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2012 in Portland arts: a little grit, a little glory

By Bob Hicks
December 31, 2012
Culture, Visual Art
A "Midsummer" fantasy at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

A “Midsummer” fantasy at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

It’s a worn-out old year, good and ready to be retired, and as December closes it’s easy to get stuck in the memory of its low points: the interminable political foolishness, the hurricanes and floods, the mass murders by disturbed young men packing assault weapons, the wars and rumors of wars, the continuing economic rut, a baby Snooki. Miss 2012? Surely you jest!

But as 2013 pokes its infant head around the corner, it’s also good to remember that Old Man 2012 has had his good and vibrant moments, too. Any year with a gone-viral marriage proposal by a clever Portland theater dude and the conventional-wisdom-defying landslide approval of an arts and arts education tax deserves at least a congratulatory sendoff to that old retirement home in the sky. (Props, too, to Danny Bruno and all those other local performers acting their monstrous hearts out on ABC’s increasingly entertaining “Grimm.”)

So here’s a look back, not necessarily at the best Portland arts stories of 2012 – no single person could possibly have gotten to enough events in the city to make a plausible stab at a list like that – but simply at a large handful of stories that have stuck in my mind. Feel free to add your own, or argue with mine, in the comments below. Some, like the passing of the arts tax despite a drumbeat of disapproval from the mainstream press, are big. I find that a lot of the year’s interesting stories are little: I spent a fair amount of time poking around the byways and cul-de-sacs of Portland culture in 2012, and discovered a lot of interesting things growing in unlikely places. Blessed be the small, for that is where ideas percolate.

NW Dance Project's Nieto and Parson; Samantha Campbell in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

NW Dance Project’s Nieto and Parson; Samantha Campbell in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert


It was a halcyon year for the small and feisty Northwest Dance Project, from its London performance at the Olympics arts festival to snagging its second Princess Grace Award in three years: Franco Nieto joined 2010 winner Andrea Parson on the exclusive list of grant winners. The company, which specializes in premiering new dances, looked good onstage in Portland, too, especially in October’s “Mother Tongue,” a reunion with its Olympics choreographer Ihsan Rustem. Not everything this adventurous company does works: that’s the nature of taking chances. But a good deal does.

The year’s biggest and dreariest dance news was the fracturing of the peace at Oregon Ballet Theatre, where artistic director Christopher Stowell announced in late November that he was resigning effective at the end of the year. His abrupt departure very likely will lead to a complete reconfiguration of a company that he had methodically built in his nine-year run into a nationally noted neoclassical troupe. Stowell re-created OBT largely in his own image, gathering dancers from around the world who came to work with him, and many probably will move on now that he’s gone. What’s to come is a great unknown, although it’s a reassuring sign that former OBT dancer Anne Mueller, who’s as sharp as they come although inexperienced in running a company, has agreed to be interim artistic director. There are rumblings of tightened budgets and a clash of priorities between Stowell and his board, and while board leaders insist they were shocked by Stowell’s departure, some insiders hint that he didn’t leave without a nudge. If the big problem is raising donations, this upheaval isn’t going to help. This story will continue to unfold in 2013.

In other ways, from the big (White Bird, including visits from Trisha Brown and Goteborg Ballet) to the small (Conduit and others), it’s been a good year for dance. BodyVox has prospered both as a producing company (including, in May, “The Cutting Room,” its witty paean to the movies) and a space for others, from the closely related Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble to independent gatherings of young talent produced by Eowyn Emerald Barrett and others. It’s a good space, and it’s being used well and often. Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk were the dancers there in Josie Moseley’s intensely moving “Flying Over Emptiness,” a tribute to fellow choreographer Mary Oslund, with gorgeous and quietly emotion-wracking video by Janet McIntyre: a signal work and a brilliant collaboration. At Imago, another veteran Portland choreographer with a very different aesthetic, Linda Austin, created another moving tribute dance, “A Head of Time,” that, while it carried Austin’s familiar fractured humor and dream-sense, was also a memorial to her sister and nephew, both of whom died before their time. Among other dances that left their mark on my memory: Anjali School of Dance’s southern Indian “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Newmark; OBT’s “Giselle” at the Keller; Jim McGinn and TopShakeDance’s “Jamb” at Conduit; Gregg Bielemeier’s comic “I Chipped My tOOth on an Anchovy” and Meshi Chavez’s butoh-inspired “Une fleuer pour mon amour” – both at Conduit, as was “Gather,” the fetching collaboration by choreographer Tere Mathern and musician Tim DuRoche.

A final note: Looking at the city’s renaissance of dance, it’s remarkable how much of it is linked in one way or another to Oregon Ballet Theatre: former OBT dancers, current dancers such as Candace Bouchard freelancing and producing away from the mother ship, even dancers such as Bielemeier reacting against the OBT aesthetic. To me, that means that OBT’s current soap opera spreads far beyond its own stage. The whole city has a stake in how its premiere ballet company sorts out its problems.

Henk Pander, "The First Night," watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, 1995.

Henk Pander, “The First Night,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, 1995.


Nationally, the big art news out of Oregon in 2012 may well have been the autumn equinox dedication of Rick Bartow’s “We Were Always Here,” a pair of towering pole carvings, outside the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bartow, of Wiyot and Yurok as well as European ancestry, lives in South Beach, near Newport on the Oregon Coast, and he has an international reputation as an artist of transformational works drawing on Native American themes. The National Mall piece may not be the most lucrative work he’s done, but it’s a fitting recognition of a remarkable career, and it’s also very much an Oregon sort of artwork: guided by a single artistic spirit, built by many hands.

Internationally, Henk Pander may be Portland’s best-known visual artist. When the Rijksmuseum reopens in Amsterdam next spring after 10 years of renovation, its galleries will contain several works by Pander, a native Netherlander who’s lived in Portland since the 1960s. One of the year’s best shows here was “Transport,” featuring Pander and Esther Podemski, at the Oregon Jewish Museum. Pander’s large paintings and drawings reached back to his childhood memories of living in Haarlem during World War II, during the time of air raids and starvation and Nazi occupation. It was a haunting show, and, because Pander is such an expert draughtsman in the long Dutch tradition, beautifully executed. The images seemed deeply true, and important.

A hundred-odd miles east of town in the Columbia Gorge, the Maryhill Museum of Art opened its season in March with a long-needed new wing – built low to the ground so as not to fight visually with the castle-like, cast concrete historical main structure – that gives this oddly beguiling museum some breathing room. We surely haven’t seen the best of what it has to offer yet: like a new car, it’s barely been out for a test drive. But the new Mary & Bruce Stevenson Wing, built on a bargain budget of less than $10 million, nicely positions the museum for a future that will surely be more vibrant as the Gorge grows. The trick now for the museum is to keep its historic charm as it reaches out to a more sophisticated potential audience.

The development of a regional style (a provisional task at best, considering the free flow of travel and information in the modern world) is less a matter of shared technical gestures than of a shared way of thinking about the world, no matter how individual a specific artist’s images might be. So in September, when I saw painter Matthew Dennison’s show “A Current History of Encroachment” at Froelick Gallery, it got me thinking of the book party I went to in January at Publication Studio for the release of Melody Owen’s “Looking Glass Book.” These are not artists who, on first blush, you’d lump together. Owen tends toward collage and Lewis Carroll. Dennison paints a kind of simplified hyperrealism. But both shows, and to an extent the artists’ larger work as well, are about loss – and not just emotional or cultural, but biological: the imperilment of species. In the Pacific Northwest, where we still believe that humans and the rest of nature ought to be able to coexist, that strikes me as a regional theme. That connection to the land and the flora and fauna that inhabit it was also clearly evident in the Museum of Contemporary Craft’s excellent retrospective on the work of groundbreaking Pendleton ceramic artist Betty Feves.

I saw Dennison’s exhibit after taking in Theatre Now’s witty production of Yasmina Reza’s tart comedy “Art” at Gallery 903. Intrigued by a play about art in an art gallery, and by the fact that Reza gave pretty much everyone’s perspective on the blank-white painting at the core of the play except the artist’s, I spent the next couple of days going to artists’ talks in the town’s galleries, hitting conversations with Dennison, Katherine Ace, Sara Siestreem, Sally Cleveland, and Elise Wagner. A novel thought: why not listen to what the artists, themselves, think about their work? Such gallery chats are common, and almost always free, and illuminating. Touring an exhibition with a good curator can be an eye-opening experience, too, and I was lucky enough to see “Body Beautiful,” the Portland Art Museum’s current show of classical Greek and Roman art from the British Museum, in the company of British Museum curator Ian Jenkins, who gleefully linked the exhibition pieces to a web of social, sexual, historical and mythological thought. In a high-tech culture, this ancient way of viewing things makes even more sense: everything’s connected; just find the connecting points.


"Seven Guitars," Artists Rep: A city full of August Wilson. Photo: Owen Carey

“Seven Guitars,” Artists Rep: A city full of August Wilson. Photo: Owen Carey


While Oregon Ballet Theatre reels from the aftermath of a messy leadership divorce, two theater companies – Profile Theatre and Artists Repertory Theatre – did it right. Profile, which specializes in the works of a single playwright each season, pulled off a smooth transition from founding artistic director Jane Unger, who retired, to new leader Adriana Baer. The move signaled both a stability of purpose and an embracing of fresh energy. Similarly, Artists Rep underwent a long and open process of finding a replacement for retiring artistic director Allen Nause, and late in the year announced the appointment of Los Angeles director Damaso Rodriguez, who has leadership background at Furious Theatre Company and the Pasadena Playhouse. As with Baer, we haven’t seen yet where he’ll take the company. But his background suggests a commitment to the kind of intimate theater that’s been Artists Rep’s trademark, and he comes with good national connections that could help the company broaden its talent net. In both cases, the transitions were handled with reassuring calm and competence.

Both companies also scored well onstage in 2012 – Profile with the likes of Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo” and Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold … and the boys”; Artists Rep with a solid lineup including a wonderfully sweet version of Aaron Posner’s “And So It Goes,” an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut stories, and “Seven Guitars,” one link in one of the city’s best cultural stories of the year: its revival of several plays by the great August Wilson, a mini-festival that also includes the just-ending production of “King Hedley II” at Portland Playhouse. Artists Rep was also home to a small and ill-attended but vibrant selection of short pieces by major American writers called “The Gay Marriage Plays,” which were given sharp staged readings by a crackerjack cast. It’s the sort of inventive side project that theater companies should be doing in response to significant social moments in the culture, and although it’s too bad it didn’t find much of an audience, it was well worth doing and seeing.

The city’s biggest theater company, Portland Center Stage, scored with big shows including “Sweeney Todd” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and also with smaller ones such as Frank Higgins’ “Black Pearl Sings!,” a two-hander with terrific performances by Chavez Ravine and Lena Kaminsky. And as usual, a lot of the interesting action also went down in littler spaces, from the Portland Actors Conservatory and its rousing revival of Romulus Linney’s “Holy Ghosts” to Jacqueline Woodson’s adaptation of her novel “Locomotion” for Oregon Children’s Theatre. Other good small shows in small spaces: a beach-blanket “Much Ado About Nothing” and a pair of hard-boiled thrillers (“The Detective’s Wife” and “Steady Rain”) at Shoebox Theatre; a sweet small-scaled “Avenue Q” at Triangle Productions, which is settling in nicely to its new digs on Northeast Sandy Boulevard that also provided the space for Staged!’s energetic teen musical “13”; a crisp and bristling adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” for Cerimon House, the intriguing producing company and cultural center being developed by Randall Stuart and friends in the Alberta District. At the east side’s little Hipbone Studios, Portland Story Theatre continued its innovative offerings of real stories by real people, and co-director Lawrence Howard, early in the year, revived his gripping tale of harrowing exploration, “Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare,” a performance he later took to New York as part of the United Solo Festival. Outdoor theater had its charms, especially with offbeat takes on the Bard, from Bag & Baggage’s “Kabuki Titus” (which was lifted by a floating, silent movie-like performance by Anne Mueller, the dancer who at the end of the year stepped in to lead the troubled Oregon Ballet Theatre) and Original Practice Shakespeare’s low-key, rambling and witty “Much Adoe About Nothing” (the company also practices original spelling). And way up in the city’s north stretches, on an industrial dead end beside some railroad tracks, a bare-bones space called The Headwaters welcomed any number of intriguing experiments, from veteran actor Eric Hull’s one-man show of dance and art and storytelling, to Miriam Feder’s memory-play “Ephemory” about mothers and daughters and the escape from Nazi Europe, to the newest work by the innovative dance troupe Wobbly, one of 2012’s shows that I most regret missing.

Northwest Portland’s CoHo Theatre is one of my favorite small spaces in town, and it had a good year, with a revival of Portland writer Steve Patterson’s “The Centering,” a witty adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times,” and a funny and moving production of Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness.” But late in the year it canceled Susannah Mars’ always popular holiday show because of money troubles. Here’s hoping for better times in 2013. “International Falls,” with Isaac Lamb and Laura Faye Smith, is scheduled to have the space back and rolling in late January.

The Emerson Quartet takes a bow last week at Chamber Music Northwest. From left: Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, David Finckel, Lawrence Dutton. Photo: Jim Leisy

Emerson Quartet at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Jim Leisy


In 2012, Classical Millennium bit the dust, and if you’re a follower of classical music that’s about as big a bummer as a year can bring. Market forces finally brought this curiously sprawling yet wonderfully curated and delightfully staffed CD store down. Sure, you can order your classical recordings on the Internet, and a much-scaled-back selection of classical and opera recordings has been folded into CM’s daddy company, Music Millennium. But this was an especially congenial gathering spot, and its loss, while understandable, is also painful. It feels like a piece of Portland has broken off and crumbled into dust.

Other cutbacks: The Oregon Symphony canceled its scheduled return to Carnegie Hall and lost its bright administrative leader, Elaine Calder, who returned to the Shaw Festival in Ontario after six tough years of dealing smartly with economic realities. On a brighter note, the symphony released a new CD on the PentaTone label, “This England,” with works by Elgar, Britten, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Portland Opera, amid intermittent complaints that it was hunkering down with the warhorses, nevertheless came through solidly on stage with the likes of Glass’s “Galileo” and Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” which featured a particularly lovely title  performance by soprano Kelly Kaduce. The summer festival Chamber Music Northwest also lived with criticisms over safe programming, and indeed, the esteemed Emerson Quartet delivered what seemed to my ears an accomplished and accurate but intensely airless performance of Mozart and Thomas Ades before getting down and dirty with Beethoven’s flabbergasting, deeply modern-sounding String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 30, concluding with its often dropped Grosse Fugue, Op. 133. Forget the numbers, and forget the Emerson’s brittle reserve on what is usually a relaxed and friendly stage. This was about as good an argument as you’ll get for the validity of digging deeply into the warhorses and rediscovering what is fresh and beautiful about them.

For me, though, the concert of the year came December 14, on the evening of the day that Adam Lanza, after shooting and killing his mother at her home, shot and killed twenty children and six adults, and finally himself, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I believe that Portland Baroque Orchestra’s performance with the choir Cappella Romana of Handel’s complete “Messiah” would have been one of my favorites under any circumstance. I love the sound of the baroque-style instruments – the soft whoosh-whoosh of bows over strings, the quiet clatter of the harpsichord, the warm bounce of reverberating wood. The musicians are first-class, and the auditorium space – in downtown’s First Baptist Church – is a gorgeous soaring curve that cups the audience in its hands. But on this particular day the power of great art to provide a balm was almost overwhelming, and although no concert can solve the deep cultural problems that Newtown represents, great art can recenter us and keep us going after we’ve been knocked for a loop. The first words sung: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” A year of terrible things had great things, too. Let’s at least give Old Man 2012 that.


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