If YouTube functions as a sort of collective cultural memory, one of our first recollections of Mike Hadreas finds him seated at a piano in Seattle with his partner, Alan Wyffels. It’s 2010, and the background is darked out, and the link below the video leads to a Myspace page. Together the pair—the only constant members of indie band Perfume Genius—plays the title track from their debut album, Learning. Hadreas lays down simple chords and sings. Wyffels adds a tiny, twinkling melody and vocal harmony. Hadreas had returned from New York to Seattle a few years before. He’d gotten sober, met Wyffels, and turned to music as a salve. In the video, his voice sounds as plaintive and tentative as his demeanor.
“When I first started playing shows, I was definitely afraid and very still and behind the piano,” Hadreas now says. But he progressed: When he toured for his last album, 2017’s triumphantly art pop No Shape, dance had become a parallel form of expression. Now ambitiously costumed, he strutted, writhed, rag dolled, gyrated. “No family is safe when I sashay,” he quips on his 2014 hit “Queen.”
The latest step in his progression comes this October. Hadreas and Wyffels will dance alongside Seattle choreographer Kate Wallich and her company, the YC, in The Sun Still Burns Here. The piece—a mishmash of contemporary dance, expressionist pop opera, and concept album—premieres at the Moore Theatre before heading to New York, Minneapolis, and Boston.
A couple years ago, Seattle Theatre Group (which runs the Moore) asked Wallich to find a musician to collaborate with. STG had copresented her Industrial Ballet and wanted to bridge the music and dance worlds, both audience and performers. Eventually she came across Perfume Genius. “I saw the potential. You’re a dancer and that was exciting to me,” she says to Hadreas, sitting in Belltown restaurant Queen City. “And then I emailed you.”
They talked, work budded. Wallich and her dancers studied Perfume Genius performances, began to move in response, while Hadreas sent music demos. Two more co-commissioners (New York’s Joyce Theater and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) joined STG. By February the piece had a structure which was further developed this year at residencies.
Wallich and Hadreas codirect, and The Sun Still Burns Here feels like an aesthetic communion. Hadreas sings throughout and the music still sounds like Perfume Genius, with blasting synths and falsetto hooks. But other passages skew toward classical avant-garde—Wyffels, sitting at a piano, dissonantly plinks, less radio-ready David Bowie (a frequent point of comparison) than György Ligeti. Hadreas’s lyrics, central in his other work, were largely unintelligible to me at a preview in August—things to be stretched and keened in feeling. The collaboration “was really freeing for me,” he says, acknowledging how previously he’d smooth weirder impulses. Here, “I just let myself go to more fucked up places.”
Wallich felt an opposite freedom—to be playful, approachable. “So often in contemporary dance,” she says, “nothing is presentational.” Abstract touchstones remain. Performers melt to the floor. One of the huge pieces of draped fabric, which compose most of the set, drops on the dancers and creates a teeming embryo, birthing bodies. But elsewhere choreography feels balletic. Hadreas and company employ a tasseled gold rope in a childlike ribbon dance.
Other parts of the performance toy with popstar stage work. “Alan essentially wanted a ‘Rhythm Nation’ moment, and he got one,” Hadreas jokes about a passage that resembles the Janet Jackson video.
“That’s where it got fun,” Wallich says. In many ways, her working with two untrained dancers falls in line with her best-known creation, Dance Church, the free-form dance class that’s spread around the country. The piece, Wallich says, has been “healing” for the pair.
Wyffels dreamed of becoming a dancer as a kid, but says he grew up in too rural an area; his parents feared he’d be bullied if he took lessons. And Hadreas has no more constant subject in his songwriting than the body. The lyrics accrue quickly: “I wear my body like a rotted peach”; “I’m trapped in this body”; “God is singing through your body.” In The Sun, the fixation turns collective: “Our body is stretched.” He says he began dancing on stage as a rebellion against his form. But here, each moment choreographed, he shores the divide between his body as concept, a thing he could write about, and the body itself. “I feel like I’m vibrating the whole time.”
At the end, The Sun Still Burns Here reaches a wringing climax. The lights fever red. Hadreas and Wallich tangle on the floor center stage. The music grinds industrially. The pair’s dance connotes sex, death, desperation—a grasp for sublimity.
But it gives way to serenity. The dancers gather by the piano at the side of the stage in repose, the music now a pastoral soundscape. For the first time in the show, Hadreas sits at the piano, Wyffels beside him, and plays.
► The Sun Still Burns Here, Oct 4 & 5, Moore Theatre, $33–$63