The Sun Still Burns Here, which has its world premiere at the Moore Theatre on October 4, is a perfect fusion of choreographer Kate Wallich's cold-blooded rituals and Perfume Genius's pathos-drenched chamber pop. It's like nothing these artists have ever done before, so it's hard for them to describe.
It's a new live album by Perfume Genius, except the album isn't out yet, and Perfume Genius creator Mike Hadreas says he isn't sure how faithful he'll be to the songs the audience hears onstage when he finally records them. Moreover, Perfume Genius isn't just playing music alongside dancers. Hadreas and the rest of the band have full-on dancing roles, each one with its own character arc. In this way, it's more like an opera than a live album.
But, because we're talking about performance art, the show doesn't really have a strong narrative, per se, so it doesn't feel like an opera. It feels like a live album. And yet Wallich and her dance company, The YCs, aren't merely backup dancers for Perfume Genius. Each of the dancers in The YCs appear to be on their own journey, variously embodying the music, disregarding the music, or creating the music themselves. At one point, they even sing.
On a recent Sunday afternoon on Capitol Hill, dancer-choreographer Kate Wallich and Perfume Genius collaborators Mike Hadreas and Alan Wyffels sat at a long picnic table, trying to describe the show.
It's not easy.
"It's like a krautrock spaghetti western," Wyffels said, after setting aside some more abstract descriptors.
"But there's also this manic shred section," Hadreas said. "It sounds like someone wrote a disco song 200 years from now, but didn't really quite get it."
After several minutes of trading increasingly wild comparisons back and forth, Wyffels finally landed on it.
"It's basically a reenactment of the video for 'I'm a Slave 4 U' by Britney Spears," Wyffels said, half-jokingly.
We all laughed, but the description isn't actually too far off.
Just like the steamy Britney Spears video, which kicked off the second act of the pop star's career, The Sun Still Burns Here includes a dance that's essentially a fully clothed orgy, it constantly references the divine and acts of submission to the divine, and the whole thing owes a huge debt to Janet Jackson circa "Rhythm Nation." So the question is really: How is it NOT a reenactment of "I'm a Slave 4 U"?
I stopped by a rehearsal at the Moore Theatre a few weeks ago to find out.
The piece opens with a little number from Thomas House, one of the YC dancers. As a spotlight shines down on the curtains, House swiftly parts the velvet veil, offering only a flirtatious glimpse of the smoky world behind him.
He then launches into a mechanical dance. House's movements either parody the act of presenting a product in a smart, self-deprecating way or earnestly preview the seriousness of the elaborate ritual to come. I prefer the former interpretation, which sets me up nicely for the show's stunning reveal.
When the curtains finally part, Hadreas stands alone atop a 10-step steel rolling ladder. He howls and mewls, looking like a pale wolf in a bombed-out Victorian-era palace. Smoke fills the stage and billows around silky blankets dangling from the rafters, and gradually you realize the scenery is built to resemble the backstage area of the theater itself. The arches and pillars of the Moore look like an extension of the set, so the effect is one of total immersion in this world.
A full band is set up onstage, with saxophone, drums, and various electronics on one side; Wyffels sits at a glossy black baby-grand piano on the other side.
Dark, atmospheric music overwhelms everything. As Hadreas writhes and sings, The YCs dance around looking as if they're each having their own private conversation with some higher power. They look completely transfixed, which is completely transfixing.
As with all contemporary dance, The Sun Still Burns Here leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but a reasonably clear story emerges. Hadreas begins in a state of deep despair, but in the biblical sense of the word. Not just a separation from hope, but a separation from God, with God in this case understood to be Paula Abdul in the video for "Cold Hearted," not a white-bearded man on a cloud.
Eventually, Wallich's character transforms into the embodiment of Hadreas's obsession, something that fills his head and banishes the darkness. She could represent a lover, or a drug, or a piece of art, or sex, or some irreconcilable feeling. Whatever she is, Hadreas sees her as a catalyst for transcendence, and she sees him as the same.
As the music alternately plunges into darkness and bursts into light, Wallich hangs around Hadreas's neck, and he hangs around hers. They dance, they fight, they fuck, they create chaos for each other, and they support each other in that chaos.
After a hardcore, sexy, ecstatic climax, all the performers tremble into a soft aftercare scene with spare piano, cool blue lights, and deep breaths. During the course of the show, they tear down the scenery around them, essentially destroying the deconstructed set, leaving a mostly bare stage. A symbol of wreckage, but also of renewal and possibility.
As advertised, The Sun Still Burns Here is a new live album by Perfume Genius in the form of a Kate Wallich and The YCs performance, except this collaboration has them swapping their usual aesthetics.
Whereas the first half of Perfume Genius's last record, No Shape, exploded with color and texture, the songs in this show brood and croon and lash out from the darkness. They tap into the noir numbers on the latter half of that record, such as "Die 4 U" or "Braid," but they replace the steady pop beats with drums that sound like a helicopter descending onto a meadow.
A lyric from the last of eight new songs—one of which runs more than 10 minutes—sums up the mood Hadreas and Wyffels project throughout the show: "Hell-bent phoneless belligerent Aquarius / it happened again / ...it's still happening."
When I read that lyric in the liner notes later on, I thought, "Seattle is going to love this thing."
Meanwhile, rather than being all stoic and severe as they are in Industrial Ballet (or gray and neutral as they are in Dream Dances), in this show, Wallich and her YCs are all balls of ecstatic, colorful energy. Some of the dancers even smile. I haven't seen so much as a hint of a human emotion in the faces of this group of dancers before, but that's far from the case here.
Pairing Perfume Genius and Kate Wallich makes a lot of immediate sense. Both have roots in the Seattle art worlds, and both seem like they'd hang out in the same thrift shops. Wallich is the creator of the hugely popular Sunday morning dance class Dance Church, and she had her own dance company by the age of 25. Perfume Genius's music is adored internationally, especially among queer communities. But before they started collaborating on The Sun Still Burns Here, the two had never met, and they weren't remotely familiar with each other's work.
A little less than two years ago, Seattle Theatre Group fine arts programs director Jack McLarnan asked Wallich if she wanted to collaborate with a band of her choice on a new evening-length show. STG would commission the piece, along with the Joyce Theater and MASS MoCA, and Wallich would get to pick a composer with a larger profile than the ones she's worked with on previous projects.
Wallich agreed and began a research phase. She stumbled on a few photos on Instagram of Hadreas performing, was blown away by the way he moved, and then dug into the music.
That led her to the video for "Die 4 You," a sultry, shadowy song that has Hadreas chair-dancing in jellyfish chaps and a metallic teal top as he seduces a fleshy blob in a theater. After watching that, she knew Perfume Genius was the one.
"He was a natural mover," Wallich said in the interview.
"I can't help myself," Hadreas replied.
"Every photo shoot and video is just like—boom," Hadreas added, as he craned all the way back on his picnic bench and then whipped forward, ending up slumped over like a wilted flower.
Wallich pitched a project where he'd compose music, codirect the performance with her, and also dance. Hadreas accepted, though he'd never had any serious training as a dancer. "I don't really consider my body, period," he said. "I do onstage, but it's almost a rebellion against myself. Otherwise, no exercise, no thinking about it." However, he'd always wanted to dance—he was just a little too shy to get into it as a kid.
The two started mood-boarding right away.
He sent a lot of pictures from The Double Life of Veronique, a 1991 Krzysztof Kieslowski film starring Irène Jacob. He also tossed in some things from Ridley Scott's Legend, Bram Stoker's Dracula, photos of Rihanna in a green fur coat, and the music video for Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted."
"We sent that to her multiple times," Hadreas said.
Wallich replied with photos of colorful paintings from a Cy Twombly exhibit in New York, e-mails about her interest in "improvisation, touch, intimacy," videos of Pina Bausch's groundbreaking performance of Café Müller, and some of pioneering performance artist Martha Graham's stuff.
From there, they started building the whole thing from the ground up. Early on, they brought in production designer Amiya Brown and costume designer cuniform, who have worked with Wallich on previous works. "Before I had begun writing the music, we were talking about costumes," Hadreas said, a bizarre experience for an artist who normally writes music in solitude and then thinks about how the visual expressions will take shape.
As the project grew and the artists started rehearsing, the chemistry only got better.
"I was really scared at first," Hadreas said. "I'd been in a room creating something with only one other person before, and we fought the whole time. But this show had so many personalities, and yet everybody was listened to and heard. It was so fucked up," Hadreas added wryly, in disbelief. "I was really into it."
The project represents growth for all the artists involved. It's Wallich and The YCs' fifth evening-length performance, and their experience is starting to show. Each dancer is dancing better than they ever have, especially Thomas House and Andrew Bartee. And Wallich's juxtapositions of the high and low dance vocabularies—combining Janet Jackson moves with Pina Bausch moods—really works.
And as far as the music is concerned, Hadreas says he allowed himself to go to places he's never gone before. "I didn't worry so much about the children on this one, you know what I mean?" he said. "The children will still be really into it, though."