Monday, August 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Velocity Dance Center is fostering a new wave of contemporary dance

Seattle Times staff reporter

Flinging around a curtain of bright pink hair, one of the dancers in choreographer KT Niehoff's piece, "Facing the Paradox/Spontaneous Combustion," is literally falling all over herself. Her bold movements inspire her cohorts to incorporate cues into their own loose solos. They feed off one another, changing and evolving styles as the piece barrels forward.

For three weeks, these dancers worked with Niehoff at Velocity Dance Center, base camp for the sixth annual intensive summer program, "Strictly Seattle."

With performance venue On the Boards still establishing a direction under a new artistic director, Velocity has become the main hub for the local performance-art scene. Based in the Odd Fellows Hall in Capitol Hill, Velocity has three dance studios, including a large space also used for theatrical performances.

Dance, and creating ties within the dance community, is Velocity's main purpose, served through a variety of programs: There's the Bridge Project, which brings choreographers together with dancers they've never worked with; the Under-Construction Series, feedback sessions on works-in-progress; and guest-artist workshops that bring in nationally renowned choreographers to work with Seattle dancers.

"Strictly Seattle" is a rigorous dance camp, where novices and experts collaborate with local choreographers. In three intensive weeks, they create original pieces from scratch and present them in two nights of performances. The result is a party-like atmosphere, bringing together family and friends to experience this thing called movement-based performance.

And with any luck and funding, there will be a program tentatively titled SCUBA. The object of both SCUBA and "Strictly Seattle" is to create ties between dancers and the community at large. But while "Strictly Seattle" is locally based, as the name implies, SCUBA sets its sights beyond Seattle.

It's interesting that Niehoff, an artistic director at Velocity, called her piece "Facing the Paradox," since that's precisely what many modern dancers, and choreographers like Niehoff, are doing. Widely recognized as one of Seattle's best choreographers, Niehoff's been creating innovative work since her arrival in 1992, yet few beyond the Northwest know how highly regarded she is. Still, Niehoff's here to stay. New York City, with its expensive real estate, and tens of companies and choreographers competing for audiences, is not for her. Not while Seattle's scene is flourishing.

Pumping out new blood

As exciting as Seattle's dance community is, it's stiflingly sequestered in the upper left corner of the country. Few independent groups tour, fewer choreographers work with cohorts in other cities to evolve their work. Little of what Niehoff calls a "cross-ventilation" is occurring between emerging artists, part of the reason there haven't been any Seattle innovators celebrated on a national scale since Mark Morris stormed the scene 15 years ago.

"We are getting influenced by one another, but the influence factor on a national level is diminished here," Niehoff explained.

So Niehoff cooked up SCUBA, partnering Velocity with the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, Philadelphia's Headlong Dance Company and ODB in San Francisco.

SCUBA stands for precisely what you think it does: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. While the name might not stick, for now it captures the gist of what Niehoff and her SCUBA partners are trying to do: Allow promising dancers and choreographers to move freely and survive in an environment that has so many arts groups treading water or, worse, drowning.

Relying on their own resources (aided, Niehoff hopes, by a National Endowment for the Arts grant she's applied for), Niehoff and her partners want to give their regions' emerging dance originators the chance to train with counterparts in sister cities. It won't be fancy, no tour buses or high per diems, but it'll get new artistic blood circulating around the country.

Cut off but not alone

But Niehoff balks at calling it an exchange. "We need to be more open than that. For instance, if I brought an artist from Seattle to Minneapolis, I don't want to feel obligated to bring a Minneapolis artist here ... but we're sort of going on faith that there's quality work happening that just needs to get out. And that's where I'm hoping these relationships can develop."

Sheltered as we are, Seattle is still a destination among dancers who want to create art on a regional level. Actually, "Strictly Seattle" is the kind of event that brings dancers from around the country to Seattle — this year brought 10, Niehoff said. Nevertheless, it's tough to gain national notice while the dance world's eyes remain fixed on New York. Regional groups fend for themselves, operating in obscurity.

Niehoff came up with the idea after watching dance funding diminish through the '90s as touring virtually ground to a halt. Colleagues of hers who spent years working in Seattle's insulated environment became frustrated. Some quit. "I started looking around and saying, well, Velocity is an incredible asset to the city. There must be other Velocities out there, and we can certainly share," she said.

With financial help from a couple of patrons, Niehoff toured the country, finding performance centers and companies willing to forge relationships with Seattle's community. Her quest also let her know that our independent dancers aren't alone in feeling cut off.

Minneapolis' Southern Theater, a performance space similar to Velocity, sits at the heart of what artistic director Jeff Bartlett calls "an explosion of dance activity at a high level of artistic excellence."

Not that anyone has noticed.

"I had a very good friend who worked with me for a number of years in my theater and has since gone to San Francisco. And he talks to me about trying to convince San Francisco choreographers that there's a vibrant dance scene going on in Minneapolis, and they just pooh-pooh the idea," Bartlett said.

Building creative ties

David Brick, co-director of Headlong, encounters the same difficulties in Philadelphia. With all eyes on New York City, that Brick's community gets overlooked is particularly disappointing. True, he says, Philadelphia's proximity to NYC allows dancers to study there, and his company performs there regularly. "At the same time, we are not really part of New York's artistic scene. We're much more influenced by our fellow artists who are here," Brick said.

All are hoping SCUBA will be a step toward bring attention to regional dance scenes, dancers and choreographers worthy of recognition.

At the very least, Niehoff has forged relationships with counterparts in other cities, where before there was nothing. "It's a relief when you meet someone who's not in your circle and you find out they're thinking about the same things and wrestling with the same problems," Brick said.

The SCUBA participants gathered in Seattle in January to hammer out a plan, and hope to take the first dive in March, NEA grant or not. "Artists are resourceful, we solve problems without relying on a lot of stuff," Brick said. "And we can do this."

Melanie McFarland:


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