After a much-acclaimed creation for the company’s first Choreographic Shindig in 2015, Ihsan Rustem returns to Whim W’Him with the CONFIGURATE program, Jan. 9-27, 2018. Ihsan lives in Switzerland but works with companies across the world, including Portland, Oregon’s NW Dance Project. There, as resident choreographer, he created last spring’s Carmen, set in a 1950s hair salon and the winner of Dance Magazine’s 2017 Readers’ Choice Award for Coolest Collaboration. Along with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Andonis Foniadakis, he is also one of 3 choreographers for Dance Me, commissioned by Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal for a Leonard Cohen evening opening in December, an homage to the singer-composer that will include dance, music and videos.

In these troubled times filled with hatred, fear, discord and irreconcilable opinions, we have undertaken to create new contemporary dance works that will inspire love, compassion and empathy. Our instruments are humor, hope and collaboration, imagination and a joy in movement.

So runs the short form description, by its 3 choreographers, of their aim for the January Whim W’Him show. The genesis for his own new piece, Ihsan says, did in fact come from thinking about compassion, empathy and love. In particular, “Compassion,” he says, “seems simple. It’s not. It takes many forms.” He strenuously objects to the Wikipedia definition of the word: Sympathetic pity and concern for the suffering and misfortunes of others. Ihsan finds ‘pity’ “a negative expression of looking down upon others and far from the realm of compassion.”

He says, “Every morning, I watch the BBC news, and it’s scary and heartbreaking. This element of fear is so present in today’s society and I am so sad that this is the world in which our youth are growing up.” He knows this feeling in his bones: “I am a child of migrants.” His Turkish Cypriot mother remembers the sounds of bullets at the age of 5 from the Civil War in their country. His father’s family too left Cyprus, in search of greater prospects. Both his parents were brought to England as children by families with no English but enormous determination to succeed. Ihsan is thus a first-generation citizen of a new land, and as such is viscerally aware of the importance of compassion, of ‘feeling-with.’ Although born and raised in London, in his frequent travels, “I regularly get stopped and questioned by border authorities through racial profiling.”

He continues, “I also fully understand that there is a need right now for artists to vent their anger and present it so vividly. But the element of fear is contagious and, in all honesty, I’m overloaded with that. There are a multitude of avenues and I am choosing, with this creation, to approach this through a different view—compassion is more than putting everyone in a box.”

Miranda Chantelois wrote in Seattle Dances about Ihsan’s first Whim W’Him piece, “The Road to Here was a rollercoaster of ideas that exemplified the experience of choice with a light heart and serious undertones.”

In a way, Ihsan is continuing an exploration of that theme in his new work for Whim W’Him, but with heightened attention to the ways that circumstances—“a name, a race, a color,” or happenstance—can influence, distort, overwhelm personal intention.

Individual conscious or unconscious choice clearly affects one’s fate. But even if two people are quite comparable in background, appearance and origin of their names, differing temperaments, conditions and experiences can define their lives in radically contrasting ways, changing “outlook, possibilities, outcome.”

Work on the new piece, tentatively entitled Home, began with some questions.

Ihsan queried the dancers about their favorite movies and quotes, then asked them to consider more intimate matters—”What is your vice, your sin, your downfall? What do you love? What do you hide? What is the biggest misconception about you?” (For example, tall, elegant, intelligent Tory Peil has to fight ‘dumb blond’ stereotypes, while quiet and shy-seeming Cameron Birts is in reality exceedingly verbal.) The process, conducted with Ihsan’s characteristic blend of understated humor, genuine curiosity to learn, and respect for what each person was or wasn’t willing to share, encouraged the dancers to play with “judgment, concepts, perceptions.”

Then they started work on “some very specific” dance material that Ihsan had prepared, although “with some tasks, the  dancers took it and came up with further material—it’s a good mix.” Ihsan is a very hands-on, in-the-midst-of-it choreographer, moving with the dancers, sculpting them, demonstrating precisely what he has in mind.

The premise of Home is the diverging growth of 2 seeds, Adrian Hoffman

and Karl Watson—endowed with similar external characteristics, but headed off to their separate fates.

The 2 seeds are planted and nurtured by the God character, danced by Cameron (with a red plastic watering can, of which, alas, no photos are yet available).

But they are faced by different events and challenges—such as the Devil as personified by Tory Peil. “Circumstances place us from the beginning on certain paths,” says Ihsan, “but we have the tools and capacities to alter that direction. In every moment, we are sowing the seeds for our own future.”

Ihsan’s new creation traces, in impressionistic or stylized fashion, the seeds’ diverging paths, to overlaid voices (his and the dancers’) and music ranging from excerpts of 2 pieces by cello composer/cellist Zoé Keating to Beethoven‘s first string quartet to Nina Simone‘s raw and riveting Sinnerman, in which the title character (Karl, as the “bad” seed) searches everywhere for compassion, while Mia Monteabaro is the Rock, and Jim Kent, Liang Aung and the others become The River.

Run to the rock, Rock won’t you hide me…

Although, as Ihsan said at the end of the first week of rehearsals, “It’s early days yet,” and despite the harshness of some episodes in the lives portrayed, he also emphasized that “I do not feel the need, right now, to place suffering on stage. Humor is my armour of choice.” And he added that compassion for all things leads to joy which leads back again to compassion and forward to wisdom—or words to that effect.

*For more on Ihsan’s background and previous work, see this post from his first visit to Whim W’Him: Shindig – choreographer Ihsan Rustem.


Next up: In the studio with artistic director/choreographer Olivier Wevers as he begins his newest piece for Whim W’Him.

Photo Credit: Bamberg Fine Art Photography