DanceWatch Weekly: Interview with “Interview with a Zombie”

An interview with the Jim McGinn, choreographer for "Interview with a Zombie," Galaxy Dance Festival, Butoh and a bomb, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre NW and more.

Are you afraid of zombies but really like dance? If that’s you, take a friend for support to Interview with a Zombie, opening Friday night, by Portland choreographer Jim McGinn. McGinn describes the show as “a peek into some possible future of post-human adaptation to changing environmental and biological landscapes.” Interview with a Zombie probes our response to pervading uncertainty by asking questions such as: what are the neo-neurobiologies that we shall soon inhabit? From artificial intelligence to supplemental mobility, how are we preparing for our survival? Who are the untouchables in our lives, and what possible paths of redemption are acceptable? Join in this dance as we create some strange new religion for our future.”

McGinn is the artistic director of Top Shake Dance and has been a staple in the Portland dance community for more than 20 years. He has performed with Linda Austin, Catherine Egan, Keith V. Goodman, Linda K. Johnson, Carla Mann, Mary Oslund, and Tere Mathern, and has created many works of his own.

At this point I should describe McGinn’s previous work to you, but that feels like an impossibility. I don’t see him continuing with a constant choreographic thread of an idea from one piece to another. Instead I see brand new ideas emerging in every new work that require a new environment to exist in and a new way of moving the body through it. Interview with a Zombie is no different. All I can say is, expect the unexpected.

To help suss out the meaning behind Interview with a Zombie and get a deeper look into McGinn’s creative process, I interviewed him via email. That conversation unfolds below.

Also happening this weekend is the Galaxy Dance Festival, an annual, multi-day festival produced by Polaris Dance Theatre that features a wide selection of free dance classes and performances by a variety of dance companies from around the Northwest. It’s outside, at Director Park in downtown Portland.

Performances this week

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Jim McGinn in “Interview with a Zombie.” Photo courtesy of Top Shape Dance.

Interview with a Zombie
Top Shake Dance directed by Jim McGinn
Featuring Kelly Koltiska, Celeste Olivares, Dustin Ordway, and Rachel Slater
August 5-12
New Expressive Works, 810 S.E. Belmont St.

See below.


Photo of “Little Boy (folded) #2” by Yukiyo Kawano. Choreography Kaoru Okumura, Green Lake, WA, 2015. Photo by William Alan.

Suspended Moment
Butoh Performance featuring Yukiyo Kawano, Meshi Chavez and Lisa DeGrace
7-9 pm August 5 (performance at 8 pm)
Oregon Society of Artists, 2185 S.W. Park Place

As part of a week-long exhibition of artwork reflecting on our nuclear legacies, visual artist Yukio Kawano, butoh dancer Meshi Chavez, and composer and performance artist Lisa DeGrace will perform a work focusing on Kawano’s sculpture Little Boy, a hanging installation in the shape of an atom bomb created from Kawano’s grandmothers’ kimonos and woven with Kawano’s hair. Suspended Moment is a participatory storytelling project that connects audiences with the living experiences of those whose voices have been silenced throughout history. Kawano is a third-generation hibakusha, or nuclear bomb survivor, who grew up in Hiroshima decades after the bombing.

Polaris Dance Theatre2_Photo by Mary Overman

Polaris Junior Company performing at the Galaxy Dance festival. Photo courtesy of Polaris Dance Theatre.

Galaxy Dance Festival
Produced by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 4-6
11-6:30 pm Free classes and performances daily
Director Park, 815 S.W. Park Ave.

Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre, this three-day, family-friendly, community oriented festival features a variety of free dance classes and performances in the beautiful outside setting at Director Park in downtown Portland. Check Polaris’s online schedule for the full lineup of events.

Performing dance companies will be: Polaris Dance Company, Polaris Junior Company, 3rd Shift Dance, AWOL Dance Collective, Boyeurism, The Circus Project, Dance for Fitness, ELXR Dance Company, Fired-up Dance Academy, The Fuse Dance Force, Northwest Conservatory of Dance, NW Fusion Dance Company, PDX Dance Collective, and r:ad.

Double Difference
Linda K. Johnson and Linda M. Wysong
Opening reception 6 pm August 6
Indivisible Gallery, 2544 SE 26th Ave.

In this gallery exhibit, Portland dance artist Linda K. Johnson and Linda M. Wysong, an environmental design and social practice artist, continue a 25-year, collaborative dialogue revolving around Portland’s layered and ever-changing landscape.


“No Stopping” by Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre NW at the Taylor Electric Supply Company. Photo courtesy of Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre.

No Stopping
Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre NW
Featuring Nicholas Petrich, Erin DeLaney, Kiel Edward Boston Motion and Jen Hackworth.
August 4-6
Taylor Electric Supply Company, 240 S.E. Clay St.

Four dancers will inhabit the burned-out, beautifully graffitied remains of the old Taylor Electric Building, drawing attention to the unexpected and bringing it back to life once more. The dancing will be accompanied by the music of Tim DuRoche and Brent Woodson Smith.

Pure Surface
Featuring Samiya Bashir, Julie Perini and Rosana Ybarra
7 pm August 7
Valentines, 232 S.W. Ankeny St.

Curated by Stacey Tran and Danielle Ross, Pure Surface is a performance series that encourages cross-disciplinary practice and performance by bringing together movement, text and film in the spirit of improvised collaboration. Each month a new group of artists is brought together in the intimate, open-air setting of Valentine’s, and performance is made. This month’s artists are poet Samiya Bashir, filmmaker Julie Perini, and interdisciplinary artist Rosana Ybarra.

Upcoming performances

August 12, Summer Dance Intensive Showing, NW Dance Project
August 12-15, JamBallah NW, presented by Narcissa Productions LLC and Marissa Mission
August 25-September 11, Visiting Alembic Artist Margit Galanter, Performance Works NW
September 8-18, TBA: 16, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Interview with Jim McGinn

Please talk about your non-dance work and how it influences your dance making.

I tend to make dances about things in life that amuse me which have nothing to do with dance. I have never made a dance about dance, perhaps because I might not be expert enough in the field of dance to take on a dance about dance project. Or perhaps I am simply more amused by ideas outside the dance world than ideas inside the dance world. Since starting to dance in my 30s I have invested time into dance and so that seems to be my current go-to medium for expressing performative ideas.

I view my dance-making in three separate phases. Phase one is the conceptual development where ideas compete; phase two, the generation of movement material; and phase three, the shaping, orchestration, and dramaturgy that leads to a final product. My non-dance experiences dominate most of the process of dance-making for me. My greatest single influence for dance-making comes from my interest in opera. While I have no training in opera, I am a huge fan, as is my wife. I watch opera from a composer’s perspective, somehow gaining tools which inform my dance-making. Therefore, phases one and three of my dance-making, which are the conceptual development of a performative work, and the shaping orchestration, and dramaturgy are most influenced by the tools I learn through watching opera. However, I suppose one could learn those skills via the study of any performative art.

My main influence for phase two, the generation of movement material, is dominated by my past history in sports and other non-dance activity. This movement history comes through in my improvisation and gets imprinted in my dance-making. movement looks sort of dance-ish because it gets filtered through the dance ocular. Other non-dance movement influences abundant in my dance-making include amusement rides, cartoon characters, and the rodeo. Among many others, movement sourced from golem, cowboys, and cowgirls appear frequently in my dance-making. By contrast, one rare dance influence upon my dance making is the Charleston, which also frequently appears in my dances and is used quite extensively in IwaZ (Interview with a Zombie).

004 TSD Kelly Koltiska

Kelly Koltiska in “Interview with a Zombie.” Photo courtesy of Top Shape Dance.

How did Interview with a Zombie manifest and develop? What is your choreographic process like?

IwaZ developed out of an ongoing train of conversations between my wife, Jamie Bluhm, and I on futurist subjects which are perhaps the common questions of our times that many if not most people are discussing. Living in a time of accelerating climate change, increased pollution, and more powerful drugs, along with the increased use of personal electronics, drives home the basic questions of human adaptability which are often forefront in our conversations. Some prevalent discussion subtopics for Jamie and me have included, among many others, the cults of body modification, becoming invisible to society, the lines between the grotesque and obscene, and the desire to leave an edifice in the wake of life. Hence, just as futurist thinkers, writers, and filmmakers expend a life career within their niche fields, I or any other choreographer could easily spend a lifetime creating futurist dances. So, one step at a time, we have tried to carve out a limited chunk of ideas to place into this work. With more of an emphasis upon intended body modification, unintended physical adaptation, and group behavior modification we embarked on IwaZ, where we have chosen the zombie as the symbolic archetype of our future adaptations. Inside of IwaZ we have created our own human altered environment, or by its fancy name, an anthropocene. And such is the setting of most zombie films and science fiction. Hence this dance is set clearly into a double cliché, first the cliché of the vastly prevalent zombie films and second, the cliché common to young dancers who make a zombie dance, then quickly learn not to do that again. I am pleased that we chose to step firmly into cliché rather than hide behind a façade of abstraction.

The IwaZ choreographic process was common to most of my projects and is as follows: I read, write, and think about the concepts when out of the studio, which provides a framework for working while in the studio. I develop most of my material by improvisational movement that prolifically bursts forth in the studio. I work about six days per week alone in the studio in 1.5 hour sessions resulting in approximately 7-13 seconds of movement per session that I video-bank. Every few months I review that video bank. Over time I start to understand the conceptually unique movement vocabulary, and that gives me a foothold into the refinement and real development appropriate to the concepts. About 50% of the material developed makes it into the final product. Then I spend several months refining the vocabulary until I then codify the set of principles that are specific to and define the vocabulary. While I require my dances to have a clearly specific and idiosyncratic movement vocabulary that is custom developed for the particular project, I am not disciplined enough to stay purely within that as I tend to add many layers to the material which support by reference but may not be strictly adherent to the movement vocabulary that was specifically custom-created for this project. Using this method I build phrase material over time that I then teach to the Top Shake Dance dancers. I often give the dancers developmental projects to modify the material along prescribed lines to further shape the choreographic look. I do my own orchestration and sometimes my wife, Jamie, helps me with dramaturgy but she was not available to dramaturg IwaZ. Ultimately, I do listen to the dancers as they are the best guide to what is working and what is not working.

Having said all this, it may be useful to point out that I really do not care much about performing or even seeing the work fully realized. My main passion in movement is really about the process of working in the studio and solving choreographic challenges.

Could you help us understand in layman’s terms what you are getting at in each of these sentences that you wrote and are they actual concerns of yours or are you having fun/playing around? Is finding a new religion really the solution, and what does that look like?

Interview with a Zombie is a peek into some possible future of post-human adaptation to changing environmental and biological landscapes.”

IwaZ is set at some time in the future. Characters in the dance are mostly human inasmuch as they have the recognizable four limbs. However the limbs and other body parts are morphed into less functional or differently functional entities and are not always used for the more normal contemporary pedestrian purposes. Over the 18 months that we have been working on this, perhaps a majority of that time has been learning to navigate these new movement modalities. There is a stage set that I created that is loaded with symbolism, some obvious, some less obvious, but speaks to the future, to a decay of the past civilizations, and to the dawn of a new environment. Furthermore, the stage set serves a pivotal role as an interactive behavioral modifying landscape. Saying anything more would require a spoiler alert. This statement is meant to calibrate the audience expectation that they will be entering one idea of a futuristic vision.

005 TSD Dustin Ordway left Kelly Koltiska right

Dustin Ordway and Kelly Koltiska in “Interview with a Zombie.” Photo courtesy of Top Shake Dance.

Interview with a Zombie probes our response to pervading uncertainty by asking questions such as: what are the neo-neurobiologies that we shall soon inhabit?”

Knowing in advance that this dance is occurring in the summer of 2016 amidst what could be a destabilizing national U.S. election, sharing its opening night with the Rio Olympics, in which competitors have refused to attend due to the Zika virus, and with climate change accelerating at a furious pace, I wanted to share with the audience that pervading uncertainty has always been the main backdrop of the creation of this piece. The above-mentioned discussions between Jamie and me have been in response to the pervading uncertainties of this time. IwaZ traces some sort of path from uncertainty to neurology shown by movement, lighting, and costume. But I cannot say any more without issuing a spoiler alert.

“From artificial intelligence to supplemental mobility, how are we preparing for our survival?”

Supplemental mobility has been beautifully treated in full-length works by Marie Chouinard and perhaps others. IwaZ takes a different approach, as will be obvious to the viewer, where choreographic exercises were used to generate this movement material. While these are some of my favorite portions of the dance, I have tried to not overuse them. Someday I could easily imagine myself going deep into supplemental mobility dance-making. Always an inspiration to me was the David Cronenberg film Crash in which a body modification cult staged automobile accidents, causing significant disfigurement leading to the implementation of prosthetic devices. I sometimes like to promote my thinking that those who are leaders of extreme body modification are paving the way for new modalities of human, or if you wish, post-human survival.

Fast on the heels of advanced prosthetics for supplemental mobility are implantables leading to a next wave of artificial intelligence. IwaZ briefly gives a faint nod to this new realm, which may or may not be noticed by the audience. IwaZ could be viewed as a veiled threat to someday take the stage with implanted dancers engaged in direct computer-to-brain-driven movement instructions.

003 TSD Kelly Koltiska left Celeste Olivares right

Kelly Koltiska and Celeste Olivares in “Interview with a Zombie.” Photo courtesy of Top Shake Dance.

“Who are the untouchables in our lives, and what possible paths of redemption are acceptable?”

Spoiler alert, there is a spoken word section of IwaZ and the references to this portion were to be discussed within the spoken word monologue. However, just this week, I chose to skip the long-winded spoken word essay.

“Join in this dance as we create some strange new religion for our future.”

As previously mentioned in one of the above questions I stated that “… the desire to leave an edifice in the wake of life” has been one of the discussion subjects of Jamie and me. In my view, IwaZ draws a weak squiggly line from that edifice as the establishment of a belief system (religion) to a new path of redemption. If a religion is created to achieve a particular outcome, which never materializes, then a new religion must be created to achieve the newly different outcome. If the zombie is considered as an attempt at an eternal life, then we must have rules and a religion for the zombies and a new view of redemption. As I see the work come together I am amazed by the strong cooperation among the dancers and all the collaborators who have taken on this concept and made it a cohesive and beautiful dance.

While I have been the principal conceptual developer, director, choreographer etc, I should point out that the full realization of this project has been a group effort with the following acknowledgments:

Erin Zintek and Alicia Cutaia have played a major role in the development of this work. Joanna Hardy has been a super understudy. The nine studio facilities that have hosted Top Shake Dance during the past 18 months of this project development include: Conduit Dance, New Expressive Works/Studio2, Trip the Dark, Polaris Dance, BodyVox, Hand to Mouth Theatre/Shout House, Multnomah Athletic Club, Matt Dishman Community Center, and Peninsula Park Community Center. Getting the stage set from a CAD model to a reality has been accelerated by Dustin Ordway and Kiel Price. Chris Balo has designed and hand-built many crafty wireless controlled gizmos. Heather Treadway really linked the ideas together with her hand-painted costumes. Most importantly the dancers of TopShakeDance have excelled for 18 months of rehearsals, shedding their skin and wrestling with uncertainty: Kelly Koltiska, Celeste Olivares, Dustin Ordway, and Rachel Slater.

2 Responses.

  1. Jan Driscoll says:

    What an interesting, descriptive account of a person’s work! Jim shares the most articulate demonstration of his astonishing creative process in a way that is delightful to any thoughtful reader! Thank you, Jim!
    I am so sorry that I will miss this show!

  2. Leila says:

    What a well written article! Interesting and informative stuff!

Comments are closed.

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