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Teaċ Daṁsa in Michael Keegan-Dolan's Loch na hEala. Photo by Marie-Laure Briane, courtesy Walker Art Center

The 2019–20 season is here, and with it more performances than any one person could reasonably catch. But fear not: We polled our writers and editors and selected the 31 most promising tickets, adding up to one endlessly intriguing year of dance.

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Dancers Trending
James Yoichi Moore and Noelani Pantastico warm up onstage. Angela Sterling, Courtesy SDC.

On a sunny July weekend, hundreds of Seattle-area dance fans converged on tiny Vashon Island, a bucolic enclave in Puget Sound about 20 miles from the city. They made the ferry trek to attend the debut performance of the fledgling Seattle Dance Collective.

SDC is not a run-of-the-mill contemporary dance company; it's the brainchild of two of Pacific Northwest Ballet's most respected principal dancers: James Yoichi Moore and Noelani Pantastico. The duo wanted to create a nimble organization to feature dancers and choreographers they felt needed more exposure in the Pacific Northwest.

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Stefano Altamura, Courtesy Whim W'Him

This month's picks include premieres, Little Princes and a principal dancer's farewell that's sure to leave you sobbing. Here are the shows our writers and editors around the country are most excited to catch.

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Dancers Trending
Alice Sheppard in DESCENT. Photo by MANCC/Chris Cameron

You nominated the best performances you've seen so far in 2018, and we narrowed them down to our favorites. Now it's time to cast your vote to decide who will be featured in our December issue!

Voting is open until September 17. Only one submission per person will be counted.

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Dancers Trending

As soon as we started putting together a list of the most influential people in dance today, we knew two things. By the very nature of the topic we were tackling, our final list was going to be:

1. Entirely subjective, and
2. By no means comprehensive.

We wanted to get your input and hear who else you felt should be on the list. So we asked you who we missed, and here's what you told us through email, Facebook and Twitter:

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Olivier Wevers is a man with a mission—and a serious love of dance. Earlier this year, Dance Magazine followed the Whim W'Him director though a day of tech rehearsals at Seattle's Cornish Playhouse for our latest episode of Behind the Curtain. While we'd long admired Wevers' choreography, getting up close and personal gave us a whole new respect for the man. Why?

1. He's found the secret to success. Rumor has it that Wevers recently expanded his seven-year-old company from a pick-up troupe to a serious employer for dancers: They were put on payroll as employees (rather than independent contractors), which came with a significant raise and the establishment of a new healthcare fund.

At an audition, PC Kyle Froman

2. He treats his dancers as true collaborators. One of Whim W'Him's annual concerts is curated by the dancers themselves. Called "Choreographic Shindig," the program—playing at Seattle's Erickson Theater September 9-17 this year—includes works from three emerging choreographers that the dancers chose after reviewing around 100 applications.

3. He gives his all. About that "secret to success": Wevers is a plucky, tireless spirit whose life is devoted to his company. In our Behind the Curtain episode, he works from 8 am until midnight, fitting in administrative work at home, cutting dancers' costumes, overseeing rehearsals, giving notes. No, it's not an atypical schedule for a director/choreographer. But he also finds time to extol the talents of the choreographers and dancers he hires while fitting in everything else.

Ah, Seattle real estate

4. He lives in a lake house. And we're very jealous.

5. He's not afraid to admit his shortcomings. A creative workaholic, Wevers admits he has trouble getting rest. "Sleep is rare. It's a big problem for me," he tells us. "And right now when I'm in the theater and I have 16 and a half hour days...shutting down my brain is mission impossible."

6. His choreography looks like it'd feel amazing on your body. His partnering sections in particular have an organic, natural feel to them that never looks forced or awkward. The ooey-gooey twists and turns of his imaginative contemporary work is like candy for dancers. More, please!

Olivier Wevers as a student, photo via whimwhim.org. (Sorry, it was too cute not to share.)

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Whim W’Him expands beyond its pickup company roots.

 

 

Wevers in the studio with Kyle Johnson and Tory Peil. Photo by Bamberg Fine Art, Courtesy Whim W’Him.

 

As a growing number of dance companies turn to project-based models, Seattle-based Whim W’Him is taking a leap in the opposite direction. This season, the five-year-old troupe, originally project-based, will increase its dancers’ contracts from 16 to 25 weeks. “My first priority was to build a company with a base of dancers and a comfortable series of shows in Seattle,” says artistic director Olivier Wevers. “The next is to expand to touring, pay the dancers more and have more choreographers come in.”

The company has grown rapidly since its small beginnings. It currently boasts a budget of around $300,000—nearly two and a half times its original—and has hired former board president Catherine Bombico as executive director. These benchmarks help Whim W’Him secure its place in the Seattle dance scene, where only two companies, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Spectrum Dance Theater, operate full-time. Wevers attributes much of this success to building a local following; last year, he cut back the touring schedule to devote more time and energy to regional performances.

The lengthened contract has many benefits for the company. Under its former project-based model, repertoire was pieced together with small rotating casts of dancers, many of them guest artists from PNB. Now, the company employs seven dancers, two of them culled from a national audition. With a consistent group and schedule, Wevers plans to create longer works with full casts and add another production to the 2014–15 season. And he’s excited to provide a paycheck that allows his artists to make dance their primary job, though he says it is not yet enough to be self-sustaining, something he eventually hopes to provide.

In addition to putting touring back on the schedule, Wevers would eventually like to expand the company to 10 dancers—but not without steady fiscal support. “It’s all based on budget,” he says. “I can pay my dancers well or have more dancers that I don’t pay as well.”

A Whim W’Him audition pushes dancers to experiment.

 

“I want a group where dancers can blossom with artistic freedom,” says Olivier Wevers. All photos by Kyle Froman.

On a rainy August afternoon in New York City, 35 dancers pile into the lobby of the Joyce Theater. The Seattle-based company Whim W’Him is in town for the Joyce’s Ballet v6.0 festival, and artistic director Olivier Wevers is looking for two dancers and an apprentice for new work the company will debut in January.

Just getting to the audition proves a feat in itself: More than 70 applied and Wevers cut the applicant pool in half after reviewing resumés, photos and videos. (Another audition is to be held in Seattle a few weeks later.) And while he pays close attention to applicants’ technique, he also looks for “responsible and proactive artists.” “I’m trying to create a group where dancers have voices,” he says. “I don’t want to pick dancers because of their visual appeal alone and drop them in the middle of a large established group.”

After 14 years as principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet (and before with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), Wevers left in 2011 to devote himself to his fledgling troupe, which is quickly building national acclaim. The same year, he was named a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” and was awarded a Princess Grace Choreography Fellowship. Star dancers from major ballet companies—like Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite and PNB principal Kaori Nakamura—flock to Wevers’ company, attracted to his intricate choreography and the group’s collective atmosphere. In addition to his own work, Wevers commissions an eclectic mix of other choreographers, such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

And as someone who’s been on the other side of the audition table, Wevers makes a point of treating dancers respectfully during an often intimidating process. From the size of the group (“You can’t fairly look at more people in such a short amount of time”) to the absence of numbers pinned to dancers’ chests, the three-hour audition feels more like a workshop with useful feedback instead of bruised egos. “The very first thing Olivier said was that although we were auditioning for him, the day was also our chance to audition them,” recalls Grace Whitworth, 29, a member of Yin Yue Dance Company in New York, after the tryout. “He wanted us to see how we would feel with his company.”

At 1:00 p.m., the dancers who have been warming up in the downstairs lobby stream into the theater wearing a mix of leotards and leggings, shorts and sweats. They find eight company dancers already onstage, and as they make their way up, Wevers greets each with a handshake and an introduction. “We want to see the real you,” he says. “Don’t show off.”

Those used to starting auditions with barre work might be thrown by the next section: Instead of pliés, they jump right into learning a phrase from Wevers’ 2010 work This Is Not a Raincoat. “I’ve always felt that class is a personal time to get warm,” Wevers says. “Plus, I don’t work with my dancers in class. I need responsible artists who know what they need to do to be ready for rehearsal.”

For the next 40 minutes, Whim W’Him dancers Andrew Bartee (also in PNB) and Mia Monteabaro work on the phrase with the auditioners while Wevers studies head shots, matching the 2-D prints with bodies and faces. Bartee homes in on details—which count is the slice to the right or how to twist around, slide to the floor and lift a leg with the work’s signature sickled foot position, the “sickle pickle.”

Above: Lucien Postlewaite of Whim W’Him works with the men on partnering.

Company dancers spread over the space, eager to help auditioners master the choreography. “I wanted my dancers to be a part of the audition,” says Wevers. “They’re going to be working with the new people, and for me, process is as important as performance.”

After performing the phrase twice in groups of five, another surprise awaits: a five-minute break but no cuts. Instead, the dancers split into groups of four and improvise. “I didn’t want to eliminate someone for not being a fast learner,” Wevers says. “What if I had let go an amazing artist? I recognize my own limitations, and maybe there’s a dancer who doesn’t pick up the details as quickly as others. Through improv, I can see if she’s a great mover.” And for a company whose core mission is developing new work, improvisation is an essential skill. “I’m not looking for imitators,” Wevers says. “I want artists who can take a step and make it something of their own so we can have an exchange.”

At 2:15, the first cuts come. Wevers hands company members two piles of head shots—those he wants to keep and those to let go. He asks if dancers in either pile are misplaced. In whispers, phrases like “too square” or “too wild” can be heard, and a dancer who “was connecting with other girls in the improv” moves to the top of the “to keep” pile. Wevers says: “I want dancers to be aware of their space and that of others. And if someone is not being respectful, that’s a clear cut.” Ultimately, 16 dancers are kept—4 men and 12 women, including Whitworth.

Though relieved that she made it so far, Whitworth says that she’s learned from past auditions to take them one step at a time. “I used to get so excited—sometimes even texting a friend that I’d made it,” she says. “But there are always other cuts that can still go either way. I just try to stay focused with my head in the game.” That clear-headedness is a boon for the next portion: learning a partnering phrase—in trios.

The women learn a section from Wevers’ I don’t remember a spark, and the four men learn an excerpt of a pas de deux in Approaching Ecstasy. Ramona Kelley, 25, who performed on the national tour of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away, says afterward that being so focused on the tricky partnering made her forget it was actually an audition. “There were really complicated moments,” she says. “We had to be daring, step outside our comfort zones as female dancers and partner someone else.”

Right: Grace Whitworth (center, in purple) stretches during the five-minute break.

Wevers admits that the trios were difficult. “I knew that in 40 minutes the dancers wouldn’t get it all,” he says. “But I wanted to see how they worked it out as a unit. I tried to listen to how they responded to one another.”

By 2:55, the original 35 have been whittled down to five women and one man. Whitworth and Kelley end up finalists, and all six dancers follow Wevers and the company members to a conference room where they spend another half-hour talking as a group. “That was the most atypical part,” says Kelley. “Olivier and the Whim W’Him dancers answered our questions, told us about their company and how often they work.”

Ultimately, the dancers who Wevers would hire needed to be able to travel to the West Coast. Several that he offered contracts to had conflicts, and a little more than a month later, three from the Seattle audition would end up filling Whim W’Him’s open slots. Still, Wevers notes that his long-term goal is a year-round company with 10 dancers. “For now, I’ve kept a file of the dancers who caught my eye in New York and who I’d be interested in working with again. Maybe it didn’t work out this time, but it’s not a closed door.”

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