Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers & Dance Photo © Tino Tran

Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers & Dance
Photo © Tino Tran

Washington Hall, Seattle, WA; 23 May 2014

Dean Speer

For over 30 years I have been in search of finding and being able to take a great ballet class – one that combines excellence in teaching with terrific live accompaniment. In fact, I stopped taking class a few years ago because I was so discouraged by the level of music – weak, uninspired and often not giving us much more than a beat. In a couple of cases, the music was so poor that I almost wished that we’d have class to no music at all, just counts and claps. I’ve hit the mark a couple of times but have come to the conclusion that this is only going to happen rarely, so I try to enjoy things as they are and resumed taking class routinely a couple of years ago being grateful for when we have a good accompanist and smiling when we don’t. [You know you’re in trouble when the pianist plays the same piece of music for adagio and waltz pirouette.] Playing for the ballet is highly specialized and accompanists too often don’t get the kind of coaching they need and deserve – and from which we would benefit.

Similarly with modern and contemporary dance in Seattle, for me it’s been a long dry spell with only an occasional oasis along the hot – and sometimes, well, wet trail. I should point out that, as sophisticated as we like to believe we are in Seattle, I’ve never been able to find an open Graham Technique class, not counting Pat Hon’s college classes at Cornish. This is my expertise in contemporary dance [Martha herself disliked the word “modern”] and not being able to take a Graham class has been a bit like being cut off from speaking your first language. It’s not the language only, it’s the deep culture and history that surrounds it. On those all-too-rare occasions when I’m asked to or give a Graham class somewhere, it feels so wonderful – being re-connected to my roots.

I’ve found that much of the modern/contemporary dance in Seattle tends to be weak either choreographically or in performance execution, falling into what I call the “army, army, swoopy, swooshy” variety or there are lots of disgruntled looking, often female, dancers standing around in tight gym trunks and bare legs or rolling around on the floor making gestures that seem to carry great import with capitalized FEELING but without much context or meaning. They also seem to share a motif and movement palette – haven’t you noticed? Go to one concert, then to another, and they’re kind of the same.

Where’s the technique? Where’s the training? Are they afraid to be seen? Do we tolerate it because it’s all we have or that we don’t know any better? Beautiful dancers are often being squandered on sub-par work.

Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers & Dance Photo © Tino Tran

Rambunctious: A Festival of American Composers & Dance
Photo © Tino Tran

For the most part, I purposely avoided Donald Byrd’s work, as I find its subject matter too dark and grim for my taste and temperament. I have seen and enjoyed the three pieces he did for PNB and his choreography for the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of “Pineapple Poll” a few years ago which was delightful, well done, and far beyond competent.

English was not my maternal grandfather’s first language and I recall one of his favorite words – an admonition to us energetic grandkids, was “don’t be too rambunctious” – of course us little tykes did not know the word but quickly guessing his meaning from the context.

The idea of a rambunctious program of dance coupled with Simple Measures lured me into walking the two blocks from my house to Washington Hall to see their joint collaboration with Spectrum Dance Theatre in their “Rambunctious” program – a two week venture of entirely new choreography to various string quartets by different generations of American composers, in one case a world premiere, with the composer – Don Krishnaswami here to enjoy it.

I have to say I was really impressed.  Truly impressed – and inspired and rekindled. Not only was there excellent choreography that was well conceived and developed but it was also superbly danced by a highly trained cadre of dancers, and importantly, accompanied live by the Simple Measures quartet of Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin; Liza Zurlinden, violin; Laura Renz, viola; Rajan Krishnaswami, ‘cello; and Brian Chin, trumpet. This is the level of contemporary dance that everyone in Seattle should be working at – or a least aspiring to. During the show, I became excited enough to mentally want to invite several colleagues immediately to attend to enjoy and, in a couple of cases, to learn from these choreographic examples.

Byrd gave us movement and lots of it – at a high level, using and showing what the dancers can do but not mere displays. His choreography tends to be dense and complex from a dancer’s point of view, yet easy to follow for us watching.

“Fanfare!” was just that – short, colorful with twisting hips, knees and feet and with a celebratory feeling. The dancers’ discipline, outward calm and open faces and manner throughout, relaxed us and brought us into what they were doing. The music was by Charles Ives, his “Scherzo for String Quartet” from 1903/14. “Fanfare” introduced us to the cast and told us what they are capable of right away: William E. D. Burden; Derek Crescenti; Jade Solomon Curtis; Alex Crozier; Davione Gordon; Cara-May Marcus; Shadou Mintrone; Kate Monthy; Justin Reiter; and apprentice Micah St. Kitts.

As an in-between device to keep us occupied while the musicians tuned between pieces, three men came out and moved, laughed out loud [literally].

“Kol Nidre” with a score by John Zorn [1996] featured Derek Crescenti, Jade Solomon Curtis, and Cara-May Marcus.  Where has Kate Monthy been all my life? What an amazing dancer and presence from Tacoma. Not only is she performing but she also initiated and runs a tuition-free dance school, benefitting youth. Wow.

Not only are the women exceptional, as you might expect but the men are too. Excellent technical facility coupled with the ability to jump with some of the tightest beats I’ve ever seen [Alex Crozier], extension, control, and stamina.


“Septet” was a big company piece – Derek Crescenti; Crozier; Jade Curtis; Cara-May Murcus; Shadou Mintrone; Justin Rieter; and Micah St. Kitts.

The works unveiled during Rambunctious were outstanding – each of which I would very much like to see again and hope that they are kept in Spectrum’s active repertoire. My only regret is that I was unable to see the first week of the run and so missed enjoying what I’m probably correctly guessing were works on par with those at Washington Hall.

Spectrum and Simple Measures were a pairing that was a big hit – let’s hope they keep the partnership. Rambunctious was just that and, pun intended, showed us the full spectrum of high art possibilities of today’s contemporary dance scene. It was well worth the walk and wait.