Let me just say this: the second weekend of the Against the Grain/Men in Dance festival made me really regret missing the first weekend. I’m often not a fan of festival-style dance performances; more often than not there are varying levels of both performance and choreographic skill and the weaker pieces lose my interest, but this weekend’s collection of performances blew me away.
Against the Grain was so riveting, so diverse, and so chock full of impressive skill that it got me really excited about dance again. Started 20 years ago as a celebration of work choreographed and performed entirely by men, Against the Grain now welcomes female choreographers, but the focus is still on supporting, celebrating and advocating for male dance artists of all ages in all forms and genres. The festival featured a mix of performers and choreographers from around the country, and each one of the nine choreographers brought a unique style emphasizing the wide range of modern dance options for and by men from traditional ballet to Cirque du Soleil.
Appropriately, the program opened with The Cheerleaders, an excerpt from Olympiad: A Suite of Sport Dances, the 1936 piece by choreographer and American modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn. In front of a background of the iconic Olympic rings, three dancers in 1930s-style trousers and thick turtleneck sweaters performed an enthusiastic, almost vaudevillian routine with jumps and somersaults starting the show off with a high dose of energy.
The second piece was from another dance legend, Seattle-born Mark Morris. I Love You Dearly is a solo choreographed to three traditional Romanian songs—perhaps an homage Morris's days as a member of a folk dance troupe. In the first section, the sprightly Aaron Loux circles the stage, swaying to and fro, traveling in a skip-like motion. Starting at the top of stage right, he circles across and down to lower stage right, where he goes into the curtains, comes back out at the top, pauses, then throws himself back into the movement, arching his back even more each time, taking on more and more wild abandonment as he hops, jumps and spins, reminiscent of a wind-up toy, yet keeping the rhythm perfectly, his movement precise and graceful.
Blues was choreographed and performed by William (Bill) Evans, another veteran of the Seattle dance scene. Evans captivated the audience with a tap routine full of complex beats, his heels and toes shifting and switching speed and rhythm swiftly with added help from his hands, clapping together or smacking his thighs. Tap isn’t as popular as it was decades ago, and not often performed in local modern dance festivals, but Evans made the work feel modern by going music-free and performing a routine that seemed almost freestyle.
Another unexpected “wild card” was Power Tower, a jaw-dropping act performed by Cirque du Soleil choreographer and performer Darren Bersuk. Drawing frequent cheers and gasps from the audience, Bersuk held himself out from a performance pole, completely parallel to the floor, then “walked” up through the air, shifting himself into various acrobatic poses, including a one-handed handstand on the top of the pole. His perfect balance of strength and grace made the routine look effortless, and the inclusion of his work in the show expands the general description of dance beyond the standards of ballet, jazz, and contemporary.
Beyond Brokeback was the most traditional piece, consisting of three balletic duets based on a book of the same title, a collection of short stories written in response to Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain and the 2005 Ang Lee film it inspired. Choreographed by Bryon Heinrich, who also served as the narrator, the piece was danced by Cole Companion and Jonathan Dummar. Dummar (formerly of the Joffrey Ballet) is quite possibly one of the most talented male ballet dancers I have ever watched. His technical skills were perfect, his grace otherworldly, and his stage presence demanded attention. His leaps and jumps were high and flawless—aside from the distractingly silly cowboy hat (which makes sense given the subject matter) he was unbelievable to watch, and unfortunately overshadowed Companion by leaps and bounds.
After Dummar’s performance I actually felt bad for the next performer because I thought there was absolutely no way he could even come close to what we had just seen. But two minutes into Robert Dekkers’ Sixes and Sevens I was already blown away. Dancer Christian Squires, in a nude leotard, with bleached hair, infused the modern, abstract piece with quick precision and hypnotic sensuality. Slinking around the stage, he shifted slowly into various positions, rolling his torso, motion traveling along his limbs, extending them to their limits, pulling them into graceful curves and arcs and stretched lines. His fluidity was impressive—he never faltered, not even for a fraction of a second, and his presence on stage was slightly wild and partly dark, but entirely beautiful—a microcosm of the show as a whole.
Photo: Choreographer and dancer, Jason Ohlberg. Photo by Colleen Dishy, 2008