Ella Mahler is lying on her back on the marley floor, stock-still, like a bear has been chasing her and playing dead is her last resort. But then, suddenly, she gets up and scurries across the vinyl floors of the back studio of Capitol Hill’s Velocity Dance Center. In hurried movements, she lifts her knees up, combat-style, only to later duck and then balance gracefully on one leg, outsmarting an invisible assailer purely with poise.
Mahler, a Seattle-based dancer, choreographer and Velocity’s 2019 Made in Seattle Artist, is running through the movements of her solo choreography Absolute. Less than two weeks to go before showtime, December 14th. Mahler is one of the nine dancers performing newly created choreographies for MERCE 100: Seattle Artists Respond to Merce, a four-day long, Capitol Hill-centered celebration of and response to the centennial of world-famous dancer and Washington native Merce Cunningham (1919 – 2009), running December 13th through 16th.
Cunningham, who was born in Centralia and studied at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, became one of the most influential artists of the 20th century thanks to his radical, innovative approach to dance, for example by using dice and other chance-based processes to decide how his dancers would move.
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Mahler’s solo is an ode to this chance-based approach. “I wrote down different series of movements on notecards,” she explains. “I shuffled the deck and took out a couple that I used as inspiration to create a new order of choreography.”
Other Seattle dancers to premiere new choreographies are Thomas House, a star dancer from Kate Wallich’s industrial ballet and Spectrum Dance Theatre artistic director Donald Byrd, who will blend movement with spoken text. Thunderpussy front woman Molly Sides and choreographer Louis Gervais will “spin the cage” to see if the audience can get to “MERCE” during ‘Merce Bingo’. On December 13th during Capitol Hill Art Walk, Velocity will screen Cunningham’s ground-breaking multimedia piece Variations 5 and other video excerpts from work by former Cunningham company members at Love City Love.
Curator of the festival is Velocity’s outgoing executive director Tonya Lockyer who moved to the US from Canada to study dance with Cunningham in New York in the early nineties. “We’re excited because Merce 100 is part of a year-long, worldwide celebration,” she says.
Velocity’s Merce 100 makes Seattle one of the first cities joining the world-wide centennial celebrations, technically a few weeks shy of the actual centennial. That’s because Lockyer’s last day at Velocity is December 19th of this year. She announced in June that she’d be stepping down from the post after 7 years with the organization.
“When the Cunningham Trust heard that I was leaving, they said they wanted this celebration to happen before I left,” she said.
Merce 100 is Lockyer’s swan song. With the festival, she’s coming full circle: Right before she took on the leadership position at Velocity, she coordinated of a year of city-wide events to celebrate the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Company in Seattle.
Shortly after, she took the helm at Velocity. She inherited an organization in deep disarray. In the following years, she revived the dance center artistically and financially, oversaw the close of the Velocity’s emergency capital campaign after its move to the building on 12th and helped grow ticket sales by nearly 400%, all in a rapidly changing neighborhood.
Now, she says, there’s a wonderful team in place “to carry Velocity forward” without her. But first it’s time for celebrations. Of Velocity’s past and future. Of Merce Cunningham’s life, and his legacy — and how Seattle creators carry both legacies forward.
MERCE 100: Seattle Artists Respond to Merce runs Dec. 13-16