Portland Playhouse The sounds of Afrolitical Movement Portland Oregon

Road trip! Seattle festivals packed with dance this June



Seattle loves a festival.  Whatever the topic—food, film, music, boats—we’ve got some kind of event that offers city dwellers a chance to dive into their obsessions, and dance is one of those. In June, when a lot of dance communities are winding up the year with studio recitals, Seattle audiences are facing a scheduling challenge with two significant festivals, full of brand-new and new-to-us programming.

Robert Moses’ Kin is one of the big names at this year’s Seattle International Dance Festival. Photo by RJ Muna.

Portland audiences are probably already familiar with On the Boards: the Seattle presenter has collaborated with regional friends like PICA in the past, and Oregon artists have swapped spots with Seattle folks in projects like the TBA Festival. In Seattle, On the Boards stakes its reputation on presenting work from the leading edge of performance, wherever that might be at the time. Most of the year, its artists come from far and wide, but in June, the Northwest New Works Festival (held June 12-16) narrows the geographic focus, digging into the region and connecting local creators to international trends.

If Northwest New Works looks at the upper left-hand corner of the map, the Seattle International Dance Festival (held June 7-22) shows us a much bigger picture. Cyrus Khambatta, artistic director of Khambatta Dance Company for most of the year, plays impresario for a global collection of dance artists every June. SIDF started small in 2006, with a handful of performers over a single weekend, mixing international artists with local dancemakers. The project has just kept growing since then, in size and scope. Khambatta keeps adding new elements each year, so that in 2019 the event is presenting nearly a dozen mixed-rep programs over three weeks, along with special events for audiences and artists.

Portland’s claire barrera joins a Pacific Northwest artist lineup at the New Works Northwest Festival. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis Photography.

On the Boards’ new artistic director, Rachel Cook, has been tinkering with the organization’s presenting structure this year, creating more overlapping events within a short run of shows and giving audiences a chance for deeper engagement than a single night in the theater. She’s bringing that philosophy to NWNW as well, adding more parties and panel discussions to a heady schedule of performances. 

In our first-person, selfie, and blog-filled world, it makes big sense that many of the artists on the NWNW bill are creating their own narratives and identities through their work. Dakota Camacho reclaims indigenous Coast Salish identity through traditional ritual and contemporary performance, while Arson Nicki celebrates an anniversary as a drag artist, crafting an individual persona through lip sync and storytelling. Seattle-based Naomi Macalalad Bragin bridges work as a performer and an academic in Little Brown Language, using the tools of hip-hop to examine colonialism in the Philippines. They join Portland artists claire barrera (in an excerpt from her recent Sugar) and Body Home Fat Dance in shifting our vision of the dancing body. Two weekend panel discussions examine the nature of festival performance, while the opening and closing night parties give audiences a chance to see and be seen in a performance environment..

Arson Nicki celebrates an anniversary in style at NWNW. Photo by Kingmon Creative.

The SIDF schedule homes in on dance, but past that category, the offerings are a wild mix, combining local groups with visitors from around the world. If Khambatta has a programming philosophy, it’s finding work that reflects the community it comes from. He grew up in India and Europe, and knew that there was much more going on in other dance communities than we usually see on the touring circuit. “As much as we love Grupo Corpo, you can see them everywhere,” he says. “Wherever I travel I can see the same international companies.”

Hypernova Contemporary Dance reflects founder Rainbow Fletcher’s
ballet and cabaret background. Photo by Danny Boulet/WittyPixel Photography.

SIDF shows us artists who haven’t all hit the road yet: instead, many of these are the companies you would see if you lived in their town. Seattle-based Rainbow Fletcher has been making dance since she was a young woman, mixing straight-ahead modern with her tongue-firmly-in-cheek gig as a cabaret choreographer—her Hypernova Contemporary Dance Company reflects those multiple experiences. Julie Tobiason (formerly with Pacific Northwest Ballet) and ARC Dance Company are some of the dancemakers sketching out the parameters of contemporary ballet. They share stages with nationally know artists like Molissa Fenley and Robert Moses, and guests from outside the U.S. Tchekpo Dan Agbetou brings his self-named company, which represents influences from his current home in Germany and his birthplace in Benin, while Tara Brandel combines a whole encyclopedia of popular culture references with the upright Irish dancing from her background. 

Tchekpo Dan Agbetou shares cultural influences from Germany and Benin.
Photo by Elisabeth Masé.

Alongside three weekends of mainstage performance, SIDF has a equally diverse collection of special events, from a pair of shows that put a spotlight on Seattle dancemakers and contemporary ballet to a group of choreographic fellows enrolled in a unique program designed to help mid-career artists develop both their vision and their administrative skills. The James Ray Residency offers studio and rehearsal time, as many other resident programs do, but it also brings participating artists into contact with branding and marketing professionals, administrative specialists, and other technicians, giving them the skills to develop and maintain a long-term practice. This year there’s also a new attraction: Pitchfest, which brings together dancemakers, funders, and presenters for a kind of cocktail party elevator-pitch opportunity.

With this much dance available in June, the biggest challenge is organizing your calendar. Locals dip in and out of the theater all month, but visitors need to make a more concentrated plan. Our current penchant for binge-watching can serve this need, allowing us to pack multiple performances into minimal time. NWNW has taken a page from Netflix, presenting two marathon events on the weekend, so that both Saturday and Sunday have the complete line-up. Surround that with some of the programming from SIDF, and it’s a chance for a big dance-art road trip. Save the Grand Canyon for later, and head north for another kind of natural wonder.

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