ArtsWatch preview: White Bird celebrates with ‘Le Grand Continental’

The dance presenter turns 15 and hits the square with a huge public dance

Portlanders rehearse “Le Grand Continental”/Nim Wunnan

By Nim Wunnan

White Bird’s 15th season kicks off Wednesday night when the dance presenter brings the LA Dance Project to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. But right after that, on Sunday, the White Bird team, led by Paul King and Walter Jaffe, will produce a massive public dance, something they’ve been working on all summer. So while, the LA Dance Project kicks off the new season, White Bird will celebrate its 15 seasons of operation with two, free public performances of “Le Grande Continental.” Designed by acclaimed Montreal choreographer Sylvain Émard, “Continental” is a large-scale line dance “infused with contemporary movement that incorporates the rhythms of country, techno, cumbia, waltzes, and R&B.”

Émard has directed this project in a handful of cities, most recently in Philadelphia at the start of this month. As the Portland crew has been rehearsing since mid-summer, that means that Émard has been jetting between here and the east coast, with more than 300 non-professional performers under his command while the two shows overlapped. At 162 dancers, Portland is the biggest of all the shows so far, despite drawing from the smallest population of potential dancers.


Last Tuesday, Émard and a support crew of local dancers and choreographers directed the first outdoor rehearsal of a happily diverse crowd of Portlanders from a band-major-style platform on one of the distant parking lots at the Portland Expo Center. At the start of the night, under the snappy anticipation of the final performance, Jaffe and King congratulated the hard-working crowd on having come so far already and asked for a quick show of hands by every performer that was over 50. The count went up again for those over 60 and even made it one more round to include a few very game septuagenarians. Jaffe polished the happy mood by turning it around and to recognize all the under-15 performers, who were almost as plentiful as the over-60s.

So, were you to join the rows of performers, you could just as easily find yourself dancing next to someone who might have seen a show in White Bird’s first year as you could someone who hasn’t been alive as long as Jaffe and King have been bringing world-class dance to Portland. The broad range of backgrounds, ability, and reasons for participating could work against Émard, but the show, the crowd, and the whole air of the piece mixes enough fun with the challenge that I couldn’t find a single bored face in the crowd. Whittled down from an initial group of around 225, the remaining dancers have bought-in all the way_undaunted by the biweekly group rehearsals and the periodical movement workshops, voluntary splinter groups have formed to practice and workshop in their spare time.

Move to the left? “Le Grand Continental”/Nim Wunnan

The project certainly emphasizes variety and quantity—the music ranges across almost every popular style and the choreography touches many of the standard forms of each genre. At moments, the crowd of kids, parents, young professionals, and retirees moves (roughly) in sync to the popular style seen supporting boy bands and J-pop stars, only to shift to a nearly-spontaneous crowd-waltz a few measures later. However, there is a professionalism supporting the come-one-come-all municipality of it. Émard is patient but more than a little firm in his direction, and the patrolling assistant dancers snuff out sloppiness the moment they spot any. While definitely designed to be a fun, public event, it’s asked for serious grit and hard work from both the volunteers and the organizers.

“Le Grande Continental” looks to be the perfect fit for White Bird’s celebration. It directly engages Portlanders in contemporary dance by plunking 162 of them into it, it’s generous and inventive, and it puts the dance scene in our little city on the same level as metropolises around the world. “Le Grande Continental” can be seen in two free performances on Sunday, September 30 at 2 and 4 pm in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Additionally, photographs from every rehearsal taken by volunteer Carolyn Campbell will be on display at Living Room Realtors’ offices on Alberta Street, with a last Thursday opening reception from 7-9 pm).


White Bird’s production of Sylvain Émard’s Le Grand Continental is made possible by funding from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, Oregon Cultural Trust and Starseed Foundation. White Bird would also like to thank community partners Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Expo Center, BodyVox, Pioneer Courthouse Square and Living Room Realtors.

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