Rachel Slater

DanceWatch Weekly: Moving at JAW

This week the dance action is at a theater festival

It’s another warm and sunny weekend here in Portland, which makes going out to see performances really easy compared to the our rainy wintery months—or maybe not if you aren’t a heat person. Personally, I wish summer would last another six months, but I digress. Let’s talk dance.

On Sunday you can catch contemporary Portland dance artists Sara Parker and Rachel Slater activating the Armory lobby in the Pearl with their new site-specific dance work Watchers of the Wild Sky as part of Portland Center Stage’s JAW playwright festival.

Sara Parker and Rachel Slater in “Watchers of the Wild Sky.” Photo courtesy of Rachel Slater and Sara Parker.

The collaborative work is inspired by the energy and the physical materials in the space, and explores themes of softness, subtlety, hysteria, shadowing, and strength, according to the email exchange I had with Parker.

JAW gives time, space, and resources to playwrights with new scripts (a great idea for dance as well: Anyone?), and is interested in creating intersectionality with other arts communities and growing the footprint of the festival by interspersing works of other performance genres within the festival. And it’s enjoyable for the audience, too.

Dance artist Michael “Mantis” Galen. Photo courtesy of JAW.

In addition to Parker and Slater, the festival will include In the Groove, a street dance battle with Michael “Mantis” Galen and an all-star crew, plus a circus performance by artists Amica Hunter and David Cantor from A Little Bit Off. Check the JAW website for the complete performance schedule and performers.

That’s it for dance this weekend in Portland. Short and sweet. Enjoy!

Performances this week

JAW-A Playwright Festival
Featuring dance works by Sara Parker, Rachel Slater, Michael “Mantis” Galen, Amica Hunter, David Cantor and more!
July 28-30
Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave.

Upcoming Performances

August
August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 3-20, Gypsy, Broadway Rose Theatre Company
August 9, Suspended Moment, Meshi Chavez, Yukiyo Kawano, Allison Cobb, Lisa DeGrace, and Stephen Miller
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
August 13, India Festival 2017, India Cultural Association of Portland
August 19, Laya-Bhavam: An amalgamation and importance of Rhythm in Dance, presented by Sarada Kala Nilayam
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
August 24-October 8, Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities, Cirque Du Soleil
September
August 25-September 3, Where To Wear What Hat, WolfBird Dance
September 7-17, TBA, Portland Institute For Contemporary Art

Dance Weekly: Two by two and ‘Side by Side’

A set of duets by Portland independent choreographers highlights the weekend

Jordan Matter is a New York photographer who captures dancers doing extraordinary physical feats in ordinary everyday places, talking on a phone in a phone booth with one leg dangerously stretched to the max against the wall or leaping across a crosswalk in the middle of a busy intersection. His series of photos is called Dancers Among Us, a title I love because for me it evokes the image of dancers as superhuman creatures with powerful abilities living incognito amongst “regular” folk.

This is a little how I feel about pop-up performance projects here in Portland. All of these creative people come out of the woodwork for a night or two and put on a great show and then disappear again back into the fabric of Portland.

Luke Gutgsell and Elise Knudson.

Luke Gutgsell and Elise Knudson.

In an attempt to draw out these “dancers among us” for a little longer than their scheduled events, I would like to draw your attention to the five choreographers who were chosen by Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance to make new dances for the upcoming show, Side by Side, moving in twos.

But first, here are this weeks performance listings.

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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:

DU | ET

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.

Eowyn Emerald and Jonathan Krebs in Emerald's contemporary pas de deux "hexe ist." Photo montage: Tim Summers

Every now and again I glance beyond my two left feet and realize with pleasure that Portland’s in the middle of a dance renaissance. It’s not as if anyone’s getting rich in the process. And it’s not as if, at least at this point, the rest of the world is beating a path to the city’s sprung floor. Still, the evidence is real and compelling.

Between the vibrant poles of Oregon Ballet Theatre at one end and White Bird Dance at the other are such flourishing outfits as Northwest Dance Project, BodyVox, Conduit and tEEth, as well as individual choreographers and dancers as varied as Tere Mathern, Gregg Bielemeier, Josie Moseley, Rachel Tess, Linda Austin, and Katherine Longstreth.

And new performers just keep flowing into the city, or cropping up from its own development programs. These days, if you’re a dance follower, you can spend some very busy nights keeping up with what’s going down. You can even, if you really want to, take sides: ballet vs. contemporary, structured vs. improvisational, athletic vs. intellectual, chamber vs. electronic vs. rock ’n’ roll.

So it was only a little bit of a surprise on Saturday evening when I showed up at the BodyVox Dance Center for the first of two performances of new works by dancer/choreographer Eowyn Emerald and discovered a packed house.

Apparently the abundance of the opening-show crowd was just a test run.

“The 8 o’clock show was sold out even more than the 6 o’clock,” dancer and concert co-producer Rachel Slater told me later. “It was standing room only.” That means, by rough count, that something on the order of 340 people chose this small show as their destination on a busy Saturday night.

BodyVox’s move three years ago from rented digs on the upper floor of a working brewery to its own new space in a renovated former Wells Fargo carriage house and stable on Northwest Northrup Street has played a significant supporting role in Portland’s dance revival. It’s not only given a much better showcase for BodyVox’s own programs, it’s also provided a fine space for independent companies looking for a good spot to put on their own shows.

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