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A roaring kickoff to the Second Dance Season

By Bob Hicks
January 13, 2014

Portland’s dance renaissance just keeps on kickin’.

True, nobody knows exactly what’s in store for Oregon Ballet Theatre, which is under new leadership and still undergoing organizational and financial difficulties.

Hamilton in "Friends." Photo: David Krebs

Hamilton in “Friends.” Photo: David Krebs

But White Bird’s contemporary dance series is about to take off again after a holiday break, with the Australian Phillip Adams BalletLab (Adult content! Contains nudity!) at Lincoln Hall January 23-25. A passel of dance is barreling down the road in the city’s annual Fertile Ground festival of new works, much of it in Polaris Dance Theatre’s “Groovin’ Greenhouse” series. Northwest Dance Project performer Lindsey Matheis is about to open two weekends’ worth of “(a)merging,” her continuing series of short works by rising young choreographers, starting January 17. Butoh artist Meshi Chavez and his students have just completed a series of performances at The Headwaters. Conduit continues to crackle with classes, workshops and performances. Northwest Dance Project is preparing an early-April show featuring some of the best work from its first decade. OBT is featuring choreographic star Christopher Wheeldon, along with the return of retired company star Artur Sultanov to partner about-to-retire star Alison Roper, on its February 22-March 1 program.

And dancer and producer Eowyn Emerald’s Pacific Dance Makers has just finished two sold-out nights at BodyVox Dance Center of fresh works by eight dancemakers, two of them in collaboration with filmmakers. Enthusiasm was high at Friday’s opening-night show, which was so sold-out that a line of people squatted on pillows in front of the front row, their legs carefully tucked away so they wouldn’t accidentally trip the dancers.

The choreographers’ pedigree was high, too. Included were pieces by Anne Mueller, the former OBT favorite and interim artistic director after Christopher Stowell left the company; Jim McGinn of TopShakeDance; Tracey Durbin, partnering with filmmaker Janet McIntyre; Emerald, with animator Anouck Iyer; Seattle’s Elia Mrak; Samuel Hobbs; Chase Hamilton; and Eric Skinner of BodyVox and skinner/kirk Dance Ensemble.

Among the grab-bag were several pieces of considerable charm, and one big, ambitious work – Durbin and McIntyre’s “Ebb & Flow” ­– that lowered the emotional boom, demanding that the night be taken seriously and poetically.

Hamilton’s “Friends,” a duet that he danced with Zoë Nelson to a Steve Miller Band song, was quick and friendly and appealing. Emerald’s “Vessellessev” was a fluid duet for BodyVox’s Holly Shaw and Josh Murry, a little dark with Iyer’s grayish projected animations and the occasional big shadow-play behind the screen.


Svetlova (front) and Shaw in Skinner's untitled work. Photo: David Krebs.

Svetlova (front) and Shaw in Skinner’s untitled work. Photo: David Krebs.

Mueller’s “Variation in a Vacuum I,” set to a Chopin nocturne, was a solo for Katarina Svetlova, returning to the stage after a long layoff, and interesting both for Mueller’s continuing progress as a choreographer and the opportunity to see Svetlova dance again. Mueller and Svetlova danced together at OBT in the James Canfield years, and Svetlova then spent several years dancing in Germany before retiring and moving back home. She’s still in her early to mid 30s, and now that she’s stepping back out (she’ll perform again with skinner/kirk in April) she could have several good years left. “Variation” pairs Mueller’s penchant for quirky comedy (Svetlova enters the stage haggard and sleepy, in a robe and a pair of comic-book oversized fluffy slippers) with more serious stuff. Svetlova’s always had star power, and it’s still there. Part of it’s technique and part is pure presence. Like OBT’s Roper, who also danced with Mueller and Svetlova in the Canfield-era OBT, she’s balanced somewhere between grace and power, standing out from the crowd, not pretty like a princess but compelling and formidable. Roper’s regal. Svetlova’s fierce; poised to eat up a stage. Skinner’s untitled new piece also features Svetlova, dancing with Shaw, and it’s quite successful: beautifully shaped and sensitive to the strengths of both dancers. Skinner is familiar with Shaw through BodyVox, and they seem to understand each other intuitively. He, too, is a onetime OBT dancer from the old days (are you beginning to see a pattern here?) and his familiarity with ballet  technique helps him stretch Svetlova back into some classical territory, but in a contemporary context.

I’ve admired McGinn’s long works, which tend to have underlying narratives, and I especially like him as a performer: his concentration is riveting. Here, he presented two excerpts from “Float,” which debuted in November at Conduit, and which I didn’t see. Maybe it’s because they were only excerpts from a longer work, but Friday’s dark-toned performances by four dancers left me unmoved and a little confused. The ideas seemed to run out before the dancing did. Nor did Mrak’s “Erica,” a solo for dancer Erica Badgeley, grab me. The dance began promisingly, with Badgeley poised and expectant in a loose Greek-goddess dress, a smile on her face and an hourglass by her side. But the ideas seemed thin. Sometimes she rolled around on the stage like an Olympian lolling in a grove. More often, she ran, athletically, in large circles, apparently seeking a way out. With no music, the soundtrack was her labored breathing. And she ran, and ran, and ran, until finally she discovered an exit stage left, and just kept running until she disappeared.


"Ebb & Flow." Photo: David Krebs

“Ebb & Flow.” Photo: David Krebs

Durbin and McIntyre’s “Ebb & Flow” was the heavyweight of the evening, danced by a fine ensemble (Anna Hooper, Heather Jackson, Alexandra Maricich, Northwest Dance Project’s Franco Nieto, Claire Olberding, Rachel Slater, Emily Zarov) and marrying dance and film fluidly, with each supporting the other: at one point the dancers sit down onstage, backs to the audience, and watch the film, too, absorbed in images of themselves underwater, sinking and swimming. The images are autobiographical for McIntyre, who chose this project to explore her anger over her mother’s death at age 45, and her own journey through rebellion toward a reluctant acceptance and a kind of grace. “I always thought I’d remember the sound of my mother’s voice,” the film’s narrator laments. “But it’s gone.” The piece begins in jarring dissonance, and includes, in the filmmaker’s words, “a sense of drowning with a sense of dreaming. … this is my attempt to crack open past memories and release something raw, probing, and brave.” While McIntyre clearly takes the lead here, Durbin does an excellent job of partnering and translating the tale into movement. McIntyre’s been down a similar path before, collaborating with choreographer Josie Moseley (and dancers Skinner and Daniel Kirk) on “Flying Over Emptiness,” a lovely and moving work about choreographer Mary Oswald and her battle with a debilitating illness. And her film work, which has ranged from pieces about binge-drinking teenage girls to a profile of “Dead Man Walking” nun Sister Helen Prejean, almost always has a tough bent, coupled with a tenderness aimed at understanding. “Ebb & Flow” has an earnestness that amounts to fearlessness: It’s unabashedly ABOUT something, and it lets its nerves run raw. In its naked embrace of genuine emotion, if not in its movement vocabulary, it’s reminiscent of Martha Graham, and of the everyday-heroic images of the painter Thomas Hart Benton, and even of the novels of John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis. It doesn’t veil itself. It grabs its truth by the neck. Yet it’s also, finally, sweet.

Hobbs’s “Early,” a duet for himself and Jessica Evans, was the program closer, and except for having to deal with the reverberations of “Ebb & Flow,” which immediately preceded it, it was an ideal choice. It’s the most poetic piece of the evening, a fluid and lovely collaboration that moves in circles and circles of intimacy. Set to Hobbs’s own music, it begins with him seated and still while Evans, lying down, moves one leg in a slow windmill sweep. She takes her time, until gradually they are both on their feet and moving together in something that seems simply “about” the  beauty of bodies in synchronized movement. It’s a charming piece, really, its mood like a modern-day Haydn. It’ll be repeated next weekend on the “(a)merging” program at Northwest Dance Project. If you missed it here, you can catch it there.


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