If you don't have a high tolerance for contemporary dance, Whim W'Him's repertoire might seem abstract and forbidding, but the effort you put into watching it is richly rewarded — such is the reciprocal joy of challenging art.
“The arts are at a greater risk of extinction than ever,” said Whim W’Him Artistic Director Olivier Wevers in his opening speech at “Transfigurate,” the company’s final program in its eighth season.
But he didn’t actually say it — Wevers’ speech played on a recorded track as the choreographer and former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer stood onstage in beautiful sneakers, smiling radiantly at his audience. He also had a point — I’ve lost count of how many times public-arts funding has been threatened with the chopping block since Donald Trump’s inauguration — and it’s one embodied by every performance that followed.
The first, “Stickers,” from guest choreographer Pascal Touzeau, was an occasionally frightening descent into the uncanny valley, as the Whim W’Him dancers performed mechanical, almost painful-looking movements with insistently shaking, contorting limbs that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch movie.
Lynch actually isn’t a bad parallel for this piece, which focuses on “a primordial colony of creatures, impersonal but highly attuned, [responding] as a group to random impulses” as embodied by dancers clad in flesh-colored bandage-like corsets that reminded me of “Mad Max: Fury Road’s” postapocalyptic desert wear. It’s an imagistic, intentionally discordant performance that builds to a surprisingly playful conclusion.
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There is also a sense of play — or at least playfully mordant humor — to Danielle Agami’s “Duck Sitting,” a study in the signifiers of late-stage capitalism that sees the company dancing with a kind of crazy-eyed, single-minded to-do-focused fervor I often see on the drawn faces of other drivers when I’m stuck in traffic.
The score reinforces this sense of workaday terror through synthy screams, and a sonic landscape that references both clocks and meditation gongs. Nova Dobrev’s costumes — deconstructed suits; think “Newsies” meets “Fight Club” — echo the piece’s thematic concerns without getting too literal.
There’s something to recommend in all of these pieces, but the standout came last in the form of Wevers’ own creation, “Silent Scream,” which melded music from The Album Leaf with a recording from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” a film whose condemnation of fascism in its many forms seems to only increase in relevance as it ages.
The company took the stage as a collection of subverted tropes — Tory Peil’s gender-swapped Chaplin stand-in, Cameron Birts in a swaying black skirt — as Chaplin’s justifiably iconic closing speech from “The Great Dictator” telegraphed a plea for sanity and compassion in a world gone to hell: “Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed … We think too much and feel too little.”
The beauty of Chaplin’s speech — and the shrewdness of Wevers’ decision to include it — is that it doesn’t require the context of “The Great Dictator” to be wholly resonant — and, with its clear-eyed demand for justice and kindness in the face of tyranny and despair, it came as a relief after the existential challenge of “Duck Sitting.”
As Wevers’ company embodied their fractured archetypes, moving through moments of discord and connection, pain and hope, Chaplin’s words allowed what had at first seemed like a lighthearted piece to grow into something much sadder and more human. From a surprising live-music cue to a particularly poignant gender-swapped pas de deux between Peil and Birts, watching “Silent Scream” is like watching a sweeping anti-fascist ballet in the space of a single scene, a sad and awful and funny and stubbornly uncynical sign of the times — which is what the best art should be.
If you don’t have a high tolerance for contemporary dance, Whim W’Him’s repertoire might seem abstract and forbidding, but the effort you put into watching it is richly rewarded — such is the reciprocal joy of challenging art. Besides, there was a kid in my row who couldn’t have been older than 4 years old, and who sat patiently through the entire performance. If she can do that, so can you.
“Transfigurate,” through June 16; Whim W’Him at Cornish Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., Seattle; $30-$55, 707-350-9446, whimwhim.org