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The Snow Queen Cometh: Lauren Kessler’s ‘Raising the Barre’

Eugene writer Lauren Kessler braves the hazards of ballet and 'The Nutcracker' in her new book


Once upon a December, back when my daughter was still a baby, I offered to take my daycare provider’s seven-year-old daughter to see the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker. She had never been to the Keller (then Civic) Auditorium. I’m not sure she had ever been downtown. She wore a summer party dress over her acrylic knee socks and scuffed sneakers, and she was more nervous than excited, like this excursion might be some sort of punishment. Her agitation came to a head as the Waltz of the Snowflakes began. All that fake snow trickling down on all those twirling ballerinas had a predictable effect on her bladder, and the peak of the pirouetting found the two of us jostling past a long row of annoyed balletomanes.

Raising the Barre book coverThe point of this little anecdote is not that no good deed goes unpunished, but simply to illustrate one of the things Eugene author Lauren Kessler learned on her Nutcracker odyssey: everyone has a Nutcracker story. Somewhere along the way, the Nutcracker has become the most-performed ballet in the world. It helps fill the coffers of ballet companies every year. For instance, it accounts for 44% of the Eugene Ballet Company’s annual earned income, and that’s a pretty typical number. And for most people, The Nutcracker is the only ballet they will ever see.

For Kessler, it’s most likely the only ballet in which she will ever perform. Her new book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker (Da Capo Press), is a record of her audacious and frequently hilarious mission, which culminates in her dancing the part of Clara’s Maiden Aunt Rose. Sure, it’s not the Sugar Plum Fairy. The part doesn’t even call for dancing sur les pointes. But still—it’s The Nutcracker!


Dance Weekly: The holidays have us spinning

Nutcrackers galore, BodyVox's 'Spin', Northwest Dance Project's dancers turn into choreographers

I have been ruminating all week about Eugene and the Eugene Ballet Company since I read Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker by Lauren Kessler, which I wrote about last week. I realized I know nothing about the dance community there, even though Eugene is so close to Portland. When I lived on the East Coast it was normal to spend at least an hour-and-a-half driving anywhere, if not more. Assuming my ignorance of dance in a nearby city is shared by other dance-propelled folks, my question is why isn’t there more of an exchange between the dance communities in both of these cities? Whatever the reasons are, it should happen more.

This week in Portland, the dancers of the Northwest Dance Project switch roles and become choreographers—debuting new choreography on each other. Many ballet companies throughout the United States do something similar, and the events are light and carefree and give everyone a nice break from the rigours of the season. A perfect holiday wind down.

Also happening this week are the final performances of The Library At The End Of The World by the dancers of 11: Dance Co at Coho Productions. You will see some phenomenal dancing by a deeply dedicated and passionate group. You can follow their performances and catch up on their live theatre mishaps on their blog written by marketing director Huy Pham. One story involves a frozen sound board and the other a frozen light board. It all makes good theatre.

Also this weekend will be the final spinning at The Spin. BodyVox’s new show puts 25 dances on a game show wheel and lets audiences spin to decide the order of the show. At first I thought this was a form of torture to put the dancers through, but artistic directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland play it fair by putting themselves in the mix as well.

Hampton is the consummate host and makes this a really enjoyably goofy evening. He is a shmoozer for sure and it is great fun watching him engage the audience, crack jokes, drink a beer, spin the wheel and run back and forth changing in and out of costumes as he dances and emceess. It’s a blast and a great way to get a decent sampling of the BodyVox repertoire.

Northwest Dance Project's Samantha Campbell kicks up her heels in "In Good Company." (c) Peddicord Photo

Northwest Dance Project’s Samantha Campbell kicks up her heels in “In Good Company.” (c) Peddicord Photo

In Good Company
Northwest Dance Project
December 17-18
Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St.

It’s all about whimsy this holiday season. Travel back in time with Northwest Dance Projects’ dancers-turned-choreographers to the whimsical school days of yesteryear. Enjoy a playful return to youth with these vibrant dancers as they frolic and roll to the tunes of Puccini, Dick Dale and many more. The choreographers are Kody Jauron, Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Andrea Parson, Franco Nieto, Julia Radick, and Ching Ching Wong.

Wong’s choreography can also be seen this weekend in 11:Dance Co’s Library At The End Of The World.


‘The Moth’: close to the flame

The hit storytelling platform flutters onto the stage at the Schnitz for an evening, and five "regular folks" tell their tales


Portland is one of the most well-read cities in the United States. Our beloved county library has one of the nation’s highest circulation rates, and Powell’s, by many measures, is the  largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. It’s far from unbelievable that many Portlanders are not just readers, but also writers and storytellers in their own right.

The Moth is a New York-based multi-platform for true-life storytellers, and the meeting between it and like-minded Portland has been a mutual triumph. The Moth, much like Portland, is always finding new ways to catch stories and share them: It has a Peabody Award-winning podcast, a book, and even a hotline to call in your story. The Moth and Portland have a similar passion for hearing a good tale and creating an ingenious way to tell it.

The Moth fluttered into Portland’s Schnitzer Hall on Monday night, and the Schnitz, with all its Art Deco glory, added to the excitement. It’s an exciting venue for a show like this: just passing by the old Broadway lightbulbs on a dark night can fill a passer-by with joy. Monday’s house was sold out, and filled to the rafters with an audience that seemed to contain most every kind of literary appreciation: conservative-suited Ernest Hemingway types, flamboyant eccentrics with colorful vintage slacks and sarcastic T-shirts, young Gloria-Steinems-in-training with long wistful hair and leather jackets. People in the audience had their manners, but were highly irreverent. They stood in their seats, and talked loudly. It was obvious that The Moth wasn’t so much an event to be heard on stage, but a gathering of 2,700 peers come to celebrate five authors and their stories. It was, organizers said, the largest attendance across the world in Moth history.


ArtsWatch Weekly: a kick of a dance, Orson Welles, it’s a ‘Miracle’

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

By this time the city’s big December shows have pretty much announced their presence with authority, as the pitching phenom Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh liked to put it in the baseball movie Bull Durham: the Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers and Tuba Christmases and Singing Christmas Trees and Santaland Diaries and other seasonal spectacles have either settled comfortably into their runs or already come and gone.

Northwest Dance Project's Samantha Campbell kicks up her heels in "In Good Company." (c) Peddicord Photo

Northwest Dance Project’s Samantha Campbell kicks up her heels in “In Good Company.” (c) Peddicord Photo

Still, a few good things are yet to come. In Good Company, for instance, is both a bit of a risk and a bit of a lark for Northwest Dance Project, a troupe that concentrates on premieres and so has plenty of experience with risky business. The good company, in this case, is the dancers themselves – Kody Jauron, Elijah Labay, Lindsey McGill, Andrea Parson, Franco Nieto, Julia Radick, Ching Ching Wong – who have taken it on themselves to devise the dances and the program, which roams around Revolution Hall, the former East Side high school, with a whimsically academic theme. Music for the seven dances ranges from Puccini to surf legend Dick Dale. 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday.


Left: "Comedie 3," Shlby Shadwell, 2015; charcoal and conte on prepared linen, 85 x 85 inches. Right: right: "Boy Huckleberry Basket," Sara Siestreem, 2013, red cedar bark. Photos courtesy of the artists.

Left: “Comedie 3,” Shelby Shadwell, 2015; charcoal and conte on prepared linen, 85 x 85 inches. Right: right: “Boy Huckleberry Basket,” Sara Siestreem, 2013, red cedar bark. Photos courtesy of the artists.

At most any art museum, one of the best things you can do is to pick a day to visit when you purposely go where the action isn’t – to those quieter corners away from the big shows and the big crowds, the places where all sorts of more private adventures might open up.


Well, you know it’s the time of the season, and though even Death once took a holiday, Oregon music never does. We can present only a smattering of the holiday music happening around the state here, so check the All Classical Radio calendar for more, let our readers know via the comments section below about other holiday shows worth braving the elements for, and please enjoy Oregon’s abundant holiday music safely.

BelloVoci performs at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Gary Norman.

BelloVoci performs at Portland Piano Company. Photo: Gary Norman.

December 16-20
Portland Piano Company, 711 SW 14th Avenue, Portland.
As part of ART’s interesting new Artists Rep in Concert series, which pairs musical performances with thematically related plays on the ART stages, curator Susannah Mars invited this new trio of crack cabaret/classical/musical theater singers (Matthew Hayward, Norman Wilson and Tim Suenkel) to sing arrangements of holiday music, show tune style.

John Vergin
December 16
Reed College, Eliot Hall Chapel, Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the renowned Portland musician and theater artist’s annual winter performance.

Third Angle New Music
December 16
Lincoln City Cultural Center, 540 NE Hwy. 101.
The new music ensemble’s string quartet joins former Sitka Center for the Arts director Randall Koch and visiting artists who will respond to the group’s music about nature by creating art in their own media.

Portland Chamber Orchestra, Westminster Presbyterian Church Choir.
Dec. 16, St. Henry Catholic, Gresham; Dec. 18, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Portland; Dec.19, St. Andrew Catholic Church, Portland; Dec. 2o, Lewis and Clark College, Agnes Flanagan Chapel, Portland.
Rather than competing with this year’s other two full-length Messiahs, the chamber orchestra wisely offers an alternative: an intimate, modern instrument performance of just the actual part of Handel’s magnificent oratorio devoted to Christmas themes (part 1), and pairs it with other Baroque hits by Corelli (his Christmas concerto, of course), Vivaldi (a recorder concerto featuring soloist Aldo Abreu), and Bach (Brandenburg concerto #2)

David Friesen
December 16, O’Connor’s Vault; December 19, Woodstock Wine & Deli, Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the 40th anniversary of the great Portland bassist’s holiday jazz concerts.

“Praetorius Christmas Vespers”
December 17
Portland Baroque Orchestra, Trinity Cathedral Choir, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland.
PBO has recently been presenting a few fab concerts in partnership with other regional early music organizations (in Seattle and British Columbia, which both boast strong new music scenes) under the rubric of Northwest Baroque Masterworks, a great way to share the unfortunately scarce resource of period instrument performances with audiences throughout the region. In maybe the most compelling single holiday classical music event of the season, guest director David Fallis from the Toronto Consort leads a string orchestra and other historically informed performers on vintage Renaissance instruments (sackbutts, theorbos, etc.) and 13 vocal soloists plus choir to recreate a 17th century Christmas Vespers celebration that sounds something like it would have in late Renaissance/early Baroque northern Germany as directed by the great composer and compiler Michael Praetorius. The audience will have the chance to sing along with some early Christmas carols, as congregation members might have done back in the day.

Unsilent Night
December 17
East end of the Tilikum Crossing, Portland.
Read my Willamette Week preview of the Portland edition of the annual, nationwide participatory new music celebration, and read ArtsWatch’s story about a previous edition to get a flavor of what’s in store.

Pied Piper Mitchell Falconer and Grim Reaper Joshua Peters blaze the trail at Portland's Unsilent Night 2013.

Pied Piper Mitchell Falconer and Grim Reaper Joshua Peters blaze the trail at Portland’s Unsilent Night 2013. Photo: Joe Cantrell.

Modern Kin, The Crenshaw, Dragging an Ox Through Water
December 18
Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water St, Portland.
This Creative Music Guild benefit for the organization’s 25th birthday features three of the city’s more creative experimental bands, all of which take off from pop music forms like folk, hip hop, country, and house music.


‘Miracle Worker’: resurrection time

Artists Rep's revival of William Gibson's American classic is a small miracle in its own right


The Miracle Worker was first performed more than half a century ago, and while critics were sharp to illustrate its production flaws, it won the hearts of audiences. Even now, most Americans are familiar with the deaf and mute firecracker Helen Keller, who rewrote the map on how disability is perceived: when we think of the play, we think of her. And as we huddle in and batten down the hatches to celebrate the warmth of family and friends during the holidays, Artists Repertory Theater is producing a real-life miracle.

The famous premiere production of the play and the movie based on it were hailed for the strong acting by Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher and companion, and Patty Duke as Helen. Hollywood streamlined the movie, and playwright William Gibson was disappointed that the tense subplots of the stage version were left out. Artists Repertory’s The Miracle Worker stays true to Gibson’s original script, and Dámaso Rodriguez’s direction brings out the many skills of a diverse and accomplished cast.

Trouble at the table: a wild child strikes. Photo: Owen Carey

Trouble at the table: a wild child strikes. Photo: Owen Carey

That brightness extends to the whole production. On opening night the audience was a buzz in the foyer, and the excitement was contagious. We descended in a single line into the box of the theater, leaving the real world and suspending our belief. Artists Rep’s stage – scenic design is by Tim Stapleton, props by Will Bailey, lighting by Kristeen Willis Crosser, costumes by Bobby Brewer-Wallin – is its own world for this show: delicately lit on three levels of squares balanced by a contrast of golden yellow and royal blue. A thick Southern air and the sound of flycatchers fill the room. To the back of the stage hangs a simple floral curtar in, not overdone, but elegantly implied. On center is a wicker baby’s cradle, and to the left, a country doctor’s old leather clutch. Off to the right, not easily noticed, an old hand water well stands; hanging from its spout is a nickel bucket, with a soft and metallic smell. The stage feels like Alabama, where the action takes place, but it’s not a recreation of an actual home.


Farewell, my lovely: ZooZoo’s splendid final stand

Imago's sublime dancing and miming critters are in the midst of their final run in Portland. Catch them before they disappear

Good night fireflies, blinking your eyes.

Good night anteaters, goodnight bears, 

Good night penguins sitting in chairs, 

Good night windbags, wheezing away, 

Good night frogs, good night cats, (one in a bag)

Good night hippos, having spats,

Good night larva, upside down,

Good night paper, crumpled on the ground,

Which, with a halfhearted apology to Margaret Wise Brown, is all by way of saying that ZooZoo, Imago’s “animal show,” as my grandson calls it, will be put to bed for good in 2016.  If you live in Portland, you’d best make haste to see it. The show goes on tour after the current run at Imago’s East Side Portland home theater closes on January 3, and the company’s masked theatre productions, after that, will not be seen again, anywhere.

Polar bears ...

Polar bears …

ZooZoo has been hitting the road under several titles, and with a number of interchangeable casts of the critters and objects listed above, since it started with a single frog in 1979, conceived and fabricated in a student apartment in Eugene by Imago founders and directors Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle. I’ve been writing about it (and other Imago masked theatre productions) for the past thirty-plus years, for a number of national and local publications.  Last year I covered it extensively for this one, only it was called Frogz a separate but intimately linked show, which contained many of the characters above as well as sloths, alligators, string and the like.

I took my grandchildren – a seven-year-old boy, who has now seen it three times, and a three-year-old girl, who was watching it for the first time – to ZooZoo‘s noon matinee on Saturday.  I wondered, since their parents had other things to do, how I would manage to watch the show, take notes on what I was seeing, and keep an eye on the kids, all at once. I needn’t have worried. From the moment the show began, with a little preview of La Belle, a multi-media, multi-layered extravaganza that will open in December of next year, the kids were transfixed by the transformations taking place on stage.


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