A performance by locust feels like a party. In the minutes before their last show, mockumentary at On the Boards, the dancers were already onstage while the audience walked in. They greeted friends, nodded at strangers, stretched, bopped around, and warmed up to mellow club music. Instead of disappearing backstage to wait for their cues, they sat on a couch near the front row.
mockumentary was a hash of pop culture and high art, with three video screens, passages of mock ballet and explosive funk, a subplot about zombies searching for love, dance segments on roller skates and BMX bikes, and singer/comedian Reggie Watts guest-starring as a bitchy choreographer: "No, no, more weird!" he shouted at despondent dancers. "This thing that you are doing, it looks like something fell from a skyscraper and landed on a small paper plate... don't you people ever have sex?"
locust has an ambivalent relationship with modern dance. Its members have toured internationally and worked with the city's most prestigious companies—Spectrum Dance Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pat Graney, others—but choreographer Amy O'Neal is allergic to stuffiness. She grew up in Texas, but when she was 13 and 14, her father, an officer in the air force, was stationed in Ankara, Turkey. O'Neal used to sneak out of the house at night and into Turkish dance clubs. That story is O'Neal's foundation myth.
locust's new show, crushed at the Moore Theatre, is more austere than mockumentary. During a rehearsal last week, music director Zeke Keeble beat-boxed and played samples, sitting on a wooden crate that he occasionally beat on like a drum. The show opens with a video of a farmer in a cap and mustache running across his field and accidentally stomping on a locust. The video is comedy, with Keeble making buzzing/stomping noises into his microphone, but the rest of crushed feels like an elegy for the stomped: lovers grappling and throwing each other away, dancers crawling like insects in robotic rhythms, then fighting in a battle royal, shoving each other violently from darkness through squares of bright, white light.
The violence of the choreography inspired somebody to call the police during a video shoot for crushed earlier this month. "We have been using this fabulous green wall on 35th in West Seattle," O'Neal wrote on the locust website. "It was dark, 6:00 p.m. The last image we were filming was the shadows of seven people running around and shoving each other, using the headlights from two cars on the wall. When we were just finishing, the cops rolled up. They told us they got a call that six people were beating up one person. We told him we were shooting a dance video and to come see the show at the Moore. Other cops were calling him on his walkie-talkie thing, and he told them, 'Yeah, these guys are just shooting a dance video, and I am gonna see if it is any good.'"
After their rehearsal last week, O'Neal, Keeble, and I sat down at the Sitting Room for a few minutes.
What's that box you were sitting on and beating?
Keeble: It's called a cajón. It came from South American slaves whose instruments were taken away, so they turned shipping crates into drums. They use it in flamenco music, though it's not indigenous to Spain. It's really just a plywood box I bought at Guitar Center. mockumentary was a technical nightmare, playing keyboards, guitars, drums, and beat-boxing—the whole thing was done on the fly through a loop transfer. For crushed, I can go from my car to rehearsal in two trips instead of eight.
Who are the best pop-music choreographers these days?
O'Neal: I don't really know. I don't watch MTV anymore; it really pisses me off—it's mostly reality shows and hardly any videos.
So you're stuck on Janet Jackson?
K: She loves Janet Jackson.
O: Yes, I love Janet Jackson. I like Beyoncé a lot. And Justin Timberlake is a badass dancer. I've spent the past year dancing in clubs more. It's different from a room full of modern dancers—a lot of them don't understand rhythm in that way. They don't have a lot of edge. They're foofy. Sometimes I even have to tell my dancers to drop the modern-dance persona and just bust.
Tell me about your dancers.
O: I'm attracted to dancers with a harshness and an edge—and also a fear of being vulnerable, like they're daring you to watch them.
K: They've all got a depth and a real grit, each of them, relative to most dancers.
O: But they're really highly trained and know their shit. Ellie [Sandstrom, who has danced with O'Neal since they were at Cornish in 1998] is such a fucking powerhouse, an anomaly of nature.
K: We have a joke about Ellie—Amy's version of warming up is to stretch for 30 minutes, but Ellie's version of warming up is to kick her leg over her head, then going out to smoke a cigarette. She's ready to go.
O: But she also has a clarity of movement, so precise. That combination is really rare.
And the others?
O: Jessie Smith [who is also a member of theater group Implied Violence] is gritty, too. She's a little rough around the edges, kind of delicate and kind of fuck you at the same time. Ben Maestas has a subtle sexiness and a dry sense of humor onstage. And Amy Clem is just bootylicious—few dancers know how to pop it and also feel a tondu. Those are prerequisites for locust. You either feel it or you don't.
Everybody in the company went to Cornish—where else have you studied?
O: When I was 19, I got a summer scholarship to study at the Martha Graham Center in New York. The teacher would criticize us for making stuff up. She'd say, "It's not Graham enough, make it more like Martha's work." They weren't interested in helping us foster our individual movement, so I said: "Fuck this, I'm going down the street to take a jazz class and sweat." The teacher said, "I respect that."
What do you all have against capitalization?
O: Zeke and I just like the way it looks. The capital letters are not breaking up the line, and we like to keep stuff a little more casual.