Risk/Reward Festival review: value proposition

Annual showcase takes audiences on the journey from artistic concept to realization

Here’s the deal with Portland’s annual Risk/Reward Festival. Artists take a risk by trying something new, often a segment of a work in progress, in a forum where audiences expect various levels of development. Audiences take a risk on new, unvetted work. The reward for the artists: audience feedback, a deadline to get work going, some ideas about how to proceed. For audiences: the thrill of seeing new, sometimes experimental work aborning — and this year, at whatever price they want to pay. More than ever, that deal is a real bargain.

Now in its 10th year, this year’s festival risked one filmed and five staged contributions, and produced as many different outcomes: a concept that seemed promising but the execution shaky, or simply incomplete; another that felt conceptually underdeveloped; another that seemed overextended — and one glorious creation that brought together a powerful concept with an exceptionally moving performance.

Linda Austin Dance’s ‘A world, a world.’ Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

You could spot the driving concept for Linda Austin’s A world, a world on the floor, in the music, even on the dancers’ bodies: collage. Both costumes and floor design resembled a scattering of fragments, and the dancers “produce a constant low-level, barely or sporadically decipherable humming, mumbling, and singing of a textual collage from news headlines, songs & poetry, periodically going to headphones mounted on a movable step unit, to receive and channel sound bites referencing the worlds of politics, pop culture, ‘high’ culture, science and philosophy, riffing on these sound bites until they need another ‘hit.’” Austin’s program note explains. What showed up on stage was strolling dancers forming then abandoning various groupings and formations, gestures falling in and out of group coordination, while chanting random snippets of songs and other pop culture ephemera that elicited occasional chuckles of recognition.


DanceWatch Weekly: The Risk/Reward bargain

Risk/Reward's 10th anniversary festival highlights the week in dance

Usually a curator knows what an artist’s work is going to look like before it hits the stage, but in the case of the Risk/Reward Festival of New Performance, those creations aren’t revealed until opening night.

The festival, which opens Friday night at Artist Repertory Theatre and is directed by Jerry Tischleder, is interested in supporting the creative process more than the finished product. The end result is a selection of 20-minute works that break boundaries and new artistic ground, by merging together multiple genres of dance, music, theatre, performance art, film and more.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend, the festival will includes; a lobby film installation, karaoke, a post-show concert, and new performance works by well-known Portland choreographers Linda Austin and Pepper Pepper, alongside visiting artists Queen Shmooquan, Pam Tzeng, Kiana Harris, Shannon Stewart/Donal Mosher, and Coley Mixan.

What is the risk for the audience? There isn’t one. Especially not monetarily. Because this year, all tickets are pay-what-you-will, for the entire festival.

The reward, in my opinion, is that we (the audience) are not being “sold” on what to expect from the performances, because the presenter doesn’t know what the artists are presenting ahead of time. In today’s world where we are constantly being bombarded with marketing for things to buy, I find this approach to be a reprieve.

Also in Portland dance this week, visiting Pakistani Bharatanatyam dancer Amna Mawaz Khan will perform in Theatre Wallay at Artists Repertory Theater and give a performance and talk Tuesday night at New Expressive Works about living life “underground” as a Bharatanatyam dancer in Pakistan. For you musical theatre buffs, Roundabout Theatre Company’s Cabaret is here on tour from New York, and for ballet lovers, Sleeping Beauty is brought back to life by the students of June Taylor’s School of Dance.

Plus…lots of sun. Enjoy it all!

Performances this week

Risk/Reward Festival Of New Performance, June 23-24. Photo of Linda Austin Dance courtesy of Risk/Reward.

Risk/Reward Festival Of New Performance
Participating artists: Linda Austin Dance, Queen Shmooquan, Pam Tzeng, Pepper Pepper, Kiana Harris, Shannon Stewart/Donal Mosher, and Coley Mixan
Produced by Jerry Tischleder
June 23-24
Artist Repertory Theatre, Alder Stage, 1515 SW Alder St.
See above.

Bharatanatyam dancer Amna Mawaz Khan. Photo courtesy of New Expressive Works.

Amna Mawaz Khan-Lecture and Bharatnatyam dance performance
Presented by Subashini Ganesan/New Expressive Works in partnership with Linda Alper of Artist Repertory Theater
6:30 pm June 27th
New Expressive Works (In the WYSE Building), 810 SE Belmont St.
Use building doors located on the South side of the building.
Pakistani Bharatanatyam dancer Amna Mawaz Khan began her dance training at the age of eleven from one of Pakistan’s oldest living dance exponents of the form, Indu Mitha. She has performed worldwide, and has recently run for an elected office in Islamabad, connecting her practice of resistance politics to that of her dancing.

Khan will talk about her experience dancing Indian dances in Pakistan, along with how her dance teacher adjusted Bharatanatyam, which is a South Indian form of classical dance, to suit the Pakistani culture and languages.

Sleeping Beauty, June Taylor’s School of Dance, June 24th at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Photo courtesy of June Taylor School of Dance.

Sleeping Beauty
June Taylor’s School of Dance
June 24th at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
Portland Community College Sylvania Performing Art Center, 12000 Southeast 49th Ave.
With music by Ilyich Tchaikovsky and steps by Marius Petipa, the students of June Taylor’s School of Dance from five to eighteen, will dance the story of Princess Aurora, cursed by the evil Carabosse to prick her finger on a spindle and die on her 16th birthday. Of course good triumphs over evil, and the powerful and righteous fairies intervene, rescuing Aurora from death, and uniting her with her prince.

JTSD students Helia Megowan will be dancing the leading role of Aurora, Sarah Valesano will perform the Lilac Fairy, Michelle Oakman will perform Carabosse, and Lauren Wattenburg will dance the role of the Bluebird. All original Petipa choreography is staged by June Taylor-Dixon, and additional choreography adapted for JTSD’s younger dancers is by June Taylor-Dixon, Rachel Fleming, and Rebecca Hasler.

Cabaret by Roundabout Theatre Company, presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland. June 27-July 2, Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St. Photo courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company.

Roundabout Theatre Company
Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
June 27-July 2
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
In pre-war Germany, as the Nazis gain power, drama unfold between a young writer and Sally Bowles, a singer at the seedy Berlin nightclub called the Kit Kat Club. Nightlife is alluring, but dangerous, and times are uncertain. The Emcee, a ghoulish persona, tantalizes the crowd with his raucous, debauched performers, helping them to forget. In the musical’s final scene, as the Emcee is giving his Auf Wiedersehens, Sally Bowles says, “It’ll all work out, it’s only politics, what’s it got to do with us?” A nod to the society’s blindness towards the Nazi regime, and a relevant critique today.

Upcoming Performances

June 29-30, Choreography XX, Oregon Ballet Theatre
June 30, Spectacle Garden 13: The End, Hosted by Ben Martens
June 30-July 1, Improvisation Summit of Portland 2017, Hosted by The Creative Music Guild and Disjecta
July 5, ARCOS studio showing, ARCOS Dance
July 6, Éowyn Emerald & Dancers
July 8, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton Farmers Market, Directed by Mike Barber
July 14-15, Rantum Skoot, Linda Austin, Gregg Bielemeier, Bob Eisen (NYC), and Sada Naegelin & Leah Wilmoth
July 14-16, Apparatus, by Danielle Ross
July 15, Rush Hour, Heidi Duckler Dance Theater Northwest
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 26, Movement and Flow: Portland Dance Films, Hosted by NW Film Center featuring films by Conrad Kazcor, Fuchsia Lin, Dylan Wilbur Media, Gabriel Shalom, Jackie Davis, and Amy Yang Chiao
July 29, Hafla, Portland Bellydance Guild
August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
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

ArtsWatch Weekly: a Tempest and an operatic pot shot

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

WELL, SHOOT. The whole thing explodes into a duel, of course, but before that there’s a tangled romance, and a cad’s carelessness, and a whole lot of glorious singing, and, well, why not a wintry tale for a midsummer opera? Portland Opera moves into the cozier confines of the Newmark Theatre beginning Friday night for its new production of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera based on Pushkin’s verse novel, and things are looking promising – if not for Onegin himself, who lives to deeply regret shooting his best friend, Lensky, then for the audience. ArtsWatch’s Christa Morletti McIntyre interviewed stage director Kevin Newbury, fresh off his acclaimed world-premiere production of Fellow Travelers at Cincinnati Opera, and discovered his plan to create an Onegin that will resonate with his fellow Gen Xers. Newbury has reset the late 19th century tale in the 1980s, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and crumbling of the Berlin Wall. The “political and nuclear-threatening war of grudges” between East and West, McIntyre writes, helped “to unpack the meanings and individual lives impacted by this new kind of war, which was as visually stunning as it was oppressive and terrorizing.” All that, of course, plus some gorgeous music.

Ilya Repin, "Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's Duel," 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons

Ilya Repin, “Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky’s Duel,” 1899, watercolor, white lead and India ink on paper, Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Wikimedia Commons



JULY’S FIRST THURSDAY IS THIS WEEK, and there is considerable to look forward to the monthly gallery walk. (Some galleries open shows on Last Friday or First Friday or according to their own schedules). A few we have our eye on: J.D. Perkin’s Island, an exhibit of the Portland sculptor’s fascinating-looking contemporary busts, coupled with some selected works by the late, great Robert Colescott, at Laura Russo Gallery; Sarah Siestreem’s Winter Work paintings, with Cynthia Mosser’s Beach Body, at Augen; the all-star anniversary lineup at PDX Contemporary in A Stand of Pine in a Tilled Field: 21 Years at PDX; the stylized figures and settings of R. Keaney Rathbun’s Memory and Stone, at Waterstone; and Blackfish’s annual Recent Graduates Exhibition of work from Oregon’s college and university art departments. Also, the Portland Biennial, an ambitious overview of work by 34 contemporary artists, opens Saturday at Disjecta, and should be well worth a long look. And on the north coast in Astoria, K.B. Dixon’s 32 Faces, his black-and-white environmental portraits of well-known Oregon artists in their elements, opens Saturday. ArtsWatch wrote about the exhibit when it opened at Michael Parsons Fine Art in Portland in February.


Dance Weekly: The drag stars have aligned

Pepper Pepper and Cherdonna Shinatra expand the limits of drag

You are in luck! This week the stars, drag stars that is, have aligned and will be performing right here in Portland. Those stars are Pepper Pepper, aka Kaj-anne Pepper, from Portland, who will be performing D.I.V.A Practice; and Cherdonna Shinatra, aka Jody Keuhner from Seattle, who will be performing Worth My Salt, presented by Risk/Reward.

Both artists are working at the intersection of dance and drag, but one is a man dressed as a drag queen and the other is a woman, dressed as a man, dressed as a drag queen. I won’t tell you who’s who. Shinatra is having an existential crisis while exploring femininity and gender inequality, while Pepper explores embodiment, identity and physicality.

Two weeks ago when D.I.V.A Practice first opened, I interviewed Pepper for ArtsWatch and asked him to talk about his piece: “An important element of D.I.V.A PRACTICE is the quest to know one’s worth, to dance between autonomy and a crippling co-dependency with the audience.”

This past week both Shinatra and Pepper were interviewed on OPB’s The State of Wonder by Producer Aaron Scott. They discussed drag clowning as a characteristic of the Northwest, the prevalence of misogyny in drag and many other pertinent things. The whole conversation is available for listening on OPB’s website.

Another great interview to learn more about Shinatra is A Fiendish Conversation with Jody Keuhner (Cherdonna Shinatra) by Seth Sommerfeld for the Seattle newspaper Seattle Met. Keuhner/Shinatra talks more about the modern dance side of her life and the creation of Shinatra as a character .

There is a lot of power in anonymity, like disappearing underneath elaborate costumes and makeup, it tends to make you feel braver than you normally would because no one can see YOU, enabling you to do and say things you normally wouldn’t. This weekends performances by Pepper and Shinatra will definitely frame conversations in new ways shedding light on difficult subjects in a funny, quirky way, with plenty of glitter, gigantic wigs and tons of eye makeup.

Performances this week


The Jefferson Dancers. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Jefferson Dancers Spring Concert 2016 and 40th Anniversary
April 27-30
The Newmark Theatre, Antoinette Hatfield Hall, 1111 SW Broadway Ave
Celebrating their 40th anniversary, the Jefferson Dancers, a Portland Public Schools dance training program and company based at Jefferson High School in North Portland, will be performing choreography by the faculty as well as sharing the stage with former Jefferson dancers.

The program will include a duet by Director Steve Gonzales and French exchange student Charlotte Faillard from 2001-02 on Friday and Saturday night as well a piece for the whole company by alums T.J. Yale, Kasia Wihelmi and Gerran Reese.

The breakdown of alumni performers by night

Wednesday night:Graduates from the 1980’s
Choreographers:Heather Fralia Borgens / Sara Mishler Martins / Andrea Stofiel
Dancers-Jennifer Allen 1986-1988 / Donna Buckmeyer Grobey 1984-1986 / Randy Davis 1981-1984 / Ron Eckert 1988-1989 / Heather Fralia Borgens 1987-1988 / Wendy Graybill Rogers 1987-1989 / Stephanie Hale Pinto 1987-1988 / Claire Leedy 1986-1989 / Dina Mehlhaff Radzwillowicz 1986-1988 / Sara Mishler Martins 1987-1989 / Kristina Cernin Musgrove 1984-1987 / Kim Reis 1984-1988 / Addam Stell 1988-1989 / Andrea Stofiel Thompson 1988-1989 / Sonia Warfel 1988-1989

Thursday night:Graduates from the 1990’s
Choreographers-Amy Bonaduce / Damon Keller / Tony Loupe / Damien Rice / Ashley Marostica
Dancers-Nora Aron 1998 / Racheal Banks (Smith) 1995-1997 / Amy Bonaduce 1994 / Lisa Grant 1988-1992 / Demetria “Bunky” Holden-Williams 1993-1996 / Damon Keller 1995-1998 / Tony Loupe 1989-1993 / Ashley Marostica-Thompson 1998 / Damien Rice 1994-1998 / Eric C. Smith 1990-1992

Friday night and Saturday matinee: 2000’s
Choreographer – Rachel Slater and Mykey Lopez
Dancers-Corinne (Craig) Cooksey 2003-2005 / Maddi Evans 2005-2007 / Jessa Freeman 2000-2001 / Aubrey Grajales 2007-2010 / Mykey Lopez 2002-2003 / Anna Lescher Fife 1999-2004 / Rebecca Palmer 2002-2003 / Rachel Slater 2002-2003

Saturday night: 20TEENS
Choreographed and performed by-Bryn Hlava 2010-2012 / Kentrel Wesson 2010-2012 / Mia O’Connor 2008-2012 / Sarah Gomez 2009-2012 / Quinlan Neilson 2009-2014

Dance Wire Dance Passport participant. Click for details.


Dance of the Dream Man: A Twin Peaks Story by TriptheDark. Photo courtesy of TriptheDark.

Dance of the Dream Man: A Twin Peaks Story
April 28-April 30
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut Street
With a script written by local playwright Ellen Margolis, TriptheDark, an indie Portland dance company, will harken back to the early days of Twin Peaks, a creepy David Lynch TV series from the early 1990’s, to explore lines from the original series and dig deeper into the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death. If you are unfamiliar with the series you can catch up on Wikipedia or the Twin Peaks fan page and follow the filming of the revival of the series.

TriptheDark, directed by Corinne deWaard and Stephanie Seaman, likes to perform in unusual venues as a way to reach non-traditional dance audiences and grow the appreciation of the art form.

Dance Wire Dance Passport participant. Click for details.

In The Heights
Stumptown Stages
April 27-May 1
Brunish Theatre, Antoinette Hatfield Hall, 1111 SW Broadway Ave
Over the course of three days in a predominantly Dominican-American neighborhood in the Washington Heights section of New York City, a community rallies together in a neighborhood struggle. Infused with Latin rhythms, dance and hip-hop lyrics, this Tony Award-winning musical is about chasing your dreams while remembering where you came from.


Pepper Pepper and Mr. E in D.I.V.A Practice. Photo courtesy of Pepper Pepper.

D.I.V.A Practice
A night of dance and contemporary drag by Pepper Pepper
April 29-May 1
N.E.W. Expressive Works/Studio 2-Zoomtopia, 810 SE Belmont St. #2
Choreographer and performance artist Kaj-anne Pepper, also known as Pepper Pepper, will perform alongside drag artist Mr. E to an original score by Cabiria Jones, exploring what it means to be fabulous in the face of uncertainty while questioning the significance of drag and gender in contemporary culture.

Dance Wire Dance Passport participant. Click for details.

Fuse—Portland Dance Portrait
The photography exhibit of Jingzi Zhao
April 1-May 1
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave.
For one month, Polaris will be hosting a sneak peek of “Fuse – Portland Dance Portrait,” a project by the photographer Jingzi Zhao. “Fuse” captures dancers on location, in historic landmarks, neighborhoods, and businesses around Portland, to showcase the beauty, culture and lifestyles of Portland.

Zhao’s larger body of work will be exhibited at the Multnomah Arts Center from October 7-25.

Jazz Through The Ages
Wild Rumpus Jazz Company
April 29-30
Performance Works NorthWest, 4625 SE 67th Ave
In the manner of it’s namesake Wild Rumpus Jazz Co., co-founded by Kelsey Adams and Lucy Brush, is here to get the party started and bring jazz dance back to Portland. Its inaugural performance, “Jazz Through The Ages,” celebrates the rich history of jazz dance while having fun.

The history of jazz dance is rooted in African American vernacular dance and over time branched out into many different styles including tap, Broadway, funk, hip-hop, Afro-Caribbean, Latin, Pop, club jazz, popping, B-boying, party dances and many more. A few notable jazz choreographers were Katherine Dunham, Jack Cole, Lester Horton and Bob Fosse. But there were many many more. Well known Portland jazz teachers and choreographers include Tracey Durbin and Mary Hunt.

cherdonna - worth my salt 2 (3 of 29) copy

Cherdonna Shinatra in WORTH MY SALT. Photo courtesy of Cherdonna Shinatra.

by Cherdonna Shinatra/Jody Kuehner
Presented by Risk/Reward
Apr 29-May 1
12 pm April 30, Workshop with Jody Kuehner at Flock Dance Center
Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave
See above.


Vitality Dance in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Vitality Dance.

(IN) significant-The Mundane and The Meaningful
Vitality Dance
4 pm April 30
New Expressive Works/Studio 2-Zoomtopia, 810 SE Belmont St. #2
Vitality Dance Collective, a vision of Kristina York, was created for adults dancers who dance, but don’t have the time to dedicate themselves full time to the art. The company acts as a collective, supporting the choreographic vision of all its members, and enjoys being not easily definable. They are about innovation, authenticity and fun.

Coming up next week and the week after

May 1-29, Chinese Dance for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Malik Pcr Delgado, Victoria Chen, and Jingzi Zhao
May 4, Malposa, White Bird Dance
May 5-7, Featuring works by Trey McIntyre, Gregg Bielemeier, Jason Davis, George Balanchine and Anne Mueller, The Portland Ballet’s Spring Concert
May 5-7, I Just Want One Tiny Thing, And I Talk Too Much, WolfBird Dance
May 6-8, From Within, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 9, Noontime Showcase: OBT2, Advanced students of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre
May 10, Formosa Circus Art, The The Taiwanese Association of Greater Portland
May 12, WE’RE FROM HERE: 3 PDX dancers/film and performance, presented by KBOO Community Radio
May 12-21, Exposed, Polaris Dance Theatre
May 14, Props to Bellydance!, Ruby Beh and Co.
May 20-21, TRACES, Sara Naegelin and Mark Koenigsberg
May 20-21, HAVA | חוה, The Holding Project
May 20-22, Now Then: A Prologue, Allie Hankins

ArtsWatch Weekly: popcorn time

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

What does ArtsWatch watch? Pretty much, the culture in and around Portland: plays, dance, art, music, ideas that interest us and interest you. In other words, we’re local: What’s going on here and now that’s worth seeing and thinking about?

Still, local means a very different thing in 2016 than it did in 1816 or 1416, when travel was difficult and the idea of place was much more isolated. Today, ideas and influences arrive from everywhere. We’re hooked into a global culture whether we like it or not. Portland is an open city. It might have a bubble, but it doesn’t have a wall. Culturally, that means that much of what we think of as local – what we read and see and hear and even eat – is arriving from somewhere else, influencing the ways we live and think and sometimes, in turn, being influenced by what it encounters here. “Local” is an extremely fluid, and often arbitrary, concept.

A Japanese snow monkey in the widescreen visual poem "Baraka."

A Japanese snow monkey in the widescreen visual poem “Baraka.”

So this week, let’s go to the movies.

Actually, we go to quite a few of these vivid interlopers from the “outside” world, and we’ve been writing about them, insightfully and entertainingly, as a vital part of our local culture. Our expanded film coverage, under the expert eye of critic and editor Marc Mohan, includes reviews, interviews, and now, a weekly film newsletter, FilmWatch Weekly, in which Mohan spotlights a few fresh films (in his first letter, it was the made-in-Portland Green Room, starring the legendary Patrick Stewart) and keeps you up-to-date on all the movies we think you’ll find of interest: not the mainstream blockbusters, usually, but the genuinely interesting, challenging, and sometimes risky stuff.


Risk/Reward 2014 in Review

Out on the edge of the edge, the annual festival takes the risk of rising or falling off the cliff

There’s nothing quite like the Risk/Reward Festival, the annual independently curated showcase of six 20-minute West Coast performance art pieces that runs three times in Portland in one glorious June weekend. (Well, PICA’s TBA is a bit like it…but much more sprawling: R/R remains concise).

The Neutral Fembot Project took on Cindy Sherman's wig fetish with irrepressible zeal.

The Neutral Fembot Project took on Cindy Sherman’s wig fetish with irrepressible zeal.

If you missed it last weekend, don’t fret; the Risk/Reward organization has started sponsoring a few longer shows, so you can still plan way ahead to catch local choreographer Allie Hankins’ Like A Sun That Pours Forth Light But Never Warmth on Oct. 24-26. Meanwhile, ArtsWatch presents a pretty thorough play-by-play of the pieces below. From a pregnancy belly backpack to an exploding bag of Cheerios, this year’s show was full of surprises. It also revealed a few trends, like cis-woman self-parody and distorted dance music, while honoring a couple of perennial performance-art favorites: looping pedals! nudity!

Risk/Reward’s festival director, Jerry Tischleder, once explained his curatorial philosophy to me:

Often the work artists propose has yet to be premiered. Since we don’t know what we’re going to get, we just choose based on which ideas fascinate us the most. In the end, some of the artists will come up with something out of the blue that’s totally amazing, and some will fall flat on their face. Either way, since each piece only lasts about 20 minutes, unlike a play or a longer work, the audience isn’t “locked in”—and neither is the performer. By the way, you’re allowed to accept or reject any artist’s presentation based on whether or not it connects for you, even if their intention is very serious. It’s not like you’re trying to kill somebody’s puppies.

With that in mind, as well as all due respect for the bravery, resourcefulness, and commitment it takes to create any performance art piece, let’s revisit Risk/Reward 2014:


Laura Heit’s
The Letting Go

Risk/Reward’s curators have shown consistent (and regionally appropriate) appreciation for the art of puppetry, first inviting puppeteer Kyle Loven to perform a moon-gazing short in 2011, then sponsoring his return with the 75-minute Loss Machine this spring.

In this year’s regular showcase, puppet artist Laura Heit presented a work that brought to mind Loven’s first: black-and-white, spooky-sweet. She also shares an oblique connection to the recent (unaffiliated) release of Lessons Learned: both she and that film’s creator, Toby Froud, got a boost from the Jim Henson Foundation.

At the start of Heit’s show, several sets of white paper dollhouses were arrayed onstage like a cluster of Christmas villages. Around them hovered four black-clad puppet technicians, a big-screen projection, and a live violist with a looping pedal array. Heit narrated her ghostly tale in a few words: “B,” a guy Heit was dating years back, was haunted by a female ghost, or succubus. This mysterious being hectored her, B’s girlfriend, with typical ghost tricks like turning off lights and hiding Heit’s clothes while she slept. Both Heit and B believed that the ghost was trying to “suck” B’s soul from his body, and on one distressing night, Heit awoke to find a sheet tied around her feet. While most puppet work is proudly fictitious, Heit claims that this particular story is true.

Believers and skeptics alike would easily be “sucked in” by Heit’s bleakly beautiful, childishly simple storytelling. While Jordan Dykstra tastefully layered eerie moans of viola (with a sensibility similar to Alicia Jo Rabins’ recent Kadish for Bernie Madoff), the puppeteers and Heit crept from one paper house to the next, shining flashlights and floating paper figures into the shadowy little rooms, projecting each scene onto the big screen and, through some mysterious device, melding the live elements with Peter Ksander’s animations of ghostly swimming silhouettes on a black background.

Each black-and-white set held a bed and a puppet of B, and hosted a flying white specter with a flowing skirt and hair. Some, but not all, of the beds also hosted a puppet of Heit. Otherwise, the sets varied in scale and detail, allowing the same scene to be shot from different angles, with varying focal points. One rotating tableau of the neighborhood provided a long-distance bird’s eye view, one version of the house unfolded its rooms accordion-style, some larger puppets of boots and feet skittered along the floor to lend the story suspense. At one point, Heit stood so that the live shadow of her legs aligned with the legs of her puppet projection while puppeteers bound her (and her likeness’s) ankles together in a white sheet. Somewhat reminiscent of TBA:12’s animator/performer/projection trickster Miwa Matreyek, this wizardry that synergized live action with onscreen images was a highlight.


The Neutral Fembot Project’s
Untitled #__________

A space alien who researched humanity strictly by attending performance art shows (stick with me) might surmise that drag queens know the most about human femininity. Certainly past performances at Risk/Reward and TBA could contribute to that impression, as the likes of SissyBoy alum Kaj-Anne Pepper have assumed, then dismantled, the poses of womanhood. However, this year at R/R, cis-women (which is to say, lifelong ladyparts-havers) lampooned their own gender roles as gleefully as the savviest queen in the biggest boa, starting with…

…Camille Cettina, Anne Sorce, and Grace Carter, who preened, posed, and mugged while changing wigs and clothes in an homage to seminal performance-disguise-artist Cindy Sherman. Sorce and Cettina are two thirds of Push Leg Productions, which memorably adapted Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks into a silent movement-theater piece in 2012/13 and is currently devising a new movement tryptich, Hook Line & Sinker. Grace Carter is an actor and filmmaker about town.

Program notes also credited contemp-dance maven Linda Austin, who was in attendance, and photographer Holly Andres, whose influence showed. Andres has spoken before about her affinity for shooting subjects with “mannered” hands: graceful, feminine poses lifted from religious and Renaissance art that are so exaggerated and expressive they’d practically pass for moudras. Carter at least has worked with Andres before, and the whole trio put on “mannered,” self-conscious, hyper-feminine airs along with their glamorous garb.

As the piece progressed, the electronic music distorted. The Fembots also let more of their devices show. Between wigs, they flashed stocking-covered heads. Between outfits, they showed more underclothes. They floundered around with comical props (egg cartons, beer can, suitcase) and applied makeup with frantic, fitful intensity. They donned some of Sherman’s more gender-ambivalent clothes and their corresponding characters with deranged excitement, as if discovering them for the first time through a haze of manic delusion.

Is Sherman herself elated, maybe even manic, each time she changes form? Possibly…but her statements about her work, the precision of her process, and the long span of her career suggest less impulsive giddiness than careful calibration. Sure, some of her images are cartoonish, but more are mysterious, vulnerable and haunting, brought to life by mixed motivations. While the Neutral Fembot Project delivered a few drag-queen-worthy homages to Sherman’s characters, it also reduced her artistic exploration of identity to a frivolous game of dress-up … and though the performance was entertaining, the pose was unflattering.


Ilvs Strauss’s

Ilvs Strauss has a knack for simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-effacing. In Everything Everything Everything, a long storytelling session with music breaks that  she performed with Wesley K. Andrews last October at Action/Adventure, she humble-bragged about wearing a tiger costume to the park and heroically pursuing romance with a shallow straight girl. Manifesto carries over some of those motifs (animal costume, check), but this time Strauss shows as well as tells, and her inner monologue has vastly matured. Musings about beer, crushes and sneaking into festivals have subsided, making room for the significant dilemma of whether or not to bear a child.

Strauss performed a silent movement routine to her own voice-over narration, creating the impression that we were hearing her thoughts and she was acting on them. In a boyish vest-suit, she busted debonair moves to a record-skip sample of Natural Woman. Her disembodied voice-over comically recounted an early childhood memory of waiting for a red sea cucumber to poop, then more seriously confessed her lack of desire to have children. Strauss’s expressive brow and body followed the verbal prompts, emphasizing each individual thought. At a certain point, Strauss broadened the topic to the “feminine muscle” she might flex to create … not only life, but things. Declaring herself “hella [creatively] pregnant,” she instructed the audience to “Wait right here!” and ran offstage, re-emerging in a giant, red, spiky, homemade sea cucumber costume.

Acknowledging that it was phallic, Strauss explained that she also saw it as vulvic, and proceeded to: a) shoot spring-loaded snakes from the costume while doing a victory dance; b) emerge from it semi-nude and curled in a fetal position, in a kind of simulated self-birth; and, c) extract her next costume change from it (to the probable delight of the Neutral Fembots). Now she wore gray beachcomber clothes and blew a conch, and discussed the only circumstances under which she might consider pregnancy: if she were the last woman on earth, or if her sister wanted a baby and required a surrogate. “It’s only nine months!” she reckoned, donning a backpack retrofitted with a stuffed khaki pregnancy belly and saggy cargo-pocket breasts. Even now, she distanced herself from the condition by wearing it backwards, hefting it as a necessary burden that a strong tomboy should be willing to bear. Boys’ choir, whales’ chorus, and the sounds of surf finally carried Strauss’s stream of consciousness offstage … but her choice of props had left indelible mental images of a universal real-life dilemma.


Erin Pike’s

(Ednote: Initially misremembered as a sendup of Hollywood scripts, this piece actually culled its material from America’s most-produced plays. The following is amended with strikethroughs to reflect updates. We all make mistakes.)

Stagehands draped the set in tulle … mostly white, with one or two splashes of ominous red. Little round tables covered in white cloths, a wine glass. Prom? Wedding? Menses? Murder? Erin Pike was about to confront new dramady clichés head-on by reciting a list of one-liners and character descriptors that Courtney Meaker had compiled from real-life movie and TV theater scripts.

As a passage of Christina Aguilera’s What A Girl Wants blasted, then distorted, then decayed (a lot of this treatment going aroud…), Pike strode confidently onstage in a cheap pink evening gown clutching a stack of headshots, all of the same actress. She seemed to be reading casting ads in a rapid-fire cadence: Name. Age. Terse description of ethnicity or body type. Perhaps most tellingly, relationship to the main character: Sister. Aunt. Girlfriend. After each one, she flung one of the headshots onto the floor. Many were defaced by Sharpie doodles: Hitler Mustache. Blackened tooth. Penis. The indignity.

Once the headshots were out of her hands, Pike’s monologue mutated from casting calls to actual script lines, and she changed her voice and stance with whiplash rapidity to match each one. Many, interestingly, were self-descriptive, peppered with “I ams,” and “I’m nots.” Still spewing lines, she toyed with props: a wine glass, an invisible dog leash, an old-fashioned telephone. Somewhere along the way, the dress came off. In rhinestone bra-cups and a bow-backed peekaboo thong, Pike revealed a svelte, youthful body that conforms to industry standards…and continued to make an industry-appropriate ass of herself with trite lines and fake crying, dousing her face in water from an eyedropper and letting her false eyelashes droop onto her fevered cheeks.

One has to wonder whether the male equivalent of this display would be more dignified, or equally, differently, ridiculous. Where women are scripted women to natter on about themselves and beg pitifully for acceptance and love, men also get plenty of terrible tripe: “Always be closing”-inspired salesman bluster, for instance, has run its course but keeps arising. Perhaps in some sectors male character cliches seem cooler … but from a performance-art-fest-goer’s perspective, they’re at least as far short of relevant discourse as any sad-girl shenanigans.

But that’s outside the purview of Pike’s presentation, which made its point: Here’s a big, concentrated dose of what Hollywood theater makes women look like right now. Can you take it?


Lucy Lee Yim’s
Devastation Melody

Lucy Lee Yim is part of what may be the fringiest faction of local modern dance, with Tahni Holt, Linda K. Johnson, and FLOCK at Disjecta. Naturally, her creative process would ask: Why dance to music when you can dance to words? Why articulate those words when you could grunt sounds? Why sounds at all, when silence is available? Push push push against norms and expectations, toward originality and abstraction. Further out, and further.

Yim’s costume, oddly, seemed über-traditional, cutting a figure that would easily blend in with a Japanese woodblock print. Her hair fell in long, straight pigtails with bangs; she wore black, loose-fitting culottes and a baggy blouse, accented by two trailing ends of red ribbon on one side of her waist. Her moves, however, were modern, with hints of Graham technique: splayed arms, head-in-hands hunches, flat, bare, folkdance feet.

“My eyes are burning; my thighs are burning!” she repeatedly yelled with increasing urgency. Yim jogged in place, then stomp-shuffled, side-galloped, retreated from the audience toward the back wall.

She gathered her hair, threw it over one shoulder, and let it fall forward again in a gesture of seeming self-flagellation. As she repeated the move, a voice-over chanted “Hate, hate, hate,” then possibly “AIDS?”…then “Ate, eat, eh, uh, age,” as she flattened herself to the floor. Coming up gradually, she swung her head pendulum-like to brush her hair across the floor. “Jjjj,” proclaimed the voice-over as she rose into a skip-hop and left the stage.



“Still going here. Thank you,” Yim interjected, returning to the stage with a bulging white trashbag, beginning a new mini-monologue that became a repeated refrain:

“I sit at home, in your room, in your bed, gazing at your pillow.”

Yim bent and tied her head into the bag, her rhythmic breaths expanding and contracting the plastic. A simulation of suicide? The room was pregnant with suspense until the bag burst, spilling its contents (Cheerios) onto the black stage floor. Vomit? Brain-splosion?

A seeming external expression of a very personal journey, Yim’s dynamic dance revealed romantic humiliation, self-sacrifice, and catharsis beyond words.


PETE (Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble)’s
(after thought)

Where Yim’s work, inscrutable though it was, had variety and trajectory, PETE’s piece seemed suspended and stalled … maybe even more “unfinished” than its devisors admitted in program notes. It did the least with the most people, and even though all R/R pieces were subject to the same time limit, this one seemed to drag on the longest. Pity, really, especially since in this lineup’s wealth of feminine exploration, it was the only piece purported to be about “boys.”

The co-ed PETE ensemble wore sneakers, brown pants, and blue button-ups. A wide dash of—talc? chalk? sand?—swept along the front of the stage. Two “boys” stood nearest the symbolic dune, dipping their hands into it as Mark Valadez gradually built a swelling wall of staticky guitar noise behind them.

Though it echoed “Letting Go” with its live-looped soundscape, After Thought demonstrated the worst pitfall of that musical form: too many layers creating distortion, degrading structure, homogenizing into tinnitus-tainted mud. Valadez’s soundscape gradually ramped up from ambient and got stuck on grating—not in a chakra-piercing, epiphany-forcing, transcendental butoh way; closer to the “OSHA stipulates that we’re allowed ear protection” zone. The style is not unprecedented, but it’s a form of loop pedal use that seems to have already crested and waned. PETE thanks Ryan Cross and Us Lights for their support, so a great next step in this piece’s refinement might be asking further guidance from those fastidious musical folks.

The choreography was appropriately boyish and cohesive unto itself, with wide stances, some leaping and some convulsing, and some synchronized doubled-over wracking that could pass for barfing? laughing? coughing? head-banging? It was fairly mysterious what the lead “boys” (Jacob Coleman and Judson Williams) were doing with the sand, and what their movements meant to the rest of the crew. Changes in lighting created some compelling moments: when front- and back-lit modes toggled, the ensemble froze. But the piece simply went on too long to sustain the audience’s interest in such a limited repertoire of non-narrative stimuli. Back to the drawing board, boys.



Fertile Ground Review: Pep Talk

Hand2Mouth shows theater nerds the inspirational side of gym class.

I was never big on gym class. Self-conscious, unfamiliar with sports rules, picked last. It’s amazing how all that floods back when the players of Pep Talk usher us into a gym, sit us on benches, call roll and make us pop on team pinnies. Middle school, we meet again. But, hang on…the pinnies are purple with a sparkly band around the neck. Their logo is a unicorn with a mermaid tail. There’s only one kind, not two. I guess these are the clues that we’re really on Team Theater. So I can stop breathing into this bag.


Pep Talk, the latest performance innovation from the ever-inventive Hand2Mouth Theatre, is part of both Fertile Ground and the Risk/Reward Festival this year. You may recognize “Coach Leddy” (Erin Leddy) for her vulnerable and brilliant 2011 solo show My Mind Is Like An Open Meadow. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I think I saw “Coach Hammond” (Julie Hammond) as the lead dancer in Isaac Lamb’s 2012 viral marriage proposal video, showing a great deal of team spirit. All four “coaches,” including Liz Hayden and Maesie Speer, are Hand2Mouth ensemble members and were in last year’s exhilarating Something’s Got Ahold of My Heart, a partially improvised rock musical that explored many facets of the meaning of love. The troupe toured that show to New York…and came home disappointed.

At a Risk/Reward preview panel discussion, “Coach” Maisie Speer admitted that H2M’s humbling run at New York’s La MaMa was the impetus for Pep Talk. Though the show earned positive review, it was apparently hampered by tech issues and so woefully under-attended that it closed early. “We came back just feeling kind of down,” Speer explained, “and we thought, why not look to the sports world and borrow some of their motivational tactics for theater, to cheer ourselves and everyone else up?”

Why not? No reason. So, decked out in retro Adidas athletic regalia, brandishing whistles and bullhorns and a soccer ball, the coaches call out audience members and each other with equal eagerness and candor—by last names, of course. “Sometimes you drop the ball. What are you gonna do, Kinnamon? That’s RIGHT. Pick it up!” cheers Coach Hammond as the four coaches all work the room in tandem. The managed pandemonium of multiple coaches yelling at multiple players really does feel a lot like gym class.

At other times (just like the darker side of gym class) one person’s really put on the spot. The coaches themselves lead these interactions by example, especially Coach Speer, who serves a self-imposed stint in the penalty box reciting all her faults, and Coach Leddy, who asks an audience member to critique her…well, her form. Leddy’s pointed questions and her silent gaze at this moment in the program are probably the most bracing elements of the whole show. In keeping with prior performances, she’s a master of mere presence and the surreal intimacy it can bring—even if between times she’s bellowing into a bullhorn.

Not to give too much away, but you will hear Chariots of Fire. You will see Mother Theresa (of all people). You’ll be treated to a word-for-word recitation of Al Davis’s most inspirational speech to the Oakland Raiders before a Super Bowl win (all the more pertinent on the day I saw the show: last Sunday). You’ll watch a “halftime show.” You’ll chant a cheer. And even if the gym environment has always made you feel like a fish out of water, you’ll be rooting for the unicorn mermaids—your team.


A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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