ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

Tiare Keeno and Jeffrey Duffy in a 2015 performance of “Dark Meadow” at Juilliard School of the Arts in New York. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The dance and classical music web site Oberon’s Grove provides a brief and witty look into Dark Meadow, which is danced to a score by Carlos Chávez that was originally meant for Graham’s adaptation of Medea. Chávez missed his deadline, so Graham gave the commission to Samuel Barber; the result is the classic Cave of the Heart. When Chávez finally completed his score, Graham used it for a new dance, Dark Meadow. She also used a collection of giant phallic set pieces by Isamu Noguchi. Dale Bumpers, the Democratic senator from Arkansas, once summed the dance up: “It’s about sex,” he explained. (Graham herself, Deborah Jowitt writes, “said on several occasions that she had no idea what Dark Meadow meant while she was creating it, and understood it, if at all, decades later.”) But don’t take Bumpers’ word for it, or ours, or even Graham’s. On Wednesday, you can see for yourself.





Happy Mom’s Day from Wanderlust Circus and friends.

Wanderlust Circus and 3 Leg Torso. This marvelously entertaining duo of performing acts (warning: accordions and rodeo roping might be involved) team up on Mother’s Day Eve for a show titled, appropriately, “A Mother’s Day Circus.” Saturday, Alberta Rose Theatre.

Washer/Dryer. The adventurous Theatre Diaspora, a company of Asian American/Pacific Islander performers, does an enhanced staged reading of Nandita Shenoy’s romantic comedy about interethnic newlyweds in a New York co-op whose happily-ever-after is interrupted by … complications. Two performances, Sunday and May 20, in the Ellyn Bye Studio at The Armory.

Blue-Eyed Black Boy. Triangle Productions continues its Brown Paper Bag series of short historical plays about lynching with this reading of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s piece about a woman whose son has been dragged to jail, accused of brushing up against a white woman in the street. 7 p.m. Monday in the Blumauer Auditorium of Congregation Beth Israel, 1972 N.W. Flanders St. Free.

Samantha Shay in “Vasalisa,” Sunday at The Headwaters.

Vasalisa. Multidisciplinary artist Samantha Shay’s new work, created with Gerry Ravyn Stanfield and based on the Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga premieres Sunday at The Headwaters.

An American in Paris. The touring company of the multiple-Tony-winning Broadway musical with songs by the Gershwins and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon comes to Portland for a week of performances Tuesday through Sunday, May 16-21.




Dancer Anna Marra as Perséphone with the Oregon Symphony.


Oregon Symphony, with master designer Michael Curry, the PSU Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth ChoirThis final installment in the Symphony’s multimedia SoundSight series brings one of Igor Stravinsky’s least-performed scores. Not necessarily because of the music’s quality, but because the 1934 “ballet tableau” Persephone, based on the Greek myth of the corn goddess’s daughter abducted by Pluto, god of the underworld, confounds categories. With elements of theater (narrator, monologues), storytelling (libretto by French poet Andre Gide), oratorio (including glistening choral music), opera (a tenor), and dance (one dance), it contains too little of each to warrant the necessarily expensive production by dance or opera companies. Who would produce it? The Oregon Symphony, that’s who, which in this series has also augmented other too rarely performed 20th century scores (by Bartok and Messiaen) with Rose Bond’s psychedelic video projections and Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures. This time the multimedia component is supplied by Scappoose puppet master Michael Curry, world-famous for his massive puppets populating The Lion King, Olympics and Asian Games, Super Bowls, Met Opera, and much more. With airborne performer, puppets, evocative lighting and projections, choir, and a Tchaikovsky symphony along with Stravinsky’s rarely performed score, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime show. Saturday-Monday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

23rd Young Artists Debut! Van Buren Concerto Concert

The valuable youth orchestra’s competition winners perform their concertos accompanied by members of the Oregon Symphony and Oregon Ballet Theater orchestras, conducted by Niel DePonte. Tuesday, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University.

“La Bohème”

Puccini’s ever-popular perennial makes its umpteenth Portland appearance in a traditional production, sung in Italian with English text projected above the stage. It’s an ideal intro for the opera newbie. Stay tuned for Terry Ross’s ArtsWatch review. Portland Opera, Thursday and Saturday, Keller Auditorium.

Eugene Symphony

Danail Rachev leads his final concert as the orchestra’s music director, with works by Bruch, Beethoven, and Richard Strauss. Thursday, Hult Center, Eugene.

45th Parallel

The string quartet composed mostly of current and former Portland Baroque Orchestra period instrument specialists (who also play modern strings) plays great old music by Haydn and Beethoven, and — huzzah! — new music by Portland’s own Kenji Bunch called Apocryphal Dances — on beautiful, sonorous gut-stringed instruments, as nature intended but as too seldom happens since the advent of bigger-sounding metal strings in the 20th century. Friday, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church, 1535 N.E. 17th Ave.

Choral Arts Ensemble, mixing the old and new.

Choral Arts Ensemble

We think of motets and madrigals (which have been getting a lot of love in Portland this season) as quintessentially old music, but in addition to music by Renaissance masters who invented the form (Palestrina, Byrd, Monteverdi), the choir will sing later works in those ancient forms by J.S. Bach, Mozart, and Faure, and even by contemporary composers. Friday, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 3228 S.W. Sunset Blvd. and Saturday, The Old Church, 1422 S.W. 11th Ave.

Portland Columbia Symphony

Music director Steven Byess continues the orchestra’s recent commitment to Oregon music by initiating a joint project with Cascadia Composers to feature homegrown music on at least one CSO program each year. The first choice: two movements from Portland composer (and Cascadia’s first leader) David Bernstein’s energetic Gloriana. The program also features Shostakovich’s stirring fifth symphony, Debussy’s seductive Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and the West Coast premiere of a new piano concerto by classical comic genius PDQ Bach (a/k/a Peter Schickele) – the “21st of J.S. Bach’s 20 children.” His Concerto for Simply Grand Piano and Orchestra stars veteran New York pianist Jeffrey Biegel. Friday, First United Methodist Church 1838 S.W. Jefferson St., and Sunday, Mt. Hood Community College, Gresham.

Sound of Late

The young new-music ensemble based in PDX and Seattle plays music by one of today’s leading composers, Missy Mazzoli, who’s received abundant attention for her recent opera Breaking the Waves and major vocal work Vespers. The sextet also commissioned a new piece from a young Oregon composer, Ben Penwell, now in grad school in Boston, and they’ll play another original from their flutist, Sarah Pyle, plus a piece from Danish jazz saxophonist Laura Toxvaerd that uses a graphic score made from telephone books. Saturday, N.E.W. Expressive Works, 810 S.E. Belmont St.

Darrell Grant

The Portland pianist/composer/music prof, major figure in American jazz since his New York days in the 1980s, has a new band called MJ New Quartet. Thursday, the Jazz Station, Eugene; Friday, Wilfs, Portland; and Saturday, Clatsop Community College Performing Arts Center, Astoria.

Nancy Wood and Paul Safar (at piano) performed at Cascadia Composers’ spring concerts. They’ll team again in Eugene, with trumpet and bass.

Paul Safar

The award-winning Eugene composer’s muse carries him well beyond European classical influences. This show with the sublime singer Nancy Wood, sax master Tom Bergeron, veteran trumpeter Dave Bender and bassist Nathan Waddell features his arrangements of jazz and rock standards by Thelonious Monk, David Bowie, and Tom Waits, plus Safar’s new fantasia for tenor sax and piano. Saturday, The Jazz Station, Eugene.

Paavali Jumppanen

Portland Piano International brings the Finnish pianist to play some of the most alluring music ever written for the instrument, by Debussy (Preludes) and Beethoven (“Appasionata,” “Farewell” and “Moonlight” sonatas). Saturday and Sunday, Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University.



ArtsWatch links


Luisa Sermol bids farewell with one last Willie Wonka. The multiply talented actor and teacher, a mainstay on Portland stages for many years, talks about her career, her students, and her final show at Tigard’s Fowler Middle School before she moves to California: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, “a show about imagination, gratitude and hope.”

The Banshee: confronting the dark side. Gary Ferrington tells the inside story of Daniel Daly’s new chamber opera, which will be performed Saturday in Eugene.

Cuban tempest: a little rhythm, a little dance, a little romance in “Oye Oya.” Photo: Russell J Young

Musical tempest on a small island. Christa McIntyre reviews Milagro’s buoyant new Cuban musical Óye Oyá, based loosely on Shakespeare’s romance The Tempest and performed in Spanish with English supertitles.

Oregon Symphony: time for a change. The orchestra, Terry Ross writes, has improved markedly in recent years, now ranking not far behind New York and Chicago. But has its amateur choir kept up? “A 25- or 30-voice group of professional choristers,” Ross argues, “who are paid by the likes of Cappella Romana, The Ensemble, and Resonance Ensemble, would make a far greater impact – and a louder ‘noise’ – than the 70 singers of the Symphonic Choir.”

Think Pink (and cupcakes, too). Hailey Bachrach reviews Oregon Children’s Theatre’s nicely delicious Pinkalicious and its “ridiculously winning” young star, Kai Tomizawa.

A double dose of Brazilian jazz. Angela Allen lends an approving ear to the sounds of Anat Cohen and Eliane Elias, who recently played PDXJazz shows in town.

Salim Sanchez as Louis Armstrong in “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” Photo: David Kinder/Kinderpics

15 surprising Satchmoments. A.L. Adams toots the horn for Triangle Productions’ Satchmo at the Waldorf, complete with a coda of 15 fascinating facts about Louis Armstrong’s life and times.

Emerson Quartet: maintaining mastery. After 41 years, Terry Ross writes, this superb string quartet remains at the top of its game, as it revealed in a mesmerizing performance for Chamber Music Northwest of Shostakovich’s wonderfully gentle String Quartet No. 4.

Baltic blues and beyond. The acclaimed Canadian choir Chor Leoni (Choir of Lions) roared into Portland last week for a concert conducted by its lone U.S. citizen, Portlander Erick Lichte. The program, Bruce Browne writes, included a setting of an ancient Estonian hymn that incorporated “blues-infused pipe organ, with a funky bass line.”

Avantika Bawa’s “Anti Vanta,” part of “Costumes, Reverence, and Forms” at the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture/Photo by Mario Gallucci

Costumes, reverence, and forms: And the greatest of these is reverence. At first flummoxed by this Portland/Philadelphia exchange exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture, Laurel Reed Pavic finds a key in the concept of reverence – “for art practice, making and process.”

Vancouver Symphony: from the other side of the river. “That little band across the river, they can’t get no respect,” Terry Ross writes. So he crossed the Columbia to see what was up. “For this jaded Portland reviewer, the whole show was like a lungful of clean mountain air. Here’s a community orchestra, professional and playing a limited season, with their entire city behind them, led by a talented and energetic conductor, with a committed group of players and administrators, producing a damned fine musical product.”

Violinist Symphony Koss enjoys the applause with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Paul Quackenbush



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