On a chilly Sunday evening in October, I met with Ezra Thom- son, a dancer and choreographer with the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), to discuss his contribution to the Frye Art Mu- seum’s Genius show.
This fall the Frye embarked upon a sixteen-week long project titled Genius. Self-described as embracing “iconoclastic artistic and curatorial practice in all creative disciplines,” Genius offers “a new paradigm for museums of the future.”
This is not the first time the Frye has worked to feature community art- ists. Moment/Magnitude in 2012 and Your Feast Has Ended in 2014 were similar showcases of Se- attle artists; however Ge- nius has surpassed the scope and scale of those projects. One piece pre- sented as a part of Genius is Becoming Something, Within Without, an orig- inal piece choreographed by Thomson and per- formed by the Profes- sional Division students of the PNB, with music written by Animals as Leaders.
Ezra Thomson has danced with the PNB since 2009. In fact, he took a gamble by quitting his paying job with a dance company in Orlando, FL to come to Seattle. He entered the company as an ap- prentice and a year later was hired to the corps de ballet. At 26 years old he is reserved, but wry: he would consider own- ing a hairless cat; would much rather suffer from allergies in order to own a dog; and wonders why no- body thinks saying, “How about that Fünke?” at the water-cooler is funny.
Thomson was approached by the Frye to choreograph a piece for Genius. “The Frye wanted…something longer than a ten minute piece, but it’s re- ally hard to make a two hour piece of choreography,” he explained over the din of the lower Queen Anne pub. Thomson’s inspiration for the final piece was found in the museum: “When you go [to the Frye] they have people in front of the art, painting it so you can see how that’s done.” By keeping process at the forefront he created a piece that maintained raw, organic qualities while still being choreographed.
In order to achieve a piece that showed the process of learning, Thomson had to step out of his typical cre- ative routine. In the dance world there are “things people—choreographers— use as tools,” he explained, “but I usually don’t do that. I like to just make the steps and go from there and have a piece evolve more.” Ul- timately he created small- er pieces which weren’t entirely tied together, and then over the course of two weeks taught 90 percent of the steps to the dancers. Because Becoming was choreographed in a dif- ferent manner than usual, Thomson viewed the pro- cess as more academic. As we were talking about the creation process, he shared his choreography notebook with me. Inside, lists of ad- jectives and scribbles de- scribed the different steps. Individual parts were la- beled “stomp,” “swiggle,” “drop it like it’s hot,” “MJ,” and so on. He explained, “I didn’t name any of them. All the dancers named all of them. After I did that section I said, ‘Okay when I go back to this how are you gonna remember?’” And the dancers answered, “Devil Horns!”
While we were sitting and talking, it became obvious that sitting and talking about his process and why he dances was akin to a fish being out of water. He became the most animated while describing the final scene of the performance, which incidentally was the only part the dancers learned entirely in front of the audience. “At the end of the ballet they are all standing in the front and they do this,” he described as he linked his index fingers and intertwined his thumbs to create a horn shape in front of his face. And then with a swoop and a twist, he said, “They called it Devil Horns.”
We also spoke about the intersection of ballet and sports, athleticism and the demands of the job. It hasn’t always been easy, he candidly explained, and even today people still tell him that because of his height and body type — regardless of the fact that he is with a professional company — he may not progress any further with dance. But Thomson shrugged it off, “You have to do what you want to do… If you don’t like your life, then maybe you should change it.”
From fryemuseum.org: “Charles Frye and his wife Emma (1860–1934) be- came avid collectors and patrons of the arts. …The Fryes displayed their paintings in their private quarters and in a purpose-built exhibition space attached to their home. Major philanthropic supporters of music in Seattle, the couple hosted concerts as well as charitable events in their art gallery. Gifted in perpetuity to the people of Seattle, Charles and Emma Frye’s collection became the Founding Collection of the Frye Art Museum, which opened on February 8, 1952.”
The Frye’s commitment to the people of Seattle has endured through their museum. Entry is always free. The museum has pioneered the curatorial experience through progressive and creative approaches to the arts, and a strong commitment to embracing and uplifting the Seattle arts community.
By Josephine Martini