Dance in Portland and Oregon has long been on the edge – often financially and sometimes artistically. Yet despite economic challenges you can’t keep it down: the city moves to a dance beat, and every week brings fresh performances. ArtsWatch writers got to a significant share of those shows in 2017, and wrote about them with breadth, wit, and insight.
The twenty ArtsWatch stories here don’t make up a “best of” list, though several of these shows could easily make one. They constitute, rather, a January-to-December snapshot of a rich and busy scene that runs from classical ballet to contemporary and experimental work.
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A dance down memory lane in 20 tales from ArtsWatch writers:
A mellow Meadow like old times
Jan. 20: “Going to opening night of BodyVox’s Urban Meadow at Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday evening was a little like dropping over for dinner with a bunch of old friends you haven’t seen in a while, and remembering why you liked them in the first place,” Bob Hicks wrote. “The table was set nicely, the food and wine were good, and everybody swapped old jokes and stories with easy familiarity. There was even a guest of honor, who was fondly feted, and who told a few good tales himself.” The “guest” was the wonderful dancer Erik Skinner, who was retiring from BodyVox (though not from performing) after this run, and the program included a bunch of old favorites that were themselves welcome guests.
Lentil soup and Tahni Holt’s new Sensation/Disorientation
Jan. 27: Dance, like every other art form, is about human connection, and sometimes those connections can take surprising turns. “Midway through the opening-night performance of Tahni Holt’s Sensation/Disorientation I had my own sensation-disorientation experience,” Jamuna Chiarini wrote. “I was struck with the feeling that this dance had a lot to do with the soup I had made for dinner that night. I don’t mean to diminish or speak irreverently about Holt’s work by any means—my soup was no ordinary soup and neither was the dance.” It was a Moroccan lentil soup, complex and flavorful, and as Chiarini explained, “while watching Sensation/Disorientation, time and space collapsed, and all of a sudden the soup that I had made for my family—its colors, spices, vegetables, and lentils—connected me to history, to women, to my femininity, my family, my role as a woman in my household (as a mother and a wife), and in my life in society. More, my relationship with other women became present in the dance. In this instant, I suddenly felt connected to the earth, to every culture, to every woman that ever existed and to every woman here now. This was a dance made unapologetically by a woman, for women, about women.”
Swan Lake? Yes and no.
Feb. 22: “Since its premiere in Moscow in 1877 … Swan Lake has been adjusted, recast, torqued, tweaked, and completely transformed to reflect the points of view of those who restage it and the cultural environments in which it is performed,” Martha Ullman West wrote in reviewing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new production of the classic story ballet. “There is no set in stone text for Swan Lake, and I am not a Swan Lake fundamentalist — I quite love Matthew Bourne’s version, set in 20th century London, with an all-male swan corps and keyed, sort of, to the British royal family. And in fact, Petipa himself was the first to make major changes in the libretto, in 1895, and that remains the one with which audiences are most familiar.” Still, she suggested, changes need to make sense, and this version’s “incoherent libretto and … crazy quilt of bits and pieces of choreography and characters from other ballets” fuzzed things up.
The Red and the Visible Dark
March 17: “The beginning is not the fall itself,” Bob Hicks wrote, “but the struggle to get up. Elijah Labay, the central figure in Patrick Delcroix’s new dance Visible Darkness, lies prone on the stage of the Newmark Theatre, raising his shoulders, lifting his torso, and then sinking back again. He’s been lying there, intermittently resting and struggling to move, for who knows how long. He is discovered, with alarm, and slowly, gently raised, and the dance moves on.” Delcroix’s new dance is based on his own traumatic fall from a ladder, and knowing that “deepens what is already a rich and moving work.” The second premiere on this compelling NW Dance Project program was Ihsan Rustem’s funny and fascinating new take on Carmen: “Rustem tends to infuse his work with smart humor, and his new Carmen is no exception.”
Men, bottled up and burning
March 25: The premiere of skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE’s Burn It Backwards, set to the music of Elliott Smith, used its founders’ “autobiographical vocabulary” of “ballet lifts, modern floor falls, spins and jumps and tumbles” to explore “the many ways men relate to each other, or fail to, and also about American social and political norms,” Martha Ullman West wrote.
Terra firma: OBT’s dancers shine
April 15: The warmth of the intimate Newmark Theatre, Martha Ullman West wrote, helped bring out the best in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s program of works by Nacho Duato and Helen Pickett. The dancers shone, in particular new principle dancer Jacqueline Straughan: “I enjoyed very much Staughan’s execution of Pickett’s aggressive, propulsive movement in Terra, especially in the section in which she looks mad as hell at the foot-stamping, fist-clenching men who are doing this in unison. But it was her dancing in [Nuacho’s] El Naranjo, a sensuous pas de deux excerpted from the Spanish choreographer’s North African-tinged Gnawa, that I truly loved.”
Snow Queen: frozen journey
April 20: Eugene Ballet’s ambitious creation of a new story ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale was a gigantic project that may still need some tinkering but has big payoffs, Rachael Carnes wrote: “It’s the largest production in Eugene Ballet Company’s 38 years, featuring the longest commissioned score — by Portland composer Kenji Bunch — in Oregon’s history. Every bit of the artistic effort, from sets to costumes, props to animations, was labored over by more than 150 artists and designers from the Eugene community, under the vision of inimitable EBC Artistic Director Toni Pimble. EBC clearly has poured its heart into this story.”
Noguchi, no Dark Meadow
June 2: The dancing was splendid when the legendary Martha Graham Company hit town as part of the White Bird dance season, Martha Ullman West wrote. The classic Diversion of Angels was “a truly glorious performance” that “I’ll not soon forget.” But the equally classic Dark Meadow Suite, “a charming, seductive, lively demonstration of Graham’s vocabulary,” had a huge missing piece: the “mildly phallic-looking stone shapes” of Isamu Noguchi’s original set, which is such an integral part of the dance that it simply isn’t the same dance without it.
Summer Splendors: Chopin and Slipper
June 12: “The chemistry between [Andrea] Parson and [Elijah] Labay is intense and finely honed,” Nim Wunnan writes in reviewing the premiere of Sarah Slipper’s “inventive, ambitious” Tell Me How It Ends at NW Dance Project. “It’s clear that they have studied and imagined the relationship between the characters they play, not just the choreography that brings them together. They show a remarkable fluidity of tone as they move through the squalls, doldrums, and currents of their relationship, once entering the ‘house.’ The most successful sequence involves an apple held between them, each biting down on one side. Starting with a crisp bite that is hard enough to be heard in the audience, the tactile memory of the resistance, flavor and lightness of biting into an apple fleshes out the space between the two, and gives their movements and their opposing bodies’ weight a sharp immediacy.” The program also included the “welcome return” of The Chopin Project, a suite of dances by four choreographers.
Helen Simoneau’s work in progress
June 15: “For two weeks now the dancers at Oregon Ballet Theatre have been in the studio rigorously working out new, exciting choreography by Gioconda Barbuto, Helen Simoneau, and Nicole Haskins. The three talented choreographers were selected in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX competition, an initiative specifically created to discover new women choreographers in the male-dominated ballet world.” Chiarini embedded herself in the rehearsal and interviewed Simoneau, the North Carolina-based independent choreographer and leader of her own company.
Choreography XX: Nicole Haskins stands on the merits
June 29: “Choreographer Nicole Haskins may have the solution to the “where are all the women choreographers in ballet?” problem. The dance world has been discussing this question quietly over the past ten years, but the problem has gained momentum in the more mainstream media as of late. “’I think it’s great that people are asking the question, “Where are the women?” Haskins said when we talked over coffee recently, ‘but I think that falls short of actually addressing the root problem, not even a problem, but the root reasons why there are fewer women. They’re out there. It’s not like there aren’t women out there who are choreographing, but you have to maybe look a little farther.’” Jamuna Chiarini continues her conversations with choreographers in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX project.
TBA: A dark, dead thoroughbred
Sept. 13: “They strutted in, and the room tensed with the precariousness of the situation – gaskin somehow navigating the room he could see only through the fabric over their eyes, walking on stilettos, pulling a black satin train that must have been 20 feet long. It was captivating, challenging, and incredibly effective for how simple an illusion it was. Once fully in the room, o’neal stepped down from gaskin’s shoulders, creating a centaur-like form as gaskin stayed under the trailing fabric and they moved in unison. Eventually they split to opposite corners of the room, and the lights went down after o’neal lit a hurricane lamp and a cigarette. From there the show became harder to describe, which seemed to be by design.” Nim Wunnan’s TBA festival review set readers down in the room with performers keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal.
Takahiro Yamamoto’s direct path
Sept. 16: “The first passage, as Yamamoto takes the stage, cuts between samples, sound effects, and a sudden, brief emergence of the Doogie Howser theme song (more on that later). This soundtrack, like the performance, never really comes together, but that experience of disharmony seems to be at the core of the piece. Considering the name literally, or as a koan-like algorithm, can be useful for getting one’s bearings. In the sense that a choreographed show, meant to be watched, takes a direct path to a state of performance, this piece does what it says by detouring at almost any point where it might solidify.” Nim Wunnan gets to the nub of the experience in another TBA premiere, thr final part of Yamamoto’s Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus trilogy.
Paul Taylor and White Bird, intertwined
Oct. 13: The White Bird dance series brought the Paul Taylor Dance Company to town for a sixth time, a commitment that Barry Johnson declared “a remarkable dedication to the twisty elegance, dark undercurrents and sheer fun of Taylor’s work and the talent of his dancers. This particular visit touches all those bases with a program that spans a period in Taylor’s choreography after he’d moved past youthful exuberance toward a more layered, focused art. … (I)n the analytical process, I hope neither the delight of the visual spectacle nor the bone-deep communication of the dances gets forgotten. That experience is the most important aspect of a Taylor concert, after all, and the reason that the company’s many visits to Portland make sense.”
Darkness falls, great dancing continues at NW Dance Project
Oct. 23: “There were echoes of George Orwell’s 1984 in Felix Landerer’s Post-Traumatic Monster, the opener of NW Dance Project’s fall season concert, which played Lincoln Hall over the weekend,” Heather Wisner wrote. “The piece felt industrial, edgy, dark; a little European, a little dystopian—a feeling that suffused the whole evening. … Czech choreographer Jiri Pokorny’s 2016 piece If at Some Hour You Return was similarly intense, if a little more skittish and spidery.”
At White Bird, Attractor is magnetic
Oct. 28: “Attractor could rightfully be called Condenser for how much talent is concentrated into a single show, Nim Wunnan wrote about this White Bird showcase of top Australian talent. “First we have Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek. Though partners in everyday life, they don’t collaborate professionally very often—about every six years by their own account. … Any collaboration between these two is worth noting, but joining forces with Dancenorth brings a whole new artistic dimension. Created when Ann Roberts placed $100 on the table during a public meeting because she was tired of seeing talented dancers leave Australia or gravitate to the more populous south to pursue their careers, Dancenorth has become an artistic center in Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef.” But, hold on: There was the Javanese musical duo Senywa, too – and “the musicians knock this one out of the park.”
Xuan Cheng and Ye Li’s ballet academy
Nov. 2: “Cheng said that teaching and running a school was satisfying. ‘It’s different than dancing,’ she said. ‘I feel like my life is actually very balanced. Before, I only knew ballet, ballet, ballet. Ballet is everything in my whole life. And as a dancer it’s always me, me, me, me. So during teaching it’s actually made me a better dancer. I’m also learning from the kids, too.’” Jamuna Chiarini talked with Oregon Ballet Theatre principle dancer Xuan Cheng about the Oregon International Ballet Company that she and her husband, former OBT dancer Ye Li, operate in Beaverton. They, and their students, are looking toward the future.
Close partners: Spenser Theberge, Jermaine Spivey
Nov. 15: Jamuna Chiarini interviewed Theberge, the international dancer who grew up studying dance in Portland and Vancouver, about his career, his personal and professional partnership with Spivey, and Rather This, Then, the work they developed at Disjecta in 2016 and were remounting at Reed College: “There’s something so comforting about remounting work. We know what the structure is and how the piece functions, so now we can focus on diving deeper and strengthening transitions, looking for more effective ways of communicating our points. … But because it’s an improvised piece about presence and communication, it definitely feels different. It’s like revisiting a topic of conversation a year later. We’ve learned more about our views and each other, so we can talk about it differently. It’s been exciting, using this piece as a point of reference, to realize that our emotional and physical ideas and instincts have evolved.”
White Bird’s Love, L-E-V-style
Nov. 17: “L-E-V co-artistic directors Eyal and Gai Behar have built their choreography around movement tics: jittery legs, shuddery torsos, ritualistic gestures,” Heather Wisner wrote about the Israeli company’s White Bird performance of OCD: Love. “There’s a tick-tick-ticking sound as the curtain rises on a lone dancer, her musculature accented by a stark contrast between light and shadow.” The dance, about obsessive compulsive disorder, is based on Neil Hilborn’s OCD: A Love Poem, and it moved the way Hilborn’s poem reads – “a series of repeated phrases suggesting a longing for connection and normalcy, and the agony of watching both slowly elude your grasp, despite your best efforts.”
Boundary-pushing at New Expressive Works
Dec. 19: New ideas and new work are difficult to produce in the dance world – they need champions, and a place to do it. Subashini Ganesan, who runs New Expressive Works, offers both through NEW’s resident artists program. Nim Wunnan explains: “Every six months, four choreographers (or in this case, three individuals and a team of two) are chosen for the residency program. They receive 144 hours of free rehearsal space, a modest stipend, and moderated, critical feedback in the form of Katherine Longstreth’s Fieldwork program. The works, whether they are finished or in progress, debut as 20-minute pieces at the end of the residency.” The recent ninth session included fresh work from veteran Tere Mathern; Madison Page, whose The Crack was “the standout piece of the evening”; Crystal Jikko Sasaki; and the clown dance duo Wolfbird Dance.