Paul Clay

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.

On the forced closing of Place Gallery

Or: How can you be in two places at once when you're nowhere at all?

Four years ago, Pioneer Place Mall did a very groovy “Portland” thing by beginning to provide and subsidize some of the empty spaces on the third floor of its Atrium Building to people and organizations wishing to open art galleries. Last month, the owners of the mall, General Growth Properties (GGP) rescinded that agreement with, Place, the first gallery that took them up on their offer way back when. Seems there was bad blood.

Oregon ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson wrote about the closing shortly after Place Director, Gabe Flores, made it public on the gallery’s website. Since then, other arts writers have weighed in on this abrupt end to the gallery’s lease agreement, including Alison Hallett for The Mercury, Richard Speer for Willamette Week, and Jeff Jahn on his site, There was also a short segment on the local FOX affiliate, KPTV.

An appropriate sentiment/Gabe Flores

An appropriate sentiment/Gabe Flores

I won’t go into all of the details of the dispute between the building’s management and Flores (that’s what the links are for) ), but it seems to stem from the content of the art from the final show in the White Gallery portion of Place’s two spaces, and then Flores’ response to the objections by the powers-that-be. It’s worth a read. (link) Flores adds that the reason given for his eviction was that GPP had found a tenant to pay full rent for the space (Place was only responsible for paying utilities), yet he remains convinced that this was nothing less than a bum’s rush. The only response from GPP that I know of (GPP evidently did not respond to requests for a statement for any of the above listed articles) is a rather cursory and noncommittal written statement given to KPTV: “We do not publicly discuss tenant lease agreements, but please know Pioneer Place is very much a fan and in support of the arts,” GGP General Manager Bob Buchanan’s statement read. “Our goal is to create a unique and enjoyable shopping experience for all our customers.”

Before I get too deep into this opinion piece, I should disclose that I had an exhibit of my own work at Place last year. I have also written about the gallery on a couple of occasions, for both and Oregon ArtsWatch. (One review was less than glowing.) I have had many conversations with Flores over the years and have grown to admire his fertile mind and enthusiasm for the local art community, even though sometimes both can get the better of him. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with his torrent of ideas, and his desire for inclusiveness has resulted in more than a few half-baked exhibitions (more often than not due to the presenting artist). The first couple of years of programming did not give me much hope for his ambitious little start-up, yet Flores and the gallery persevered, and the programming gradually improved.


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