Donna Oefinger

DanceWatch Weekly: Tech and the beauty of dance

The tech savvy Rainbow Dance Theatre and a great performance by Butoh artist Teresa Vanderkin lead to speculations about what makes great dance

It’s raining here in Portland, a steady stream of tiny droplets creating vertical lines over a backdrop of lush green trees, waving gently in the wind against the dark gray sky. It’s a beautiful, peaceful moment. I love how Portland’s gray skies, combined with the humidity, make colors pop. People who don’t know Portland winters think it’s ALL gray and dark, but they don’t realize that without the background gray, you wouldn’t see/appreciate the color.

Right now, because of the constant bombardment of bad news from the Trump administration, I am fatigued, full of feelings, and I am actively seeking out moments of beauty and connectivity as a salve.

Last weekend I found a few of those moments when I went to see Selfie by Rainbow Dance Theatre and Timsila & the Cypress Tree by Butoh choreographer Meshi Chavez, performed by the students of his nine-week Butoh Performance intensive, Being Moved.

Selfie by Rainbow Dance Theatre. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Dance Theatre.

Selfie was choreographed by former Pilobolus dancer Darryl Thomas and former Merce Cunningham dancer Valerie Bergman for their company Rainbow Dance Theatre, which is based in Monmouth, Oregon. The dance explores the idea of self through the platform of technology and social media. They ask: Which part of us is the actually the self? The outer part, the inner part or the part we share with the world on social media?

As we entered the lobby at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, we were instructed by posters on the wall and the Rainbow Dance Theatre staff, to take photos of ourselves and text them to Once we got into the theatre, we could see our photos projected onto the scrim at the front of the stage along with hundreds of other selfies, in an orderly, side by side mosaic of multi-colored faces.

The dancing began behind this scrim, and as the dancers moved, the photos fell away, creating small frames, revealing more and more of the dancing bodies behind it.

In Selfie, an hour-long series of vignettes, the performers, through motion tracking technology, interacted with abstract, vibrantly colored, computerized images projected on the same scrim. The images included wavy red lines, circles, a giant head, and raining letters, to name a few.

The raining letters really grabbed me. From the top of the scrim, white letters cascaded down against a black background in five columns as a male dancer walked through them, carrying a push broom over his shoulder. As he “bumped” into the letters, they bounced off of him, spilling onto the floor, collecting into piles. Once he got to the other side of the stage, he turned around and swept the letters off, causing the letters to billow up into the air and float down like feathers.

There were several striking moments just like this throughout, but I didn’t feel like they were developed this well. It also wasn’t always clear to me what effect the dancers were having on the screen images and what the overall story was. The dancing, which was performed by a mix of professional dancers and dance students from Western Oregon University, combined acrobatics, contemporary dance and simple ballet steps overlaid with a circus-like performative attitude. Given the level of experimentation that the technology brought to the performance, the choreography seemed too simple and underdeveloped. Technology won the creativity challenge.

Selfie brought up a lot of questions for me around what makes “good” dancing and “good” performing. What is that thing that some performers and choreographers have that affects audiences so personally? How do they get it? Is circus and aerial work dance? Does all movement theatre fall under the category of dance? Is it just a range, a spectrum?

I polled my FaceBook friends this past week looking for the words to describe that intangible thing that we all feel when we see a special performance, but can’t easily describe.

Here’s the list of qualities that were described: heart, energetic presence, commitment, tension, awareness, authenticity, a relaxed and confident demeanor, grace, the ability to transport an audience beyond the immediate awareness of the body and present moment, the ability to transcend, to reveal and to show risk.

This leads me to Timsila & the Cypress Tree by Butoh choreographer Meshi Chavez.

Timsila & the Cypress Tree, performed at The Headwaters theatre, was also a series of small, interconnected stories with many beautiful tableaux moments. Its student performers cannot be looked at in the same light as a professional work, although Chavez makes lots of professional work as well. (For Suspended Moment, a Butoh work about the atrocities of atomic warfare coming this summer, Chavez is collaborating with visual artist Yukiyo Kawano, musician Lisa DeGrace and poet Allison Cobb.)

Teresa Vanderkin as the “Blue Woman” in Timsila & the Cypress Tree by Meshi Chavez. Photo by Greg Walters.

I can, though, talk about the performance of Teresa Vanderkin, who performed with the group and has been studying Butoh with Chavez for about seven years, and occasionally teaches for him when he is away. Vanderkin has that “thing,” that performance quality that is so hard to put into words. Her movement is never big or performative in anyway; she is relaxed onstage, deeply focused; she projects an emotional range, and she possesses an awareness and knowledge of her body that is sensitive, feeling, and porous. She can access any of these possibilities within her body at any time, to tell us a story and cause us to feel something. She is a captivating performer and deeply interesting to watch, for me.

In Timsila & the Cypress Tree she is the “Blue Woman,” a universal spirit character who breaks up the chaotic space with her directional, slow-moving walking, establishing order on the stage. When she performs, I watch her face, her hands, and her feet. All the parts are telling me something.

It isn’t enough to just be an empty moving body onstage, you have to fill it with something deep and knowing, about the body, life and the world—it’s a deep depth of body knowledge and experience performing, that makes a performance special.

This weekend, more rain, and more study on beauty of all kinds in performance.

Performances this week

Cuba Infused: Featuring Stories of Ochun the Goddess of Love
Donna Oefinger, Axé Didé music and Dance Company
February 10-12
Center Space, 420 SE 6th Ave
Directed by Donna Oefinger, owner of Center Space Studio in SE Portland, director of Axé Didé music and Dance Company, and teacher of dances from the African Diaspora, brings together dance and live music in this celebration of Cuban culture. This group of 20 performers, including Oluyinka Akinjiola, artistic director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre, Cuban master percussionist and singer Isidro Valor Perez, and Portland funk and soul musician Jans Ingber, from the band Motet, will perform an array of dances from Cuba, including the dance of Ochún, the powerful Orisha of love, guardian of fertility, and ruler of fresh waters-she is irresistible, her laughter is seductive, her dancing graceful, and her lips are sweet like honey.

Syniva Whitney/Gender Tender and Will Courtney from Seattle, will perform GUT, as part of Linda Austin’s Cabaret Boris & Natasha. Photo courtesy of Linda Austin.

Cabaret Boris & Natasha
Presented by Performance Works NW / Linda Austin Dance
February 10-11
Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave
Performance Works NW/Linda Austin Dance presents, an eclectic, cabaret-style evening of imaginative, unconventional entertainment, featuring dancers Mike Barber and Subashini Ganesan, Seattle’s Syniva Whitney/Gender Tender, oboist Catherine Lee, actor/performer Amber Whitehall, dancer Button Will, and a short piece by the famous The Boris & Natasha Dancers, all emceed by “The Greatest Entertainers Ever,” Reid Urban and David Weinberg.

PDX Contemporary Ballet, directed by Briley Neugebauer
February 10-12
CoHo Theater, 2257 NW Raleigh St
Portland’s contemporary ballet company is back with Interlude, a program of six new dance works, by six women choreographers, for six dancers. The works explore dance’s relationship to science, politics, visual art, language, comedy, and more, and will include a musical interlude by Japanese violinist Tomoki Martens.

Participating Interlude choreographers are: Hayley Glickfeld Bielman, artistic director of Necessity Arts Collective; Briley Neugebauer, Artistic Director of PDX Contemporary Ballet; Eva Stone, producer and curator of Chop Shop: Bodies of Work, an annual contemporary dance festival in Bellevue, Washington, and the Artistic Director of Stone Dance Collective; Emily Running, founder of Portland’s Dance Wire and former performer/choreographer/administrator for the aerial troupe, A.W.O.L.; M’Liss Stephenson Quinnly, founding member of Polaris Dance Theatre and current director of Polaris Junior Company and Neo Company; and Margaret Wiss, a Boston choreographer interested in the interaction between dance and science.

3 Trips: guided experiences with Keith Hennessy
A workshop
February 11, 14, and 18
New Expressive Works
810 SE Belmont Street
Exploring playing, meditating, feeling, being, and dancing, Bay Area dance artist Keith Hennessy, along with co-directors Jodi Darby, Julie Perini and Erin Yanke will facilitate a three part, guided experience—Practicing Death & Dying (workshop-experience-practice), Arresting Power (film screening and discussion), and Oil Action (creative, naked experiment in solidarity and intimacy).

For more info go to the Facebook event page. Please RSVPs to to participate. No drop-ins.

Upcoming performance

February 19, Early bird submission deadline, Portland Dance Film Fest
February 25, Civilized, Catherine Egan
February 23-26, Attention Everyone!, A-WOL Dance Collective
March 2-4, Cuisine & Confessions, Presented by White Bird
March 3, Local (not easy), Iris Erez, Presented by Reed College Dance Department
March 3-5, In Circadia, Eliza Larson
March 5, Nritya Shubha Dance Festival, Guru Smt Shubha Dhananjay, Maya Dhananjay and Mudra Dhananjay.
March 3-11, The Bacchae, PSU School of Theater + Film, choreography by Tere Mathern
March 9-11, Companhia Urbana De Danca, Presented by White Bird
March 10 – 12, TPB Studio Company Performance-Featuring dances by Anne Mueller, Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, John Clifford and guest artists from Kukátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe, The Portland Ballet
March 10-19, In The Heights, Portland Community College
March 16-18, Carmen, NW Dance Project
March 17, The Baroque Dance Project, Alice Sheu and Julie Iwasa
March 19, Duality: Dance Ballet of India, Presented by Rasika
March 19, BodyVox and Oregon Symphony collaboration performance
March 24, Shaping Sound, Travis Wall, Presented by Portland’5
March 24-25, New works by Alembic Artists Claire Barrera and Noelle Stiles, Presented by Performance Works NW / Linda Austin Dance
March 23-April1, Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble, Presented by BodyVox
April 4-5, Shen Yun, Presented by Oregon Falun Dafa Association
April 6-8, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Presented by White Bird
April 10, Noontime Showcase OBT2, Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 15, Synesthesia, BodyVox, TEDx Portland
April 15, Bridge the Gap, Presented by Sepiatonic
April 13-22, Terra, Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 14-16, New work by Jin Camou, Performance Works NW Alembic Co-Production
April 25-26, Che Malambo, Presented by White Bird
April 27-29, Contact Dance Film Festival, Presented by BodyVox and NW Film Center
April 28-29, Appalachian Spring Break, Scotty Heron and Brendan Connelly, Presented by Performance Works NW / Linda Austin Dance
May 5-7, Inclusive Arts Vibe Annual Performance, Disability Arts and Culture Project
May 10, Martha Graham Dance Company, Presented by White Bird
May 26-28, N.E.W. Residency performance, Dora Gaskill, Jessica Kelley, Stephanie Schaaf, and Kumari Suraj
May 26 – 27, Spring Concert – Tribute to the Ballet Russes, Featuring work by Michel Fokine, Tom Gold, George Balanchine, and Lane Hunter, The Portland Ballet
June 2-4, Interum Echos, PDX Contemporary Ballet
June 8-10, Summer Splendors, NW Dance Project
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans

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