How does a dance company go from being a pickup troupe, with a roster of dancers that changes from project to project, to a professional company with contracted dancers who appear in every performance in a well-defined season?
Step by meticulous step, it turns out.
Until this year, Seattle boasted only two companies with dancers under long-term contract. One is Pacific Northwest Ballet, a $20 million business with 45 dancers and a season that runs a minimum of 40 weeks per year. The other is Spectrum Dance Theater, a far more modestly budgeted contemporary-dance company that will contract 10 dancers for between 30 and 35 weeks in 2014-2015.
Now Whim W’Him, a company founded by former PNB principal dancer Olivier Wevers, is making the shift from pickup troupe to a group of seven gifted dancers with a contract for 24 weeks of work between August 2014, and October 2015.
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Last July, Whim W’Him also named its first executive director, Katie Bombico, a past Whim W’Him board president who was interim executive director before being officially appointed to the post.
These developments are part of a long-term strategy to place Whim W’Him as a high-profile player in Seattle’s dance scene and a steady presence on the touring circuit in the U.S. and beyond.
The transition isn’t likely to alter the essence of the company’s style. Rehearsals of Wevers’ upcoming “Above the Cloud” — one of three debuts that are part of Whim W’Him’s new repertory, “#unprotected” — show his movement taking more fractal-patterned twists and turns than ever.
But while the art is familiar in flavor, the change behind the scenes is huge. It means regular rehearsals, five or six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It means weekly paychecks for the dancers during the weeks of their contracts. And it means that Wevers and Whim W’Him’s guest choreographers have a reliable set of performers to help them create their work.
When Whim W’Him was founded in 2009, Wevers was still at PNB (where he danced from 1997 to 2011). The first shows featured dancers from PNB and Spectrum, plus one pickup performer, Jim Kent, the only original “Whimmer” who’s part of the newly contracted company.
Because PNB and Spectrum had their own work schedules set in stone, Whim W’Him rehearsals were squeezed in on an ad hoc basis. Wevers had amazing dancers — PNB’s Lucien Postlewaite, Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta; Spectrum’s Vincent Michael Lopez, Kylie Lewallen and Ty Alexander Cheng — but scheduling rehearsals with them was tricky.
“Looking back at it, it’s really amazing that those people did the extra work because they believed in it,” Wevers commented after a recent Whim W’Him rehearsal. “If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
Still, it wasn’t an ideal way to operate a dance company, and Wevers always had it in mind to create a troupe of dancers whose first allegiance would be to Whim W’Him.
In some ways, Wevers is countering current trends in dance. Commenting on the national dance scene a couple of years ago, Sam Miller — founder of the National Dance Project — said some choreographers were closing their dance companies to follow a more flexible, and in some ways less burdensome “project-based” way of working.
Spectrum director Donald Byrd, however, is “completely old school” on this issue. “I actually believe in the idea of contracting dancers as opposed to working project by project. … It takes a lot of hard work to do it,” he says. “It also takes a lot of optimism.”
Byrd’s ideal contract length would be 35 weeks — something Spectrum achieved in 2012-13 when they toured extensively in Asia. The contract for 2013-2014, which ran only 23 weeks, was, by contrast, deeply disappointing to him and Spectrum’s dancers. But Byrd is resolute: “I believe in dance companies.”
The changes at Whim W’Him have practical implications for the dancers as well as artistic benefits.
For Kent, the contract meant being able to quit his part-time gig as a waiter and devote more time to performance. Kent, who trained at Cornish College of the Arts, is also part of Saint Genet, a Seattle experimental troupe that’s on the bill at Toronto’s prestigious Luminato Festival in June.
He stays busy. But between Whim W’Him’s daily rehearsals, Saint Genet’s evening rehearsals and the one night per week that he spends at Velocity, playing piano for a ballet class (“definitely part of my grocery budget”), he’s making his living entirely from performance.
Wevers’ devotion to his dancers is evident even in such simple things as his offering rides to his dancers to rehearsals at PNB’s Francia Russell Center in Bellevue.
“I have four dancers in my car every day,” he says, “because I know that that will help them sleep longer, not have to take the bus.”
It also, frankly, looks like a party, as his young chattering dancers squeeze into the “Whim-Mobile”: a bright orange Volkswagen GTI with custom plates that read “WHIM X 2.”
While Bombico handles the administrative side of things, it’s Wevers’ artistic vision that shines through in performance. He is particularly adept at group action, creating protean orbs or DNA spirals of dancers who move like a single organism — legs sprouting out of it, arms arching up from it, action rippling through it in Mobius-strip fashion.
Wevers also has a startling way with props. A Brussels native, he has a distinct kinship with fellow Belgian René Magritte. In his 2012 piece, “The Sofa,” the title object goes places that you’d never expect a sofa to go. An enormous pillow used in “Above the Cloud” is similarly frisky.
“He must see something in inanimate objects,” Kent says. “He sees life in them, somehow. … It’s definitely becoming a thematic thing in his choreography.”
While a 24-week contract gives Wevers’ dancers financial stability for half the year, that still leaves six months where they scramble for work. After his Whim W’Him and Saint Genet shows, for instance, Kent will dive into “Freedom Fantasia,” a cabaret-burlesque Fourth of July celebration at the Triple Door.
Wevers encourages these extracurricular activities, knowing that while the contract weeks are well paid, they’re not enough to get his dancers through the year.
How does the new setup feel from Wevers’ point of view?
“It’s like heaven,” he says, bursting into laughter. “I’m feeling wealthier as a choreographer. I can really focus on the work and not have to worry about the schedule anymore. … I know the dancers are going to be there. I know their strengths. I know their weaknesses. And we have this energy of wanting to work together.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org