New Expressive Works: The tension builds

Subashini Ganesan's resident choreographer program features Stephanie W. Schaaf, Jessica Kelley, Dora Gaskill and Michael Galen

New Expressive Works’ current residency program shows that this dance community is as strong as ever. Founded in 2012 with the mission to support dancers of diverse backgrounds in developing original work, N.E.W. also provides accessible practice space and a variety of movement classes in a centrally-located, well-equipped studio.

Annually, the space serves 4500 audience members and students, and more than 200 independent performing artists have used the facilities for some aspect of their practice. The residency program has supported 32 choreographers to date, with four more on the way. In short, it’s exactly the kind of program that artistic communities in this city need in order to survive all the closures and changes to the spaces where they can work and live.

Every six months, four choreographers are chosen for the residency program. They receive 144 hours of free rehearsal space, a modest stipend, and moderated, critical feedback in the form of Katherine Longstreth’s Fieldwork program. The works, whether they are finished or in progress, debut as 20-minute pieces at the end of the residency, as they did last night for the 8th session. The show continues at 7:30 pm through Sunday, May 28, at New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont, Ste 2, in the WYSE Building (use building doors located on the south side of the building).

The program moved with a steady momentum, held together by themes that emerged though the individual works. These conceptual threads that ran through the performances seemed to indicate a zeitgeist of shared concerns among the resident artists rather than enforced curatorial decisions. One could easily imagine the questions and ideas bouncing off of each other during the Fieldwork sessions to recombine later in the residents’ individual practice.

Here and Here

Stephanie W. Schaaf started the night with a pensive and fluid solo piece Here and Here. A veteran of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company of San Francisco and a professional movement educator, her contemporary dance chops showed. There was a tension and a seriousness to her presence that suggested a sense of working something out, of being preoccupied with a task or a question. Her range and fluidity of movement kept this from feeling too heavy, and she broke it at productively unpredictable moments.

The lighting design was simple but very effective, casting shadows of Schaaf’s body for her to dance with, and providing the snappiest moment of surprise at the very end. A line of booklets, displaying some kind of text, were set out at the very front of the stage, but never came into play, perhaps part of plans for the piece in later stages of development.

Untitled Work-in-Progress

Jessica Kelley followed with her untitled, in-progress directorial debut. Her dancers, Suniti Dernovsek and Noelle Stiles, had excellent chemistry, which emerged quickly after a slow-paced opening that transitioned well from the pensiveness of Here and Here. They flitted between tenderness and buoyancy with the emotional rhythm of a relationship that is full of affection but not without complication. The stakes of their relationship became clearer through a jubilant wrestling match that seemed pretty authentic—I’d like to see if the same dancer wins each night, or if it’s a real contest.

They later took to a microphone to have a sort of heart-to-heart that consisted only of the hesitations and stutters of someone trying to be honest about something difficult that matters intensely to them. At one point, Dernovsek cut off Stiles by applauding in the middle of her semi-verbal monologue, which broke the flow in a way reminiscent of the ending of the first piece. Their dynamics and theatricality reminded me of some of my favorite Risk/Reward performances.

What am I/becoming or Duet Duet

Dora Gaskill began her piece with a slow punch turning inward to her own belly, making good on her statement from the show notes that she’s been “committed to interrupting compositional habits and to question the patterning of partnerships between bodies, spaces, and stories.” My favorite moment where these intentions emerged was when Gaskill kicked her own leg out from under herself in a smooth but startling gesture.

Dora Gaskill performs “Also, of sorts” at Performance Works NW

Placing her piece third made for a remarkably smooth formal transition from the structure and tone of the first two dances. She began alone, with purposely conflicted movements, and then Chelsea Petrakis’s presence slowly wound into the room, first signaled by her faint singing coming from the adjoining studio. They entered into a fractious, sometimes passive-aggressive duet, with dueling monologues written in the tone of someone defending their own vulnerability with overly-grandiose language, almost as if all the missing words from the conversation in Kelley’s piece had been consolidated here. The tension of these moments and the occasionally heavy tone was released with many witty moments, allowing a sense of lightness into the debate that humanized and sweetened it.

A Light of Hope

Portland-born choreographer Michael Galen finished the night off with a luminous bang. He was joined by Oluyinka Akinijola, Bethany Harvey, Uriah Boyd, Jamie Minkus, and Decimus Yarbrough for a high-energy, fiercely-positive tour of multiple styles of “movement vernaculars,” drawing from B-boying, Palo, Krump, and Stepping. Galen has choreographed or performed for big cable networks, such as IFC and Comedy Central, and this piece showed a canny ability to fit the sensational style and bigness of the group choreography demanded by those shows into a smaller and more focused space like Studio 2.

The dancers entered to a sample declaring the intention to be “the light in a dark world,” which framed the dynamics of a dance crew that they performed. The call and response, friendly jockeying for position, and the vibrancy of the styles they threw down took on an infectious aspect of joyful resistance. There were moments where the coordination and energy of the crew flagged, but they ended tightly on an impressively complex rhythm of body-percussion that cycled through the entire group, like a hip-hop Steve Reich performance.

I chatted briefly with Subashini Ganesan, the founder of N.E.W., about the challenges of maintaining such an active space in a neighborhood that’s seeing some of the most change and development in the city. The building and the neighborhood have both changed significantly since the days that it was home to the wonderful Zoomtopia community, but she’s made it work through the ongoing support of RACC, the dance community, individual donors, and negotiations with WYSE Real Estate, the current primary tenants in the building. It’s an enormous amount of challenging work, but Ganesan clearly believes in the mission and loves her community.

Each act in this year’s residency feels like an individual take on the challenge of taking space and making something in it. The relationships complicate this for sure, but the night moves from isolation to an irrepressible, strong community of dancers. Clearly the residency program, with its determination to carve out some territory for these talented choreographers, is accomplishing what it set out to do.

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