“Soror Mystica” review: breaking the frame

ParaTheatrical ReSearch's ritualistic production is and isn't a performance

My invite says “please arrive no later than 7:45” for this 8 pm performance, but when I walk into the intimate little performance space at 7:44 they’ve already started. Five dancers—four in all white (The Chaos Sisters, embodied by Memorie Eden, Maple Holmes, Lindsay Reich, and Faye Dylan) and one in fuligin with matching mask (Aether, incarnated by Bryan Smith)—sprawl around the floor, stretching their bodies, doing breathing exercises, probably meditating and visualizing red triangles and whatnot. I remember seeing Grotowski’s indelible name in connection with Antero Alli, perpetrator of tonight’s performance, and my mind goes to Artaud and Brecht. I realize that I’ve been played. When does the show start? Hey man, it never ended. I’ll bet they started warming up on the dance floor before they even opened the doors. We join our story already in progress.

“Soror Mystica” runs through Sunday night in Portland. Photo: A. Alli.

I take a seat, then another. My boots squeak, the floor creaks, I feel terrible for interrupting the performance. Oops, there goes that pesky frame. What performance? They’re just warming up. A static image of some kind of medieval amphitheater enlivens the screen behind the dancers, bracketed by bare branches hanging over candles on columns at the edge of the dance floor. Music that sounds more or less like Hildegard’s plays over the speakers. People trickle in. They keep silent. They prepare themselves physically and spiritually— as I have—for the Work, which is about to commence.


Spinning gold: an evening of ‘Alchemy’

The future arrives: a six-pack of contemporary dance by choreographers in their 20s

As the crowd files in for the opening night of the dance show “Alchemy” at the Northwest Dance Project studios on Friday, everyone’s handed a little square of silver glitter paper to pin to their shirts: at some to-be-determined time, the audience will shimmer.

“Alchemy,” which repeats Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 7-8, is the latest independent production by NDP dancer Lindsey Mathies, who first dipped her feet into the producing waters in January with a refreshing and invigorating two-program roundup of independent pieces called “(a)merging 2013.” That pair of shows was an engaging experiment in the new and the experienced, a cross-fertilization of Portland talent in an intimate and accessible atmosphere.


“Alchemy” is more of the same but with some different faces and a little sharper focus. Once again, without being entirely bowled over by originality, I found myself enjoying the program’s vitality and variety very much. In addition to her dancing skills, Matheis is proving herself a savvy and welcome behind-the-scenes addition to the city’s percolating dance scene: “Alchemy” provides a punch of youth and a chance for a host of good dancers to take on the challenge of creating dances. Like so many independent projects these days, the program is partly funded through crowd-sourcing: it exists because people want it to exist.

All six of the featured choreographers – Matheis; Jeff George of BodyVox-2; independent dancer/choreographer Rachel Slater; NDP dancer Patrick Kilbane; dancer and photographer Chris Peddecord; Polaris/hip hop/Brazilian dancemaker Jocelyn Edelstein – are in their 20s, and in this program all six are dealing, at least metaphorically or tangentially, with the idea of spinning something into gold.

In other words, “Alchemy” is something of a primer on the future of dance in Portland, or at least a few interesting slices of the future. These dancers and dancemakers seem completely comfortable in a world with few rigid walls. Pop, classical, oldies and alt music slide easily together. Ballet, contemporary, and physical theater do the same. Ideas are ideas, movements are movements, and whatever works works. Following a long tradition in the dance world (Broadway hoofers are called “gypsies” for their ease in shifting from show to show), dancers from different companies mix it up easily with one another. A kind of creative chaos reigns, but it’s deceptive: things might feel loosey-goosey, but the evening’s flow is actually carefully, and often wittily, arranged.

The audience is supposed to feel a little loosey-goosey, too. Matheis has come up with a few tricks to gently nudge the crowd out of the concert-in-a-cloister mindset and into more of a night-on-the-town mood. Program cards are stuck inside books sitting on each of the 80-odd chairs, which are lined two rows deep on all four sides of the center stage, forming a loose box with aisles at each corner. All of the books have something to do with gold. Mine is “The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy,” by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart (Continuum, 2008). The historian-author appears to have a taste for the occult and macabre: one of his other titles is “Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth-Century Scotland.” On either side of me, the books seem a tad lighter: “Churchill’s Gold,” by James Follett (“Author of the Wotan Warhead”); “Cat in a Vegas Gold Vendetta,” by Carole Nelson Douglas (“A Midnight Louie Mystery”).

As the crowd is settling in, a pre-performance keeps the energy at a low buzz: it’s like instrumentalists woodshedding in the band room before rehearsal. Dancers in various casual dress are shuffling about, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups (including at least one huddled group hug), twirling, turning, rearranging empty chairs or sometimes balancing precariously on them. At one point the speakers blare out the Andrews Sisters’ “Accentuate the Positive.” This may or may not be meant to be ironic. I choose to think not, and the general tone of the evening as it unfolds tends to bear that out.

It’s a little tough paying strict attention to all of this amid the general preshow melee, but that may well be the point: inject a slight sense of anarchy into what can often be a staid and formulaic social gathering. “Welcome. Welcome. Continue. Oh my God,” the loudspeaker proclaims, and then breaks into canned laughter. Onstage, a performer speaks – “Spider!” – and then clams up.

Into this gentle mayhem six woman dancers wander, bringing a more precise and coordinated flow of movement with them, and I realize the program proper has begun: it’s George’s “I wander” (dancers: Tracy Carboneau, Melissa Framiglio, Carlyn Hudson, BodyVox-2’s Anna Marra, Cait Powers, Kara Girod Shuster), a fluid, dreamy, neoromantic piece that’s lulling and rather sweet. After a bit a seventh woman dancer appears, wearing cutoffs and wrapped loosely in long strands of string. Someone somewhere begins to whistle “You Are My Sunshine,” and the six navy-blue dancers, who’ve landed on the stage, wake up and rise. They start to pluck strings from No. 7’s body. Three more stringed dancers arrive, also in cutoffs and tank tops, and the navy-blues discreetly melt away.

We’ve moved on to Slater’s “West Rising,” a quirky and inventive piece, yearning and echo-like and lightly mythic. The four bestringed dancers – Slater, Suzanne Chi, Julia Ostrovskaia, Briley Neugebauer – bounce from toe to shoulder, reach, lean, glide. They wear an air of detached astonishment. At one point they take off from the center and circle the audience from the outside, like cowpokes nestling a lasso over a heifer, or actors racing backstage to enter opposite, except there is no backstage: we can see everything that’s going on. The navy-blue dancers come back, discreetly sweeping the string dancers off the stage: time for something new.

rachel west rising

That turns out to be Matheis’s “Stand Tall,” a broken-narrative, physical-theater piece with a touch of new-vaudeville flavor that’s reminiscent of some of Robin Lane’s work for Do Jump! A piece about male self-stereotypes, it ends up being probably my favorite of the evening, partly because it doesn’t take itself overly seriously as a big statement and partly for the way it embraces theatrical movements as dance. The piece begins at a tiny dressing table, where a performer sits and compulsively shaves his face with an electric razor. Over and over and over the razor goes, razing the jawline smooth. The narrator drops in and out: “Basically I was a complete jock.” Marine Corps. Advertising sales. “I stagnated.” “And about 10 years ago, my life changed.” The performers – Chris Cogell, Chase Hamilton, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Adam Hartley and Michael Linsmeier – make big long leaps, challenging the limits of the intimate space. They’re muscular and aggressive and graceful. They burst into grunts and tribal/football chants. Boogah. The narrator has a change of heart. “Chakras, circles, all kinds of stuff.” Briefcases emerge. It’s all about testosterone and male expectations and balancing the aggressive and the emotional. And it’s done with enough wit to keep it off the soap box and away from the drums in the woods and within the realm of wry, smart entertainment.

“Midas & Marigold,” choreographed by Kilbane with his solo performer, Megan McCarthy, updates the tale of the king with the fatal touch of gold and his daughter, who is returned to human form with the aid of the wine god Dionysus. McCarthy, a little birdlike, a little techno, is glittery-gold from the shoulders up, a subtle merging of metal and flesh. She makes jerky robot moves, like a statue awakening, and at one point she reaches out with a single finger and lightly touches someone in the audience, who seems unsure what to do. The piece makes me think, just a bit, of the glorious exaggerations of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”

The testosterone guys show up again with their briefcases, followed by three women in party hats and those curled-up cardboard-and-paper party toys that shoot out like a frog’s tongue when you blow into them (I discover later that in the party-favor racket they’re officially called “blowouts”). The night moves on to Peddecord’s “Atras” (in Spanish, “behind” or “in back of”), performed by  Neugebauer, NDP’s Samantha Campbell, and Matheis, who is subbing on Friday night for Katie Staskow, who has taken ill. It’s a playful piece, a little arch, a little insouciant, with musical cues from The Beach Boys (“God Only Knows”) and Cyndi Lauper and various vaguely calliope sounds from the Mexican electronica composer Murcof. If girls really just want to have fun, they seem to be giving it a go.

And finally (not that things have been lagging: this thing’s swift) the evening breaks into “A Thousand Pieces,” Edelstein’s piece for dancers Ucce Agada and Hanna Winters – an embrace and avoidance, a counting of many pebbles, a clear jar rattling with pent-up memories. A release: she smashes the jar to the floor, and the pebbles splay out across the stage. From the sidelines all of the evening’s previous performers emerge, drop to their knees, and begin to gather the pebbles again and place them back in the jar. Nothing shattered, nothing gained. The mood shifts: it’s a celebration.

As I work my way to the exit I realize I never noticed any shimmer from those silver squares of glitter paper pinned to the audience’s chests. Ah, well. Things were shimmery enough onstage. Plenty of shake, too. Catch it if you can.


Final performances are 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 7 and 8 (pre-shows 7:30) at Northwest Dance Project Studio, 833 N. Shaver St. Ticket info here.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives