AS THE 10 DANCERS of Ultima Vez explode across the stage at On the Boards this weekend, no one will have spare attention to contemplate a paradox. But a paradox is at the heart of OTB's extraordinary career. For 23 years, the organization has relentlessly pursued novelty: new artists, new forms, new inspirations for both. Compared to such consistency of purpose, the aesthetic policies of other major arts presenters in our region seem as arbitrary and changeable as April weather.
New Performance Series 2000-2001
Wim Vandekeybus/David Byrne: In Spite of Wishing and Wanting Behnke Center for Contemporary Performance, October 19-22
Though they moved from rickety rented quarters in a Central Area social club to shiny new custom-built quarters at the foot of Queen Anne, OTB seems to have survived the identity crisis that engulfs so many operations when they attempt to go upscale. This success may well be because its identity is based not on a market-target audience but in long-standing relationships with artists, both local and international.
The work opening the 2000-2001 New Performance season is a good example. In Spite of Wishing and Wanting premiered last year in Ferrara, Italy, but it exists because composer David Byrne decided he would like one day to work with Wim Vandekeybus when he saw the Belgian choreographer/filmmaker's work back in 1990—in Seattle, at On the Boards.
Likewise the long-awaited return of New York's Wooster Group. One of the world's most imaginative and admired theater companies, the Group has performed at On the Boards only twice: Not out of aversion on either side, but simply because most of the group's shows are so mechanically complex and difficult to transport that they couldn't fit into OTB's old 14th and Yesler home. The opening of the Behnke Center, with its state-of-the-art equipment, removes that barrier—though North Atlantic, the Group's mock-musical military melodrama set aboard an aircraft carrier coming to Seattle mid-November, will strain the facility to its technical limits and then some.
OTB still couldn't present two shows as ambitious as In Spite of . . . and North Atlantic back-to-back if it weren't for a new maturity in the whole new-performance field worldwide. The art itself may still look refreshingly raw and rowdy, but the way it comes to be has been thoroughly professionalized. Vandekeybus' hour-and-45-minute exploration of male self-image and male-male interaction was coproduced by a four-country consortium, its tour underwritten by presenters in six more. Holy Body Tattoo of Canada consists of just two performers, but the tour of its sizzling tango fantasy Circa (arriving at On the Boards in mid-March) counts 11 sponsors responsible for funding its creation and tour.
IN A WAY, On the Boards and its ilk 'round the country and 'round the globe—New York's Dance Theater Workshop, Minneapolis' Walker Arts Center, and dozens more—are a new kind of vaudeville circuit presenting a new kind of vaudeville: entertainment, but entertainment for grownups who don't check their brains at the door along with their galoshes. OTB artistic director Mark Murphy isn't ashamed to call Gob Squad's Safe (playing OTB in January) "a sort of Spinal Tap for the new millennium." What sets this English-German multimedia extravaganza (featuring a performance by a punk band of literally lost souls) apart from Christopher Guest's mock-rocumentary is its determination to ask a serious question: Never mind why these people act the way they act; why do we sit around watching them do it?
Consider in the same light choreographer Ronald K. Brown. For going on 15 years Brown has been creating high-energy works that incorporate a dazzling range of dance techniques and genres, from traditional African idioms to hip-hop and ballet. His work is populist in tone, lively, invariably entertaining—and just as invariably driven by Brown's passionate need to explore how American black music and movement have evolved through exile, slavery, urbanization, and, finally, cultural exploitation by the dominant culture. The pieces he's bringing here next May are personal history in images, arguments in motion.
Once again OTB has chosen seasoned "local" artists to share the bill with internationally celebrated peers. Tapped this year are choreographer Maureen Whiting and videographer Robert Campbell, who are creating a piece for five dancers and projections due in February, and Vashon-based UMO Ensemble, collaborating with composer-performer Amy Denio to riff on Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities for a June premiere.
These presentations are no token nod to local artists; on the contrary, they are evidence of a commitment to putting the spotlight on performers already more than "ready for prime time," both calling wider attention to their work and challenging them to demand the highest standard of themselves. Seattle likes to call itself "a world-class city." The artists housed, nurtured, and showcased by On the Boards are better evidence than most that one day that boast may not ring hollow.