Delicate, wide-eyed girls with mouths that never open are about the only thing you will never find in Amy O'Neal's dances. Onstage in her first big solo show last fall, when Big Boi and Verdi came together to make sweet musical love, she cranked up the volume, threw up her arms, and shoved her tongue right out of her mouth. A few minutes later, she was on the highest possible clear-plastic stilettos, dancing like ballet's Cinderella, until she stripped off a layer, grabbed a mic, sang a shrewd version of "Money Changes Everything," and did an elaborate pole dance that resulted in a seated position with her heels clicking together like Dorothy's, little neon lights inside the heels flashing with each click. Appearing on giant projection screens throughout the performance were statements and questions she'd written about cultural sampling, sex, gender, power, history, and her influences. She'd published an essay while booty popping.
O'Neal can rock a move while holding a vision. Her full-length work, kicking off a solo career after 13 years in companies, was not only a prodigiously smart, technically impressive, sold-out show, it was a notable event in the cultural life of Seattle. It included a discussion on race and dance in which O'Neal blended into the background while people cried and argued and got schooled and hugged across lines of race and age and gender and sexuality.
Ask her where she's from, and she'll say nowhere. Military kid, born in Fort Worth, young teenage stint in Turkey, college and early career in Seattle. More to the point, her work is always several places at once. She muscles worlds together. She's not a crossover artist—she's never studied a single dance form at one time: modern, jazz, tap, ballet, baton twirling, you name it. At Velocity, she teaches Bottom Heavy Funk on Tuesdays and Contemporary Technique on Sundays. She's known she was a dancer and choreographer since age 13, in an Ankara nightclub perfectly named the Airport.
At the Wallingford pole-dance studio where she takes classes, they probably don't know that the New York Times called her "astounding" or that she has a degree in contemporary dance from Cornish College of the Arts, where she met Pat Graney and toured with Graney's company before cofounding her own, locust (2000 to 2009, involving video, BMX bikes, zombies, and Reggie Watts). In a single week this spring, she led a class at CalArts, choreographed a trance-inducing 10-minute solo for only her ass, and theorized a new work comparing the value systems of b-boy, commercial, and contemporary dance.
Note to her San Antonio high-school class: When you voted her prom queen (she wore Dr. Martens and danced with the football-team-captain prom king with an audience of sneering cheerleaders) at the same time as "most unique," you were, implausibly, right. JEN GRAVES
Critics keep describing the work of zoe | juniper (the choreographer Zoe Scofield and designer Juniper Shuey) as "feral" or "bestial" ballet. That description is hard to get away from. While many contemporary choreographers proceed from curves (including Amy O'Neal and Pat Graney, also Genius Award finalists for performance this year), Scofield clearly proceeds from the harsh but gorgeous linear discipline of ballet. But it's ballet as if performed by wild animals.
In the finale of their piece the devil you know is better than the devil you don't, dancers dominated the stage like a flock of tropical birds doing a crazed but carefully synchronized mating ritual, jumping and stomping their heels, with tufts of colorful plumage attached to their rumps. (Then, incongruously, it began to snow inside the theater.) In the more recent A Crack in Everything, an ominous and tensely precise horror-work, Scofield (a tiny white woman) sat in a chair across from dancer Raja Feather Kelly (an enormously tall black man). Both were naked, or nearly so. They grimaced at each other at close range, then erupted into furious barking and growling. The anger and power of the gesture, not to mention the heaviness of the symbolism—race, gender, and the murderous anger of the Oresteia, the Greek tragedy-cycle that partly inspired the piece—was startling. It was the kind of image, like many images in Scofield and Shuey's work, that burns itself on the brain.
Scofield and Shuey met in Seattle in 2003, where Scofield was idling after her early ballet career on the East Coast imploded. (She had developed some serious chemical addictions and wound up in rehab.) The two fell in love, and Shuey coxed her back into dance. She made a piece for Velocity, and Shuey, in Scofield's words, "ripped me a new asshole" after a rehearsal because her choreography was "half-assed." She forged ahead with new determination, and a partnership—which included rigorous mutual critique and following the vision like you really mean it—was born. Their resulting work over the years has been fearless, frightening, and painfully exact, like the spasms of contortionists with scorpions in their skulls.
Since then, the two have won numerous fellowships and awards—including the internationally prestigious Princess Grace Award for dance—and have toured their technically exact but emotionally searing work all over the country. Seattle is lucky to be their home. BRENDAN KILEY
Pat Graney's genius has three major facets—the artist, the activist, and the legacy—all pulled together by the strength and intelligence of her choreography, ear for music, and eye for design. She is a dance auteur who creates spectacles: installations that immerse her audience in an exaggerated dreamworld, or women dancing in Judy Jetson dresses that are wired to turn their smallest movements into sound, or 130 female martial artists spread across a landscape. Past shows have also used hundreds of pounds of mother-of-pearl buttons, enormous books that dwarfed the performers scrambling across them, and towering walls of tiny cupboards holding 4,000 miniatures.
Though she has an affection for large-scale visuals, her work feels psychologically intimate and almost homey—with the understanding that "homey" doesn't simply connote happy childhood dinners, but also illness, death, and monsters under the bed. Graney's dance is female-centric, but not aggressively so. It's almost Jungian, beginning with what it means to be a woman or a girl, then growing into a mythology of the self. Her shows have mythos-level titles: Sleep, Faith, House of Mind, and so on.
Graney moved to Seattle in 1981 (when, for a choreographer, that seemed like an insane career move) and has made 40-odd works. Those works and their dancers, including Amy O'Neal, who is also a Genius Award finalist this year, have become a wellspring for current dance aesthetics in Seattle, from rigorous austerity to promiscuous embraces of pop culture. If Seattle dancers are doing it, Pat Graney gets a little of the credit.
Then there's her activism. For 15 years, Graney and her Keeping the Faith project have gone into women's prisons across the world to create ensemble dance and literary works. (I was invited to one a few years ago. It was, in a word, intense.) The power of providing a forum for inmates to explore their individual and community identity in an environment designed to wipe out both should not be underestimated. The New York Times has called Keeping the Faith "one of the nation's most innovative programs for inmates."
In a phone conversation a few weeks ago, Graney said her latest big-idea project is Town of Mind, an affordable-housing community where ex-inmates could live side-by-side with artists. Two constituencies who need material help, but who might also need each other to help break their horizons open—a signature Pat Graney idea. BRENDAN KILEY
See these artists in conversation with Brendan Kiley at the Frye on August 21; strangertickets.com
Photos by Kelly O