On the afternoon of August 11, more than 4,000 people showed up to Olympic Sculpture Park to watch a contemporary dance performance. That's more than the number of people who showed up for the Trump rally in Lynden, Washington. Four thousand is the conservative estimate from Seattle Art Museum—emotionally, the number felt closer to a bajillion.
The Pacific Northwest Ballet/Seattle Art Museum event was part of the Summer at SAM series. A typical Thursday night will draw a crowd of about 1,000 to 1,200, but the museum was expecting around 2,000 this time, says Regan Pro, SAM's Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs.
Maybe you could attribute the large crowd to the suddenly beautiful weather. Maybe it was because PNB was really pushing the promo on this one, and Seattle really likes it when art institutions collaborate with each other in a way that mirrors the conversations that dancers and visual artists and writers all over the city are already having. Or maybe the world really is ending and this is just one of the more pleasing signs. Whatever the case, this collaboration worked. Sort of.
For the first 20 minutes, I hated everything. I was at a zoo on kids-get-in-free-day. People were everywhere. Who were all these people? Why do I have to elbow through them to see a dance? Why are there only three food trucks to serve a million people during supper hours? Who are the smarty-pants who got the bring-your-own-picnic memo? Why is there only one official tour through the five performances? WHAT IF I DON'T SEE EVERYTHING? Wah.
Then I looked above the throng and saw Mount Rainier standing tall above the Old Spaghetti Factory. I was suddenly becalmed. I kept overhearing people saying, "It's called contemporary dance," and I finally realized that they weren't talking to their dads, they were talking to me. The performances were only one part of the performance. I was supposed to be breathing in the whole civic bundle of it all. Once I let the madness sink in, everything was great.
Each of the performances ran for about 10 minutes, and each played two or three times from 6 to 8 p.m. If I didn't see one of them, I didn't see one. No pressure.
The collaboration included dancers and choreographers from PNB, Whim W'Him, Spectrum Dance Theater, and Kate Wallich's crew, and they were all up in each other's business. Donald Byrd choreographed a gorgeous (and sweaty) balletic tango between PNB's Cecelia Iliesiu and Miles Pertl called Untitled. They danced all over Roy McMakin's Untitled cement bench, whose shape reflected the tension between the two lovers: bound together by love but ultimately headed in two different directions.
Kate Wallich's playful Little Bunnies involved dancers from Whim W'Him hopping around Roxy Paine's Split, that great metal tree locked forever in winter. Pretty straightforward bucolic candy, there.
I'd never seen a ballerina dance in jorts before watching Leah Merchant tear it up between the waves of Richard Serra's Wake. Choreographed by Kiyon Gaines, Do. Not. Obstruct. also featured Jonathan Porretta, Leta Biasucci, and James Moore (aka Romeo) of PNB. Elevator music with a beat pulsed around the sculpture, and the quartet looked like water sprites variously falling in and out of love with each other. I was sitting so close to the dancers, I could see them dripping sweat, see the muscles in their calves bunch and release, and see their facial expressions shift over the course of the short scene. The whole thing humanized the artists and the art in a way that observing their grace in motion from a distance never quite does.
But my favorite—and I think the crowd's favorite—was Olivier Wevers's Undercurrents. Four young men from the PNB School danced around Alexander Calder's Eagle, throwing each other around and giving each other balletic swirlies. Among the most impressive feats of hyperbolic boyishness involved three dancers holding the other dancer in the air while he did push-ups on their hands. All were laughing and shouting at each other, marching around the sculpture like toy soldiers. As they were dancing, a school of sailboats bobbed like swans on Puget Sound. It was as if their dance was transforming the world into a playground.
Overall, the dances were fine. Nothing special. Everything I saw was pretty light and easy, which is exactly what the site called for.
Pro said the museum "hopes this kind of partnership can continue." I do, too. Except maybe next time there can be more food trucks?