THE taxi winds its way from Seattle's busy business district through modest residential neighborhoods, then pulls to a stop in front of an old Masonic Lodge. On the staircase inside, a crowd of people is waiting for the opening of the Washington Hall Performance Gallery, on the second floor. That's where a world premi`ere by local dancer/choreographer Llory Wilson is about to take place.
Ms. Wilson's company is just one in Seattle's impressive array of nationally known dance troupes, which include the resident Pacific Northwest Ballet and the young, inconoclastic Mark Morris Company (which moved from Seattle to Brussels last year to accept a subsidy from the Belgian government).
Soon the doors open, and we enter an intimate auditorium with a large performance space. The premi`ere, ``This Cordate Carcass,'' was co-commissioned by On the Boards, a local presenting organization that mounts a full season here, together with New York's Dance Theater Workshop and Philadelphia's Painted Bride Art Center. The work was inspired by the life and art of Frida Kahlo (1907-54), Latin America's best-known woman painter.
Ms. Kahlo, who was crippled by disease in her childhood and again by a bus accident in young adulthood, spent much of her life in wheelchairs, on crutches, or confined to her bed. Yet she managed to paint a series of incisive self-portraits and introspective works that deal with the struggle to live meaningfully, despite the physical and sexist limitations that confronted her.
Kahlo was at the heart of Mexico's artistic life for 25 years, as the wife of renowned muralist Diego Rivera, whom she married, divorced, and then remarried, and whose acclaim eclipsed her own.
Ms. Wilson told me she discovered Kahlo's paintings at an exhibition in San Francisco last year. They particularly touched her because a close friend was suffering from a debilitating disease at the time. In her program notes, Wilson writes that her aim was to ``express through dance the strong physical and emotional response'' she had to the paintings. ``They translate to dance for me because they are so physical and alive.''
Artist Beliz Brother designed the spare and dramatically lighted set - three free-standing poles on one side of the room and a four-legged metal platform that towers above the dancers on the other.
To music by Rachel Warwick, three dancers enter and clamber up the 12-foot poles. Their slow, deliberate, intensely athletic movements while suspended in mid-air - movements which will be exhaustingly repeated during the 75-minute work - make absolutely clear that the theme is struggle.
Through 13 titled sections with music by Ms. Warwick and Arturo Peal, Wilson and her five dancers give eloquent expression to images suggested by specific Kahlo paintings and chapters from her life. The pointe work of dancer Kathleen Kelly on crutches in ``Quiet Strapado'' is especially poignant and evocative. But the mood of the evening isn't wholly somber. Two sections incorporate festive folk dances. Another section uses black-and-white projections created by Lisa Farnham from paintings made when the dancers inked their bodies and then rolled on huge sheets of paper.
In an extended solo, Wilson performs a catalogue of inventive variations on a theme of halting, frustrated movement. In addition to Wilson and Ms. Kelly, the company includes Gretchen Junker, Katherine Petersen, and Rhonda Summer.
On the whole, ``This Cordate Carcass'' is richly communicative, whether the dancers are creating tableaux on the poles, galloping on all fours across the floor, or swinging with precision movements from the platform. On opening night, however, it seemed like too much of a good thing, a sprawling piece which could perhaps benefit from some cutting. Wilson, exhilarated after the demanding debut, said further refinements were likely.
``This Cordate Carcass'' will be performed next at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York and at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, both in March, 1990.