Seattle Takes Off

December 19, 2010

A city where artists and dancers spur each other on



Throughout Seattle thrives a vibrant, innovative, and inclusive dance community in which visual and performance art boundaries are blurred. The city teems with artists of all sorts: music, fashion, theatrical, visual. Perhaps the same factors of setting and culture that have made its music world-renowned have also fed its dance scene. Seattle attracts outstanding performers, maintains high professional standards, and draws enthusiastic audiences for all kinds of endeavors.


Some might say that dancers have always had a strong presence in Seattle. Merce Cunningham was a student at Cornish College of the Arts in the late 1930s and formed his historic partnership with composer John Cage there. In the 1940s, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino studied ballet with famed Seattle teacher Mary Ann Wells. Ann Reinking studied with Marian and Lara Ladre (whose Seattle school had a 50-year run), Mark Morris received his early dance training in Seattle, and then came Bill Evans in 1976. Evans’ energy drew other performers to Seattle like Christian Swenson, Wade Madsen, and Llory Wilson. Serious artists like Pat Graney emerged to advocate for new work, especially by and for women. Around the same time, The Pacific Northwest Dance Association was transitioning to a larger Pacific Northwest Ballet.


The flow of dance artists into Seattle continues. Former New York City Ballet principal Stephanie Saland, who came to Seattle in 1993, teaches her own blend of ballet and somatic practice. Donald Byrd has led Spectrum Dance Theater since 2002. Peter Boal took the helm of Pacific Northwest Ballet from longtime artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell in 2005.


Today, a new generation of dancers is rising and partnerships proliferate—as with KT Niehoff’s collaborative project, Lingo. Amy O’Neal and composer Zeke Keeble combine to form Locust. The intrepid O’Neal splinters off (under the name AmyO/tinyrage) for even riskier ventures—fusing hip hop with strong visual components. The humanist choreographer Mary Sheldon Scott and composer Jarrad Powell (of Scott/Powell Performance) have mentored many of the new generation, like Beth Graczyk, Jim Kent, Corrie Befort, and Ellie Sandstrom. And so the cultural threads continue.

Some Key Players

Visionary (and workaholic), Donald Byrd shook up Seattle when he came to take over Spectrum Dance Theater. Byrd is known for his raw work and unflinchingly difficult themes. He pushes his dancers mightily—especially since he demands neoclassical skills but with unconventional bodies. He also nurtures nascent choreographers. And he’s persuasive; he even had hyper-busy Boal dancing in his piece for the Men in Dance festival this past fall.


Since Peter Boal became artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle’s leading ballet company and one of the country’s best, he has added dozens of premieres and commissions to the repertoire. Boal has been educating audiences as much as anything else—and it’s working. Attendance for both PNB’s mixed repertoire and story ballet programs is now way up.


Most would say Pat Graney’s 30 years of producing work crowns her as Seattle’s contemporary dance diva. Her evening-length pieces and her social activism—notably her Prison Project—have earned numerous awards. Her early dances, Sax House and Jesus Loves the Little Cowgirls, challenged gender stereotypes and put dance with a lesbian sensibility on the map.


Rising Stars

The ultra-flexible, classically trained Zoe Scofield collaborates with visual artist Juniper Shuey as zoe/juniper. She creates hyperkinetic movement that is altogether eccentric and beautiful. This summer she’ll perform at Jacob’s Pillow and return to Bates Dance Festival in Maine.


Born and raised in Seattle, Catherine Cabeen, formerly with Bill T. Jones and the Martha Graham Dance Company, promotes interdisciplinary collaboration as a form of public scholarship. She performs widely, recently in New York (she still performs with Richard Move) and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.


Olivier Wevers’ new company Whim W’Him epitomizes Seattle’s blurring of boundaries between classical and contemporary sensibilities, thus attracting wider audiences. (See “25 to Watch,” page 42.) Whim W’Him is now the official dance company at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle (much as Seattle Dance Project, another stellar company started by former PNB dancers—Julie Tobiason and Timothy Lynch—is the resident company of the ACT Theatre).


Marie Chong’s ARC Dance has been around since 1999, with repertoire by artists such as Penny Hutchinson (formerly with Mark Morris Dance Group) and PNB’s Kiyon Gaines.


Spaces & Funding

One reason why artists stay in Seattle is affordable space. It’s relatively easy to create work and self-produce here. With help from King County’s cultural services (4Culture and related grant programs), dollars are currently available to fund new work. However, as in other cities, few dancers actually are paid commensurate with their skills and experience.


On the Boards (OtB) has been the main presenter of contemporary dance in Seattle since 1978. Its two series, 12 Minutes Max and Northwest New Works, give opportunities for emerging artists with new ideas. OtB takes risks and supports some of the most exciting performing arts anywhere. This season includes Catherine Cabeen’s Into the Void, Crystal Pite/Kidd Pivot’s astonishing Dark Matters, and a rock musical by Dayna Hanson (a co-founder of 33 Fainting Spells). OtB also brings in artists from around the world, plays to capacity audiences, and stimulates the local scene. Artistic director Lane Czaplinski is branching out to provide online audiences with high-quality video of its edgy performances.


A recent fundraising campaign tapped into Seattle’s love of dance to help save Velocity Dance Center from closing. Founded by former Pat Graney dancers Michele Miller and KT Niehoff, Velocity houses studios (with daily classes) and performance space. Velocity has helped make Seattle a hot spot for experimental dance. Its SCUBA program, a four-way partnership with venues in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, sponsors local artists and groups such as Salt Horse, Locust, and Amelia Reeber and puts them on a multi-city tour.


Festivals & Events

Seattleites love their festivals. Velocity’s summer program Strictly Seattle is a three-week dance immersion (see “Summer Study” section, page 102). Cyrus Khambatta’s Beyond the Threshold International Dance Festival showcases a changing lineup of companies and curators with both U.S. and international work. The popular Against the Grain/Men in Dance festival started by Richard Jessup presents dance performed and choreographed by men (mostly). The Chop Shop: Bodies of Work is a contemporary dance festival in Greater Seattle run by StoneDance Productions. The well-attended Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation, organized by Dance Art Group, runs each summer and features well-known artists such as Miguel Gutierrez and Bebe Miller, as well as local talent.


Many companies make hefty educational and outreach efforts. Particularly effective has been Seattle Theatre Group with its annual Dance This, a summer dance and performance intensive for young artists from diverse communities, often featuring another Seattle mainstay, Sonia Dawkins/Prism Dance Theatre.


Merging with Academia

The status of dance in Seattle has a lot to do with its links to higher education. Dancers in their prime come to the University of Washington’s MFA program, direct from demanding seasons with top companies—in fact, a minimum of eight years of professional experience is required for admission. Former program director Hannah Wiley’s Chamber Dance Company performs works of historical note and boasts some of the most well-trained dancers in the city. Both Wiley and program director Betsy Cooper teach popular ballet classes, as does Cornish College’s Kitty Daniels. Companies founded or co-founded by Cornish graduates include d9 Dance Collective, Better Biscuit Dance Company, Locust, and Salt Horse. Notable alums include William Whitener (artistic director of Kansas City Ballet) and Holley Farmer (of Come Fly Away fame). Mark Haim, a former artist-in-residence at the University of Washington known for his analytical, pattern-oriented approach to movement, still teaches and choreographs.


Clearly, in Seattle, numerous strong voices percolate to create a fresh dance scene. Dancers mine the treasure trove of the city’s rich arts community for its collaborative work. They share vision, embrace crossover, and build audiences that appreciate it all.



Gigi Berardi is a
DM contributing editor and author of Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance.


Catherine Cabeen in her
Into the Void. Photo by Michaela Leslie-Rule and Phill Cabeen, Courtesy Cabeen.