TO MEASURE THE BREADTH OF Seattle performance, there is no better survey than On the Boards' Northwest New Works Festival. The three-week series functions partly as the farm team for On the Board's main season, with the internationally curated New Performance Series filling the major league role, and the 12 Minutes Max monthly programs serving as the triple-A team. Offering budget-priced, easily digestible evenings of two to four artists or groups in 60 to 90 minutes, NWNW programs are a great way to sample the scene, keep track of what local favorites are up to, and ponder the state of dance and new performance.

Over the last two weeks, I saw three of five programs, and nine of the 16 participating artists--which means I've seen a lot of Seattle dancers flopping around on the floor, plus a couple of solo performers thrown in for good measure. While On the Boards plays down its role as a dance space by using the rubric "contemporary performance," dancers make up the majority of performers.

The first weekend's program was devoted entirely to dance. Wen-Yun Melody Liu started off with the excellent, energetic solo performance White Shadow, all flailing arms and start-stop choreography, with interspersed patches of very slow movement. Dancing within bright circles of light, to music by Meredith Monk, Liu burst into action until the light faded, then during a brief blackout rushed to a new spot on the stage, where the light would find her again, in a blur of activity. The slow sections required great composure, intermingled as they were between such intensely aerobic movement. Liu handled both her high-speed and butoh-esque sections with aplomb.

Liu was followed by two small groups of dancers also using New York new music mainstays as soundtracks (John Zorn, Fred Frith). John Dixon and Lionel Popkin worked their way through a deadpan piece featuring many canes, which somehow managed to evoke Fred Astaire for not a second. Sheri Cohen's Time Incomplete, a three-dancer "meditation on the Holocaust," was swamped by the demands of its subject, which was thinly evoked by train imagery and dancers contorting on the ground as if gassed. My enjoyment of the piece was also unfortunately marred by the bad Seattle audience habit of chuckling to show appreciation: in an early solo section, Sean Ryan bounced around while standing, his head slowly slumping; non-program-reading audience members took for slapstick something certainly meant to suggest a Jew passing out in a packed freight car.

After three performances set to music by the Knitting Factory All-Stars, KT/Dance's Attracted to Accidents, with its company-generated soundtrack, was refreshing. Playing out of an onstage walkman and two boomboxes, Bob Barraza's score joined snippets of nonsense talk, sung gibberish, noise, and actual music in a pleasingly jarring manner, as the company aroused the audience with near-slapstick passages of pushing, pulling, tripping, lifting, and jumping over each other.

The other evenings were largely devoted to patchier work. Matt Smith, a comedian who appears in shows like television's Almost Live, was among the highlights. His monologue, Beyond Kindness, where an author promoting his book on parenting comes apart in front of his audience, relied heavily on Chekhov's mock lecture on the evils of smoking--which is, admittedly, a fine thing on which to rely. Sharing the studio theater with Smith were Lela Performance Group, who presented the fun but overly long The Orbacles: two performers scurrying around onstage in metal balls that doubled as musical instruments and insect carapaces. Also on the bill was Amy Ingram, whose unfocused solo performance Fantavision split the difference between Beckett and EDtv.

After Rockhopper Dance's hugfest--five dancers simpering around to a cloying cello-and-guitar score, occasionally playing the game Marco Polo--Amii LeGendre's Bully, exploring butch archetypes to a score by Seattle band Violent Green, was a relief. But the piece's lack of dramatic or formal development gave it an overlong, repetitive feel, which was not helped by Anat Pollack's interesting, but not particularly contextual, stage design (fluff dropping from the ceiling, fans blowing fluff around, long white drapes unfurling from the rafters).

This weekend, the Northwest New Works festival closes out with several tantalizing possibilities in both the mainstage space and the smaller studio theater, from dancer Juliet Waller's encounter with playwright Bret Fetzer to a solo work by Mik Kuhlman, recently seen in a well-received collaboration with UMO Ensemble's Martha Enson in the Seattle Fringe Fest. As always, expect a mixed bag--but count on On the Boards to continue presenting the most impressive mixed bags in town.

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