Upstream Fest: From Skepticism to Outright Fun

The Upstream Summit and Festival started like a meeting between two estranged friends who were forced to get together.

On one side, there were the musicians, the artists, the people towards whom the summit was targeted. On the other side, were the sponsors of the event represented by companies like Vulcan and Amazon, which have little to do with the music scene in Seattle, but without which the event wouldn’t happen.

The first ever event of its kind, Upstream invited these two distinct demographics – artists and corporations – to shake hands, and discuss the very issue at the bottom of the contention: the future of the city, and to whom it belongs.

More than any time in recent history, Seattle is being transformed at a rapid pace, mostly by the heavy flow of corporate money coming from technology giants. While companies like Vulcan build shiny skyscrapers and the likes of Amazon attract highly-paid technology workers to live the city, artists see themselves forced to move out to cheaper places. With these changes, it’s easy to see why the creative community would see this convergence with skeptical eyes.

Seattle-native rapper Gabriel Teodros started his speech in one of the breakout sessions saying that it felt ironic that an event with a panel on “building healthy communities” is being sponsored by the very billionaires who are on the bottom of “destroying communities.” He went on to say that cultural hubs – like the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Central District neighborhood – were a key part of his development as an artist, and that gentrification is threatening the existence of such places and the communities they host.

On the other side of the spectrum, keynote speaker and music living legend Quincy Jones, was sympathetic and optimistic. He called Paul Allen – the owner of Vulcan and Upstream Festival’s prime mover – a good friend, a good guitar player and a music aficionado. He was excited to be in his home town and surprised to see that some things haven’t changed much.

Most of the artists at the event were somewhere in between. They took a wait-and-see approach and were willing the give Paul Allen the benefit of the doubt.


Borrowing its format from the popular SxSW Conference and Festival, Upstream was divided into two main events – the Upstream Summit during the day, and the Upstream Festival in the evening. The Summit took place Thursday and Friday (May 11-12) at the WaMu Theater with speeches and discussions about the future of the music industry and a special focus on streaming and data harnessing.

The Festival started Thursday and didn’t end until Saturday (May 11-13). It happened at multiple venues in Pioneer Square, one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods. Almost all speakers and performing artists were from the Pacific Northwest, and most of them were from the Seattle region. Upstream was unquestionably local.

Star Anna

Local rock musician Star Anna during her set at Comedy Underground

In spite of the skepticism in the beginning of the Summit, as soon as the bands started playing, the tension started to melt away. Pioneer Square was bursting with live music from buskers (all curated by Gigs4U) to free performances, to main-stage acts that attracted people by the thousands.

During his performance on Thursday, local violinist and composer Andrew Joslyn gave a shout out to the event’s organizers. “Let’s give Paul Allen a hand! Let’s give this ‘SxSW in Seattle’ a try!” he cheered the crowd.

An element that played a role in the success of the shows was the diversity of the acts. Artists came from various social, racial and cultural backgrounds – a rare feat in an increasingly segregated city. In any single moment during the festival, one could attend to shows that ranged from hip-hop, jazz and R&B, to rock, pop and metal as well as folk, country, singer-songwriter, electronic and many other genres. Never did Seattle see so many local musicians playing at the same event.

Tai Shan, a musician friend of mine who also played at the festival through Gigs4YU, described it well on her Facebook page: “[Upstream] was kinda like Seattle threw a party and all my friends were invited to play.”

Indeed, if you were a musician in Seattle, most of your colleagues would be there – either playing or watching a fellow musician’s performance. Even for me, who don’t have many musician friends, ended up bumping into several acquaintances.

After attending the Summit and watching a few shows, my assessment of the event was positive. I feel that Seattle has a unique opportunity to foster creativity not despite its demographic and urbanistic changes, but exactly because of them. The city is full of examples of compelling partnerships between corporations and artistic communities. One initiative that is particularly close to my heart (I’ve worked on the project) is the Storefronts Seattle project, which brings together artists and corporations (including Vulcan and Amazon) to activate communities and neighborhoods through art.

Upstream Summit’s last keynote came from global hip-hop sensation and Seattle native (and resident) Macklemore. During his speech, he highlighted how the support from fans in Seattle was fundamental for his band to make an impact on a national and global level.

Macklemore is quoted on GeekWire saying, “We sold out three shows at Showbox and booking agents in New York City heard about that. They got wind of that and wondered what was going on in Seattle. To have that support first here, and on that grassroots direct-to-fan relationship we had built with our fans, that is what enabled us to even get noticed in the first place.”

At the end of his speech, he praised the event organization and said, “this is a well-intended festival. I hope it’s here to stay.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Review: Paper Dance

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.

“Strictly Seattle” brings the city’s artistic richness to light

There’s something about contemporary dance that shakes things up inside me. Side effects of a good choreography include an uncontrollable will to dance, loud and spontaneous singing, involuntary spasmodic movements and extreme happiness. I’ve experienced these symptoms a few times, and the most recent occurrence was yesterday night, after I watched the Strictly Seattle performances at Velocity.

The show comprised six dance pieces created by different choreographers. Each presentation was special in its own way. For instance, watching Kristin Hapke’s “Wanna French?” – performed by beginner dancers – was an uplifting experience. The colorful costumes accompanied by the simplicity of the movements and the cheerfulness of the cast would make any bad-tempered creature leave the room with a smile on the face.

Another piece worth mentioning was Corrie Befort and Beth Graczyk’s mouthful “A skin within a skin within a skin within a skin.” The costumes – Befort’s own creation – were simple, versatile and complemented the choreography well. But the star of the show was actually the live music performed by Angelina Baldoz. Baldoz, who is a bassist, trumpeter, composer and more, put together a myriad of electronic sounds and threw one-off notes from a trumpet, creating a unique compositional background.

Amelia Reeber’s “Petal to the Metal” made me want to dance along. It started slow with very little movement, and gradually, dancers would intensify their moves, building up the choreography. When I thought the dance couldn’t go faster and noticed the dancers losing their breadth, things started to slow down, and the choreography evolved to end the way it began.

The show closed with Amy O’Neal’s “no excuses,” (in lower caps) a rich, well executed and well assembled choreography performed by skillful dancers. The piece had multiple elements worth pointing out, starting with the dance moves themselves. With stroboscopic steps and intense, slow hip shaking, the dance made several allusions to nightclub parties. The lighting – be it a glaring light or just the beams of cigarette lighters or flashlights – was a crucial element to bring forth that party atmosphere. Additionally, most dancers had their hair lose, which brought about the idea of party ecstasy, nightclub sweat.

The costumes – I indeed need a separate paragraph to describe them – were all black. Black, not boring, to be clear. Half of the dancers were wearing a t-shirt covering their faces, with the t-shirt’s neckline exposing only the dancers’ eyes. Try to imagine and you’ll quickly figure out. Yes, these dancers were ninjas. And they went on to choreograph real ninja movements, which added humor and surprise to the piece.

This succession of good choreographies did have a positive effect in my mind – and body. I still don’t know what causes it, but whatever it is, I’m glad Seattle has such a strong dance community and quality shows I can always go to when I’m in need for transformative experiences. Thanks to Velocity and the amazing dance artists that give it life, I’m glad and proud to live in a city that offers such artistic richness.

The edge of intimacy: artist and audience share emotions and desires at ACT’s Bullitt Cabaret

The more I watch KT Niehoff’s work, the more I fall in love with it. This weekend I went to ACT Theater to watch the final performance of Glimmer, a project by Niehoff, the Artistic Director of Lingo Dance, to create a more tangible intimacy between dancer and audience.

I was completely blown away by the performance. The venue, dancers, makeup, costumes, movements, lighting, band, music, all elements were a perfect match for each other.

Before the show started, when the band “Ivory in Ice World” was crafting the background music and everyone was enjoying their beers, all dancers were dispersed over the cabaret interacting with the audience members. While I was waiting for my husband to come, one of the showgirl dancers named Ginger – or Lola – (her name changes depending on her mood) stopped by my table and started to chat. “What’s your name?” she asked. I told her my name and she replied, “Beautiful name, but can I call you sweetie?”

As the goal of the project is for “artist and watcher to confront each other” and “exchange their personal histories and desires,” ACT’s Bullitt Cabaret provided the most appropriate space for that interaction. First, there was no geographic distinction between stage and audience. Dancers performed everywhere from the main floor to the stairs; from the balcony to the doorways. Second, there was an actual proximity between the dancers and the audience. It was common to see watchers making way for dancers to pass through.

The show started and it was one surprise after the other. We never knew where the dancers would come from or go to. On top of that, performers would sometimes act, sing, scream or laugh, bringing elements of unexpectedness to the show. The dance moves were not beautiful. Sometimes they were violent, sometimes sexual and sometimes disturbing; however, all movements had a common characteristic: everything evoked proximity and intimacy – both between dancers and the audience and among the dancers themselves.

KT Niehoff surprised me with a beautiful voice. She shared the stage with Ivory Smith and her band, Ivory in Ice World. Niehoff’s high-pitched voice complemented Smith’s deeper tone, and the soprano/contralto duo worked well. The band’s pop sound, combined with sound effects and lighting brought a sense of suspense and intensity to the performance.

Lingo and Ivory in Ice World will be performing Glimmer at ACT’s Bullitt Cabaret Thursdays through Saturdays until May15. This is not a show for kids or people who feel uncomfortable with nudity, but if you are fine with that, I can guarantee: You’ll be blown away.

Lingo Dance gives a heartbeat to SAM’s art

Last Thursday I listened on the radio that Lingo Dance would be doing a special performance at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). As I left the office earlier that day, I took the afternoon to check them out.

I don’t go to museums very often and some of you may know that I’m a performance art geek. So when I say that Lingo was by far the best exhibit at the SAM, you know that I’m biased.

Favoritism aside, the Lingo performance was indeed a breath of fresh air in the museum. Five dancers “installed” themselves among SAM’s permanent collection as kinetic sculptures.

At first, I felt a little uncomfortable in staring at the dancers as if they were a picture or sculpture. However, as time passed and I witnessed other museum visitors shamelessly gazing at the performers, I realized, you know what, these dancers are here to be watched anyways – I’ll just take my time and admire.

Good decision that was. Like in visual arts, you can’t actually “get” Lingo’s performance at the SAM unless you take the appropriate time to watch, to appreciate. The performances certainly added warmth and life to the museum, a place in which the artworks generally don’t have a heartbeat. The more I looked at the dancers, the more they attracted me. I didn’t want to leave the museum.

I had an especially pleasing interaction with one of the dancers named Kelly. As I entered the room she was performing, she smiled to me and continued doing her dance. I didn’t want to distract her, but I wanted to tell her that I was enjoying her performance, so I took one of the brochures from the museum, wrote her an encouragement note and placed it next to her business cards. I hope she had the chance to read it. If someday she reads this post, would love to have her comment.

I also met choreographer KT Neihoff, the artistic director of Lingo and creator of the project. She was discreetly checking on the dancers, giving them water and ensuring the performance was running smoothly, like a mom taking care of her kids. She was happy to know that I was enjoying the performance, but at the same time, recognized that some people might have been confused with the whole thing. In fact, there were some people who were like, “what the hell is going on here?” Others were laughing; others ignored, while others – like me – watched and appreciated.

To avoid any confusion, the performers were appropriately labeled like all the other artworks in the museum (with information about artwork title, artist, materials, date etc.) Here is an example of what was written on the sign next to a performer:

  • Title: Aaron
  • Date: Right now
  • Materials: Muscle, sweat, human hair, ethic, challenge
  • Artist: KT Niehoff

Lingo’s presentation/exhibit is part of a bigger project called A Glimmer of Hope or Skin or Light, a project by KT Niehoff to create a more tangible intimacy between audience and artist. According to Lingo’s Website, KT’s investigation of the relationship between the performer and the witness led her to seek out more potent environments that ask both artist and watcher to confront each other as unique individuals who bring to the exchange their personal histories and desires. If that is the goal of the project, KT just nailed it. Hats of to her!

Lingo will be at the SAM the upcoming Thursdays (March 25th and April 1st), from 3:00 to 8:00 p.m. If you have the time, go check them out.