Robert Guitron

Fertile Ground goes dancing

Portland's annual fringe festival has an expansive dance component, too

The Fertile Ground Festival of New Works and its dance-centric arm, Groovin’ Greenhouse (hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre), are right around the corner, January 19-29 to be exact. The 11-day festival that features new performance work in various stages of development, from the fully staged to workshops, in theater, comedy, dance and film, and everything else that doesn’t fit neatly inside those bins.

Fringe festivals, like Fertile Ground, can be found all over the world. The first one was the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, established in Scotland in 1947, as an alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival. The Fringe runs for 25 days and features a whopping 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows in 294 venues. (Portland choreographer Éowyn Emerald is a frequent performer at the Edinburgh Fringe.) Generally, fringe festivals show a range of work from amateurs to professionals. They are a non-curated, open forum for expression, and pose a low financial risk to artists and audience alike. What’s special about our Fertile Ground Festival, though, is that it shows only the work of Portland artists.

This past week, Arts Watchers Christa McIntyre, A.L. Adams and Bob Hicks attended the Fertile Ground’s meet-and-greet speed dating event, to learn as much about what this year’s Fertile Ground festival has to offer. According to Bob Hicks the speed dating event went something like this. “Theater people line up in front of a confusion of journalists from print, online, radio, and television outlets and work their way to the front, where they get five minutes to pitch their show and explain why that journalist really, really ought to see it and write very, very nicely about it. Then a whistle blows, and everyone moves on to the next encounter.” You can read their entire account of the evening here, as well as the terrifically descriptive list of the performances.

Here at DanceWatch I am just going to break down the dance offerings within the festival because, you know, I love dance and you probably do too.

The list below begins with independently produced Fertile Ground dance productions, followed by the Groovin’ Greenhouse schedule of performances with descriptions of each dance group or choreographer following. Groovin’ Greenhouse shows are shared by multiple performers in an evening.

Independent Fertile Grounds dance productions

Echo Theater Company in “Uncommon Sense.” Photo by Arnista Photography.

Uncommon Sense (workshop)
Featuring Echo Theatre Company, sister: grit collective, Tempos Contemporary Circus, and Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus
Presented by Echo Theater Company
January 20-29
Echo Theatre, 1515 SE 37th Ave

Echo Theater Company’s creative director Aaron Wheeler-Kay, has brought together Echo Theatre Company, sister: grit collective, Tempos Contemporary Circus, and Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus, to explore the multitudinous interpretations of the sensed world and find freedom within limitations, in an evening of politically driven, new works, combining circus arts, dance, narrative and physical theatre.

Featured performers with Echo Theater Company will be Portland dancers Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson, co-artistic directors of Wobbly Dance. You can catch a glimpse of them in rehearsal in Echo Theatre’s video trailer for “Uncommon Sense.”

“Last Dance”. Photo by Holly Wilmeth.

Last Dance
Written by Sky Yeager and directed by Jonathan Walters
January 19-29
The Headwater Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St. #4

Butoh artist Kat Macmillan, and actor Jaime Lee Christina, tell the story of an angel’s transformation into human form in this new play by Sky Yeager directed by Jonathan Walters. Through the modes of theatre, film, music and dance, the play touches on concepts of agency, spiritual purpose, life after life, and ponders the preciousness of life. Out of darkness, hopelessness, and despair, comes new life, hope and transformation. You can see a video preview of the work here.

“Into the night” by Allegro Dance Company. Photo by Casey Campbell Photography and Paul Pour Photography.

Into the Night: An Exploration of Life, Love & Loss
Performed by The Allegro Dance Company
Directed by Ashley López
January 28-29
BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave

Connecting aspects of ancient Middle Eastern culture to modern day ones, this collaborative, contemporary belly dance company of 15, directed by Tribal Fusion belly dance star Ashley Lopez, will examine the mystery, pain, and beauty inherent in the human condition through a visually rich, multifaceted, storytelling experience.

Groovin’ Greenhouse performances

Performance Dates and times

Portland Bellydance Guild, Polaris Dance Theatre, Polaris Junior Company, Neo Youth Company
7:30 pm January 20
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Les Watanabe, Polaris Dance Theatre, Polaris Junior Company, Neo Youth Company
2:00 pm January 21
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Les Watanabe, NW Fusion Dance Company, Polaris Dance Theatre
7:30 pm January 21
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Portland Bellydance Guild, Polaris Dance Theatre
2:00 pm January 22
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Vitality Dance Collective, Polaris Dance Theatre
7:30 pm January 27
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Polaris Dance Theatre, Polaris Junior Company, Neo Youth Company
2:00 pm January 28
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

A-WOL Dance Collective and Polaris Dance Theatre
7:30 pm January 28
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Breakdown of performing groups and premiering work

“Attention Everybody!” by A-WOL Dance Collective. Photo courtesy of A-WOL Dance Collective.

Attention Everybody! (excerpts), A-WOL Dance Collective
Through fierce, edgy, raw athleticism in the air and on the ground, A-Wol Dance Collective, an aerial/dance company, will knit together humanities commonalities, revealing our passion and energy and drive to serve the greater good.

Untitled work in progress by M’Liss Quinnly, Neo Youth Company
In its first season, Polaris Dance Theatre’s youth company for its youngest committed dancers will perform a new work by former Polaris dancer and Director, M’Liss Quinnly.

Untitled work in progress, NW Fusion Dance Company
Directed by Brad Hampton, this pre-professional dance company provides training and performance experience to help advanced dancers transition to professional careers.

Diverse-Divide (an excerpt) by Robert Guitron, Overcoming by Gerard Regot, Gravitation by Kiera Brinkley, performed by Polaris Dance Theatre
Guitron’s Diverse-Divide, speaks to diversity in the natural world and in politics. The movement explores the juxtapositions of the similar and the dissimilar. Guitron is the artistic-director of Polaris Dance Theatre.

Gravitation by past Polaris Dance Theatre company member Kiera Brinkley addresses her choice to change careers and the state of exhaustion. From 2011-2016 Brinkley was a Polaris Dance Company member and is a quadruple amputee. You can learn more about Brinkley’s story in the documentary Soar that came out in 2014 directed by Susan Hess Logeais.

Overcoming by Regot, a Polaris Dance Company member originally from Spain, explores ideas of disruption and loss. It attempts to capture the process of processing a loss and the difficulties in reaching out for help and moving forward.

Untitled work in progress by M’Liss Quinnly, Polaris Junior Company
Polaris Dance Theatre’s pre-professional youth company for its oldest committed student dancers, will perform a new work by former Polaris dancer and Director, M’Liss Quinnly.

Portland Bellydance Guild
Representing belly dancing styles from Folkloric/Traditional, Cabaret/Oriental, Tribal Improv, to Theatrical/Fusion, The Portland Bellydance Guild, a membership organization with a mission to increase public awareness and appreciation for dance and music, rooted in, or inspired by, the Middle-Eastern diaspora, will feature solo performances from Claudia and Jewels, a modern interpretation of women’s folk dance from the Arabian Gulf region using movement vocabulary informed by the seafaring traditions of the area by the newly formed troupe Amwaj, and an improvisational duet by Zephyr Bellydance that is created in the moment in response to the music, the dancers on stage and the energy from the audience.

Vitality Dance Collective. Photo by Will Mahoney Watson

Surrounding, Vitality Dance Collective
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 undefinable. They are about innovation, authenticity and fun.

Their new work Surroundings, is an exploration of life’s journey: where we’ve been, where we are headed, and what remains out of reach, and is only dreamable.

Love Songs, Les Watanabe
Inspired by the music of Cuban singer, songwriter and pianist Bola de Nieve, Love Songs, choreographed by Les Watanabe for four dancers ( Laura Stilwell, Felice Moskowitz and Terry Brock and Emma Mochnick), endeavors to capture love and its myriad of meanings and forms.

Leslie Watanabe is an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Western Oregon University and performed for Donald McKayle’s Inner City Repertory Company, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, Joyce Trisler’s Danscompany, Alvin Ailey II, Burch Mann Folk Ballet, Sachiyo Ito Japanese Dance Company, L.A. Jazz, and Peter Gross Dance Company to name a few.

Other performances in Portland this week and next

January 18-22, Sensation/Disorientation, Tahni Holt Dance, Presented by White Bird
January 19-21, Urban Meadow, BodyVox Dance
January 20-22, Rent, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
January 20-29, Ignite, Oluyinka Akinjiola and Subashini Ganesan
January 24-25, BalletBoyz, Presented by White Bird


ArtsWatch Weekly: vote, and other opportunities

Looking back, looking ahead: a week's worth of theater, dance, music, film, and art in and around Portland

After all that feuding and fussing it’s election day, and nothing on this week’s calendar is more important. In Oregon, with its vote-by-mail elections, that means today is last chance, not first chance. Remember, ballots must be received by 8 p.m. Tuesday, not just postmarked by today. That means it’s too late to mail your ballot: You’ll need to drop it off. You can do that at your branch library and other designated spots. If you haven’t turned your ballot in yet, stop reading this right now and get ‘er done. If your vote is safely cast, scroll on down and take a look at a few visual reminders that the United States has been doing this for a long time. Except for the Bingham painting, the images come from the Library of Congress’s 2012 book Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art:

"The County Election," George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum

“The County Election,” George Caleb Bingham, 1852, oil on canvas, 38 x 52 inches, Saint Louis Art Museum




Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival. The 43rd edition of the Northwest Film Center’s annual regional showcase runs Thursday through Tuesday at the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium and Portland State University’s nearby 5th Avenue Cinema and Skype Live Studio. Shorts, features, and documentaries ranging from the battle over water rights to an internet horror tale to life in a modern medieval village.

Epoch. An evening of new dance from Samuel Hobbs (November) of push/FOLD and ArtsWatch dance columnist Jamuna Chiarini (The Kitchen Sink), with music by Hobbs and Lisa DeGrace. Friday and Saturday, BodyVox Dance Center.


This weekend contains dance offerings for every palate. The buffet includes Obstacles and Victory Songs, a shared evening between sounds artist Stephanie Lavon Trotter and movement artist Dora Gaskill at Performance Works NW; a 15th anniversary celebration with Polaris Dance Theatre; a collaboration of movement and words between LitCrawl and Pure Surface; and a cross-cultural investigation with Peruvian dance artist Luciana Proaño.

Polaris Dance Theatre, a contemporary dance company directed by Robert Guitron and Sara Anderson, is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a program of 12 dances collected from past repertory to the present. They have aptly titled the program Reclaimed. If you missed last night’s performance you can catch them tonight and again next weekend.


Dances with words at Polaris

The Portland dance company builds an evening of dance pieces from text

There is no doubt in my mind that Robert Guitron, the artistic director of Polaris Dance Theater, is as passionate about written language as he is about dance.

Earlier this month (November 7-16) at Polaris’s home studio on SW Taylor St., Guitron debuted his new production Word, an evening of dance to spoken word, comprised of 15 dances including choreography by company dancers Kieraqmil Brinkley, Jocelyn Edelstein, Briley Neugebauer and M’liss Quinnly all performed to various works of different authors, poets and playwrights. All the readings were prerecorded with music mixed in, except for one.

In between pieces in the second half, company apprentice Valerie Grabill came to the edge of the stage and read to us from her ballet corrections notebook about her memory of a four-hour ballet class she had taken with Summer Lee Radigan, teacher and artistic director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. I don’t remember exactly what the notes were, but I do remember that her feelings were raw and that hearing about her experience was moving and inspirational. The audience stayed right with her, laughing and loving every moment of it.

Polaris performs "Words" in its home studio./Photograph courtesy of Polaris

Polaris performs “Words” in its home studio./Photograph courtesy of Polaris

Yes, this was a massive undertaking with a distinctly grassroots feeling. Not only was Guitron the main choreographer and the host of the show, but during the performance he ran the sound and moved scenery onstage as well.  For the performance the Polaris studio was converted into a black box theater seating roughly 100. Because of the number of dances and performers on stage (15 most of the time) this density, along with multiple large sheets of opaque plastic dissecting the space and the feeling of sameness throughout the show, made it difficult for me to differentiate between the pieces, and the ones that stood out were the pieces with fewer dancers in them. It was the space around them that made it possible for me to see them. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the dancing of the larger company: This is a very capable group of highly skilled contemporary dancers, after all.


‘X’ marks the 10-year spot for Polaris

The company's 'X-Philes' looks back on a decade of dance in Portland

In a pre-curtain speech at Polaris Dance Theatre‘s “X-Philes” matinee on Sunday, artistic director Robert Guitron, as is customary, expressed his gratitude to donors and supporters, and acknowledged the contributions of lighting designer Howard Waldron and other staff members. But he reserved his most heartfelt thanks for the dancers, past and present, as they celebrate the anniversary of the company he and Sara Anderson founded a decade ago.

He was absolutely right to do so. The dancers’ equally heartfelt commitment to Guitron’s ballet and jazz-infused modern aesthetic, coupled with the excellence of their training, meant that there was something interesting to watch in each of the 10 pieces on the retrospective program. Some were excerpts from larger works; others were self-contained; most had been reworked to fit the Polaris studio space at 1501 S.W. Taylor Street.



It’s a given that Guitron knows his craft. He certainly should, having made more than 200 dances for Polaris over the last decade, and quite a few before that. Even the excerpts contained a discernible arc, a beginning, a middle and an end. And there is nothing constrictive about his choreography. He likes dancers to move big, to travel, to fill the space, and they do.  What’s problematic for me is an almost unvarying earnest tone to the work. (The two pieces set to music by the Temptations are the exception, and they come at the end of the show.) It also troubles me that the dancing  in every piece is precisely on the beat of the music, and the movement vocabulary is limited to Graham-like pelvic contractions, running, walking, spiraling to the floor, hip-swinging, and yearning arms, with a few jumps sprinkled into the mix.  Every choreographer, at least one hopes, develops a movement vocabulary of his or her own, and Guitron has  done that. It’s not the task of critics to tell an artist what to do, only to express what worked and what didn’t from their perspective. But I wish he would now play with that vocabulary, stretch it, vary it, augment it and perhaps encourage the dancers to improvise in performance.

The two pieces that worked best for me were very different from each other.  “Don’t Go,” to a score by singer Ólafur Arnalds and Guitron (who does quite a lot of composing for Polaris), is centered on Kieraqmil Brinkley, whose loss of her legs and arms at a very young age, caused by a bacterial infection, in no way hampers her as a highly expressive, musical dancer. It begins with Brinkley, seated in an old-fashioned armchair, watching other cast members – Anderson, Haley Blaise, Jenny Dubac, Claudia Fernandez, Briley Neugebauer, M’liss Stephenson, and Tia Zapp, whose veiled faces suggest a ghostly presence, with Blake Seidel, one of the company’s two men, by her side.  Their duet provides a touchingly tender moment; the ensemble’s spiraling movement in this case is suggestive of group grief, and while the sentimentality of the score is not my personal cup of oolong, as Noel Coward used to say, it fits the dance’s narrative tristesse.

“Cloud Nine” – the penultimate piece on the program, originally presented in a 2011 show titled “Lil’ Mo” – is the other. With its hip-slung movement and black costumes topped by hats on all seven dancers, it  is an obvious Bob Fosse knock-off, which doesn’t matter in the least. It begins with the dancers seated on chairs, and they rapidly get off their booties and shake them like mad, splaying their fingers as well,and  clearly having a terrific time.  So was the cheering, mixed-generation audience.

Guitron demonstrated his ability to handle dancers in groups in Movements 3 and 4 of a piece he made in 2012 called “Discooperie,” although in Movement 4 the dancers wear red blindfolds in a choreographic statement of Guitron’s conviction that anybody, no matter how physically challenged, can dance. Definitely these professional dancers can dance blindfolded, and with groping gestures, can simulate moving without sight. But at the end of the day, this looked more gimmicky than profound.

All of the dancers are technically accomplished; I couldn’t take my eyes off a couple of them. M’liss Stephenson, a founding company member who is also rehearsal director, completely inhabited the yearning movement in “Change,” to a score by Arvo Pärt, which also contains a quite lovely trio. And in everything she danced, from “Quiver”s kicks and leg extensions to the concluding “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Haley Blaise – who started studying with Guitron when she was 12 –  compelled me to watch what she did and how she did it, whether she was spotlighted or not. She’s now 30, and it is said she wants to retire. Please don’t.

Film clips from Polaris shows over the years, with a voiceover narrative by Guitron, tie the program together, inform the audience of the company’s history, and give the dancers time to change their costumes. A clip of the choreographer performing in the troupe’s first concert made me wish he were dancing in this one, as well.

“X-Philes” runs through November 10th at 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, and 2 pm Sundays, at the Polaris Studios, 1501 S.W. Taylor Street. Ticket information here.

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