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Updated Friday, January 18, 2013 at 01:16 PM

Cabeen’s ‘Fire!’: cool but cryptic

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

There sometimes can be a curious disconnect between an artist’s stated source of inspiration and the actual character of the work that results.

That’s the case with Catherine Cabeen and Company’s “Fire!”

It’s the second installment of a trilogy triggered by the work of the New Realist artists of the mid-20th century, renowned for the way they put the artist’s own body into the actual work.

Cabeen’s first installment, “Into the Void,” took its cue from Yves Klein (1928-1962) who famously used nude models as living paintbrushes. This second installment looks to the work of Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), most notorious for her “shooting paintings” where, by aiming a rifle at sachets of paint attached to the canvas, she created literally explosive colorful effects.

De Saint Phalle went on to create giant papier-mâché sculptures dubbed “Nanas” (jubilant, generously proportioned, archetypal female figures) and a vast extraordinary “Tarot Garden” in Tuscany filled with sculpted creatures of every type.

In short, de Saint Phalle’s work is violent, juicy, voluptuous, colorful and/or whimsical.

By contrast, Cabeen’s “Fire!” is cool, measured, even austere. It’s a beautiful, steady-pulsed piece of work, propelled by a trance-inducing score by longtime Cabeen collaborators Kane Mathis and Julian Martlew. But it’s considerably less theatrical than “Into the Void,” and any insights it purports to offer into the mind and spirit of de Saint Phalle are a tad enigmatic.

Instead, “Fire!” works best as an abstract piece in a Merce Cunningham vein, where pattern and rhythm for the sake of pattern and rhythm are sufficient unto themselves.

Bodies are involved, of course, lending a human weight, grace and foible to those patterns and rhythms. Cabeen’s height sets her apart from her five fellow dancers (Karena Birk, Sarah Lustbader, Ella Mahler, Phylicia Roybal, Jana Kincl), and the discrepancy between them is often used to striking effect.

It’s not just their contrast in stature that isolates Cabeen; it’s something downright regal about her. It seems apt when, in the opening scene, she settles herself down on a silver-gold tinfoil throne that trembles with life. There’s a reason that billowing throne seems so animated — and it makes for one of the best stage effects in the hourlong evening.

Once Cabeen’s dancers join her, they stay in contrapuntal relation to her, in supple duets, trios or quartets that include her only tangentially. At times their fluid, near-gymnastic configurations come to a standstill: a nod, perhaps, to the sculptures of de Saint Phalle’s “Tarot Garden.” At other times, using a thick, lengthy string of yarn with umbilical/spiderweb qualities, they wrap and unwrap Cabeen, blurring the boundaries between capture and embrace.

In back of them, a tall four-panel digital video by Susie J. Lee echoes some of the imagery in play onstage. Lee’s sharply focused images, like Cabeen’s moves, have a streamlined chill to them, whether they’re of dancers in silhouette, ropes in tension, or blood moving over skin much too quickly.

Cabeen’s fellow dancers are an impressively tight team. Lustbader, with a few more solo moments than the others, is especially elegant.

But Cabeen is where your eye always wants to go. She moves as though uncanny forces are on the prowl inside her, traveling along her limbs ripple by ripple, flexion by flexion, as if to trace a pattern of their own along her flesh. It’s a gift — a spectacularly wielded and controlled gift — and always a pleasure to watch. Whether it successfully conveys the de Saint Phalle meditation-homage Cabeen intended is more doubtful.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES

Catherine Cabeen and Company’s “Fire!”

8 p.m. Friday-Sunday, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $12-$20 (206-217-9888 or www.ontheboards.org).


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