For an art form with such an austere reputation, modern dance can be awfully funny. Halfway through Carol Swann's Keeping Quiet, on last weekend's two-evening "Off the Cuff" program at the Erickson Theatre, as Amii LeGendre and Scott Davis were twisting and looping their arms and legs in a kind of herky-jerky windmill pattern, Blake Nellis seemed to be commenting on the action as he read from the Pablo Neruda poem of the same title—"let's not move our arms so much." But fortunately Davis and LeGendre didn't take the hint, as they waltzed in a stutter step across the stage.
"Off the Cuff" was just a small part of the Seattle Festival of Alternative Dance and Improvisation, an unwieldy name for a juicy weeklong collection of classes, demonstrations, discussions, and workshops, full of the latest developments in this slippery art form. The faculty drew from new dance communities around the world as well as from the local scene, so the pair of culminating showcase performances last weekend was like the fresh sheet at a swanky restaurant. The term "alternative" perhaps isn't quite right for this part of the dance world; many of the techniques and conventions these artists are using, the postmodern tool kit of structural games and movement invention, have permeated mainstream dance. But like the old newsmonger's line, "You saw it here first," this may be where new directions emerge.
Conventional wisdom says dancers are like mimes—mute performers—but that hasn't been true for a number of years. Whether in inadvertent observations, as in the Neruda quote, or in flat-out storytelling, dancers are talking—to themselves and to their audiences. And as you might imagine in these confessional days, personal experiences are high on the list of potential topics. Some works, like John LeFan's Note From Earth, were closer to monologue than to traditional dance forms—his stage business with a plastic bucket and a balloon underscored his apocalyptic text about future uncertainties ("sometimes at night, when we have night") but didn't supplant it.
But in other cases, talking about moving and moving while talking were thoroughly intertwined. Lee Su-Feh, in an exquisite excerpt from her solo, The Whole Beast, tackled multiple issues of meaning and translation, cultural displacement, the relationship between practice and skill, and the economic uncertainty of a dance career, all the time linking these ideas to dancing. As she slid through a long sequence of poses that seemed to combine martial arts and ballet, she murmured simple greetings in French and English. As her tempo increased, the words fractured into syllables and the shapes became erratic until the increased tension and density exploded with a "Fuck!" This led to a discussion of translation (she needed to know the French equivalent of "fuck" for an upcoming performance in France); she batted the options back and forth, like a solo game of Ping-Pong, which in turn morphed into a lament over the high cost of physical therapy and the ironic disconnect between the freedom of dancing and its physical toll ("Joy is the source of all my pain"). Su-Feh is small and fierce, and though it wasn't clear on a single viewing how much of her work was set and how much improvised, she was clearly in charge of the entirety, and of us, as we were swept up in her stories.
Morgan Thorson's work was another example of the fine line between spontaneous creation and set material. In P.R. (performance ready), her gangly physicality and erratic changes of direction left the question open: Either circumstance and physics hijacked her momentum, or she was purposefully following a thoroughly twisted pattern. In either case, though, as she bustled around the space, intensely tearing off strips of masking tape and sticking them to the floor, only to rub them off with her foot, the proceedings made perfect sense to her. She had a kind of White Rabbit quality to her, alert and agitated—if Lewis Carroll were a postmodern choreographer, this might be his work.
But not everyone was talking out loud. In her uncompromisingly titled solo, Work, Eva Karczag, whose career began in Trisha Brown's company, started dancing before the lights were fully up and continued in the dark at the piece's end. In between, she methodically and beautifully showed us what the body is capable of, how the rotation of the shoulder exposes the tender inside of the arm, and how shifting weight onto one foot frees the other one to slide back in a graceful variation of the moonwalk. The eccentric coordination between body parts is a link to her time with Brown, an artist whose work and career, bridging the avant-garde and opera-house commissions, provide another example of how alternative can become universal.