Touched at Velocity’s NextFest
I hate to do this to you guys but my editor demanded that I write up an article about Velocity’s recent NextFest Northwest Dance Festival. I would love to encourage everyone to go and see the amazing performances that I saw, but the festival is now over and the only chance to see these acts again will be in some altered form set in another venue, which will no doubt make them wonderful and unique, but not the same.
However, I really shouldn’t feel all that bad because chances are that you attended one of the 3 days of the festival, after all it was a sold out crowd over the duration of its run. And that packed house audience saw some fantastic work, expertly crafted and exquisitely executed with the core theme of Touch, something Velocity Executive Director Tonya Lockyer purposely picked as a seemingly simple prompt, but rather intended it to have a deep and varied interpretation that would challenge both performers and audience members alike.
The Stranger, who admirably digested the evening’s performances for an opening night review summed it up as ‘fast, fascinating, jarringly intimate, and exhausting—like a blurry one-night stand of hard, drunk sex that leaves room for little more than a glass of water and a heavy, welcome sleep.’ This review strangely was not just accurate, but along the lines of what performers intended when they set out to either create new work specifically for the program, or when they tailored existing work for the time allotted. The reviewer, one Ms. Datz, might have even come closer to the essence of Touch than she intended, relating an evening of touch based work to violent sex, a correlation that draws the 2 most common perceptions of touch together in 1 fell swoop. As the choreographers nearly all agreed in the post-show talk, touch is rarely thought of outside the realms of sex and/or violence in our society.
I simply can’t just describe what I saw that evening, after all I was blindfolded for some length and throughout the evening performances were shown in ways that mere descriptions just could not do justice. What I can say is that from the minute audience members arrived they were met with dance, not so much dance as a spectator activity, but dance as an experience, something to be engaged in. Dancers slipped blindfolds on ‘willing’ audience members before they had even found their seats and brought movement into people that might rarely move in the ways that dancers move. Sure some people don’t dance, I admit I’m among those, but everyone can move their body, or at least everyone should move their body.
When the formal performance started we were met with a new work titled #Selfie from Nathan Blackwell, whose Google results sum him up as performing artist, visual creator and philosopher. Blackwell is a relative newcomer to Seattle and Velocity, by way of the University of Colorado, but showed us work with a cast of local performers that he has some report with, to the exception of a recent acquaintance in the talented Devin McDermot. Blackwell recently met and brought her into the work and stated post-show that she just gets it, and that was evident as the ensemble moved in largely restrained ways, costumed like hipster greasers to melancholy but at times wildly frantic choreography. The scene deserved to be captured in a moody Singer Sargent style portrait, young hipsters masked in shadow, just enough visual clues to allude to a performance, but not enough to tell us why or where.
Gender Tender just keeps getting better, their routines aren’t getting more polished or anything like that, but rather the more I view this duo, of Syniva Whitney and Will Courtney, the more I am drawn into the world that their performance art creates. For this work, aptly titled Go/Long, Gender Tender did some thorough research into sports, of all things. Will had a multitude of hand signals and gestures, culled from football, baseball, and roller derby, while Syniva gave a soulful and bluesy serenade. The crowd was simultaneously attempting to decipher the duo’s skewed gender roles while bursting into laugher at the sometimes absurd onstage antics.
The first half of the evening ended with Choreographer Dylan Ward’s newly created work Melody Nelson, a piece commissioned for Velocity and one that debuted at this festival. Ward is young in age, but a quick look through his artist website will tell you that he has a great deal to offer. His bold post-show discussion only reassures us that future works by Ward are worth the wait. Ward stated that as audience members we paid to be there, so we as audience members can sing along if prompted and we can talk with the dancers when they enter the grandstands to mingle, but since we paid, we can do neither of those things, and that is alright, because we paid to be there, to see new and experimental work.
A Black Velvet and Coke later and we were back to the festival, this time led into the adjacent studio where Matt Drews and Coulliette, of the collective the Pendleton House, had created a dance installation. Installations are experimental performances, often rethinking how an audience views a work, or how a work is presented. In this case it was in the round as Drews, covered in talc-like dusting with freshly bleached hair and appearing nearly albino, moved within a cylindrical scrim curtain while gorgeous projections of the dancer in the buff were projected onto the screens. In the video that complimented the live performance, Drews moves about a variety of gorgeous natural environments, from pristine waterfalls to the tumultuous surf of the coast. To Drews, touch is not something that just connects people, but also something that connects people to nature.
Ushered back into the main space we were once again in the round, this time as an assortment of dancers, in body paint of all colors, danced within a grid on the floor. They happened to be blindfolded, but this was not a hindrance as they were very aware of their surroundings and their fellow dancers. Alana O Rogers and her dancers created Sight as a way to interpret the theme of touch, often using touch between the blindfolded dancers to give them a sense of direction and purpose. When the blindfolds were removed, the dancers used intense eye contact as a form of touch.
The evening ended in what reviewer Datz was surely alluding to in her comparison to rough drunken sex. That performance was Coleman Pester’s 30 unsure steps to my seat, a violent yet thoroughly beautiful piece that had the audience blindfolded for half of the duration as dancers hurled themselves at the floor repeatedly. Our senses were deprived and simultaneously heightened as dancers crashed to the hard wooden floor nearly at our feet. When the blindfolds were gently lifted off of our eyes by the dancers, who had researched and rehearsed the very motion of removing blindfolds without being invasive, we were shown just how those violent crashing sounds were being created as Erica Badgeley crossed the dance floor falling with momentous thuds. This chaotic performance did not let up as more dancers came out of seated positions in the audience and alternated between flowing choreography and seemingly painful falls. It was a wonder that these dancers repeated this insanely intense routine over the course of 3 consecutive days. As a dancer and assistant to the choreographer, Erica Badgeley proved in the post-show discussion, this routine was intense and draining, she looked broken and thoroughly exhausted as she passionately described what touch meant to her.
It is rare to see a performance twice, but if any recent performance justified a repeat viewing, it would be NextFest with its evening of beautiful and experimental performance that explored touch in more ways than I could have imagined, leaving me to ponder what touch means in my life. As Dylan Ward writes in his explanation of Melody Nelson, ‘touch is often a source of miscommunication, and many people spend their entire lives working out how exactly to touch another person in appropriate manners. Most of them never learn.’ I believe we each learned something about touch as we sat in the audience that night.