A tent-like pile of Mylar that morphs into a ball gown. A knitted cocoon of yarn that slides off and unravels back onto a circular loom. A white blob that becomes drifting smoke. Wax that appears to melt and drip sideways.
These are just some of the hypnotic production elements that choreographer Catherine Cabeen and her talented group of collaborators conjure up in Cabeen’s latest, full-length work Fire. Cabeen has many talents — more on those later — but in Fire her greatest skill is finding brilliant collaborators who can bring her artistic vision to life.
Although Cabeen has made much of the fact that Fire was inspired by the provocative work of French model-turned artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who was often photographed in publicity shots pointing a gun directly at the viewer, and although on her blog and in PR for Fire Cabeen talks about her fascination with Saint Phalle, it’s best to put aside those comments and approach the ballet on its own terms.
Fire is the most ambitious dance production Cabeen has created since establishing her own company in Seattle in 2009. Usually she performs solo works, typically in juxtaposition with a lone musician, allowing the audience to focus exclusively on her exquisite body.
Cabeen has an elegant lankiness, with arms and legs that go on forever. Her extreme control of even the slightest muscles, from the tips of her toes to the top of her head, enables her to sculpt the space around her as though she is pushing her way through a mound of whipped cream. When she unfurls an arm it is like water flowing downhill and when she undulates her torso it’s hard to believe there’s a bone anywhere in her body.
Cabeen’s skill and charisma are both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness. When she performs, it is impossible to take your eyes off her, which creates some problems with Fire. Although she has assembled a fine troupe of five other dancers, Cabeen completely dominates the scene, even if she’s deep in the background or off to the side. As a result, the group sequences lose a true ensemble effect; the other dancers, talented as they are, simply disappear alongside the riveting Cabeen.
Cabeen is at her most memorable in the first section. After emerging from the gold Mylar tent-gown, she moves onto a diagonal white panel that cuts across the stage floor. She begins to caress her body, moving into arabesque then collapsing into herself. For the next several minutes she remains essentially in place, extending herself this way and that in a breathtakingly sexy and lyrical solo.
When the five other dancers enter, clad in metallic silver unitards, their gyrations are a jarring and not entirely successful counterpoint to the quietude we’ve just experienced.
In the second section, several dancers weave a bright blue tunic on a wheel-like frame. The weaving itself is fascinating since we can’t really see what they’re doing until Cabeen steps into the center of the wheel and almost imperceptibly dons the tunic. For the next several minutes, she twists and turns as the other dancers move the wheel to different parts of the stage, unraveling and then taking up the yarn. Eventually, Cabeen gathers it into the shape of a baby, which she rocks gently in her arms as the section ends.
The final section isn’t nearly as interesting, choreographically or visually, as the first two, and goes on far too long. It’s an athletic romp for the six dancers, now dressed in candy-colored jumpsuits. It’s a marked contrast to what has gone before, almost as though it was interpolated from another ballet, and the effect is jarring. The movement is largely repetitive and although the performers are all on stage at the same time, there’s only one brief moment of unison dancing. This makes sense given Cabeen’s penchant for solo work, but it would have been nice to see her stretch her choreographic muscles a little more.
Altogether though, this is a minor flaw in a ballet that is, if not entirely successful, an engrossing feast for the senses. It is essential to mention every member of Cabeen’s production team: lighting designer Connie Yun, new media designer Susie J. Lee, digital media designers Lee, Rodrigo Valenzuela and Soyoung Shin, scenic designer Jay McAleer, mosaic designer Phil Cabeen, knitting loom “conceptualizer” Lou Cabeen, composers Kane Mathis and Julian Martlew, dramaturge Nancy Stoaks and stage manager Alex Harding.
Each of these artists and Cabeen’s five dancers – Karena Birk, Sarah Lustbader, Ella Mahler, Phylicia Roybal and Jana Kinci – have followed Cabeen into a mysterious, wondrous universe that won’t be soon forgotten.
If you go: Catherine Cabeen & Company, 8 pm, thru January 20, On the Boards, 100 West Roy Street, Seattle. Tickets $20 at http://www.ontheboards.org/ or 206. 217.9886.
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