Catherine Cabeen is a riveting performer. She has extensions that reach to the sky, the grace of a gazelle, and a ferocious intensity that makes it impossible to look away when she’s on stage.
Although she has spent her career performing modern and contemporary dance with the Martha Graham and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane companies in New York and now her own Seattle-based troupe, Cabeen’s extraordinary technique is clearly based in ballet. Every move she makes, whether it’s the intricate articulation of a finger or the undulation of her torso, is a study in physical discipline and elegance.
She has a group of local dancers who perform as part of Catherine Cabeen and Company, but most of Cabeen’s performances since moving to Seattle have been her own solo creations. When she appeared at On the Boards’ A.W.A.R.D. show in 2009 she wowed the audience with what amounted to a duet with Kane Mathis accompanying Cabeen on the Kora, a hauntingly beautiful 21-stringed African instrument. It was the obvious winner of that evening’s dance competition and established Cabeen’s place among the top tier of Seattle dance talent.
On this latest program (through March 24), Cabeen takes the idea of a duet between a dancer and an instrument one step further. In “5 Windows,” she actually touches Kane Mathis, this time on an oud (Middle Eastern lute), and the oud itself. The dance begins with Cabeen lying on the floor in a pool of light, curled around the seated Mathis. As he plays, she begins to move in a series of deliberate, elongated body postures, first on the floor then standing upright. At first she circles Mathis, placing a hand on his knee, a foot on his shin, a hand on his shoulder. Gradually she glides away from Mathis to the center of the floor and for the next 20 minutes or so twists her body in a series of gyrations, extending the contorted movement from fingertips to pointed toes.
Cabeen is deeply attuned to the music and her body language reflects the intricate phrasing of Mathis’ original score. But she runs out of choreographic ideas after about 15 minutes. From that point on, the repetition of movement and music had a numbing effect that caused my mind and attention to wander.
Far more successful was “Composites,” another Cabeen solo. The work opens on a stage bare except for a large pile of crumpled papers. As a disembodied voice begins to recite a poetry-inflected text, Cabeen starts to push and pull her body into a series of striking poses. Unlike the liquid style of "5 Windows," Cabeen’s movements here are all angles with crooked arms, feet flexed, and legs jutting out. Her costume of black pants, black top, and black belt add to the solemnity, which is reinforced by Jay McAleer’s textual “sampling” references to the myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and Ariadne at Naxos as well as Carmina Burana and other sources too numerous to catch on a single hearing. The droning voices of the narrators and Julian Martlew’s hypnotic score are so compelling that they sometimes draw focus away from Cabeen’s dramatic presence. But she is such a charismatic figure it’s hard to ignore her for long.
“On the Way Out,” is another solo work by Cabeen, danced on this program by Sarah Lustbader. Kane Mathis appears again, this time on the Kora, which is brightly lit to show off its elegant towering neck. As Mathis gently strums, Lustbader makes her way to the rear right of the theater where an open door reveals a softly lit studio space. Lustbader pauses for a moment in the doorway, then steps through it and begins to swing and swirl her body almost out of sight of the audience. As she floats into view, then disappears except for an outstretched arm or pointed foot, one is tempted to strain to see her entire body. But it soon becomes obvious that the shadows she makes on the exposed brick wall are intriguing in their own right and serve as the perfect counterpoint to the Kora’s shining presence. Lustbader is an accomplished performer and brings an appealing femininity to her dancing.
The fourth solo work, “Gravitas” is a Martha Graham-inflected, jaunty romp for female dancer and trumpet. Dressed in a one-shouldered short black dress, Karena Birk cavorts around the stage as Brian Chin follows her, tooting his horn as if to cue her for a particular step or responding to a subtle signal she has given him. At one point, they drop to the floor and sit for a moment’s rest, then spring back up for more carousing. Birk brings a youthful buoyancy to “Gravitas” and shows us that Cabeen has a playful side we might not have suspected.
Rounding out the program is “All of the Above,” which features Birk, Lustbader, Brenna Monroe-Cook and Ella Mahler in a pas de quatre of ever-changing patterns of intertwined bodies. It’s a slight ballet, short on new choreographic ideas that, coming right after “5 Windows,” had the effect of highlighting how distinctive a dancer Cabeen is. Although the four other performers did a fine job with the steps, they lack Cabeen’s exquisite body, perfect technique, and the star power that makes her performances such a draw.
If you go: Hyphen 2012, an evening of new works by Catherine Cabeen, through March 24, Velocity Dance Center, 1621 12th Avenue, Seattle. Tickets $21.69 (including service fee) are available online at Brownpapertickets.