When I was a wide-eyed, 16-year-old Texan bunhead at a prestigious ballet school in New York City, I ditched a potentially career-making audition to go to a Ramones concert. I smoked reefer for the first time at that show, got my boob grabbed in the mosh pit, and danced my fucking ass off. That desire to dance freely, untethered to body image or formal expectation, is a foundation of a dancer’s identity, but sometimes remains untapped by the choreographer precisely because classical dance training hinges on such a rigorous adherence to prescribed movements and body types. But when creative intuition and classical training meet on equal levels in the mind of a choreographer, some really cool things can begin to happen.
Jason Ohlberg’s Project 6 embraces classical form and free expression as mutually dependent in his piece Departure from 5th. In addition to contemplative, somewhat foreboding music by Arvo Pärt, Rufus Wainwright, and others, the dancers perform individually to audio recordings of themselves discussing the physical and emotional aspects of being a dancer: “You’re always dissecting what you’re doing wrong.” “Never felt I was good enough.” “Do I disappoint you?” As if!
Hearing this negative self-criticism as the speakers move about onstage—lithe, sexy, strong, graceful—would be a serious WTF moment if it weren’t so heartfelt. This unusually intimate introduction of dancers to the audience creates a conversation that flows through the room for the rest of the performance.
As the piece develops, the dancers rely on each other with increasing intensity, sometimes playfully and sometimes with grieving, almost panicked emotion as they contemplate the inevitable effects of age on a dancer’s ability to perform. “I hope to find a way to somehow always have [dance] in my life,” one says. The others play with this idea, talking about it, dancing around it, partnering each other with a gracious equality in a show of the support that must sustain artists as they pass through various stages of development. Many dance pieces that weave spoken word with choreography are corny and ineffectual. Departure is neither.
Seattle Dance Project, which Ohlberg is a part of, is very good at bringing out the adventurous sides of its dancers and choreographers. Founded in 2007 by current artistic director Timothy Lynch, SDP includes an impressive list of leaders in the Seattle dance community: University of Washington dance program director Betsy Cooper, former Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Alexandra Dickson, and Ohlberg himself, a nationally known and prolific teacher, choreographer, and performer. Ohlberg choreographed both pieces featured in Project 6: Departure from 5th, expanded from a shorter version performed in last year’s Project 5, and Gloria, listed in the program as one of Ohlberg’s favorite pieces.
In 2001, Ohlberg choreographed Gloria with SDP to fill out the Vivaldi score of the same name. It’s a lively, happy piece, and the dancers have a good time with it. There’s a lot of scurrying about on- and offstage, with high energy and intricate choreography that utilizes some of ballet’s most difficult steps and combinations. Fused with contemporary movements like sharp angles and unexpected directional switch-ups, along with the dramatic choral music, Ohlberg’s Gloria is a good evening-capper.
The joyous, capable dancing of SDP newcomer Chris Montoya is especially eye-catching, with his extraordinarily graceful movements extending far beyond the reach of his shortish frame. Catching the path of a single dancer as he or she melts in and out of the group is a rewarding way to watch this piece—even though the stage isn’t very large, it is almost impossible to watch everything as it happens onstage. One of the best things about Ohlberg’s work in Project 6 is his ability to capture the individuality of his dancers while maintaining the intricacy of the bigger picture.