideas and the means to express them. His weakness is that he needs to let well enough alone and trust himself, as he will sometime layer on too much, making his works denser than they need to be. Ball is an excellent piece and could be even better. For example, the couple that holds hands, each turning a foot in happy reaction while watching the inaugural soloist, don’t break out, doing their own featured dance, as we had been setup to expect. The first group of dancers, costumed in gray, are then joined by dancers in colorful leotards and black tights. These two groups don’t seem to belong together and their integration remained a mystery. Maybe this is the point, but I feel, nevertheless, the dance could be re-worked to make it even better.

One comment about the venue:  Spruced up with new carpets and fixtures, the Meydenbauer Center is fun to go for this cherished annual festival, but I was disappointed to find that a glass enclosed stairwell on the side that opens up to the attached convention center has been re-glazed with opaque glass. Too bad, as one of the previous Shop Chop installations that we really enjoyed was a dance group that improvised and danced up and down its two or three stories during an intermission [I think also before curtain]. Perhaps the Eastside now thinks itself too snooty to have to look inside something as proletarian as a cement stairwell.

Anyway, Melton and Stone have hinted that they are already working on planning Chop Shop 2017. I can hardly wait!