Michael Curry

Theater at the intersection

Two themes at TCG's national conference in Portland – diversity and "maker" creativity – suggest a future for the art form

The Theatre Communications Group annual national conference, which landed in downtown Portland for four days last week, had two stated themes which I initially found, if not exactly contradictory, at least not particularly relevant to one another. One of the main programmatic strands was called “At the Intersections,” a series of structured workshops centered on diversity and allyship. The other was a stated interest in celebrating Portland’s “maker” culture, and exploring ways to apply this concept to theatrical work. Both interesting and worthy and, laid side-by-side, at first seeming sort of random.

But as I actually attended the conference, I found unexpected resonance between the two strands. The question of diversity and the question of how to redefine theater’s cultural role in relation to new movements and technology seemed to me to intersect in a broader question about how the theatre industry can find new ways to define its value.

I mean that in two senses, and they both feel particularly pressing here in Portland. The first is, of course, financial. As Artists Rep artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez pointed out during a live taping of the American Theatre magazine podcast, in most cities, the most well-established companies pay a symbolic fee on an incredibly long lease, while the smaller and less financially stable companies pay exorbitant monthly or weekly rents. This is true in Portland, too, where the brunt of the financial burden of steeply climbing real estate prices is borne by the small companies least able to absorb any additional costs, much less costs growing at the rate of Portland’s rents.

Portland-based “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” the August Wilson Red Door Project’s touring show of works by African American writers, was featured at the TAG annual conference.

Pair this with theater’s increasing—or at least ongoing—cultural irrelevance. As exciting as Hamilton was, it does not seem to have heralded theater’s return to the mainstream. We know well, and it remains true, that audiences are small, white, and old. How can theaters prove their value to new and current audiences in order to remain alive in both the short and long term? How can they prove their value to a city that seems happy to fill its trendiest areas with condos and storefronts instead of arts venues?

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Oregon Symphony review: going big

Orchestra's season closing concerts feature large scale Mahler and Stravinsky, and a big success in a "Little Russian" symphony

by TERRY ROSS

On May 15, people came for the show, and thanks to dancers and puppets, they got it. And thanks to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, they also got some memorable music.

The “show” in question was the third in this season’s Oregon Symphony series of multi-media events, called Persephone. Earlier installments were based on Bela Bartok’s 1911 opera  Bluebeard’s Castle  and Olivier Messiaen’s 1948 opus Turangalila, and they involved projected images, creative lighting, unusual instruments (an ondes martenot for Messiaen), among other effects. For Igor Stravinsky’s Persephone, which premiered in 1934, the requisite large orchestra, giant choir, children’s choir, tenor soloist, and female narrator were abetted by the puppetry of multiple Emmy award-winning Michael Curry and dancer Anna Marra, from Portland’s BodyVox. The whole bunch were led by OSO maestro Carlos Kalmar.

Oregon Symphony’s ‘Persephone’ featured striking design by Oregon’s Michael Curry. Photo: Brud Giles.

The 48-minute Persephone show came after the intermission, with the orchestra onstage before an evocative set featuring a glowing sun/moon. The text by André Gide was declaimed and sung in French by, respectively, French actress Pauline Chelviller, who did the role a couple of years ago under director Peter Sellars, and American tenor Paul Groves, an opera singer in considerable demand. Gide famously didn’t care for Stravinsky’s refusal to treat his text as poetry and boycotted the premiere.

His point was well taken. Throughout his career, Stravinsky was never enamored of close textual settings, preferring to regard words as merely syllables and to appropriate their meaning in a more general sense. So in Persephone, the outlines of the music follow the heroine, who is the goddess of springtime, as she is abducted from earth and made to be the underworld mate of Hades, god of the dead, then released (for a while) each year to ensure the appearance of spring on earth before returning to her life below. In a generally vapid score (one of Stravinsky’s weakest), the orchestra makes some Stravinskyan gestures (introductory statements by high-pitched brasses of percussion, decorous string writing in his Neo-Classical stage) to accompany the narrative.

But the real heroes of this production were the lively massed choruses — Portland State University’s Chamber Choir and members of the Pacific Youth Choir — the puppeteer, and the featured dancer. Combined with the lighting director, these participants never let the action flag, even when Stravinsky’s music strongly suggests it might. They carry the “show.” I was especially enchanted by Mr. Curry’s flying spirits, by his puppet of Persephone (also known in mythology as Proserpina), and especially by Ms. Marra’s mind-bending contortions as a flying version of Persephone. She flew through the air as if freed from gravity, every gesture lyrical and lovely.

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Oregon Symphony review: a ‘Persephone’ redeemed by puppetry

Non musical elements help flawed Stravinsky music drama succeed

by BRUCE BROWNE

Persephone lends itself wonderfully to interdisciplinary artistic collaboration. Called a “melodrama” by its composer, Igor Stravinsky, it is a ballet, with a tenor soloist, a choir, an orchestra and a grandiose mythological melodrama out of which visual effects can spring.

Persephone was the final production in the three-part SoundSights series mounted by the Oregon Symphony this year, the previous two being the Bartok opera Bluebeard’s Castle and Messiaen’s Turangalila (click titles for Oregon Arts Watch reviews).

Saturday evening’s supersensorium included fabulous optics, impeccable singing, a superb orchestra, solid acting and imaginative and colorful costumes and puppetry. For this gesamtkunstwerk, the best were engaged: Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony, Pauline Cheviler (Persephone the narrator), Anna Marra (Persephone the dancer) and the choirs (Portland State University Chamber Choir and Pacific Youth Choir). The visual concept was handed over to Oregon theatrical designer Michael Curry.

Michael Curry’s puppetry enhanced ‘Persephone.’

In choosing Curry to join Washington glass master Dale Chihuly and Portland media artist Rose Bond as the third SoundSights collaborator, the orchestra again nurtured the tremendous pool of talent in the Pacific Northwest.

Curry’s bold theatrical designs have been captivating audiences worldwide at Olympic events, in theaters, at the Metropolitan Opera and in Disney productions. He and his team toiled in their studio facility in Scappoose, Oregon to offer visual genius to the production.

It’s clear that the SoundSight initiative has drawn many new ears and eyes to the concerts, a generous portion of them younger, as we saw lots of children Saturday night, buzzing about upcoming sightings of flying goddesses, animated trees, a graceful deer and a Brobdingnagian, roseate King of Hades. Ghostly kites, tree human roots morphing into hairdos, and eerily human puppets were stunning, bringing the mythology to life.

And thank the Greek gods, because the non musical elements are absolutely essential to making Stravinsky’s Persephone relatable and digestible.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: Great Graham

Revisiting Martha Graham's potent power of the past; a Wanderlust Mother's Day; Michael Curry's "Perséphone" with the Symphony; Brett Campbell's music picks

Martha Graham created her legendary American modern dance company in 1926, and it’s difficult to imagine, more than 90 years later, just how earth-shattering her early works must have seemed. Graham carved legends out of time and space: intense, pristine, pared to the bone. She created a hyper-expressionist, essentially American style of dance, built on the works of Denishawn and other pioneers but reimagined in the movement possibilities and theatrical impulses of her own body.

She collaborated with many of the great composers and visual artists of her time, which was long and artistically fertile: born in 1894, she created her final dance in 1990, the year before she died at age 96. Her bold, emphatic approach to dance can seem overstated to contemporary audiences. Yet it carries the intensity and hyper-expressionism of the great silent movies, and if you just give it a chance, something of the pure rawness of her glory years comes through, as if it were new all over again.

Martha Graham in “Dark Meadow,” 1946. Reproduced with permission of Martha Graham Resources, a division of The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, www.marthagraham.org. Library of Congress.

No company built by a daringly original dancemaker – not Graham’s, or Balanchine’s, or Alvin Ailey’s, or José Limón’s – can survive on memories of its founder alone, and it can be a tricky business to balance the tradition of what was once radical with the need to remain in the contemporary swim of things. The Graham company, under current artistic director Janet Eilber, mixes things up boldly. When the company performs Wednesday evening in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall as part of the White Bird dance season the program will include works by a couple of high-profile contemporary dancemakers: the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who now runs the Berlin State Ballet, and the Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the core of the program will be two of Graham’s own works, 1948’s Diversion of Angels and Dark Meadow Suite, a distillation of an ambitious 1946 work that ran 50 minutes in its original form (the suite is much shorter).

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