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Originally published November 25, 2012 at 5:37 AM | Page modified November 26, 2012 at 12:26 PM

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Seattle dancemakers claim a spot on national stage

Tonya Lockyer, Catherine Cabeen, Danielle Agami, Zoe Scofield, Olivier Wevers and many other Seattle dancemakers are garnering attention beyond Washington's borders.

Seattle Times arts writer

Seattle dancemakers in the news

A small sampling of Seattle's prolific choreographers.

Danielle Agami: Seattle's latest "new kid on the block" is this dancer-choreographer formerly with Israel's internationally renowned, groundbreaking Batsheva Dance Company. After some frustrations with the New York dance scene, Agami found the dancers and support she wanted in Seattle, and the world premiere of her first full-length work, "Sally Meets Stu," drew sell-out crowds.

Donald Byrd: Byrd, now in his 10th year as artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, has the toughest, wiliest dancers in the city under his wing. And this year they're serving as ambassadors of Seattle dance, as Spectrum makes a fall tour throughout the U.S. and visits Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal in early 2013. Byrd's 2011-2012 season closer, "Love," was one of his strongest Seattle-made pieces yet.

Catherine Cabeen: A Seattle native who's a former dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Cabeen came back to Seattle to attend graduate school at the University of Washington. She founded Catherine Cabeen and Company in 2009. A slinky, lanky, shapeshifting dancer, she's at her most stunning in the "duets" she crafts with live musicians, notably Kane Mathis, a virtuoso on African string instruments.

Zoe Scofield: Scofield's troupe zoe | juniper ("juniper" is visual artist Juniper Shuey) had her first show here in 2005. Since then, she has won the prestigious Princess Grace Award, premiered work at the Massachusetts dance mecca Jacob's Pillow, and turned up repeatedly in Dance Magazine. Her work fuses fierce, darting movement with extraordinary visual elements.

Kate Wallich: Wallich and her collaborators in Kate Wallich and the YC are an example of the top-tier talent being turned out by Cornish College of the Arts. Her pieces are tight, tough, spooky, elastic affairs in which she and her fellow performers seem caught in some force field that won't let them go. Along with being well matched physically, they inhabit the same head space with an electric intensity — even when they're standing perfectly still.

Olivier Wevers: Like Scofield, Belgian-born choreographer Wevers — a former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer — is a Princess Grace Award winner, and has twice been a Grand Prize Winner at the Annual Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival in Palm Desert. He founded the knockout troupe Whim W'Him in 2009. Drawing its dancers mostly from PNB and Spectrum, it wields ballet technique in a modern way to create deft comedy, dark intensity and surreal visuals.

Others: The list could go into the dozens, but names that pop immediately into mind include Mark Haim, Jason Ohlberg, Wade Madsen, Pat Graney, Deborah Wolf, Amy O'Neal, Salt Horse, Joan Laage, KT Niehoff, Aiko Kinoshita and Aaron Swartzman's UMAMI Performance, and a whole emerging generation of young choreographers from PNB, most notably Kiyon Gaines.

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With a mix of pleasure and dismay, Tonya Lockyer — executive director of Seattle's Velocity Dance Center — recalls the moment last June when she had to tell weeping dancers who wanted to be part of Velocity's monthlong "Strictly Seattle" workshop/performance program that, sorry, all the places were filled.

There simply wasn't enough room in Velocity's studios to accommodate them.

Lockyer also remembers, with wonder, how some dancers who got into the program arrived in July with U-Hauls packed with their possessions. Even established performers — the latest example is dancer-choreographer Danielle Agami, formerly with Israel's cutting-edge Batsheva Dance Company — seem ready to take up long-term residence here, just on the strength of Seattle's reputation as a contemporary-dance town.

Clearly, that reputation is growing.

In 2011, Seattle dancemakers Olivier Wevers and Zoe Scofield, who have founded companies here, both received the prestigious Princess Grace Award for emerging artists and were written up in Dance Magazine, the dance world's leading national publication. Sam Miller, founder of the National Dance Project, cites Seattle as one of four cities nationwide that attract young dancers, alongside New York, San Francisco and Minneapolis — and Lockyer echoes that opinion.

Meanwhile, dance attendance in the Northwest is ticking up, according to arts advocacy organization ArtsFund. And while the annual audience for dance is only about 15 percent as large as that of theater (which draws more than 2 million Seattleites a year), local dance performers at Velocity, Spectrum Dance Theater, On the Boards and Intiman Theatre regularly sell out their shows — sometimes even when multiple performances are programmed on overlapping nights.

Still, it's a challenge — as it's always been — to keep any dance company going.

Nationwide, the model of having a dance company led by a single strong choreographic artist (say, Merce Cunningham or Mark Morris) is now so difficult, thanks to the recession and reduced government funding, that new alternatives are taking its place.

"In the last 15 years," Miller says, "there's been a trend toward choreographers giving up their dance companies and turning more toward a project-based way of working."

Although fiscal pressures are pushing some of the changes, Lockyer believes the new reality is equally guided by a shift in philosophy among dancers and choreographers. "When dancers want to go and kneel at the feet of icons, they go to New York," she says. Dancers who come to Seattle, by contrast, come here "because they want to cut their own path."

That applies to dancers who stay here after emerging from local arts schools (primarily Cornish College of the Arts and the University of Washington) as well as to dancers trained elsewhere who gravitate to our city. The result, Lockyer says, is a considerable pool of "highly skilled, virtuosic dancers ... interested in doing creative research, rather than just working for a choreographer that imposes technique on top of them."

Catherine Cabeen, a former dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company who founded her company here in 2009, is deeply appreciative of the local dance scene's possibilities, but frank about some of its limitations.

"It's easy to get started here," she says, "because it is a small town. So any artist that does anything has much more visibility than you do in a denser, crowded place. There's also amazing and fantastic funding from the city, the county and the state for new and emerging work.... If you are starting a company, you are actually much more likely to get funding than if you had a company for a long time."

She cites the many dance festivals in Seattle as a perfect tier-system for choreographers wanting to work their way up from 10-minute pieces to 20-minute pieces to evening-length works: "So there's an opportunity to grow — which is great."

Nevertheless, she feels that her New York choreographer friends, who had a tougher time starting out, are now, several years later, better positioned to make a national and international impression.

"From New York, just geographically, you can travel to so many more places, whereas Seattle geographically is very isolated. So you can do things here, but it's pretty hard to bounce out."

The other problem is Seattle's relatively small dance audience. "There's a really unfortunate kind of competition," she says, "because people feel: We can't do shows on the same weekend, and there's just only so many weekends a year."

Despite these obstacles, Cabeen sees the city as "an awesome place. ... Seattle has a thriving theater scene, which leads to really interesting set designers and lighting designers." Local musicians, working in every conceivable style and mode from world music to electronica, are, she says, another vital resource.

Choreographer Donald Byrd, now celebrating his tenth year as artistic director of Spectrum, has worked in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York as well as Seattle over the decades, and is able to give the grand overview on what is and isn't happening here.

Local competition for audience doesn't weigh heavily on him ("I have to believe that we have only tapped into a really small percentage of potential audiences for dance in Seattle") and he also sees the arrival of fresh talent in town as only a good thing.

"I don't see people coming in as a threat to anything," he says, when asked about Agami's move here. "What I see is somebody else who's going to help stimulate and create access."

Byrd also, despite his years in New York where he helmed Donald Byrd/The Group, doesn't view New York as the inevitable destination for all the best dance talent: "I'd like to think that, given the diversity of this country for dance, it should actually be able to accommodate multiple centers for dance — especially since New York has become more and more difficult, economically, space-wise, for dancers to do their work."

Lockyer and Byrd alike dream of building a center for contemporary dance in Seattle that would include theaters, studios, offices and resource spaces. Lockyer suggests a theater of 150-200 seats would fit the bill. But she may not be ambitious enough. The fact that Wevers' dance company, Whim W'him, consistently fills the 446-seat Seattle Center Playhouse suggests there's a real local hunger for fresh contemporary dance, especially if it's top-caliber stuff.

Another sign that contemporary dance is increasing its appeal and vitality in Seattle is the mostly favorable response to the innovations that Pacific Northwest Ballet's Peter Boal has made since he became artistic director there in 2005, expanding the company's repertory to include work by international artists and homegrown talents.

The key thing, Lockyer feels, is retaining the special flavor of what's happening in Seattle.

"I don't know," she says, "if we want to replicate New York, when what we have here is something that is really unique, that has been an incubator for all kinds of dance innovators for decades. I think the question is: 'How do we keep what's really unique and amazing about where we are?' "

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