Rachel Tess

Rachel Tess, early in the morning

Rachel Tess talks about the art and thinking behind her early-morning performance on Monday

Native Portland choreographer and performer Rachel Tess (currently splitting her time between Sweden and Portland) would like you to join her on Monday morning at 5:30 am at the The Pinnacle Pavilion on 1210 NW 10th Avenue for a walking/dancing exploration of a world that sleeps, choreographed by experimental choreographer Peter Mills. Bring a warm cup of coffee, a coat, an umbrella and your adventurous spirit. Message her ahead of time to let her know you are coming at rtess@rachelvtess.org.

Tess is interested in developing performances unique to neighborhoods and urban spaces, collaborating with visual, musical, and theatrical artists and fostering community and promoting dialogue between community members, leaders and activists.

Tess trained at Oregon Ballet Theatre, earned her BFA at Juilliard where she received a Princess Grace Award in 2002, performed with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, Gothenburg Opera Ballet and held a permanent position with the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm.

This is the place by Benoît Lachambre and Rachel Tess at Milvus Artistic Research Center in 2014. Photo by Darial Sneed.

‘This is the place’ by Benoît Lachambre and Rachel Tess at Milvus Artistic Research Center in 2014. Photo by Darial Sneed.

She has premiered her choreographic works in Stockholm, Montreal, New York City, Costa Rica, and Portland, Oregon. She was part of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch in 2010 for her work as co-­director of Rumpus Room Dance in Portland.

In 2013, Tess received her masters in choreography from the New Performative Practices Master’s program at DOCH-School of Dance and Circus at the Stockholm University of the Arts. She won and completed a Princess Grace Foundation Works in Progress Residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City with her ongoing project Souvenir in 2013.

She is the director of Milvus Artistic Research Center in Kivik—a residency program in Sweden that sits on approximately 27 acres of farmland on the edge of Stenshuvud National Park in Kivik, Sweden. The center offers space to performing artists to create work. And she directs Rachel Tess Dance in Portland.

Peter Mills is a choreographer, dancer, performer, artist, activist, researcher, teacher and mentor. Peter has a masters in choreography from Dans och Cirkushögskolan, where he worked on choreography through documentation as an ethical practice, towards anti-authoritarian ideals.

Tess and Mills met at the University of Dance in Stockholm, immediately entering into critical debate and a lasting friendship and artistic partnership.

Over the holiday Tess and I corresponded via email, and she was kind enough to answer all of my questions. Here are those questions and answers.


ArtsWatch Weekly: a Nutcracker for the ages (all of them)

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

It’s three days until Christmas, and the day after the winter solstice (the day of, if you’re going by Greenwich Mean Time or its less elegantly named successor, Coordinated Universal Time), and that means that visions of nutcrackers keep dancing in our heads. This is not entirely voluntary – “inescapable” might be a more accurate word – but it’s not entirely unwelcome, either. As much as the inevitable annual return of The Nutcracker to ballet stages across America prompts world-weary calculations of budget-balancing and traditions gone wild, it also makes us think about why the thing’s so undyingly popular.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara's Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker." Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Lauren Kessler, right, as Clara’s Aunt Rose in Eugene Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker.” Photo courtesy Lauren Kessler.

Tchaikovsky’s score, steely and lush and brilliant, has a great deal to do with it: I’ve been known to give recordings of it a spin in mid-July, entirely out of season, and will put on Duke Ellington’s jazz-suite adaptation at the snowdrop of a hat. The ballet’s odd construction provides a neat children’s-perspective view of the season: the hubbub and excitement of Christmas Eve, with its scary visitor, fierce mouse army, and sibling spat, in the first act; the sheer pleasure, as the parade of divertissements rolls out in the second act, of opening all the gifts on Christmas morning. The ballet may be Russian and German in origin, but it’s also the height of Victoriana at a time of year when Victoria still rules. And if its story is less dark and enthralling than E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the ballet more than compensates with its music, dancing, and visual spectacle: I still miss Campbell Baird’s exquisite designs, based on Fabergé eggs, that Oregon Ballet Theatre used for several years in the James Canfield days.

The writer Lauren Kessler has long felt the enchantment, and unlike most of us, she did something about it. Kessler, long past ordinary ballet age, decided she wanted to perform in The Nutcracker, and so she cold-called Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble, looking for a chance to audition. As Angie Jabine notes for ArtsWatch in her fascinating review of Kessler’s book Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest To Dance The Nutcracker, Pimble said “sure” (or words to that effect), and Kessler set out to pursue her dream. Oh: and to write her book.

That meant, partly, getting her middle-aged body in shape. As Jabine writes: “Like Rocky Balboa in a leotard, she trained. All her previous weight lifting and track running and bicycle spinning had given her strength and endurance but had also shortened her hamstrings and bulked up her muscles. Now she would need to stretch out those hamstrings, develop her leg extension, and totally redefine her carriage. In early spring of 2014, she plunged into yoga, Pilates, water-jogging, and a machine-assisted workout called Gyrotonics—along with ballet classes, of course. All this, she notes, was just ‘prep for the prep for the real work.’”

In The Nutcracker, miracles happen. And so, gentle reader, Kessler did go on stage, as Clara’s Aunt Rose, last year and this year, too. And that, as both Kessler and Jabine tell it, is a pretty good story. Meanwhile, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s own Nutcracker, the George Balanchine version, continues through Saturday at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. You could watch the Christmas tree grow.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium.

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” It continues through Saturday at Keller Auditorium. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert


A couple of weeks ago the celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma was in town for a solo gig at the Schnitz sponsored by the Oregon Symphony. And there, before curtain time, he ran into a group of young musicians called the MYSfits – that “MYS” stands for Metropolitan Youth Symphony – who were providing a little pre-show music from the second-floor landing. The kids didn’t have tickets for the show (they were scarce, and expensive), but the chance to play at the Schnitz before a major concert was too good to pass up. And then an older fellow showed up and asked if he could sit in for a bit, and then … but don’t let me spoil the story. Read it yourself, as ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell relates it. Something extraordinary, and entirely fitting the season, occurred. You’ll remember this story. You might find yourself retelling it to your friends.


Blackbird singing in the dead of night, Lennon and McCartney wrote, and Rachel Tess is taking it a few steps farther: On Monday, she’ll be dancing in the dead of night. At 5:30 in the morning, to be precise, when it’ll still be midwinter dark, on the sidewalks of the still-sleeping city, outside 1210 Northwest 10th Avenue in Portland. She and choreographer Peter Mills will collaborate on RACHEL, a performance for the dead of night, which will keep its audience out-of-doors for up to an hour, so bundle up. Reservations are required; make them by emailing rtess@rachelvtess.org. And set your alarm.


Also on Monday, at a likely more conducive hour (10 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon) the Portland Art Museum will be open. The museum is open most days, of course, but it’s almost always closed Mondays, so this is something special. If you still want to walk off Christmas dinner and you don’t want to join the mob at the new Star Wars movie, this is an excellent dish to add to your plate. No need to set your alarm.

ArtsWatch links


The Mousai review: the importance of now. Ah, that’s more like it, Tristan Bliss writes: a concert made up entirely of work by contemporary composers, “the rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone-by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now.”

The Moth: close to the flame. “The only thing missing was a campfire; and maybe some animal on a spit; otherwise, we were at home with our ancestors,” Christa Morletti McIntyre wrote about the celebrated storytelling program’s recent visit to Portland.



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We’ve been sending a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers. Now we’re also posting it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.

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Rachel Tess builds a ‘Souvenir’

The dancemaker, who splits her time between Portland and Sweden, creates a little house to dance in

A lot can happen in a short time in a small space. And a lot did on Saturday night, when Rachel Tess and Kenneth Bruun Carlson, members of Rachel Tess Dance,  performed a 30-minute duet at OPSIS Architecture, using every inch of  a 450-square-foot space and every muscle in their beautiful bodies to make a statement about what Tess calls “the effects of kinesthetic empathy in a confined, intimate space.”

Tess balances on the "Souvenir" house at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Photo courtesy Rachel Tess

Tess balances on the “Souvenir” house at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Photo courtesy Rachel Tess

The space at OPSIS is not the one for which this duet was made.  That is a “house”, titled Souvenir, roughly the same size as the OPSIS space and crafted in modular pieces of hand-planed wood, held together with pegs for easy deconstruction and reconstruction, with a low ceiling, and cubby hole seating for the audience.  It was designed by Tess, who lives most of the time in Sweden, for her Master’s degree in dance, which she received from Stockholm’s University of Dance last year. A second “Souvenir” is being constructed in Portland by Acme Scenic for use in this country, first here in Portland in the spring, then in New York next June, outdoors at Nolan Park on Governor’s Island.

You can see what Souvenir I looks like, with and without dancers and audience, as you go up the stairs at OPSIS, in an exhibition of some spectacular photographs taken by Michael Mazzola, with whom Tess worked for the first time on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Stravinsky Project” in 2011.  She has done quite a lot of site-specific work in Portland in the past few years, in empty retail spaces and galleries and the like, proclaiming in the 2008 “Details of a Couple,” with a dance that had her worming her way down a table loaded with wineglasses, that art and relationships are risky at best.  Creating your own site, and a portable site at that, is also pretty risky, but so far, so good: At Valmos, between March and July, she did more than 160 performances in it, solos and duets, including the one I saw Saturday night, transferred and adjusted for the space provided by OPSIS.


2012 Princess Grace Award winner Franco Nieto partners 2010 winner Andrea Parson; fellow Northwest Dance Project performer Samantha Campbell is in background. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The boom box blares: “Let’s do the time warp again!”

On a late August afternoon in North Portland, a gaggle of performers in rehearsal sweats is moving around the floor of the Northwest Dance Project studio, shuffling to a catchy little tune from The Rocky Horror Picture Show that company member Ching Ching Wong is using for a new piece.

Hank the dog, part Boxer and part Olde English Bulldogge, is sprawled in a corner, waiting patiently for his person, dancer Franco Nieto, to finish that stuff he does. Scott Lewis, the company’s executive director, glances down and says, dryly, “Meet Franco’s manager.”

Passersby on the busy corner of Mississippi and Shaver peer into the tall curved studio windows, sometimes pausing a while to watch.

What they see is an exciting young company of 10 dancers who specialize in performing new work by international choreographers. The company, which is preparing for a quartet of 2012-13 home-season shows beginning with October’s New Now Wow!, has been on something of a roll: In late June, while the world’s eyes were swiveling toward London for the 2012 summer Olympic Games, Northwest Dance Project performed as prizewinners at London’s Peacock Theater in “Sadler’s Wells Sampled,” part of the Olympics Arts Festival.

What the window-peekers also see, whether they realize it or not, is … wait … is this a time warp?

Because there on the studio’s sprung floor is a Princess Grace Award winner, and it’s not Andrea Parson, who won the coveted fellowship in 2010. Or rather, it is Parson, but not just Parson: Nieto was named this month as a 2012 winner, and both of them are out there, happily time warping away.

For young artists, the Princess Grace Award is one of the highest individual recognitions in the biz, and for a single small company to have two winners in three years is a coup. Parson, a riveting, precise and dramatic dancer, has become in many ways the face of the company. Nieto is compact and powerful, with an explosive and athletic stage personality, and believe him when he says the announcement surprised and overwhelmed him: “It was, like, that unstoppable feeling in the back of your head. Tears flowing down.”

The awards, named for the late Princess Grace of Monaco, are extremely selective: each year, only six dancers receive one. The scholarships and fellowships honor promising students and outstanding emerging professionals in theater, dance, and film, and they’re coveted not just for their prestige but also for the money that comes with them: For a company working on a tight budget, a Princess Grace Award can cover a dancer’s salary for a full year. Since the awards began in 1984, the sponsoring Princess Grace Foundation-USA has given out more than $9.5 million in prizes.

Performers with Oregon connections did exceedingly well in this year’s awards, which will be presented at a ceremony in New York on October 22:

  • Former Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Rachel V. Tess, who now is a company member at Cullberg Ballet and splits her time between Portland and Sweden, won one of just two special project awards. Her grant will pay for a six-week residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York to work on a dance/design collaborative project. Tess, also a founder of Rumpus Room Dance, was a 2003 award winner in modern dance.
  • Actor Patrick Page

    And Broadway actor Patrick Page, who grew up in the Willamette Valley town of Monmouth and acted for several seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, won one of two $25,000 Princess Grace Statue Awards, given to past winners (he was an acting fellow in 1988) who have gone on to distinguish themselves in their careers. Page received uniformly rave reviews for his turn as the villainous Green Goblin in the troubled megamusical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. In many critics’ accounts, he was the show’s saving grace. As Terry Teachout wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Page has a voice like a cathedral organ and enough charisma to blast Mr. Carney into the next county, and you can tell that he’s having a grand old time playing a supervillain.”

In a way, Northwest Dance Project’s moment in the Olympics spotlight reflected Nieto’s own career: He’s a former athlete who didn’t switch to dance full-time until he was a comparatively old 16 (he turns 26 in September) and who spent a year and a half touring Europe as part of the extremely athletic company Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance, performing its pop hit Rock the Ballet night after night.

As a kid, Nieto played football (his dad was his coach), soccer, and baseball, worked out on trampoline, and did gymnastics. Those skills continue to pay dividends in the highly physical world of dance. Gymnastics, he notes, “gives you a sense of being a little more fearless.” Even football has its applications: “The first thing you learn with a partner, you have to go down to go up. That’s the same as tackling. Lift with your legs, not with your back.”

Swift and powerful, Nieto brings a distinct physical edge to the stage. Compared to many ballet dancers, he says, “I’m more grounded and earthy of a mover. And I have tattoos. I break the mold.” Like many good dancers he’s compact (“my bio says I’m 5-8, but I’m really 5-7 and three-quarters”) but seems bigger on stage than in person. He credits that partly to his teacher Tracey Durbin, who taught him, he says, “You have your joints, but you can move beyond your joints. You have two or three inches to stretch your joints.”

Dancer Franco Nieto. Photo: Katie Schurman

Sarah Slipper, NWDP’s artistic director and the person who got his Princess Grace application rolling last spring, loves the skills and attitude he brings to the company. “He’s an incredible mover, he’s incredibly charismatic, he works with his company members, and choreographers love to work with him,” she says. “I call him a panther, but he likes to call himself a beast.”

Nieto, smiling in an unbeastly manner, agrees. “There’s something animalistic I love about tearing up the stage,” he says. “When it comes to dancing I’m more of a creature.” Still, he says, lately he’s begun to appreciate the advantages of broadening his perspective and reaching for the sensitivity in the beast: “I’m learning, sometimes if you pull it back a bit, you’re more aware of the things around you.”

As much as he stands out on a theater stage, Nieto is also typical of a certain type of learner: He comes at things sideways. Those are precisely the kids who are abandoned the most as budget-squeezed school districts whack back on arts and other so-called “enhancement” programs.

“Growing up, I was the dumb kid, in a sense,” he recalls, because things didn’t come easily in traditional academics. Visual art, anything hands-on, was a different story: “I was fine with it.” Fortunately, he attended the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, across the Columbia River from Portland. Initially he went for the school’s visual arts classes: “My dream was to be either a cartoonist or a tattoo artist.”

Soon enough he switched to dance, with his family’s wholehearted support. “I dove in and went hard-core,” he recalls. “Once I set my mind to it, there was no other way. My dad said, ‘I don’t care what you do with your life, but whatever you do, do it 110 percent. Because otherwise you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.”

Eventually that led him to the highly regarded Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where he graduated with a degree in jazz dance in 2009, and to NWDP, and Bad Boys, and back home again to NWDP. He’s traveled a somewhat parallel path with his friend Spenser Theberge, another young dancer from Vancouver, who went to Juilliard, won a Princess Grace Award in 2008, and now dances with Nederlands Dans Theater.

Still, he says, “I didn’t see myself winning” the Princess Grace competition, and by the time the call came after a complicated few months, he’d almost forgotten about it. At one point, stressing out about the whole thing, he’d asked Parson, the 2010 winner, how he should prepare and what he should put on the videotape that went with his application.

“She said, ‘You do what you do. When it comes down to it, they’re just looking for a new artist or a new mover. You’ve just got to be yourself, because you can’t make their decision.’”

As timely advice goes, that doesn’t sound a bit warped.


 Once you’ve won a Princess Grace Award you’re part of an unofficial family, and sometimes that means you can go back for more. Page’s $25,000 award is an example of that. So is Rachel Tess’s 2012 project grant.

Rachel Tess. Photo: Michael Mazzola

Tess has led an intriguing dance life. She danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre from 1998 to 2000, graduated from Juilliard in 2004, performed with Lar Lubovich Dance Company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens du Montreal and Gothenburg (Sweden) Ballet, and was a founder of Rumpus Room Dance, based in Portland and Sweden. Along the line she’s moved more and more into choreography.

This year’s Princess Grace project grant is to develop, in her words, “a mobile environment/room that can be dropped into a wide range of locations.” She’s interested in how different environments affect performance. To that end, designer Gian Monti is working on a controlled space that can be moved easily from one place to another, “much like a caravan belonging to a traveling minstrel.” The project will also include dancers Anna Perhsson and Adam Schutt, and lighting designer Michael Mazzola, who is resident designer for Oregon Ballet Theatre and has worked extensively with Rumpus Room.

Best news, at least for Portlanders? “I am currently seeking venues and dates for a Portland premiere of this project.”









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