Even before Donna Isobel (Aluminum Siding) and Matthew Smith (mattisonthemove) started performing “Torn” at On the Boards’ NW New Works Festival this weekend, I knew what to expect. I had watched earlier versions the choreographers’ joint piece in two different instances, and was convinced nothing could be dramatically different this time.
I later realized that I was not giving the artists the appropriate credit for outdoing themselves.
The piece started with Isobel dancing solo in front of the closed curtains throwing A4 sheets to the air. Then the curtains opened, expanding the tight, unadorned dance floor into an elaborate composition of whites and blues. Stalactites and stalagmites of stacked white paper spread across the stage while paper-made icebergs rested on the back. The blue lighting over the glaring whites transformed the setting into an oversized ice cave.
Smith’s entrance to the dance was a surprise element not present in previous versions. A few minutes after the opening of the curtains, while Isobel was fighting with gravity to keep papers from hitting the floor, viewers would notice one of the icebergs slowly move. They would later realize that Smith was underneath it, slithering his way into the choreography. He would then perform leaps and inversions until the paper could no longer accompany his movements. His stealthy appearance enticed the audience to wonder if there was anyone else underneath the other paper mountains.
The dancers then engaged in a synchronous choreography with paper being the element that held them together. They grabbed paper with toes, neck, feet, knees and elbows, and used each other as props to prevent paper from falling. The chemistry between both dancers was visible as they moved fluidly across the stage and transported paper from one to the other with ease and grace. Smith and Isobel’s moves demonstrated the seriousness of their training. They performed headstands, plank poses and stretched their limbs to the limit in a spectacle of strength, control and preparedness.
Torn is one of the few local contemporary pieces that depart from the modern aesthetic that dominates the dance scene in Seattle. The use of paper as a key choreographic element – plus the execution of highly controlled movements as opposed to the loose contortions and spasms frequently seen in local performances – makes Torn one of Seattle’s most innovative dance pieces. Aside from all the trees killed to make the piece possible, Torn is the kind of dance you long for seeing more often.