Jen Hackworth

Dance+: The more we dance together…

They were dancing in unison at the first Dance+ festival program

Because it was a warm day on Thursday, I took the elevator to Conduit’s fourth floor studio to catch the first program in this year’s installment of the Dance+ festival. Most of the people in line with me seemed to understand that the warmth would likely extend to the studio itself, so they dressed down and dressed cool. I did, too, and you’d be advised to do the same as temperature rise this weekend…because I think you will enjoy what’s happening on the dance floor. Fortunately, official word is that floor air conditioners are on the way to buttress the ceiling fans.

I’m going to describe specifically (and briefly!) the four pieces I saw in a moment. But first a word about unison dancing, when two or more dancers are dancing the same steps, either at the same time or serially (maybe as part of a little movement “round”). Unison dancing is a core tool for choreographers for lots of reasons: At the beginning of a dance it can establish the movement vocabulary of the piece, for example; it can emphasize a certain passage; it can provide a thesis for further movement antithesis to play against, even it just involves some independent solos. We could go on!


For me, unison dancing can have other effects that are harder to explain, less technical and more atmospheric or subtextual or…something. For example, a lot of dance feels somehow “utopian” to me: In an ideal world we all meet each other and know our parts, when to partner and when to solo, and in solidarity we might start dancing together in unison. The underlying power of those disco scenes in Saturday Night Live was the almost tribal sense of connection the dancers had. Country line dancing has a similar effect.

Even in modern dance, which often seeks to describe or convey the effects of our dystopian world, I find a model for a better world: we’re all fit and agile and know what to do. And yes, unison dancing underscores that sense. It also factors into the erotics of dance, for me, but that’s a subject that takes more time and thought than I have available at the moment! But never fear, the erotic comes up in at least two of the dances in Dance+. And all of them had lots of unison dancing in one form or another.

Enough preamble: For Dance+ we have four dances, each less than 20 minutes, performed by small ensembles, often the result of a deep collaboration between a choreographer and another artist (composer or set designer, for example). And actually, the first piece on the program wasn’t a performance at all, it was a computer-animated video.

Black Friday; Parking Lot Dance II/Paul Clay and Todd Barton
Video artist Clay projected Black Friday onto one large central and two smaller flanking screens, starting it on the parking lot of a Target store before Black Friday shopping day, assembling a crowd of humans (who all look the same), sending the masses into the red mist melee inside the store, and then gathering them for a celebratory and, yes, tribal and, yes, unison “dance” at the end. I don’t know why I put parentheses around that dance: It was choreographed, an eerie intersection of the robotic and the naturally human. I’ve been syncopating my arm movements differently since seeing it!

I probably don’t have to underscore the theme, but maybe I should mention that Clay and composer Barton’s take on consumer culture is genuinely clever and looks and sounds great.

Jen Hackworth's "Beast," sculpture by Meghann Gilligan/Photo by Meghann Gilligan

Jen Hackworth’s “Beast,” sculpture by Meghann Gilligan/Photo by Meghann Gilligan

Beast/Jen Hackworth and Meghann Gilligan
Gilligan created the props for Beast, specifically a long red boa-like object, a black bird/dragon headdress, and a white geometric “sail,” not very tall but big enough to mostly conceal one of the dancers, Keyon Gaskin, for most of the dance and then an erotic mixing of limbs and torsos by Gaskin and Hackworth at the end of the piece.

Hackworth and Claire Barrera do most of the heavy dancing, and their very precise unison dancing near the beginning of Beast got me thinking about the subject to begin with. You have to be well-rehearsed to dance anything complicated in unison, and they did. Then they spun out into solos, usually very big movements or floor work, before experimenting with the props and concluding with the duet.

This Beast was a little scary, dangerous, unpredictable, and carried over the theme of discord and alienation from the film, oddly enough, though it didn’t end with a happy dance of contented consumers.

Revivify/Alter Structure
Alter Structure is Roland Ventura Toledo, who in Revivify created a dense sound environment with words from Maya Angelou and Steven Hawking, among others, mixed in. Toledo performed at a central console onstage, and as he began two black-suited dancers, Stephanie Lanckton and Mizu Deseirto, stood well behind him at the back of the stage, their backs to us, arms and bodies tilted at identical (unison) angles. When we saw their heads finally, they were encased in silvery masks. As the soundscape moved through various textures Lanckton and Deseirto continued to move in slow and angular ways, at first, mostly in unison, and then gradually picked up the pace and explored the spasmodic, before ending up in their own tangle on the floor at the end, then a separation, lovely really, reaching back for one another as they parted and the lights went to black.

Right. Anxiety. Because of the fans, maybe, I couldn’t understand many of the word in sound environment. One fragment from Hawking: “spontaneously created out of nothing.” He must have been talking about the Big Bang, and yeah, a universe spontaneously created out of nothing has scary implications.

Anna Conner and Company/Photo by Jim Lykins

Anna Conner and Company/Photo by Jim Lykins

Luna/Anna Conner + Co.
Conner comes from Seattle (everyone else on Program 1 was Portland-based, and she and her dancers Autumn Tselios and Julia Cross performed her very high energy, rough-and-tumble, toughly erotic choreography with great skill, including the most complex unison dancing and partnering of the evening. At the end of the show, members of each group were instructed to tell the audience 10 words about the piece. Cross said: “Our goal is to access our true vulnerability and power.” And they nailed it. Is there a story in Luna, a tale of dominance and submission in the roughhouse partnering that goes on? I didn’t process it that way, probably because narratives need characters and specific characters didn’t emerge for me. That didn’t keep Luna from engaging me at a very visceral level.

Program 1 of Dance+ continues at 8 pm through July 12.

Program 2, which features Zahra Banzi and Dylan Wilbur, Meshi Chavez and Roland Toledo, kle marshall and Meagan Woods, Christopher Peddecord and Lindsey Matheis, and radical child… and Kara Girod Shuster, runs at 8 pm July 17-19.

All shows are at the Conduit studio, 918 SW Yamhill St., Suite 401.

Review: ‘Co / Mission’ at Conduit

Four dancers, four choreographers, lots of variety and plenty of crosstalk

In last weekend’s Co / Mission, Conduit gathered four Portland dancers and gave them the means to commission the local choreographer of their choice. Overall, the program was an absolute treat. Each of the four short, original works was proportioned like the space itself – small, sturdy, and comfortable in its strengths and capacities. It’s a size and sort of event I’d like to see more of  – local professionals curating adjacently but not necessarily collectively, balanced in such a way as to do as much as they can with a modest scale, with plenty of crosstalk but enough variety to avoid our tendency to create echo chambers here in Portland.

Rachel Slater in "Co / Mission." Photo: Chris Peddecord

Rachel Slater in “Co / Mission.” Photo: Chris Peddecord

In little more than an hour, the four pieces – which ran at Conduit Thursday-Sunday, June 13-15 – drew on diverse but complementary influences and styles. The shared themes, coincidental or not, seemed to alternate AB/AB. The first and third pieces employed more complex sound design and movements, channeling a little bit of the sense of a sophisticated session of dancing alone in your bedroom that a lot of contemporary solo work brings to mind. The second and final pieces drew on more classical movements and employed simple props and light sources.

A strong focus on women in dance and pop culture emerges through all the pieces. It does so cumulatively, with little overt politicization of gender. The sense is more that we have strong work coming from a group of dancers and choreographers who happen to all be women (except for Franco Nieto). The work shines on its own merits and concerns, many of which come from what feels like a particularly female perspective.

The sound design introduces these themes most directly. The first audio we hear is a shockingly sexist George and Gracie Burns dialogue, and Rachel Slater’s sensuous torment in d’autres femmes calls back to the skewed gender dynamics of the same era via Nina Simone’s classic The Other Woman. Linda K. Jonson summons the equally powerful figures of Wonder Woman and Poly Styrene in her piece for organizing member Jamuna Chiarini (who is a contributing writer to ArtsWatch). These references all seem to participate in the two broader themes of defiance and otherness. Suzanne Chi’s final, lyrical performance lacks all these hallmarks of troubled Americana, instead simply pitting a studious, solo dancer against an impending darkness.

Individual performance notes:


Dancer: Jen Hackworth

Choreographer: Linda Austin

Du | et was an intriguing chance to watch Linda Austin’s movements and outbursts emerge from a different person. Though an experienced choreographer, Austin says this is her first “solo piece performed on a body other than my own.” Austin’s marks were present on all parts of the piece – from the procedural, investigative movements to the deadpan recitation of jokes to the audience to the use of props. Austin’s sense of deferred presence seemed to be a driving concept of the piece, charging Hackworth to respond to herself as if she were another dancer, lending her manipulations of the props a feeling of searching or preparation, and smirked at with the use of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

The sound design here was complex, but smart and layered, not overwrought. The opening George and Gracie dialogue worked surprisingly well with Hackworth’s studied manipulation of a wooden tailor’s ruler and a rock, the odd-couple of objects. However, the initial nimbleness she had with the ruler didn’t seem to last throughout the piece. Without it, the props felt sparse, and could have been strengthened by either engaging the leftover open space or maintaining a higher degree of precision in handling the little objects in question. They did lend themselves to some touching moments, as Hackworth gently positioned them with an attention that seemed to say she had few other concerns in the world than this little rock, a sense later echoed in the placement of her own foot between the edges of the floorboards.

Jen Hackworth in Linda Austin's "Du / et." Photo: Chris Peddecord

Jen Hackworth in Linda Austin’s “Du / et.” Photo: Chris Peddecord

d’autres femmes

Dancer: Rachel Slater

Choreographer: Franco Nieto

Slater began her piece standing stock still, holding a strained smile through the laments of Nina Simone’s The Other Woman. She presented herself as a surface on which the audience could project a sequence of reactions to the mores and traditions implied in the situations reveled in by the song. I thought this followed DU | ET’s sense of hesitant resiliency quite well. The gesture could have gone stale easily, but happily it broke before becoming too much of a misplaced endurance piece. Slater proceeded to writhe and promenade with a sense of ownership of the stage and dashes of cabaret flair that paired well with Simone’s sound. Alternating between brassy and sensual, she seemed the most defiantly present of all the performers, as if daring someone to stop her from dancing. The staging was as restrained as it was effective: an open shade behind a thin curtain, glowing with early evening light, and a large, shimmering mirrored panel.

Like a Corvette

Dancer: Jamuna Chiarini

Choreographer: Linda K. Johnson

This shared DU | ET’s feel of po-mo bedroom dancing, but minus the formal play with duality and absence. Thematically this was placed perfectly in the program, as if the unsteady pride that felt lost or neglected in the first piece was mixed with the agency and guile of the second, reinforcing the contemporary movement and gesture with Wonder Woman’s metal bands. Chiarini’s investigative feeling of trying-on and stepping-up in this piece is what first gave me the sense of viewing a private dance session, one where the dancer is updating if not constructing some aspect of their identity. As Hackworth worked her way up to Whitney Houston, Chiarini progressed to Wonder Woman, as if they were two sides of some fantastically collectible coin.

The Last Errand

Dancer: Suzanne Chi

Choreographer: Lindsey Matheis

Suzanne Chi stormed through a field of dangling, dim lightbulbs with an electrifying mix of precision and fluidity. At one point she fired off a startling torso-slap which was one of my favorite moments of the show and paired well with Hackworth’s playful karaoke of Whitney Houston while spinning back and forth to whack her own chest and back with her flailing hands. I swear that she struck some recognizable Tai Chi postures, but I’ve been proven to see those whether they’re really there or not. Regardless, she commanded the stage with as much gusto as Slater had in the second piece, but without reference to a fixed place and time. The sparse lighting and the breathy soundtrack built this otherworldliness. Going by the program notes, there’s at least passing reference to the young-adult book City of Ember, but I wonder how well-targeted that was for the audience. I’m hoping that it was meant to remain a passing reference, as the out-of-time sense of this final performance elevated the power behind her movements from a sense of opposition or defiance to a more independent, celebratory place. Seeming to say that Chi would dance while the lights went out, some of them dying in the palm of her hand, however long they lasted.

‘Tempowaryly’: It almost felt like I was dancing

Keyon Gaskin's structured improvisational dance uses the audience as props


I have decided, after I ended up sitting on the edge of the dance floor in front of the first row for Trajal Harrell’s “Antigone Jr.” at TBA and having a near religious experience (it was hard to restrain myself from jumping up and joining in on the catwalk and screaming “work it” with Mr. Harrell), that I would sit as close as I possibly could to every dance performance from here on out. There is no point in watching dance if I cannot connect with the performers. I need to see the expressions on their faces and the sweat flying from their bodies. If I can’t dance in every piece, I at least want to FEEL  like I am. I’m not sure I needed to apply this new principle to Keyon Gaskin’s “Tempowaryly: seriously frivolous,” which ran a couple of weeks ago and repeats this weekend at Performance Works Northwest, because it was almost impossible NOT to feel like I was dancing in the piece.

“Tempowaryly,” initiated by Keyon Gaskin and co-created and performed by Jen Hackworth and Rosana Ybarra, was just what the title and the program notes indicated:  “an abstract rumination on the following concepts, and then some: inability to know/limits of perception/proclivity to define/importance of play/fiction as fact/mistrust of knowledge, language, history/quoted cultures/allusion of privacy/occult practices/alternate ways of being…”

These are the questions posed by the three performers to themselves, which they worked to answer during the duration of the performance, composing while performing as opposed to having all the choreographic elements worked out before hand. We make impromptu choices all the time in our everyday lives, of course, but it’s another things to make choreographic choices while you are dancing in the dance you are choreographing. Having never done this myself, it seems profoundly difficult and mind blowing.

“Tempowaryly” is actually a structured improv with a few fixed elements and a few unfixed elements. The fixed elements include a list of props: a floor to ceiling tripod sculpture by Nathan Stewart, carabineers hanging from the ceiling, a hot plate and pot of boiling water, yards of red velvet fabric, a box lighted from the inside made from photographic slides, a small section of linoleum with a single tap shoe, an altar, strings of white pearls, several books, three doorways for entrances and exits and a timekeeper (a member of the audience chosen before the show to keep time for the performers). The unfixed elements are where the audience members sit and how the dancers navigate and negotiate all of these fixed elements.


Keyon Gaskin's "Tempowaryly" continues this weekend.

Keyon Gaskin’s “Tempowaryly” continues this weekend.

As we enter the performance space we are welcomed by the dancers moving about the studio/performance space warming up and saying, “Welcome, please take a chair and sit wherever you like, but do not sit against the wall.”

This little moment caught me completely off guard. I stuttered. What, I can’t sit with my back against the wall? What’s going to happen to me? Can I handle this? Well, it was too late for that—I was already in the room and being watched. Peer pressure forced me to move forward, so I placed my chair in a spot facing the center of the room but shifted it to another spot a few minutes later to get what I thought would be a better vantage point. Then something clicked and all of a sudden I felt playful. I had been invited into the performance not just as a viewer but also as a participant.

It also became clear to me that the performance would be happening all around me. Then my brain started doing the what-if game it does when I see performances that inspire me. What if I voluntarily move my chair around to different spots during the performance? Could I do that? How would it affect the performers? Would I see something different from each location? Would that be awesome or disruptive? Would people think I was crazy? Probably, but it would be fun.

What happened after that was exhilarating, fun, exhausting, extremely satisfying and refreshing.

I liken the whole experience to a three-dimensional dreamscape, a shared dreamscape between three dancers on a raucous, fitful night of sleep where the mind is mulling over an entire lifetime of experiences. Or like scenes from a David Lynch film, your choice.


After seeing both “Weather” by Lucy Guerin Inc. and “Tempowaryly: seriously frivolous” in the same weekend, it become clear to me that you can’t have one form of dance performance without the other. One is a reaction to the other and its important as viewers that we see both and join in on the conversation and follow the journey in the artist exploration: We need both forms to balance us out. I’m talking about formalized concert dance presented on a proscenium stage (represented two weekends ago by Lucy Guerin Inc’s “Weather” at Lincoln Hall) and improvised, audience inclusive, questioning all previous performance notions, kind of dance, which is where Keyon Gaskin’s “Tempowaryly” at Performance Works NorthWest comes in.

Interestingly, these two dances were more similar than different. They both worked in the abstract, there were improvised sections in both dances, and humor was used at the midpoint to break things up and change direction. Both pieces are also brand-new, evolving, works in progress.

As an exercise and challenge for myself to be more concise and to the point with my writing and because a lot has already been said about “Weather,” I have written two Haiku poems as my form of witnessing that weekend of dance. Here is the first:

“Tempowaryly: seriously frivolous”

Many memories
Reading by lighted skivvies
Yards of red velvet

And here is my attempt to address the Guerin dance.


Exuberant youth
Illuminated plastic
The cause and effect

If you love dance, and I know you do, I highly recommend checking out “Tempowaryly: seriously frivolous” which will be performed   November 15-17th at Performance Works NorthWest, 4625 SE 67th Ave Portland . For ticket information go to Brown Paper Tickets or to the “Tempowaryly” event page on Facebook.

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