Interview: Linda Austin celebrates 15 years at Performance Works NW

Linda Austin talks about how her experimental dance style developed in New York and moved to Portland

This Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of performer Linda Austin’s community space and home, Performance Works NorthWest. Austin is a dancer, choreographer and performance artist who has been making dances for many years and works tirelessly to provide opportunities for other artists, so the occasion is auspicious. In celebration, there will be a raucous Anniversary Party/Fundraiser (check out the pinball trailer on the website) at her space off Southeast Foster Road, featuring Pinball games, tamales, beer, performative toasts, naming rights auction (for the right price you could give the middle names to her two cats Delaney and Delilah), a raffle, and a reunion of thirteen alumni from the Boris and Natasha dancers (“the greatest, mostly male, untrained, all awkward dance troupe in the universe”). It’s a party not to be missed.

What I love the most about Austin is how accessible, supportive and easy to talk to she is. In celebration of her celebration, I wanted to learn more about her and share it with you. Here is my conversation via email with Linda Austin.

Linda AustinWhere are you originally from? What is your connection to Portland?
I was born and grew up in Medford, Oregon. My first stint in Portland was as a Lewis & Clark College student 1972-1976.

Did you want to be a performing artists as a child? Is this the life you imagined?
It was only one of my imaginary lives. Others were writer, teacher, astronaut.

Were you a practicing artist here in Portland before moving to New York City?
No. I was in college studying theater at L & C and left for NYC a couple months after graduating.

What took you to NYC?
I had spent a three months in NYC studying and going to theater as part of an L&C program. A friend and I who had both been on the New York trip decided to move there–kind of just a whim, with no definite plans. At that point I was more interested in writing than performing, hadn’t considered dance as a path because I had never studied dance. Dance was something I fell into (in love with?) after moving to NYC.

How did you get started dancing there? What was it like?
I got involved with what was then called the “downtown dance scene” largely through taking workshops at Movement Research, whose programs carry on and extend the legacy of Judson experimentation. My involvement with MR started in the early ‘80s, and I ended up throughout the years being presented many times in their free Monday series at Judson Church, being an MR artist-in-residence, having a residency in Mexico City via an MR exchange program in the ‘90s, writing for the Performance Journal two or three times, and also co-editing one of the issues.

I remember my first two composition workshops probably 1982 or 83: one with Wendy Perron, who was writing about dance for Soho Weekly News at the time and making her own work, which I admired; and another with Susan Rethorst, another person whose work has always intrigued. Wendy went on to edit Dance Magazine for many years and continues to write. Susan still makes inspiring work, teaches and has written a fascinating book called A Choreographic Mind informed by examinations of her own process and years of teaching.

Through participating in workshops, I began to be invited to perform in others’ work (Yoshiko Chuma, Pooh Kaye and Sally Silvers) and, in 1983, to create a work of my own. I was inspired by colleagues who were just a little “ahead” of me or just beginning to make work just as I was, all of them freely extending the notions of dance material and structures. In addition to the names already mentioned, Yvonne Meier, Jennifer Monson, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Dancenoise (which just had a Whitney retrospective) were folks whose work and/or friendship inspired. It was a great time, because organizations like PS 122 were still young and more accessible to the artists around them. Also in the early ‘80s there was a very active and new visual art scene in the East Village as well as events at clubs throughout downtown Manhattan like Danceteria, the Palladium, and Club 57 that mixed up music, art and performance.

What was it like to write about dance? What did you write about for the Performance Journal?
One article I wrote for the Travel Issue was about my experiences living and dancing in Mexico, grappling with how to work in a context that felt quite alien both culturally and aesthetically. For a later issue, maybe in 1996, called “Fame” I was co-editor. Here is the intro I wrote.

What else did you do in NYC?
Worked in restaurants at first, got a Master’s in teaching English as a Second Language, began teaching ESL part time at LaGuardia Community College, began attending a movement improvisation group through an actor who had been a teacher at L&C for a year, and later began taking other dance workshops and training. A very tiny bit of Cunningham, classes with Trisha Brown company members and lots of MR workshops of course: improvisation, including Contact Improvisation, composition, release techniques. My work was presented at Danspace Project, P.S. 122 and a series called Dance in Progress at the Kitchen, as well as several self-produced gigs and in the usual galleries, clubs, parks, etc. I was curator for a year of a Sunday afternoon improvisation series at PS 122 called Hothouse. After a show at PS 122 in 1992 funded by a NYFA Fellowship, I left to spend a year and a half in Mexico, returning in 1994 and then moving back to Portland in 1998.

What was it like to go to Mexico the first time for the residency? Who was it with? What was the artistic climate like? What is it like now, comparatively?
Actually the first time I went, it was just on my own. That’s when I stayed for close to two years in Morelia and when I organized a shared evening of dance before I left. Later, in the spring of 1998, I had my residency in Mexico City hosted by a company called Tiempo de Bailar, directed by Vicente Silva. At that time improvisational approaches and the sort of somatic investigations and alternative techniques so common in my NYC scene were just being disseminated in Mexico. It turns out the teachings of Nancy Topf, who made a visit to NYC when I was first in Mexico in 1993, became a big influence on a number of teacher/practitioners. Coming back years later I could really see how a younger generation of dancers were much less Graham or Limon influenced and experienced in release techniques, etc.

In Morelia, in the 1992-94 period I danced with a group headed by a young choreographer named Cardiela Amezcua, who now works for the Michoacán Secretary of Culture and is in charge of the dance and theatre, organizing, among other duties, the festival I took part in this year.

What brought you back to Portland?
I had bought an apartment on 7th Street and Avenue C in the East Village for $2000 in 1978. The whole 6-story walkup was bought by a group of us for $48,000. In those days I remember going to sleep often to the acrid smell of smoke from landlords burning down buildings, cab drivers sometimes too scared to drive me to my home at night because of the ‘hood’s bad rep, and indeed getting mugged (with no violence, however) on my doorstep and apartment getting robbed, etc. With the crazy rise of the area’s popularity later on (gentrification) the property became more valuable, way more valuable, and I started getting antsy about the idea of how I could translate that value into space enough to dance, which would mean moving from NYC, and in my mind, likely back to Portland.

At around that time, 1997, I ran into Jeff Forbes on one of my trips back to Portland to see friends and family. We had been on a lighting crew together at L&C! The cross-country romance that ensued was the final nudge into making my dream of space and moving away from NYC a reality, though it hurt to give up my NYC identity. I sold my apartment for less than market value so a friend could buy it in 1998, drove cross-country in a rented van with Jeff in the middle of winter, and arrived in Portland Christmas Day. After paying debts, taxes and being unemployed for a few months, I still had enough socked away for a $50K down payment.

When did you buy your current building?
June 2000, after looking for about a year.

Linda Austin's collaboration with David Eckard, 'Three Trick Pony,' at the TBA Festival, 2013/Photo by Chelsea Petrakis

Linda Austin’s collaboration with David Eckard, ‘Three Trick Pony,’ at the TBA Festival, 2013/Photo by Chelsea Petrakis

What are your plans for PWNW? For you?
Right now we are planning to continue a recent focus on artist residencies for both local and visiting artists. As well, we are looking towards how to sustain PWNW’s activities into the future. Until recently their was no paid staff. Now I get paid a small monthly stipend that probably works out to about $7 an hour. We are in the final year of three years of generous funding from a Richard Rauschenberg SEED grant. We need to both replace this funding and find other avenues of support, so that our programs can continue to thrive. In the past all extra money went to artists, and in such small amounts! It was with a bit of reluctance at first that I asked for money as an administrator. But who will take this on when I can do it no longer without it being a fairly recompensed job?

I also for years have entertained dreams of expanding/upgrading the space. But going through that kind of giant money-raising process and then the buildout would mean sacrificing a chunk of perhaps my final years as a practicing artist. Or at least that is a fear. Maybe an unfounded one. Maybe I will stay active into my 90s like Anna Halprin and Merce Cunningham. But with the recent death of family members, including a younger sister, in the past few years, it’s hard not to focus on how I want to spend my time and the feeling of a limited future. There’s already too many hours at the computer. But thanks to the RACC Fellowship, I took the leap of retiring a few years early from my Portland Community College ESL teaching job and so only have two jobs now instead of three. I now “only” run PWNW pretty much single-handedly, and I make my work. And speaking of single-handed, another goal is to have another person on staff. Ultimately we want a structure so that PWNW can carry on past my own involvement, a change I hope is not for many years yet.

What keeps you motivated as an artist to keep making new works?
Maybe it’s not fame, but wanting to share something of my perceptions of the world. Having company in looking at what I want to look at. Also dance as I create it, do it, is both implicated in, yet resistant to, the patterns of “normal” discourse and meaning-making.

What is it that you are interested in or investigating through your work?
What I said above is part of it. It changes a lot from private investigations of body/space/time to dealing with both autobiography and social/political resonances. Right now I am working out (therapeutically) my deep habitual need for private autonomy vs. another need to blur the boundaries of the individual self.


Performance Works NorthWest Anniversary Party takes place at 7 pm, August 15, Performance Works NorthWest, 4625 SE 67th Ave.

Another interview with Austin is online at Stance on Dance as part of a series of interviews called “The Dancing Over 50 Project.”

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