On the Boards:NWNW + H2M:Risk/Reward // 2012

Backstage at On the Boards, the other artists in the first weekend Studio Showcase of the Northwest New Works Festival were playing word games I could never figure out – something involving a lot of guesses and maybe a bus. What’s “crotch” in French? I think they settled on “entrecuisse”.

I couldn’t join in, which bummed me out. In four minutes I had to be super committed to dragging an important piece of cardboard across the stage. Instead of gaming, I stood next to my corrugated burden in the blue wings, trying to keep my body warm, my feet limber, trying to do push ups and hop around without falling into view of the pre-show audience.

Over the course of our three-night run, I spent a cool hour cramped in that dim wing while the theatre filled with audience. Despite the anxiety, it was lovely. Prior to the Northwest New Works Festival (NWNW), I had performed five other in-development versions of Tahni Holt‘s Sunshine. All five were one-time performances, which I always find hard to gauge. You work for months, and then it’s done. Through our NWNW performances, I finally felt acquainted with Sunshine in a room. A room whose particular qualities grew into the work a little more each night: the slide of the floor, the carriage of light and sound, the relationship with audience our closeness allowed.

Done performing our 20-minute world, I washed my feet and became audience for the festival’s 16 other new works. A week later, I caught something of a sister program of 7 works in Portland’s Risk/Reward Festival.

29 years running, the Northwest New Works Festival at Seattle’s On the Boards Theatre presents a statement definitive of contemporary performance from the Pacific Northwest. From Portland, Hand2Mouth‘s Risk/Reward Festival (R/R), now in its 5th year, has developed a close and promising partnership with their northern colleagues. Arguably, these festivals present our region’s finest – a region flattered by an enduringly attractive reputation and host to two vibrant cities about as far away from one another as Brussels is to Paris.

As I watched the 2012 NWNW and R/R programs, I kept asking the obvious question: What characterizes contemporary performance in the Pacific Northwest? What would I think of this work if I saw it out of context, if I didn’t know any of the artists involved?

Much of the work in these festivals is not intended to be complete, but rather a stage in the development of a piece that will presumably be produced in full in the near future. Hopefully so, but doubts hung over many of the performances I saw.

Will there be a full staging? Will there be so healthy an audience for a stand-alone work? Will this work ever be performed outside the Pacific Northwest? Will this work ever be performed again at all?

What I saw playing out most prominently on the stages in Seattle and Portland was a brutal and uncomfortable tension between the commitment of the performers on one hand and on the other the specter that: maybe this is it. Maybe this is the complete lifespan and audience of the work, or -more accurately- the death of the work in its completion.

As far as I can tell, it seems that roughly half of the pieces in this year’s festivals have indeed secured their next phase of production. Just from studying the program, we know Tahni Holt, Ulrich/Graczyk/Baldoz and Hand2Mouth will premier full length works in the coming year.

However, those programs also contain sentiments that lay bear an uncertainty all too familiar to regional performing artists:

“Bolero is part of an evening-length work (in development), entitled either My Moon Time or Waxie Moon in a Doll’s House. Look for it somewhere, someday. Interested producers, please email waxie.moon@gmail.com.”

The produce I am always looking to harvest from contemporary performance is the disruptive tip beyond recognition that forces us into an interface with sensation so compelling that we must invent language of commune, producing uniquely progressive cultural dialogues. It’s encouraging then to read in Sean Ryan’s program notes as NWNW festival director, “Over the past 29 years, audiences have been able to see regional artists of all genres constantly defying definition and observe first-hand how they have helped shape the artistic ecology of our community.”

While I agree with much of what each festival’s director writes in their respective program’s opening letters, I draw issue with each of their foundational first sentences.

I would argue that presenting regional works in their city of development for largely local audiences without also advocating for opportunities to circulate those works through venues in cities beyond their point of origin has a perverse effect on the “development”, “advancement” and “proliferation” of contemporary performance.

Of course, the opportunity to perform new work nourishes and sustains our local arts practitioners. I am always inspired to create when I see the accomplishments of peer artists and any performance opportunity structures the creative process in an essential way. I want to believe so badly that the Pacific Northwest’s tone of alternative can find a substantial voice in contemporary performance, but damn if it isn’t a thin line between “regional” and “parochial”.

Our performance scene can feel troublingly inward oriented. Little wonder that when audiences for regional work are consistently made up of our own community and kin, works run the risk of becoming inbred. The majority of contemporary performance work from Seattle and Portland is rarely performed outside it’s generative locales. These conditions of production too readily allow artists to subsidize their work with their personalities. A performance that operates through any proportion of personal affection between the its creators and audience seems shaky in its footing.

In OtB’s conversation-conducive lobby, Seattle’s Amy O’Neal brought up the topic of post-show talkbacks and how frank and insightful the discussion was after a recent showing of her work in Memphis. Not knowing her as a person, the audience could only speak to their experience of the visitor’s work. Apparently speak they did, and openly. During a symposium presented by PICA this past weekend, San-Francisco’s Keith Hennessy insisted that the most useful feedback for him as a visiting choreographer came from total strangers who attended open rehearsals of his latest work-in-progress.

An audience that is unconditionally supportive is worthless when it comes to shoring up the functional integrity of performance. It’s so hard to separate the work from the worker, yet so necessary to approach the anonymity of enduring live performance. Lacking the stimulus of a mature infrastructure to circulate work, the Pacific Northwest will always fall short of pro standards in the development of contemporary performance.

Please, feel free to disagree. These are pointed, sweeping and problematic statements coming out in an authoritative voice that even grosses me out. I’m still a newbie, and I could imagine dozens of voices that could school me on this. Perhaps it’s just pessimism.

-A tree falling in the woods with only trees to bear witness?

-Or a tree falling in the woods with trees bearing witness?

To what extent does a performance live if it’s only seen by audiences in the region where it was produced? The difference between a performance getting stoned in its parents’ basement and a performance innovating something daunting in its garage is the prospect of impact. I’d argue that the biggest obstacle we face is not one of talent but of circulation.

The deeply critical project of the Pacific Northwest (or even Cascadia), sustains a posture toward contemporary culture that is relevant to the broadest artistic discourses. The work produced here can access and portray the dynamics defining our times through uniquely perceptive lenses. Ours could be a vital contribution to a field that can only benefit from a more problematic heterogeneity in its players. But I don’t see our performances making the same caliber of contribution that other forms from our region already have made without a reassessment and retooling of our system of distribution.

“What artist would not want to live in the Pacific Northwest?”

Last summer, I had an incredible opportunity to realistically assess a prospect that a vast number of US-based artists grapple with: Should I stay or should I go (to Europe)? Immersed in a major international dance festival, Vienna’s ImPulzTanz, years of my grass-is-greener wondering got every variety of reality check I could have hoped for.

In Vienna, I made it a point to talk pragmatics with formerly US-based artists pursuing the European dream. After watching his well-received performance, Zombie Aporia, as part of the festival’s emerging artists series, I spoke with Daniel Linehan about his move to Brussels along with Michael Helland; both were former classmates at the University of Washington. In brief, I got the impression that many US artists move abroad because they are sick of working all year to develop a piece, performing it one weekend, and then starting all over again with the hope that their next endeavor might live longer than its gestation. This stillborn reality faces performance producers all across the United States.

During a coffee break, another Brussels-based choreographer and performer Ivo Dimchev asked about my decision to live in Portland – a choice that is understandably baffling to anyone making work for European performance markets. After conveying within a state-or-two’s accuracy where Portland was located on a map (not that I could pinpoint Dimchev’s former home of Sofia), I laid out my rationale: the low cost of living allows me to focus on developing my dance practice, I enjoy the personable scale of my community, and I belief work made outside major markets can be as good or better than work produced in Europe’s cultural capitals. His response was something like: Sure, that’s fine to have comfortable conditions of production, but if you are so far from the market, how is anyone ever going to see your work?

We were just finishing a workshop in which Dimchev had (lightly) directed us through a one-week condensation of the process he used to generate Som Faves, one of his seminal solo performances that’s been devoured by European contemporary performance markets keen to program “outsider” work. “I’m excited to see your work,” I said. “It’s boring,” he replied. He’s performed Som Faves hundreds of time in dozens of cities. The night I saw it was beyond sold out, and captivating. Foremost, he’s an exceptional creator and performer, though it’s integral that his career emerged from a region outside the dominant Western European industrial performance complex – a region with a distinctive cultural heritage and history – a handful of cities connected by a couple hours’ drive – woefully lacking in the administrative infrastructure to support the creation and circulation of contemporary performance: The Balkans!

Let’s just say Dimchev’s take on Portland came from a perspective of insight.

Striking a different tone, he also told me about a performance he saw “some small place in South Carolina” that was so strange and bizarre that, well, he seemed to have really admired it.

That’s the sentiment that keeps me going.

I want to believe in the produce of minor markets, and what seems most detrimental to the development of performance in the Pacific Northwest is the lack of presenting opportunities beyond our region.

Consider how the dynamics of contemporary performance production might change if there were as many viable opportunities to circulate work as there were to perform it locally.

Would the mission of regional festivals to champion and advance new performance be more roundly served if presenters in, for instance, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco partnered to enable a few of the pieces in next year’s festivals to tour all three cities?

To a limited degree, this is already occurring in the programming of the NWNW and R/R festivals. We can also study SCUBA‘s existing model of a national touring network for dance, which connects Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Minneapolis. My brief discussions with this year’s Seattle SCUBA artists, Alice Gosti/Spaghetii Co. and Allie Hankins, indicated what you might expect: the opportunity to present their work outside Seattle is having a deeply positive effect on their artistic practice. Alternately, I’ve found the work of the Nomad Dance Academy deeply inspiring and far more concerted than our region’s comparably modest attempts to create conditions for the “professionalization” of contemporary dance.

I’m aware that these are contentious points. I’ve done my best to address complex issues in a compact but coherent critique. There’s so much more to be said, examined and considered. This is a very market normative line of thought, yet much of what excites me most in our region’s performances seems to come from a place where the idea of a market doesn’t even play a role. In the end, I’ll stand behind the argument that presenting works of contemporary performance to audiences beyond the work’s site of production can efficiently condense and clarify those works’ operation, returning home a virtuous cycle of bar raising and possibly inspiring other local creators to go after the same opportunities to make newly viable contributions to a broader artistic discourse. To that effect, I’m presently pitching the proposal below. I welcome your opinions, objections, comments and ideas.

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MINOR FLANK is a series of publicly-participatory dances to dance music and associated educational, artistic and advocacy programming designed to establish an indie performance market by generating alternative contemporary performance circuits between cities in sister regions of the Pacific Northwest and Southeastern USA over a period of approximately one year.

Minor Flank aspires to create minor market conditions by allowing artists the opportunity to tour performance work along its two regional three-city circuits. This not only connects contemporaries in different cities across geographical regions that have the potential for relatively pragmatic collaborative work, but also provides the incentive to develop performance that will be performed for more than the one-weekend run so terribly typical of contemporary performance productions in the USA. The works that develop from these minor markets may be attractive to major markets in Europe and North America (NYC, Montreal).

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