Share story

If, this past weekend, you were looking for a dance-theatrical smorgasbord that covered everything from hypnotic solo work to communal dental hygiene, On the Boards’ 2013 NW New Works Festival was the place to be.

A few of Weekend One’s eight acts fell flat. But most offered strong, compact, innovative work from Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., that had either lunatic humor or a stark beauty to recommend them.

About that communal dental hygiene: It’s just one element in “slugs do it real slow and pretty” by a Seattle troupe called AJA (the A is silent). But it’s a crucial one.

“slugs” energetically contrasts sexual collision, sexual tease and sexual frustration with some outlandishly humdrum domestic intimacy. Collisions came in the form of full-force body slams in midair between Sean Tomerlin and Amy Ross, as well as mattress-jumping frenzies and uncomfortably awkward makeout sessions on the part of other couples.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

After two performers peeled off from the group to commence a molasses-slow striptease, the remaining six (three males, three females) started tending to their teeth, enthusiastically sharing a 6-foot strand of dental floss, thus putting viewers in the odd position of having to ask themselves: “Which do I want to watch — the striptease or the bathroom routine?”

The bathroom routine, hilariously, usually won.

AJA — spearheaded by Anh Nguyen, Jessica Robison and Alice Gosti — employs surreal juxtapositions at crazily varied speeds to catch the way Eros drives all our actions. (Ethan Folk’s brilliantly filmed “opening credits,” featuring slugs and humans entwined in carnal play, went at hyper-warp velocity.)

On the “stark beauty” front, Josh Martin of Collective 605 from Vancouver, B.C., delivered some extraordinary goods with his solo piece, “Leftovers.” Continually reconfiguring his body at a steady, robotic pulse to a searing guitar-noise soundtrack, he bent, collapsed, contorted himself, rose and collapsed again, manipulating his own head and limbs from one pretzel position to another as if desperate to learn exactly how his nerves and muscles worked. Strong, severe stuff.

Allie Hankins’ “Misshapen Pearl” and Elia Mrak’s “los samurai” were nearly as impressive.

Hankins and her four fellow female dancers partook in enigmatic rituals and processionals, punctuated by unexpected absurdities and grotesqueries. Lit in a golden-bronze light by Amiya Brown, this “Pearl” had a warped but elegant, atmospheric allure.

Mrak’s “samurai,” by contrast, was a high-testosterone affair. Mrak, who aptly describes himself as a “performance athlete,” was teamed with and/or pitted against four other males in rigorous vocal/physical rivalry. The surprise came when this competition, which had its humorous side, culminated in the audience eavesdropping on one side of a deathbed conversation.

Joel Berning, an actual New York chaplain, clearly drew on his own counseling experiences to lend the scene its poignancy. After life’s intensely competitive games, Mrak seemed to be saying, the hardest and most humbling thing is facing up to how you’re going to make your exit.

PE ǀ mo, another Seattle troupe, also focused on competition. In “RIGGED,” a 10-person track team was winnowed down through increasingly ridiculous tests by a stern whistle-blowing drill mistress. Light relief came in the form of Pol Rosenthal who, sporting a Timberlake-worthy suit and tie, periodically sashayed through and put an absurd spin on the whole ruthless showdown.

The festival, now in its 30th year, continues next weekend with work by Paris Hurley, Paul Budraitis, The Satori Group and others.

Michael Upchurch:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.