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February 9, 2003

Dancers spout words, but it's motion that speaks

From: Seattle Times, WA - 09 Feb 2003

By Brangien Davis
Special to The Seattle Times

KT Niehoff is trying to tell us something. In her latest piece, "Speak to Me," the local choreographer and founder of Lingo

dancetheater tackles the knotty issue of saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Known for her humor and athletic choreography, Niehoff takes a dancer's approach to the communication conundrum, revealing the contortions we go through in our attempts to be understood.

Adorned in Banana Republic-style office chic, the performers struggle with words, "speaking" to each other in a garbled tongue with pencils jammed between their lips. As the piece progresses, the dancers continue such doomed attempts at communication, using gibberish, a mutated version of American Sign Language, French, charades, shouts, slurs and hand shadows. At one point, gestures failing, the dancers give up on their hands altogether and (in a wowing display of balance) use them as feet instead.

Characteristically, Niehoff's gymnastics are intense — dancers hurl themselves, roll over and balance on each other using whatever's available (a back, a hip, a head). Meanwhile, Reggie Watts' sound compositions float overhead, mixing vocal commentary, stutters and throat-clearing with music that is at times purely percussive, at others melodious, but always appealing.

The most successful sections are two touching duets. In one, a couple enacts the physicality of an argument, managing via movement alone to transmit the accompanying frustration and affection. But these are not the shaking fists and clutched chests of silent movies. We witness an entirely new language of movement — a stiff point toward each big toe, a vigorous scratching at the scalp — that immediately conveys familiar emotions.

In another duet a couple grapples with conflicting beliefs, each stating "I remember it this way," and performing their own version of events — two sequences of strong, graceful movements that are similar, but not identical. Pointing to the fact that even subtle differences in interpretation can have momentous effects, it is one of the loveliest takes on "he said/she said" you'll ever encounter.

Niehoff is at her strongest in these understated moments — when she suggests, rather than reiterates or insists. In contrast, the repeated action of someone failing to articulate, "I love you" (getting stuck at "I Luh" and being thrown into convulsions) feels clichéd and heavy-handed. Also unnecessary is Niehoff's monologue, during which she rails verbally on the points she has already made through movement.

But the fact that these spoken sections are unsuccessful brings home the very point of the piece: It's often nonverbal communication that gets closest to the truth. By the end, the dancers have completely abandoned words, choosing instead to lie on their backs, slowly pulling invisible strings from their mouths toward the sky. We see what they mean.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company