Even though there were no costumes or special effects at an open rehearsal last week for "Wandering Bear," Maureen Whiting's choreography...

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Even though there were no costumes or special effects at an open rehearsal last week for “Wandering Bear,” Maureen Whiting’s choreography made it feel as if Seattle University’s Lee Center for the Arts had been transformed into the deep woods of a fable.

The feral movement and intense attitude of the five dancers suggested creatures who were half-animal, half-human, caught by chance carrying on their mysterious lives. Designer Etta Lilienthal’s main scenic element — a large white fur drape — rose up behind them like a glacial cliff. A bear’s head hung on a rope. It was a tantalizing glimpse of the work, which premieres tonight complete.

Whiting introduced the open rehearsal by speaking about some of the processes behind her work she has made as part of a three-year residency at Seattle University.

“I’m interested in both dance and the flow of interior images.”

She described finding the balance of dance and imagery as mixing up a soup. Whiting starts with an image and then, in exploration with the dancers, delves deeply into the layers of meaning and movement connected to the image.

Opens tonight

“Wandering Bear,” Maureen Whiting Company, 8 p.m. today-Sunday, Lee Center for the Arts, Seattle University, 901 12th Ave., Seattle; $10 (206-296-2244).

“I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with dancers who are just fabulous artists and technicians,” she said.

In “Wandering Bear,” Whiting continues her powerful collaboration with Julie Tobiason, a well-known ballerina recently retired from the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Contemporary dancers Ezra Dickinson, Tamin Totzke and Cassie Wulff make up the cast, joined by another ex-PNB dancer, Alexandra Dickson.

The dancers moved across the stage as if through a night forest. Dickinson’s expressionistic articulation brought to mind images of the impassioned Vaslav Nijinsky, the great dancer from the early 1900s. Tobiason had the speed and focus of a cat. Totzke moved with an inner stillness. Dickson brought her long hands, loose hips and stunning clarity to the mix. Each dancer, although performing only snippets of the overall work, was breathtaking.

Costumes by Tilla Kuenzli, Helga Hizer and Neodandi include highly structured, mobilelike masks. The score includes live and recorded music by local composers Dave Abramson, Eyvind Kang, Jason Staczek, Evan Schiller and Gust Burns, who will play an onstage grand piano.

The dancers interact in a visceral way with Lilienthal’s set pieces, cutting the expanse of fur with scissors, picking at it and curling up in it to go to sleep.

When asked about what led her to the image of a bear, Whiting referred to mythical creatures such as Beowulf.

“This is a lost wandering bear looking for love … the idea that everyone is looking for love, monsters and wild animals, too. Monsters cannot help being monsters.

“Humans have a violent protective quality like bears, and we have a lot of aggression in our nature and cannot help it in some sense.”

Mary Murfin Bayley: marybayley@aol.com