REVIEWS YOU'LL FIND BELOW:

 

DANCE REVIEW: Spectrum Dance Theater, "H.R. 3244" (April 7, 2018)

 

DANCE REVIEW: Khambatta Dance Company at Seattle International Dance Festival 2018 Winter Mini Fest (Feb. 4, 2018)

BOOK REVIEW: "Swing Time" by Zadie Smith (Nov. 19, 2017)

DANCE REVIEW: Spectrum Dance Theater, "Occurrence" (Nov. 12, 2017)

DANCE REVIEW: Spectrum Dance Theater (Rambunctious Iteration #3: The Immigrants" (March 3, 2017)

DANCE REVIEW: Mary Sheldon Scott, "The SOLO(s) Project" (Nov. 4, 2016)

DANCE REVIEW: Whim W'Him, "Choreographic Shindig" (Sept. 10, 2016)

DANCE REVIEW: Anna Conner, "Exercises for the unrested: The kingmaker" (Oct. 9-11, 2015)

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Expanded version of 2007 Seattle Times conversation with Karen Joy Fowler about her Puget Sound-set debut novel, "Sarah Canary." 

DANCE REVIEW: APRIL 7, 2018

Spectrum Dance Theater's "H.R. 3244" takes human trafficking as a starting point, while diving deep into abstract territory

Spectrum Dance Theater performing Donald Byrd's "H.R. 3244." Photo: Marcia Davis.

Donald Byrd’s “H.R. 3244,” which Spectrum Dance Theater premiered on Thursday night, opens with four sets of dancers – a quintet, a quartet, two trios – taking their places on the stage before they combine into one massive huddle.

               There they tremble, arms wrapped around each other, heads resting on each other’s shoulders, before they fall away from the group like petals from a gigantic flower.

              It’s a striking image – one that recurs in various forms throughout the 75-minute show. Plenty of extraordinary interactions between performers occur at every stage of the action, as they shift back and forth in ever-changing combinations between moments of weakness and strength. But the huddle is their fallback position – their sanctuary, their refuge.

              That shivering group embrace is abstract enough to be open to interpretation. But Byrd’s starting point was a Congressional bill, passed in 2000, that attempted to curb human trafficking.

                We hear much of the text of H.R. 3244 in voiceover in the show. We also hear a sound-collage of female voices (artfully assembled by Robertson Witmer) detailing how they found themselves trapped in some form of sex slavery. The richest sound component, however, is a live performance of selected J.S. Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin, ably played by Aeolus Quartet violinist Nicholas Tavani.

                In his program notes, Byrd remarks, “‘H.R. 3244’ is not about human trafficking but rather is my emotional response to human trafficking.” He adds: “The piece is abstract but informed by the reality of this modern slavery.” It’s his way, he says, of trying to wrap his mind around a baffling evil in the world.

                Only one passage in “H.R. 3244” overtly addresses the piece’s subject matter: a deftly performed duet by Andrew Pontius and Emily Pihjala. Pontius’s canny stillness, as Pihjala runs wide circles around him, gradually lures her into his embrace. He both supports and controls her as their limbs dovetail intricately together. Sometimes she’s automaton-stiff in his arms. At other moments, she breaks free – only to have him pull her back in with nothing more than a steady look.

                Other passages feature a soloist moving in more ambiguous call-and-answer with a small group of dancers. Nia-Amina Minor brings a captivating gossamer clarity to her interactions with her trio of support performers. She’s not quite victim, not quite victor – although she is odd dancer out – as she utilizes an eclectic array of shuffles, shifting stances, sharp extensions and handclaps to evoke a wily, dodging spirit of persistence.

                Herd mentality is part of the picture too. In several instances, a soloist breaks off from a loping group of arm-linked dancers and bursts into a sprint, only to stumble, collapse and then slowly rise to join the herd again.

                Finally, there’s a female trio – Blair Jolly Elliot, Madison Oliver, Jaclyn Wheatley – who serve as fierce graces or muses who seem both to portray and to comment on a harsh threat-filled world.

              “H.R. 3244” fluctuates between breakneck formality (Byrd gets his dancers moving fast without sacrifice of precision or nuance) and quiet, tender moments of care and consolation. As the piece progresses, the violin music takes dominance over the voiceovers. The action grows more introspective as the dancers pull you into their world of searching struggle and profound connection.

                From that deep sequestered place, they re-emerge for a final scene of full-ensemble, drill-team ferocity – floor-shaking foot-stomps and fist-pounding, 360-degree stiff-bodied turns in the air, unison breaths as sharp as percussion – as if to protest, “This should not be.”

                Then, with their final re-convergence into a trembling mass of bodies, they seem to say: “But it’s what we’re stuck with – so let’s look out for each other with all our might."

Spectrum Dance Theater's “H.R. 3244” repeats April 7, 10 and 11 at Washington Hall, Seattle. Click here for tickets.

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DANCE REVIEW: FEBRUARY 4, 2018

KHAMBATTA DANCE COMPANY’S ‘ENDANGERED SPECIES’ THRIVES BRILLIANTLY UNDER TRICKY CONDITIONS

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Khambatta Dance Company performing Cyrus Khambatta's "Endangered Species" (photo by Marcia Davis)

 

Things didn’t go quite as anticipated for the Seattle International Dance Festival’s first “Winter Mini Fest.”

A planned split-bill program – with Mexico City’s Ciudad Interior performing in one half and Seattle’s Khambatta Dance Company (KDC) performing in the other – wound up being an all-Khambatta evening after Ciudad Interior encountered visa problems when entering the U.S.

The stress of the last-minute change was evident in the two KDC pieces that opened the program, even if they did play with an interesting idea: repeating the same dance to different pieces of music (Grieg versus Gotan Project in “Light/Dark”; Grieg versus Hauschka in “Harmony 2 by 3”).

But KDC’s world premiere, “Endangered Species,” in the second half of the program, was a spellbinder.

“Species” finds choreographer Cyrus Khambatta and his dancers trying things they’ve never done before: wiggly, connective, hypnotic things. It’s fueled by extraordinary unison work among Khambatta’s six dancers. To my mind, it places KDC on a whole new level of inventiveness and accomplishment.

Its first section is a perpetual motion machine of balance, flow and undulation. The six performers bob and turn like a school of fish at times. There’s some individuality at play in their rippling moves, but they’re all governed by the same animating current as they follow a safety-in-numbers agenda.

In the second section, female dancer Hilary Grumman strikes out on her own and is pursued first by Sean O’Bryan and then by Sean Tomerlin. Both male/female pairings are tangled, intense and athletic. Is this sexual attraction? Is it some kind of invasive power play?

Whatever it is, it leads to a third movement in which the two men vie with each other. They lean like planks against each other, then make shapeshifting slip-knots of their long limbs. They leave each other hanging in extreme backwards bends, then come through with (fleeting) support as O’Bryan relieves Tomerlin from his painful position and then, a short while later, Tomerlin relieves O’Bryan.

Somehow, they combine the tender, the confrontational and the acrobatic into a single collaborative/competitive package. After they’ve finally pushed themselves to their limits of endurance, they’re rejoined by the other dancers who fold them back into the group and steady them as best they can.

It’s a beautiful piece, full of surprising interactions and dynamics, and the company – limber and rubbery as can be – is fully up to it. Low lighting by Ilvs Strauss and shimmery, tight-fitting costumes by Serbian designer Jasmina Panic (think upscale fetish-ware) complete its seductive effects.

 

“Endangered Species” repeats 2 p.m. Feb. 4 and 8 p.m. Feb. 10. Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle; $18-$23 (www.SeattleIDF.org).

BOOK REVIEW - Nov. 19, 2017

“Swing Time”

By Zadie Smith

Penguin, 453 pp., $17

 

By Michael Upchurch

 

Coming of age is a nebulous process. You’re working with material that you don’t quite understand – your emerging self – and deciphering how it does or doesn’t mesh with the world around you.

Parents, schoolteachers and physical surroundings figure in the equation. But picking up on cultural signals is a vital part of it, too. If you’re a bright inquisitive child, your tastes in music, movies, books, fashion and art are something you explore on your own. Adults don’t get it. Adults are strangely oblivious to the siren songs that can seduce you. And when you meet a peer who shares your tastes, it can blow parental and school authority out of the picture.

Zadie Smith’s extraordinarily fine and funny fifth novel, “Swing Time,” follows the story of two bi-racial girls growing up in northwest London, starting in the early 1980s. It’s filled with every possible pleasure that fiction can offer: generational conflict, marital breakdown, professional rivalries, overseas adventure, celebrity delusions, charged racial politics, belated understandings, sex, betrayal and ironic miscalculation. It pulses with so much life that you may feel its experiences are your own.

But the best thing about it is Smith’s focus on the role that cultural signals play in her young characters’ lives.

They aren’t necessarily the signals you would expect from a 1980s childhood (Smith was born in 1975). True, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince rate a mention. But so do Fred Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers and a lesser-known African-American dancer, Jeni LeGon, who steals a scene in a 1937 musical that fascinates Smith’s nameless narrator and her best friend Tracey.

Smith, of course, burst on the literary scene in 2000 with “White Teeth,” a feisty cornucopia of a novel about the entangled history of a Jamaican-British family and Muslim Bengali family in northwest London from the 1940s through the 1990s. Smith’s voice was so dazzling that it blinded enthusiastic readers to flaws in the book that Smith herself was quick to point out.

“This kind of precocity in so young a writer,” she quipped shortly after her splashy debut, “has one half of the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford et al.), she would just stay still and shut up. ‘White Teeth’ is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.”

Rereading “White Teeth” recently, it struck me that Smith had a point. While the book starts out with an uproarious bang and keeps up its antic energy for several hundred pages, it gets overly cluttered with writing stunts and set pieces toward the end. “Swing Time,” by contrast, covers similar ground – the experience of growing up in multi-ethnic London – with quieter ingenuity.

And you still get the tap-dancing.

Obsessions with dance and pop music – both girls take a dance class together – propel the novel. (“The passions in this book,” Smith has said, “are definitely autobiographical.”) Smith’s narrator is the ringleader when it comes to investigating these old Hollywood musicals.

“Ali Baba Goes to Town is a strange film,” she says of that 1937 musical. “It’s a variation on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which Eddie Cantor plays Al Babson, an everyday schmuck who finds himself working as an extra on an Arabian Nights-type picture, out in Hollywood. On set he falls asleep and dreams he’s back in ninth-century Arabia.”

The movie’s key production number is described with wry zest: “The Arabs are Hollywood Arabs, white, in Aladdin costumes. The Africans are black Americans dressed up—loincloths and feathers, outlandish head-dresses—and they play primitive musical instruments, in a parody of their future Cotton Club incarnations: trombones made of actual bone, clarinets formed from hollowed-out sticks, that sort of thing.”

In this dream sequence Cantor, in black-face, serves as bandleader signaling performers on when to make an entrance or leave the stage: “He told them that swing was here to stay, that there was no avoiding it, and so they must choose a partner—and dance. Then Cantor blew his whistle and the wonderful thing happened. It was a girl—a girl arrived. I made Tracey sit as close to the screen as she could, I didn’t want there to be any doubt about it. I looked across: I saw her lips part in surprise, as mine had done the first time I watched it, and then I knew that she could see what I saw.”

The dancer, LeGon, is a dead-ringer for Tracey, and her performance is like a validating message-in-a-bottle that has washed up on these youngsters’ shores.

“Her arms,” we’re told, “wheel-barrowed as she moved, her legs flew back and forth, she was a hoofer, not an obsessed technician. And she was funny: walking on her toes or freeze-framing for a second in an absurd comic attitude, on one leg, arms in the air, like the hood ornament on an expensive car. Dressed like the rest—grass skirt, feathers—but nothing could diminish her."

Both girls are captivated by this minor Hollywood figure, whom they learn more about as the book proceeds. But only Tracey takes an actual stab at a dance career.

If LeGon is one muse-like presence in the novel, a contemporary pop star named Aimee – who has quite a bit in common with Madonna, but isn’t Madonna – is the other. Originally from a small town in Australia, she has left the island continent far behind by the time Smith’s narrator lucks into a job as her personal assistant.

“Her first single came out the week of my tenth birthday,” Smith’s narrator recalls. “She was twenty-two at the time. By the end of that same year, she once told me, she could no longer walk down the street, not in Melbourne, Paris, New York, London, Tokyo.”

The two girls’ families naturally play a big role in their tale as well. The narrator is the luckier of the two. She has a loving, dope-smoking, happily domestic white father who works for the post office, does most of the cooking and cleaning at home, and is happy with the way things are. Her mother, on the other hand, is an ambitious black woman of Jamaican background who, much to her family’s mystification, is trying to better herself with courses at Britain’s Open University. (“She was studying Sociology & Politics. We didn’t know why.”)

Tracey, by contrast, lives in “a high-rise estate of poor reputation” and is far less fortunate in the parental department. Her mother, “white, obese, afflicted with acne,” is stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Her daughter is “her only joy,” but motherly devotion doesn’t translate into many advantages for Tracey, from what her best friend can tell.

Though her dad is out of the picture, Tracey is “steadfast and loyal to his memory, far more likely to defend her absent father than I was to speak kindly of my wholly attentive one,” the narrator says. “Tracey has even concocted an excuse for his neglect. “Her father had not abandoned her, no, not at all, he was only very busy because he was one of Michael Jackson’s backing dancers.”

The narrator, in retrospect, has trouble deciding how much credence she gave this bit of information as a girl. “It was, in my mind, at one and the same time absolutely true and obviously untrue, and perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these."  

“Double-faced facts” only multiply as the two girls move past their teens and enter their twenties (the novel’s action wraps up in 2008). Tracey’s father has done prison time and his reappearances in his daughter’s life are something to be feared as much as savored. The question of which girl is doing better in the world, either personally or professionally, grows ever more elusive as the novel proceeds. Awkward reunions give way to years-long estrangements. Painful mutual revelations (and possible fabrications) can’t erase the sister-deep relationship between them.

Smith explores the complications of this friendship from multiple points in time. Indeed, the book’s title – along with alluding to the classic Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film that the girls watch repeatedly – is a verbal command, setting the narrative pendulum in motion between past, present and points in-between. (In her acknowledgments, Smith thanks her husband, writer Nick Laird, for seeing “what had to be done with time, just in time.”)

The title also manifests itself in the way these two 1980s kids can manipulate time as they slip videotapes into their VHS players. “We were the first generation to have, in our own homes, the means to re- and forward-wind reality: even very small children could press their fingers against those clunky buttons and see what-has-been become what-is or what-will-be.”

In the scene where the two girls study that production number from “Ali Baba Goes to Town,” Smith expands the swathes of time farther. The song Cantor sings becomes a springboard across the centuries as he delivers “a verse that seemed to swing time itself, flashing far ahead, to a moment when these Africans would no longer be as they were presently, a time a thousand years in the future when they would set the tempo the world wants to dance to, in a place called Harlem.”

However Hollywood-ized and camp this scene is in its excesses, it still exerts a powerful call, especially to Tracey, who winds up appearing in “Guys and Dolls” in London’s West End and touring on Britain’s provincial theater circuit. But she never emerges from the chorus, and her anger at the world grows more caustic with every year that passes.

Meanwhile Smith’s narrator, pulled into Aimee’s glamorous life, gets a crash-course on how easy it is to detach yourself from reality’s constraints when you’re continually flying high, whether on a private aircraft (“If we didn’t like winter we flew toward summer”) or under the influence of drink or drugs. The only things she remains sure of are the music and films that mean so much to her. Without them, you get the feeling, she would have nothing at all to anchor her.

Smith’s narrator deep uncertainty about herself (without Tracey as her foil, she is, she says, “a body without a distinct outline”) contributes centrally to the book’s immediacy and suspense. In a short prologue at the outset of the novel, she alerts us that she’s well aware of why her life is crashing down around her: “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

“Swing Time,” in a way, can be read as a contest by the three key women in her life – her mother, Tracey and Aimee – to fill the void where that shadow is. While drawn to their examples, she can’t quite bring herself to succumb to any of them.

“My mother was a feminist,” she says, plainly inferring that for her “feminist” is a loaded term. “She wore her hair in a half-inch Afro, her skull was perfectly shaped, she never wore make-up and dressed us both as plainly as possible. Hair is not essential when you look like Nefertiti.”

Her belated admiration for the accomplishments of her mother, whose leftist passions lead to her winning a seat in Parliament, are accompanied by lingering childhood bewilderment and resentment. (“What do we want from our mothers when we are children?” she asks. The answer is “complete submission” – something her mother was never prepared to give her.)

Her best friend is just as overpowering a character. In one episode, Tracey asks her friend “sharply” what she’d like to do and she’s flummoxed by the question. “I had no idea,” she confesses. “Never before had I been canvassed for ideas of what to do, she was the one with all the ideas.”

In the later age of social media, Tracey’s ideas evolve into an embrace of Internet conspiracy theories that are “striking in their detail and perverse erudition, linking many diverse historical periods and political ideas and facts, combining them all into a sort of theory of everything, which even in its comic wrongness required a certain depth of study and a persistent attention.”

The narrator – skeptically theory-free herself – is nonetheless acute in her understanding of what triggers Tracey’s agitated postings online: “Wasn’t it all a way of explaining power, in the end? The power that certainly exists in the world? Which few hold and most never get near? A power my old friend must have felt, at that point in her life, she utterly lacked?”

If that sounds condescending, one reason may be that the narrator at this point in the book is seeing power in action, thanks to her job as a personal assistant to Aimee, the most extravagant creation in the novel. Smith is brilliant in the way she makes the pop star simultaneously earthbound and disconnected from all the usual constraints of reality, taking on lovers like new wardrobe items and dropping in on a West African country (the town names—Banjul, Serrekunda, Barra — indicate it’s The Gambia) to found a girls’ school in a remote, impoverished village.

This isn’t, Aimee’s young assistant persuades herself, strictly an ego trip.

“Aimee herself had no abstract interest in power. She was motivated by something else: impatience. To Aimee poverty was one of the world’s sloppy errors, one among many, which might be easily corrected if only people would bring to the problem the focus she brought to everything.”

Smith’s narrator is initially euphoric about being in Africa. But joy soon gives way to doubts. The girls-school project is strewn with pitfalls. The “friendships” between First World do-gooders and Third World beneficiaries prove tricky. Even the local dance rituals grow tarnished in the narrator’s mind after Aimee appropriates them for her stage show.

The whole African adventure culminates in scandal and unwanted publicity for both Aimee and her assistant. Relations between them are additionally muddied by the question of whether Smith’s narrator is really a friend and confidante of Aimee or simply her employee.

Smith’s orchestration of this bumpy ride is a thing of plot-spinning wizardry, as she manages to weave her narrator’s decades-long anxieties about her mother and Tracey into her Aimee-related crises. Secondary narrative threads, one of them to do with the narrator’s father’s secrets (he has a second family), bring other bombshells her way. But it’s the women who dominate. And it’s hard to say which of them, if any, holds the higher moral ground.

That ambiguity, of course, is intentional. It’s how Smith – too attentive to her characters’ wayward impulses to pass easy judgment on them – sees the world. Her authorial voice is sane, illuminating and wise throughout, even when her narrator is suffering from glaring blind spots.

On a larger scale, the novel serves as a low-key history on how the colonies came home to Britain over the past 200 years.

Some episodes are drawn from the history books, as is the case with Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a “quick and alert” West African girl kidnapped by the King of Dahomey who later became a god-daughter to Queen Victoria. Others draw on living memory, including an aging West End actor’s fond memories of 1950s Soho when “there was no black, there was no white. Nothing so banal.”

One of the actor’s friends was “Paul” who, with his boyfriend, shared a flat in the late 1950s with painter Francis Bacon. Paul later played the black sailor in the groundbreaking 1961 film “A Taste of Honey,” and a little digging reveals this was Ghana-born Paul Danquah, of mixed race himself.

The film, which touches on single motherhood, racial issues and homosexuality as if they were no big deal, is a landmark in the history of multicultural Britain – and you get the feeling there are few such landmarks that elude Smith’s eye.

In the last stretch of the book, after the narrator’s relationships with Aimee, her mother and Tracey have all hit crisis point, she finds herself in Paris where she cottons onto the emancipatory promise that the city has made to ethnic African exiles before her: “I thought of all the singers and dancers and trumpet players and sculptors and scribblers who had claimed to feel like people, finally, here, in Paris, no longer shadows but people in their own right … and I wondered how these people were able to tell, so precisely, the moment that they began to feel like a person.”

Once again cultural touchstones offer her a lifeline.

She has made bad mistakes. She has burned some bridges behind her. But by a convoluted route, she finds her way home – and even strays, in the final paragraph, across the most inviting, if informal, of dances as she seeks to clear things up yet again with Tracey.

And that, in its modest way, may be all that she needs.

DANCE REVIEW - Nov. 12, 2017

Alexander Pham (center) in the opening segment of Donald Byrd's "Occurrence," drawn from Byrd's "Geekspeak (or just another dance with dancers wearing socks for no apparent reason." PHOTO: Nate Watters

Spectrum Dance Theater: “Occurrence”

7:30 p.m. Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18, 2017. Spectrum Dance Theater, 800 Lake Washington Blvd., Seattle. $20 (206-325-4161 or www.spectrumdance.org).

 

When it comes to watching certain kinds of dance, closer is better.

              Choreographer Donald Byrd and the dancers of Spectrum Dance Theater can certainly hold their own on a big stage. But there’s nothing like seeing them in their Madrona studio to register their full impact. When they shake the floor, your seat shakes with them. You can hear their grunts and you can smell their sweat. Best of all, you can register every nuance of their facial expressions as they lose themselves – and find themselves – in the extraordinary worlds that Byrd creates for them.

               This is dance in Scent-o-Vision and Sensurround.

              Byrd’s latest series of works, collectively titled “Occurrence,” takes its cue from Merce Cunningham’s “Events” which mixed and matched excerpts from existing works, finding new connections between and putting key passages in new contexts. The second installment of Byrd’s “Occurrence,” which got a showing on Nov. 10 and repeats Nov. 11, takes segments of three existing pieces – “Black Man Weeping,” “The Minstrel Show” and “Geekspeak (or just another dance with dancers wearing sock for no apparent reason)” – and fuses them with a sizable chunk of new work.

              The effect is a little like taking a flying tour of Byrd’s mind. You sample his dry wit in “Geekspeak.” You see him at his most intuitive and abstract in a hypnotic expanse of new work, in which solos, duets, trios and quartets keep spinning off each other in kaleidoscopic succession. An excerpt from “Black Man Weeping” offers a stark, searching drama about (racial) alienation from the crowd.

               Byrd’s latest crew of dancers – including four newcomers – pull off their marvels with an ease that lets them inhabit their performances completely.

               Alexander Pham has the deadpan aplomb of Buster Keaton in “Geekspeak” (for three dancers). His silky ripples, dagger-sharp thrusts and whiplash leg-lifts are a droll, intricate commentary on Pamela Z’s spoken-word sound-collage, which parses the distinction between “geeks” and “nerds.”

               Jaclyn Wheatley – whose solo kicks off the changing configurations of Byrd’s unnamed new work – has become a true star of the company. Her speed, precision and angular elasticity are captivating.

               And Robert Moore, as the odd man out in “Black Man Weeping,” is both astonishing in his technique and heartbreaking in his vulnerability. Spectrum has a long history of dancers blending physical pyrotechnics with harrowing actors’ instincts. Moore delivers that combo as well as anyone who’s come before him.

               Byrd’s own stroke of genius here is to take the closing passage from “The Minstrel Show” – a choral stare-down-the-audience number set to a Scott Joplin rag – and make it the coda to his “Black Man Weeping” excerpt. This chorus, led by steely-eyed Madison Oliver, has a Weimar-era cabaret flavor to it. With a political sting and cynicism, it takes a seething glee in exposing nightmare realities.

               Then there’s Spectrum’s partner-work. The trust and intimacy these duos and trios bring to their fleeting lifts and acrobatic balances is a continual thrill. The pairings of Pham with Wheatley, Oliver with Marte Osiris Madera, Paul Giarratano with Blair Jolly Elliot, and Nia-Amina Minor with Marco Farroni all deliver riveting goods.  

              Byrd’s use of tight choral movement to offset solo or duet action is fascinating too. A background trio or quartet of performers often provides a steady, flexing motor-rhythm that serves as compelling foil to the dreamy or intense action of the dancers in the foreground.

              Even though this incarnation of “Occurrence” draws from markedly different veins of Byrd’s oeuvre, Byrd has devised a way to give it a propulsive, shapeshifting momentum that keeps you hanging on every next move. The Nov. 17/18 “Occurrence” will take different ingredients and make an entirely new brew of them. I can’t wait.

Robert Moore ( in yellow) in a section of Donald Byrd's "Occurrence" drawn from Byrd's "Black Man Weeping."

PHOTO: Nate Watters

DANCE REVIEW - March 3, 2017

ABOVE: Spectrum Dance Theater's Paul Giarratano (left), Alex Crozier and Jaclyn Wheatley in Donald Byrd's "While He Was Away." Photo: Joseph Lambert.

SPECTRUM DANCE THEATER’S “RAMBUNCTIOUS ITERATION #3: THE IMMIGRANTS”

7:30 p.m. March 3 and 4, 2 p.m. March 5, Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, 201 Mercer St., Seattle; $21-$42 (206-443-2222 or http://seattlerep.org/Programs/Events/1617/Spectrum).

 

Come for the music, stay for the dance – or vice versa.

              But whichever approach you take, do not miss this show.

              Spectrum Dance Theater’s “Rambunctious Iteration #3” serves up some of the most gorgeous, inventive work I’ve ever seen come from the bodies of Spectrum’s dancers and the mind of choreographer Donald Byrd. Subtitled “The Immigrants,” it consists of four world premieres and one Seattle premiere of a piece originally commissioned by Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas, Austin. All five works are abstract – and all are set to live music performed by some of the top chamber players in town, including pianist Judith Cohen and Seattle Symphony violinist Mikhail Schmidt.

              While Spectrum’s 2017 season has had an emphatically political thrust, touching on police shootings of unarmed black men (“Shot”) and violence against LGBT people (“Impulse,” coming in June), the agenda in “Rambunctious Iteration #3” is more subtle.

              Its musical scores are all by American immigrant composers who moved here from Cuba (Tania Léon), Mexico (Max Lifchitz), Russia (Yevgeniy Sharlat), China (Tan Dun) and Iran (Gity Razaz). The key takeaway from the evening: Who in their right mind would want walls or travel bans keeping this kind of artistry from becoming part of our culture?

              “While He Was Away,” set to a trickily frisky piano-and-percussion score by Léon, kicks things off. In asymmetrical particolored leotards as bright as a candy-counter display, a dozen dancers animate the stage. Soon a conflicted trio emerges, with Alex Crozier at the center of it, and Paul Giarratano and Jaclyn Wheatley competing for his attention.

              Byrd has staged Merce Cunningham works in the past, and the look and movement of “While He Was Away” seem to tip a hat to the dance legend. Still, Crozier, Giarratano and Wheatley, as they approach and intercept one another, tap into an erotic vein that is one-hundred percent Byrd.

              “Paraphrase,” set to a violin duo by Lifchitz, has a similar teasing vivacity as it plays with pairings among a quartet of dancers: Crozier, Nia-Amina Minor, Andrew Pontius and Madison Oliver. Costumed in harlequinesque black-and-white, they shift allegiances as they’re put through courtly yet edgy paces.

               Byrd and the dancers excel at translating the gist of the music into their movement. At one point while violinist Sol Im offers a moto-perpetuo backdrop for a soaring solo by Shmidt, Minor moves in double-time while Oliver orbits her at a slower, dreamier pace. “Paraphrase” wittily ends with all four dancers withdrawing from the stage at a loping gait while the strings fade toward the stratosphere.

              “Roaming Ghosts” finds Byrd working in an atmospheric, neo-romantic mode. It’s set to a piano score by Tan Dun, composed early in his exposure to Western music (Ravel seems a key influence). Four white floor-to-ceiling banners, hung at staggered depths on the stage, comprise a kind of gauzy glade that the dancers, in flowing gowns of different pastel colors, pass through.

              Solos by Oliver, Giarratano, Minor and Alexander Pham tap deep into each performer’s distinctive dance personality. Pham, slinky and serene, has an uncanny ability to “hang” in the air seconds longer than the rules of gravity would seem to dictate. Giarratano is more of a gymnast/acrobat here, pulling off virtuoso maneuvers – casual handstands, silky back rolls, all manner of precarious balancing acts – with eager ease. Oliver and Minor are grace itself.

              Their solos give way to two duets, pairing Giarratano with Emily Philaja and Wheatley with Sherman Wood, before Crozier returns with a prowling, capering solo. The whole company joins in on a finale that’s all costume flow and fluid pattern, set to a Chinese-American composer’s pastiche of a Western take on an “oriental” sound.

              Live cello and electronically distorted recorded cello are paired in Razaz’s score for “Not from Here.” Pham again amazes with his elastic elegance, and Giarratano is as lithe a tumbler as you could wish. Pairings and trios among the five performers don’t spell out an overt narrative, but their wistful connections to one another and, especially, Pham’s repetitions of certain dance phrases read like attempts to communicate that make perfect sense of the piece’s melancholy title.

              “August 1, 1966” is by far the most intense piece on the program. It was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 14 people on the University of Texas campus. Though dancers fall as if to their deaths in some sequences, this isn’t a literal recreation of the events that inspired it. Instead, it’s a study in turmoil and the strangeness of survival … or could it be the strangeness of entering the afterlife? Sharlat’s score – a string quartet incorporating eerily distorted harmonica and kazoo effects – adds to the tension and sense of unreality.

              Giarratano is our guide through this world, and he’s extraordinary – able to levitate from the most unlikely positions and continually defying what seems physically possible with his swift, contorted limb articulations and ever-unpredictable balance.

              After it was over, someone behind me said, “I was worried for his body.”

              His neighbor answered, “He didn’t seem worried about his body.”

              To do such pyrotechnics with no sign of strain or self-concern is dance artistry of the highest order.

              Doris Black’s lively, varied costuming for all five pieces and Kent Cubbage’s and Sara Torres’ brilliantly protean lighting provide the crowning elements of the show.

DANCE REVIEW - Nov. 4, 2016

ABOVE: Sean O'Bryan in Mary Sheldon Scott's "The SOLO(s) Project" (Tim Summers)

 

DANCE REVIEW

Made in Seattle: Mary Sheldon Scott’s “The SOLO(s) Project”

7:30 p.m. Nov. 4-6, Velocity Dance Theater, 1621 12th Ave., Seattle; $17-$25 (www.velocitydancecenter.org).

 

By Michael Upchurch

 

Mary Sheldon Scott’s “The SOLO(s) Project” is pure abstract dance – but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in narrative thrust or gripping studies of character.

              With help from seven of Seattle’s finest dancers, Scott creates chapters of urgency, sequences of calm and moments of inquiry. No overt story is spelled out. But each dancer is so distinctive and the contrasts between them are so nicely sequenced and deployed that you feel as if you’re watching some numinous drama unfolding – one that could never be precipitated into words.

               Lynne Ellis’ constantly shifting lighting design subtly animates the piece, adding shadowy weight here and luminous giddiness there. Jarrad Powell’s intricate electronic score etches each dancer’s movement with every odd sound-color he devises.

               Occasionally two or more dancers share the stage, but the substance of the show is in its long solos that serve almost as portraits-in-movement of these performers.

Veteran choreographer Mark Haim, in a patterned purple tunic, comes first and seems to be conducting some kind of philosophical quest with his bending limbs, tilted head and raised eyebrows.

              Corrie Befort (of Salt Horse) moves things in a more urgent, agitated direction. Her sprung limps and rapid-fire slicing gesture seem to speak of some meltdown crisis. Her limbs seem to corkscrew, undulate and twitch as though they weren’t quite following the rules of physiology. Most of her performances that I’ve seen has been inventively prop-reliant, and it’s a real revelation to see her engaged in dance that, for the most part, is nothing but body-as-instrument. (A prop does come into play late in her solo.)

              After Befort’s frenzy, Jade Solomon Curtis takes a quieter and more elastic turn. She seems to be both imploring someone and demonstrating something, without ever losing her dignity or her cool. Curtis, formerly with Spectrum Dance Theater, is a captivating stage presence, with a flexibility that can border on contortion, always channeled toward poetic ends.

              Sean O’Bryan, for me, was the other big surprise of the evening. I’ve caught him in Chamber Dance Company shows, but wasn’t prepared the agile-feral dynamo in Scott’s piece. Clad in carnival colors, he does everything from fluid sideways scampers in push-up position to low, looping, weightless leaps in the air.

              All the solos are done against a black backdrop until Jim Kent’s closing sequence. Black curtains are pulled back to reveal a shimmering plastic scrim, and then Kent (of Whim W’Him fame) goes into action. Some of his lithe bends and precise gestures are akin to martial-art moves or Balinese dance. Echoing the soloists who went before him, he seems engaged in some private struggle, perhaps psyching out some unseen cosmic adversary. He weakens, rallies, weakens again – and brings the piece to a close with repeated deep bows that could signify either submission or homage.

              Scott takes her time with every dancer, pulling you deep into his or her essence, in a work that’s beautifully orchestrated and dazzlingly performed.

BELOW: Corrie Befort (left) and Jim Kent (right) in Mary Sheldon Scott's "The SOLO(s) Project" (Tim Summers)

LAUREN EDSON, OF TREY MCINTYRE PROJECT FAME, DELIVERS A CHOREOGRAPHIC TREAT AT WHIM W’HIM’S ‘SHINDIG’ (9/10/2016)

DANCE REVIEW: September 10, 2016

Whim W’Him’s “Choreographic Shindig”

8 p.m. Sept. 10 and 14-17, 5 p.m. Sept. 11. Erickson Theatre Off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave., Seattle; $15-$30 (1-800-838-3006 or www.whimwhim.org).

 

By Michael Upchurch

 

Whim W’Him’s “Choreographic Shindig” was introduced by artistic director Olivier Wevers in 2015 with the aim of giving company dancers a chance to choose the choreographers they wanted to work with. As Wevers, a former principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, remarks: “When I was still dancing, I always wished for an opportunity to help select programming.”

 

This year’s edition of “Shindig” saves the best for last. Lauren Edson’s “From Under the Cork Tree” is a sometimes poignant, sometimes comical portrait of a loner (Patrick Kilbane) who’s out of step with the company around him (Whim W’Him regulars Jim Kent, Mia Monteabaro, Tory Peil and Justin Reiter, plus newcomers Liane Aung and Karl Watson).

 

Kilbane starts as part of their huddle of seven dancers who move like a single organism – a stooped and shuffling organism that quivers, twitches or breaks into moments of anarchy before snapping back into unison again. But a few minutes into the dance, this multi-bodied organism wanders off on its own rhythmic path, leaving poor Kilbane stranded.

 

This may be sad for Kilbane, but it’s a treat for the audience as we watch him launch into solo action. His airy, elastic precision as he tries to find connection with his surroundings is a thing of wonder.

Even when the six other dancers are doing dervish-busy spins and dives around him, Kilbane quietly holds your eye. There’s something about his contained yet slightly preening jig-like saunter at the margins of the stage that’s absolutely riveting.

 

The cruelty of his situation is heightened when Reiter lures him into a duet that seems to be taking them somewhere romantically – until it’s abruptly dropped. The comedy crops up in a game of “Simon Says” that backfires badly on would-be ringleader Kilbane and a flower-power moment straight out of “Hair” that leaves him befuddled.

 

Edson was a member of Trey McIntyre Project, and McIntyre’s influence on her is marked. It’s there in her mastery of intricately varied group action – and it’s evident, too, in the theatrical wit of her work. Whim W’Him’s dancers have both the chops to pull off its tricky technical turns and the loosey-goosey élan to make those turns come nonchalantly alive.

 

The other two 2016 “Shindig” choices, Joseph Hernandez’s “Saro” and Jonathan Campbell/Austin Diaz’s “Swan Song,” employ wilder and woolier movement – and, in the case of “Swan Song,” a more abrasive lighting design. Both echo some of loner-versus-the-crowd dynamics of Edson’s piece.

 

Peil is the loner in “Saro.” It opens with her being interrogated by Kent while masked dancers hover on the sidelines. Questions like “Sunset or sunrise?” are met with answers like “I love both – it depends what kind of night it was.”

 

As Caroline Beach and Thomas Beach’s electronic score overwhelms this dialogue, the masks are dropped and a fragmentary journey ensues. Peil is often on the outside of the action, trying to find a way in. Impressive solo work by Aung and a passage where she bossily guides Peil’s actions make a big impression. But the individual moments in “Saro” (the title comes from an old folk song that emerges from the Beaches’ score) feel stronger than the sum of its parts.

 

Campbell and Diaz are the directors of New York’s all-male troupe MADBOOTS dance, but in “Swan Song” they mix up their gender pairings. Kilbane, again, is an outsider seeking some kind of connection – a connection he sporadically finds with Kent.

 

Kent, in the meantime, has his own pliable, submissive thing going on with Peil who, pulling him and dragging him, winds up tangled in slow-motion tumbles with him. Other quirky actions add to the texture of the piece. Dancers toss blue flower petals in the air until they carpet the stage. Watson launches into nonstop entrechats that culminate in a gradual and remarkably controlled body collapse.

 

The lighting shifts from coldly antiseptic to stage saturations in neon red and green. Sometimes the effects are striking; sometimes they obscure some bravura dancing, especially in the blinding moment that launches the piece. Whim W’Him’s ever-resourceful lighting designer Michael Mazzola creates the sharply contrasting lighting scenarios that heighten the power of all three pieces.

 

All three also use pop or folk songs in unlikely ways – most amusingly in “Swan Song,” where the Carpenters’ “Top of the World” is the fish-out-of-water guest at the MADBOOTS boys’ white-noise party.

 

Choreographers for 2017’s “Choreographic Shindig” have already been chosen.

Michael Upchurch has written about dance in Seattle off and on since the late 1980s.

DANCE REVIEW - OCT. 2015

Sometimes I get so enthused a dance performance that, even though I have no outlet wanting to publish it, I wind up writing about it anyway. That was the case here.

 

A STUNNER OF A DANCER IN A STUNNER OF A PIECE

“Made in Seattle”

8 p.m. Oct. 9-11, 2015

Velocity Dance Center, 1621 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$25 (206-325-8773 or www.velocitydancecenter.org)

 

Anna Conner first registered on my radar in July with her piece, “Pigeon,” performed at Velocity Dance Center’s summer showcase, “Strictly Seattle.” It showed great flair for creating curious carvings of space and contrasts of speed onstage, involving continually changing sets and subsets of dancers.

              But “Pigeon” didn’t prepare me for the hypnotic endorphin rush of her new work in Velocity’s “Made in Seattle.”

              It has a clunky title: “Exercises for the unrested: The kingmaker.” But it features a stunning performance by Patrick Kilbane (formerly with NW Dance Project in Portland, Oregon), backed with dramatic rigor by Alexander Pham, Hannah Simmons, Calie Swedberg and Cait Wyler.

              Kilbane has a taffy-smooth gift for slow-motion phrasing and he serves it up to mesmerizing effect in the opening of “Exercises.” His action is sometimes isolated from his fellow dancers and sometimes connects with them (especially in a blade-sharp duo with Pham).

              But even when he’s stock still, he holds your eye, as if he’s weighing an ominous move that could tip the whole balance of the stage. Both he and his fellow dancers can summon powerful impact from the smallest, strangest gesture or contraction.

              The dance, on its surface, is as abstract as it is urgent in feel. If there’s any story to be extracted from it, it has to do with Kilbane’s sometimes swift, sometimes sidewinding glide toward power and his final attainment of it in a closing image that’s regal, grounded, commanding, serene.

              The sound design (by ONE and Moped Genius) and lighting design (Thorn Michaels) are part and parcel of the spell that “Exercises” casts.

               The first half of “Made in Seattle” – “separated from the womb we became lions” by Babette DeLafayette + John Marc Powell – isn’t quite on the same level. But it’s still an atmospheric piece, using ritualistic movement and masks to explore nervous variations on clan mentality and rogue solo instincts.

KAREN JOY FOWLER INTERVIEW - 2007

Karen Joy Fowler was in Seattle in May 2016 for a Seattle Reads celebration of her novel "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves." In 2007, I had a chance to interview Fowler for The Seattle Times about her strange and startling debut novel, "Sarah Canary," set in and around Puget Sound in 1873. Here's a longer version of the piece that ran in the newspaper.

If I were asked to choose one book that gives readers a vivid notion of what life was like on the shores of Puget Sound in the 1870s (or to be specific: 1873), it would have to be Karen Joy Fowler’s debut novel “Sarah Canary.”

This semi-neglected regional classic, first published in 1991, concerns a Chinese railway laborer, Chin Ah Kin, who assumes responsibility for a strange woman he finds lost in the woods near Steilacoom. Thinking that Sarah Canary (as she soon is dubbed) has escaped from the local lunatic asylum, he attempts to return her there – but nothing goes according to plan. Soon Chin finds himself wandering the forests and waterways of Puget Sound with not one, but two asylum escapees in tow. The first is Sarah. The second is an addled prattler named B.J. who has severe trouble judging sizes and distances, and who needs to be constantly reassured of his own existence.

 

Together they encounter a grab-bag of oddball types living in shacks and villages along Hood Canal and the Sound. Chief among them: a naturalist who’s up-to-date on Darwin’s latest achievements, a Civil War veteran who’s come to believe he’s immortal and a “magnetic doctress” preaching the virtues of feminine sexual pleasure.

 

In Fowler’s hands, the whole Puget Sound basin becomes a sort of blank screen on which all sorts of eccentrics and ethnic types can project their own notions of reality – just as Sarah Canary herself becomes a tabula rasa who seems to invite a different treatment and interpretation from every figure she encounters.

 

The book is both prankish and poetic; its prose is a constant, trippy treat. Here’s a tale that demands to be savored the way the dreamiest of Eudora Welty’s Natchez Trace stories do. And the astonishing thing is that Fowler cooked it up with only a passing acquaintance with our region. Here’s a 2007 interview I did with Fowler.

 

Q: You grew up partly in Indiana and partly in California, so how the heck did you make the Puget Sound connection in sufficient depth to write a novel like this?

 

A: I think that some people read novels in order to find themselves and see themselves represented somehow in literature, and are very pleased when the characters are like them and think the things they too have thought. But for me books have always been a way to be someone else and to go somewhere else. And when I was writing my first books, we had so very little money that we couldn’t travel at all. And writing a book was my version of taking a trip to a place. I did enormous research. The whole idea for “Sarah Canary” came when I – for reasons that I no longer remember – took off the shelf at the library a three-volume history of Tacoma, thinking, “How can there possibly be three volumes’ worth of stuff to say about Tacoma?” Having sort of settled on this place, I began to do the research. I did make one trip up, to try to see if the landscape was as I was imagining it – but mostly I did it out of books. I got fabulous material on the Steilacoom Insane Asylum: they still had the menus and the prisoners’ names. So that’s one answer. Another answer is that in some way that I cannot explain I really feel that this is where I belong. This is my landscape, and this is my people. I have never lived here, and because I married someone who does not belong here, I never will live here. But there’s something about this whole area that is enormously appealing to me. I think maybe part of it is that California is so settled now. And I’m very involved in thinking about the Western movement and the frontier and the sort of enterprise of taming the wilderness – unfortunately, both of which we see all around us. In California it’s pretty much over. But up here it’s not quite finished, so the wilderness is still visible and present and powerful.

 

Q: How long was your research trip up here?

 

A: Brief. I came up on the train and I probably spent two days in the Tacoma and Steilacoom area.

 

Q: One of my questions was going to be: How did you manage to erase all the veneer of development that we have here so that you could see it as it was in 1873. But most of what you saw was just the documents.

 

A: Yes, so I had no vision of it as it is now. Nothing could have been easier! And I found a lot of photographs. My original vision of the book was to have a centerfold of photographs I had selected. Well, I suggested this to my publishers, and they laughed and laughed and laughed.

 

Q: Having seized on this landscape through these archives, was it the collision of cultures, as they were then, that drew you to doing this particular story?

 

A: I was actually given a contract for doing a novel long before I had written it or had an idea for one. So I was actively searching for something I could write a novel about. And my master’s degree is in North Asian politics—the recent politics of China and Japan, “recent” being anything in the last 200 years. And my master’s thesis was on the Chinese communities abroad. So I felt that was something I knew something about. And I wanted to write a Western, because I think that’s the label that I most identify myself with – a writer of the West. And I wanted the history to represent, as it actually does, the many many different people who were here. As I did the research, it seemed to me that the women who came out west were of a particularly unrestrained and often slightly mad sort. So there was a kind of exhilarating freedom that I saw in women’s lives – although they all ended up the same way: died alone and in poverty. Somewhere in the middle there would be some good times. One of the stories that struck me most strongly as just something you could never make up – which is the kind of history I like: that that you think cannot possibly be true and yet apparently was – was this description I came across of Virginia Woodhull touring the lumber camps in the Puget Sound area, lecturing lumberjacks on the fact that women in the sexual act should also enjoy it and how this could be brought about. You just picture this woman with this audience of male lumberjacks, explaining that their wives should be orgasming.

 

Q: In 1873.

 

A: In 1873! I’m sure they threw things at her and had to dose her with ipecac so that she would be throwing up during the lecture. They had their own kind of fun.

 

Q: The interims between the main chapters of the book have historical tidbits in them. I was especially struck by one about the boat in trouble in Deception Pass where they throw pianos overboard to save themselves. Is that one of the real tidbits that you came across in your research?

 

A: Yes. When I’m asked to read from the book, that’s almost always the section I do. I just love that section. My favorite parts of my own books are those historical inserts. I’m frequently asked if the things in them are true. And my answer is that I did not make them up. I found them on the nonfiction shelves. I myself doubt the veracity of some of them. I am not such a fool as to believe that a child can be raised by a badger for six months [as is reported in “Sarah Canary”]. No matter what I’m told.

 

Q: Why set the novel during 1873?

 

A: I became incredibly engrossed in the year 1873 – which still appears periodically in random things that I’m reading. It just seems to be a common year when things occurred. I gathered when I was writing the book that I became quite tedious on the subject. I remember a dinner table conversation with my husband where he finally said, “I’m betting 1874 was a damn fine year too.” But I think there was something in it that reminded me also of the ’sixties which is the period I grew up in: the aftermath of the devastating war, all the cults, all the amazing proliferation of people attempting to live their lives in new ways, ways which any reasonable, dispassionate observer could have told them ahead of time were not likely to work out well.

 

Q: There’s an interesting parallel in some parts of the novel between the lecture circuit and the sideshow-freak circuit. Did you begin to think even the most earnest performance by Adelaide [the sex-emancipation lecturer/“magnetic doctress” in the book] was not that much different from the “Wild Woman” exhibit that Sarah Canary gets trapped into doing?

 

A: That was my feeling, yeah. Particularly as the lumberjacks seemed to find their fun in attempting to humiliate her in some way. It seemed like the impulse to go to the lecture was not to be enlightened. And then you know so many of the people on the lecture circuit got there in ways that I suppose are very similar to the talk-show circuit. They would have a notoriety because they were, once, Brigham Young’s 54th wife. Now they’re on the lecture circuit.

 

Q: The novel bristles with ideas concerning the roles of women in society. Yet it doesn’t feel didactic at all. It’s more as if you’re using some of the outlandish beliefs and certainties of the period to create a kind of fantasia of the period. There’s always this sense that you’re right at the edge of something fantastical happening. Were you wanting to push the boundaries of naturalistic fiction? What are your feelings about naturalistic fiction?

 

A: That it’s not as imaginative as fantastical fiction. And that I guess I like them both. I sort of swing from one to the other. I read a lot of realist work, and then I’m bored with that and I do a number of fantastical ones until I’m bored with that, and then I go back to the realism. Really, there’s something in each that I need sometimes.

 

Q: There’s a little coda at the end of “Sarah Canary” where you suddenly leap to 1987, 1989.

 

A: I know – can you believe how upset I was by the Reagan years? Little did I know.

 

Q: There’s a suggestion there that some future writer, in the year 2093 or 2107, is going to be able to look back at the 1980s and be able to create something as fantastical as you did in “Sarah Canary.” Is that your feeling?

 

A: That was my feeling. I think that frequently – not when you read historical novels, and not even necessarily when you read historical works of nonfiction – history as it’s taught in the schools kind of has all the color bled out of it. So that you get the impression that while you yourself live in a period of enormous insanity, it’s the first such period. And therefore every other period has been rather calm by comparison. But of course when you look closely, it’s just been insanity from beginning to end.

 

Q: Over the years what kind of response have you had to “Sarah Canary”? You’ve mentioned that “Jane Austen Book Club” fans have trouble with it.

 

A: Apparently it’s a difficult journey to go from “The Jane Austen Book Club” to “Sarah Canary.” I think it’s not as difficult to go from “The Jane Austen Book Club” to “Sarah Canary,” because “The Jane Austen Book Club” is just an easier book, I think. I remember when “Sarah Canary” came out that although the reviews were extremely good, the Amazon.com reviews were not at all uniformly good. Because I was working in science fiction then, and at the conventions readers could in fact tell me what they thought of my work – and were quite eager to do so – I did hear from certain people who were displeased in many ways. I’m probably simplifying things, but my own sense of the people who thoroughly dislike “Sarah Canary” is that it really comes down mainly to the single issue of who Sarah Canary is and the fact that the book never gives you a definitive answer. So there are people who feel that they read the book with this mystery kind of leading them through the book – and to end the book, and have the mystery remain, is extremely unpleasant if not actively unfair. And of course the people who loved it did not have that problem. As the years have passed, and the book has faded into the distance, now really the only people I hear from anymore are the people who loved it. Now it begins to feel like it’s a much beloved book! But I do find particularly when I’m up here that it’s the one people talk about. I don’t get that in any other part of the country. But I am under the impression that a lot of people up here love it.

 

Q: Do you have any more notion of who Sarah Canary is than the reader does by the end of the book?

 

A: My belief is that she is an extraterrestrial. But I feel that my opinion is no more valid than anybody else’s opinion in the book. I do not wish to say she’s an extraterrestrial and have everybody go “Ooh!” I think Chin is actually smarter than I am, and he thinks she’s an immortal, so I think that’s probably what she is.

 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book that I haven’t touched on?

 

A: To me the theme of the book is that what we see depends on who we are, as much as it depends on what we see. And so Sarah Canary is this kind of blank space that people fill with their own needs or impressions or histories, and everybody thinks that she’s someone different. And I thought it would be very cool if the book itself fit that same paradigm – that if you picked it up thinking, “This is science-fiction novel,” that you would immediately that Sarah Canary was an extraterrestrial, and you would read it and it would be a science fiction novel. But that if you picked it up thinking that it was mainstream, then that’s would it be and Sarah Canary would be a mysterious, unexplained woman.

 

Q: What was the first image you had in your head of the character Sarah Canary? Did you have her in your head as a presence and then start to write about her? Or did she emerge as you set pen to paper?

 

A: She was very much there at the beginning – not necessarily as a visual image, not necessarily how she’s described or how she looks. But I knew that I would be writing a book with a blank-space character. And I even often object to using the word “character” to describe her. To me she’s more like a thought in the middle of the book. I needed her to give almost nothing to the reader or to the people around her to help them decipher her. She’s sort of a deliberate erasure. You really are left entirely to your own devices. You know I sometimes have readers come up to me sometimes who just love Sarah Canary, in a way that makes them very worried about her. I just think they must be terribly nice people – because there’s nothing particularly lovable about her. And if you pay attention, she takes care of herself pretty well. Almost anybody in the book who does something bad to her suffers later for it in some way. So she really doesn’t need you worrying about her. 

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