Choreographer KT Niehoff has spent a considerable chunk of her career making traditional theaters into untraditional performance spaces, and with her newest work, Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds, she’s done it again. This time she’s transformed the main hall at 12th Avenue Arts into a kind of planetarium, scattering swivel chairs all around and filling the room with hovering balloons and projected star charts. Into this evocative landscape she’s launched an exploration of the exceptional, an examination of what it feels like to be on the edge of extraordinary physical experience.
Before We Flew is based on a series of interviews with people who’ve done things most of us never will. A speed skater, an astronaut, a para-rower, a near-death survivor—all have a first-person perspective on the extreme. Their personal stories are the foundation for the sound score and movement vocabulary, drawn out and developed by Niehoff, using most of the considerable skills in her postmodern toolkit.
Niehoff has a finger in almost every aspect of the production, from the most abstract concepts to the LED lights that shimmer down the front of her costume. In addition to choreographer, she’s composer (with Zeke Keeble), designer (with Cameron Irwin), costumer (with Fran Macavy), film producer, and performer. She positions herself as a ringleader and a commentator from the moment she and her cast (Liane Aung, Thomas House, Wade Madsen, and Alia Swersky) enter the space. She seems to glide on invisible skates during much of the performance, singing into a wireless mic with a little spotlight attached so that she’s sometimes the only thing we can see.
Most of the time, though, there is plenty to look at. The rest of the cast embodies multiple images drawn from the interview texts, both in live action and in a series of VR films that we can watch in lieu of following the real people. The live vignettes, played throughout the space, don’t always mimic the intensity of the text, but instead share our wonder at the experience, our amazement that human beings can do the things they’re describing. Michael Grady’s biomechanical analysis of his rowing style underscores a duet with Madsen and Swersky, two tall and lanky dancers who combine their wingspan in a stylized version of sculling. Grady’s description is grueling, while the dancers’ wheeling arms, as much like birds as humans, are just flat-out beautiful. Likewise, when speed skater Maurice Hall discusses the obsessive patterning that lies underneath his skating technique, Niehoff has crafted another evocative sequence, as Madsen, a longtime member of the Seattle dance community, gathers handfuls of the balloons that float around the space throughout the show. Herding them to the middle of the room and then turning with them slowly, he’s like a god keeping the universe in hand. And when, at the end of the program, Niehoff makes him her final interview, reflecting on his long dance career, it is a magical ending to an evening among the stars. Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds. 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave., velocitydance center.org. $18–$50. Times vary. Ends April 1.