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Originally published Friday, January 20, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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Local dancer Ezra Dickinson: What can't he do?

Seattle dancer Ezra Dickinson, a newcomer to Seattle Dance Project, performs in SDP's "Project 5," featuring world premieres plus revivals, Jan. 20-29.

Seattle Times arts writer

Dance preview

Seattle Dance Project: 'Project 5'

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 29, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20-$25 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).
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At a Seattle Dance Project rehearsal last month, a stealthy, catlike Ezra Dickinson slinked his way toward his object of seduction, Gavin Larsen, flanked by two dancers acting as her "parents."

But Dickinson had a trick for dealing with that.

After his initial approach, he sidled off as if not really interested. Then, led by his own sidelong glance, he slipped back into proximity again. When her chaperones briefly dropped their guard, Dickinson cracked the parental "fortress," grabbed Larsen by the hand and lured her into a fluid, ecstatic duet ... until parental authority was reinstated.

That moment comes from "Brahms Afoot," set to Brahms' "Liebeslieder Waltzes" by Penny Hutchinson, formerly of Mark Morris Dance Group. "Brahms Afoot," performed to live music by Seattle's new Inverse Opera, will debut at "Project 5," SDP's latest showcase. "Project 5" also includes a world premiere by Jason Ohlberg (formerly of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago) and revivals of pieces in SDP's repertoire by Edwaard Liang, Molissa Fenley and Kent Stowell.

Dickinson, along with Larsen and Iyun Harrison, is a newcomer to SDP, which began its life 5 years ago as an experiment by retired Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers pushing their dance vocabulary beyond classical ballet.

It's no surprise SDP artistic director Timothy Lynch spotted Dickinson. Over the past few years, the 29-year-old dancer has worked with Maureen Whiting, Zoe Scofield, Spectrum Dance Theater and the Offshore Project (aka the Can Can Castaways), to name just a few. But Lynch was familiar with him long before that: Dickinson attended the PNB School when Lynch was still at PNB.

"What I like about him," Lynch says, "is he's so eclectic in who he works with. Everything I see him in is completely different. So I can't typecast him in one thing. He definitely can do many, many different styles — and do them all very well."

Dickinson, who grew up in Bellingham, has been dancing since the age of 4. He went to study with PNB at 8, continuing there until he was 20. By 17, he was living on his own. He later went to Cornish on full scholarship, graduating in 2007.

What drew him to contemporary dance?

He says his PNB teachers noticed something in him when he was in his teens that he wasn't fully aware of himself. "They could see that I just had more passion in modern. ... I think that the freedoms that are inside of modern allow for much more. It can be ballet — but it can be anything else."

After graduating, he was able to get by on his performance gigs, his art sales (ceramics) and some teaching. "It's a frugal living, but I pay my bills," he says, "I've never had a day job."

There's a creaturely intensity to Dickinson's performing style. There can also be plenty of humor. In a solo number Dickinson does with the Castaways, he goes into a handstand that he holds without a quiver until he gets applause — this, with his head covered in a huge baboon mask he made himself. Eventually, he gives his audience a playful look as though to ask, "Shall I continue?"

Dickinson isn't sure where his balancing talent came from. But he does recall walking in on his boyhood gymnastics teacher when she was "thoroughly planted" in a handstand for about five minutes. His reaction: "Wow, that's pretty amazing."

While Dickinson has created impressive solo work, he has also a strong appetite for collaboration. Hutchinson's "Brahms Afoot" — which might be described as a suite of alternately sly and courtly male-female tussles — suits him well, he says.

"I like Penny's piece. I like emotional dance. And I wouldn't say that it's necessarily the sort of emotions that may be registered on your face. But I like when there's more of a story or a drama happening inside of a dance. It doesn't necessarily need to be a clear literal linear progression."

Plenty of other projects are in the works: a stage adaptation of the "Ramayana" that Whiting is choreographing; a suite of solo pieces that Dickinson is creating as a gift to his mother.

"I want to explore and be inspired by new ideas and new thoughts," he says. "I'm most happy challenging myself, whether that's with something that I know or something that I have no understanding of."

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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