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Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Fall, and the typical rain, arrived this week, but the atmosphere of art appreciation in University Place, Washington, keeps blooming, with Dance Theatre Northwest as the brightest blossom in that bouquet. Artistic Director Melanie Kirk-Stauffer seems to be having an especially exciting year, adding to her long list of original dance numbers she has choreographed and presented. You can see the DTNW company and students perform them this Friday night, September 26, when UP for Arts launches their Fall Art and Concert, including this production, "Dance Illuminations." The event takes place in the Civic/Library Atrium at 3609 Market Square, University Place, WA, 98464, between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The event also includes the work of fine artist Retha Hayward and watercolor artist Jason Bordash. 

As inspired as Kirk-Stauffer felt during 2014, her creativity, mind, heart, and energies are already focused on interpreting an object of inspiration that doesn't even physically exist yet, but which will become a showpiece of this thriving community that is a next-door neighbor to Tacoma. Dance Theatre Northwest is developing an entirely new work, as yet unnamed, based on a public art installation planned for the University Place Civic Center Atrium, appearing in the spring of 2015. It will be called "Between Sea and Sky" and has been embraced by the citizens of UP. As long ago as December of 2013, the Tacoma News Tribune reported on the unexpected speed of, and enthusiasm behind, local fundraising for this artwork, a piece that will cascade from the atrium's ceiling and reflect the abundant natural daylight. 

"I have been choreographing and presenting art inspired dance works "Illuminations"since our D├ęgas art-inspired ballet, 'The Red Shoes,'" Kirk-Stauffer told me. "After working for several years creating and lecturing about dance pieces that relate to works at the Tacoma Museum of Glass, I realize that this has become a kind of self-actualizing experience."

She says the audiences, the respective artists, and educators all seem to love the way this draw more attention to detail. I know that when I attended the DTNW performance at the Museum of Glass, I was amazed by how she could interpret the art of glass through the art of dance. I had never seen such an attempt before and found it fascinating.

"The challenge of bringing more insight into each specific work of art, using dance, really drives my creativity," she added, at it is apparent. Because "Between Sea and Sky" will be such a significant piece of public art for the City of University Place, she  is approaching this new work it inspired in the same way she approached other signature dance piece, such as "Strike Up the Band," "The Red Shoes," "Almost Blue," and and "Tribute," the Museum of Glass piece. 

"Other recent pieces of note," she said, "include "Capriccio," "Fire To Rain," "One Voice," "Man On The Street," and "Nite Lites," which are all being presented at the Atrium on September 26th for UP For Art.

What a perfect way to begin a new season. I highly recommend that you plan to be there on Friday night to see this wonderful showcase of dance talent. Tickets are only $10 for General Admission and $5 for Students. 

P.S. I hear the "Bluebird Pas De Deux" with music by Peter Tchaikovsky will be spectacular!

All photos were taken by Maks Zakharov.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Cast Photo - Gun Silhouette
Photo: Tim Durkan 
My evening at ACT Theatre, in Seattle, to see the West Coast premier of Ayad Akhtar's play "The Invisible Hand," began in an odd way. The older gentleman sitting next to me looked down at the stage and made a grim prediction as he stared at the square enclosure, made of what looked cement blocks, represented a prison cell in Pakistan. It contained a table, chairs, and a cot covered with a filthy mattress, pillow, and blanket.The man said to his wife something like, "This could make me uncomfortable." 

It turned out that, as a child, he had been trapped in a cave for hours, in total darkness, a fact he believed led to his lifelong claustrophobia, so the idea of imprisonment triggered those feelings. Little did he know, however, how prophetic his words would turn out to be, for both the characters in the play and audience. There on the stage, we would soon see a cast of four build the structure of an intense plot of this thriller, one brick of drama at a time, using moments of poignancy and even humor as mortar. For two hours, it held us captive.

Connor Toms cuffed 
Photo: Chris Bennion
The story features Nick Bright (Connors Tom), a hotshot employee of a major American investment bank, who has been kidnapped by a militant Islamic group and held for a ransom no one is interested in paying. Therefore, he ends up in a situation where he must put his financial knowledge and talents to work to invest in the stock market on behalf on his captors, while earning his own ransom money.

Connor Toms and Elijah Alexander with gun 
Photo: Chris Bennion 
Those captors are Bashir (Elijah Alexander), Dar (Erwin Galan) and Imam Saleem (William Ontiveros), but another player in this story, and the source of its title, is "the invisible hand," a term from the world of finance. It refers to a theoretical and unseen force in the marketplace. The idea is that individual investors, motivated by only their own best interest, unintentionally benefit the larger society, because their decisions create a free market based on simple supply and demand. Supposedly, when trade exists in this state, in the absence of governmental interference, the market will find its own point of equilibrium and wealth distribution through competition and price adjustments to meet what the market will bear. 

William Ontiveros grips Elijah Alexander 
Photo: Chris Bennion 
In this drama, morality itself becomes a free market that fluctuates with individual agendas and motivations. We watch it morph into something we didn't expect, an entity that creates its own justification for existence. Throw in a case of Stockholm syndrome, plus a twisted element of enjoyment in this mutual pursuit of profit, and you have the makings of seductive monster of a plot, a situation growing ever more out of control, with horrifying consequences. The young American financial wizard must face his own contributions to this outcome. People in the audience had to face their own feelings about money and personal gain versus the good of a society.

online strategy with Connor Toms
Photo: Chris Bennion
As usual, ACT offers the highest quality acting, stage design, lighting, sound, and special effects, but the gem in that setting that sparkled most brightly for me was the performance by Elijah Alexander, as Bashir, the one who becomes the unexpected student of Bright's financial brilliance, as well as the other half of a relationship teetering on the brink of true friendship. That relationship is repeatedly and confusingly knocked back into one of captive and captor when it tips too far. Power shifts from one to the other in a most fascinating way.

Bashir grew up in the U.K. and speaks with a Cockney accent, facts that give him a whole different dimension and work to dissolve some stereotypes. In so many ways, he is a most likable guy, at least at first. In fact, as part of the irony of politics and war, we can see the common humanity among all four characters and the simple truth that all people want the same basic things—security, work, food, and family. I was drawn into age-old issues of competition and conflict among the planet's people and how money can sway convictions.

Elijah Alexander and Connor Toms and comics 
Photo: Chris Bennion 
Alexander's natural and spellbinding acting brings Bashir to life as someone we will not forget. Ontiveros did an excellent job as Imam Saleem, and Galan's character, Dar, contributed additional humanity to the story. Connor Tom, as Nick Bright, performed best during the difficult scenes that involved pain and anguish, but don't think the play is entirely dark. Just like real life, it is experienced with a mixture of emotions, which is part of the point of the whole thing. Mankind exists in a self-made prison built of competition, prejudice, fear, and greed made tolerable by compassion and humor.

I highly recommend "The Invisible Hand." The man sitting next to me was right in predicting that it would be uncomfortable at times, but it is also deeply thought provoking and moving, so worth the price of a ticket. 

You have only until Sunday, September 28, to see this most excellent production, so be sure to reserve your seats today. Here is the link to the online box office. Please be aware that, since the play deals with terrorism, it involves violence and adult language, so is not suitable for children under 14, according to the theater.

You can read a fascinating interview with playwright Ayad Akhtar here.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre high kicked, tapped, and sang its way into the 2014-2015 season with the Broadway hit musical "A Chorus Line" (September 3-28), and during the drive home on opening night, my husband and I talked about its pluses (many) and minuses (very few.) I also wondered aloud why chorus lines themselves hold so much appeal, for the people in them and the people admiring them. Why does mankind need chorus lines? The answer is deep, my friend, very deep. But first, let's talk about this show.

The company of A Chorus Line at The 5th Avenue Theatre.    
Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
The musical takes us from auditions through the long and harrowing process of elimination that leads to the final selection and the chorus line's glittering finale. It's sometimes a brutal ride. The pressures of this ordeal bring out the angst, secret backgrounds, and emotional baggage of those who want, more than anything, to end up in the chorus line. Taking us along on the journey is a most talented groups of performers with full credentials. Chryssie Whitehead stars in the lead role of Cassie in a cast featuring not only many who have already made a name for themselves in Seattle, but also natives of several other Northwest cities, such as Tacoma*, Bellevue, Everett, and Portland. 

Chryssie Whitehead stars as Cassie in The 5th Avenue Theatre's production of A Chorus Line.  
Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
If singing and dancing are the strength of this entertainment genre, in this case, the dancing was stronger than the singing, in my opinion, only because the dancing was unbeatable. When small groups merged into one, the perfect choreography, the professionalism, the years of training, all showed. They were so together that it brought a thrill. 

The same applies to the 5th Avenue's outstanding orchestra. I've never heard those amazing musician sound better than on opening night of "A Chorus Line." In terms of aural delights, let me also complement the sound design as superb. Everything seemed well balanced and at just the right volume, at least from my seat. I always appreciate the lighting at this theater, and it, too, added so much, creating a jewel box of paints on a dark pallet one moment and an almost blinding golden nakedness of illumination the next. When it came to acting, my husband and I agreed that not a couple of cast members could not "sell" their characters as convincingly as others, but we still enjoyed the show. Kudos to all.

Richard Peacock plays Richie in A Chorus Line at The 5th Avenue Theatre.  
Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
The long success of "A Chorus Line," must be based on the fact that we can all relate to it. Although few of us actually become professional dancers—or actors, musicians, or athletes, for that matter—almost everyone has, at some time in their lives, fantasized overcoming their fears and living their dreams of glory. This show might scare you or dare you. It shows you what life is really like for those who put their hearts, souls, and bodies literally "on the line" to express what they cannot suppress. If you've lived that dream, you will recognize yourself. If you've ever waited in a line of nervous junior high school Physical Education students, while the two best athletes take turns choosing their teams, you will recognize yourself. 

Think of all the bad situations that involve lines—suspects in a jail lineup, bread lines during the Great Depression, whimpering 1950s and '60s era school kids in line for vaccinations, the grocery store check stand at 5 p.m., gas rationing, Army draftees in Jockey shorts awaiting physicals, or the scene outside the ladies restroom during a short intermission. Even when they don't make us nervous or impatient, lines often make us compare ourselves to others, especially in situations of competition. Are we too tall or short, too fat or skinny, to early or late, old or young, good enough, smart enough, lucky enough? How do we measure up? 

The company of A Chorus Line at The 5th Avenue Theatre.    
Photo Credit Tracy Martin
As I looked at all those very fit dancers on the stage—real people with their huge variety of body shapes and sizes, actually living the so-called "glamour" of showbiz—I knew they've all been in the place of their characters, feeling at times like the last kid picked for the basketball team. And therein lies the raw truth and beauty of humanity. We are, at once, all the same and all different, and our existence is naturally chaotic, a puzzle made of a million pieces that may never fit together.

So why do some of us love chorus lines? They fulfill our fantasy of creating order from that chaos, of harmoniously synchronized effort and perfect unity. Go see "A Chorus Line" if for no reason than to realize that the cast is portraying something at least partially autobiographical and that those compelled to perform do so as much for themselves as for the audience, pushing past universal fears and insecurities toward achievement. Admire their courage and applaud their victories, for they represent victory for all.

The company of A Chorus Line at The 5th Avenue Theatre.    
Photo Credit Mark Kitaoka
*Since I live in Tacoma, I especially want to mention Tacoma's own Greg McCormick Allen, who did a great job as "Larry" in this, his 23rd production at The 5th Avenue Theatre.