It’s all a-Bout the competition

TopShakeDance's latest gives its audiences a ringside seat on the action, complete with dummy

Jim McGinn, founder and artistic director of Portland’s TopShakeDance, may be the most physically challenging choreographer in the city.  a-Bout, a piece for four dancers and a 70-pound, 5-foot-4-inch-tall wrestling “takedown” dummy named Chuck, is the latest of a series of pieces that take their choreographic impetus not from music or story, but from physical and emotional reaction to various natural environments and elements; most recently before this the very beautiful Float, which premiered at Conduit last year.

a-Bout, which opened at the A-WOL Dance Collective’s space on North Raymond on the 14th (I saw it this past Friday night, and its run is finished now) is a little different and a lot more conventional than Float and its predecessors, Jamb and Gust.  It is, however, equally hard and physical work to perform.  It contains many of  the components of 1960s post-modern dance, including pedestrian movement mixed with a tiny bit of ballet and the aggressive, competitive moves associated with such demanding sports as wrestling and  boxing, with a bit of roller derby racing thrown in. These are incorporated with the sculptural modern dance vocabulary McGinn has developed over the years.

Erin Zintek (left) and Aneesa Turner. Photo: Scooter Curl

Erin Zintek (left) and Aneesa Turner. Photo: Scooter Curl

Visually enhancing this mix are dramatic lighting by Chris Balo, costumes by Renaissance woman Heather Treadway, whose red fight promoter’s suit for McGinn I found particularly charming, and at one point in the 64-minute show, projections of cartoon balloons expressing such sentiments as “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”  Spoken text,  and music composed by Loren Chasse, with whom McGinn has been collaborating for some time (his score for the 2012 Jamb was particularly felicitous) accompanied the dancing.

The piece is a series of duets, trios and quartets performed by Kelly Koltiska, Celeste Olivares, Aneesa Turner and Erin Zintek, with Chuck descending from the ceiling wrapped in canvas halfway through the show.  All of these dancers, tall, well-muscled Amazonian women, are new to TopShakeDance, the previous company members having departed for various personal and professional reasons. All four also are trained, modern dancers, with Zintek the most experienced, having danced professionally in David Dorfman and Charlotte Adams’ companies.  In a program note, she says she is “passionate about exploring movement in all forms,” and McGinn certainly gives her the opportunity to do just that.

McGinn’s choreography includes many simulated wrestling matches, duets involving lifts, tussling, lots of push and pull that borrows from Contact Improvisation from time to time, juxtaposed against skittering runs, and rapid little traveling steps: what a relief it is to attend a dance performance where the participants do more moving than posing. A duet by Kolitska and Zintek is quite charming; not so successful is a self-conscious little waltz (like two prize fighters in a clutch) danced by Kelly and Chuck.  And because I dislike watching such sports as wrestling and cage fighting, I found those sections of the piece that came closest to replicating them pretty unpleasant to watch.

McGinn is a conceptual artist, assisted in the concept for a-Bout by his wife, Jaime Bluhm. Lord knows, sports-themed dances are not new: August Bournonville did one about jockeys for the Royal Danish Ballet in the 19th century; Christopher Stowell programmed his father, Kent Stowell’s, prize-fighting pas de deux Duo Fantasy for the opening of his first season as artistic director of OBT; White Bird presented Emio Greco’s piece Rocco, which takes place in an actual boxing ring, last spring. McGinn’s take on the links between athletics and art are interesting, up to a point.  The piece is much too long and at times gets quite repetitious.  It is my hope that he takes his choreographic explorations to more interesting places next time, although far be it from me to tell an artist as talented as McGinn what to do.

Chase Hamilton and Pamela James in "Jamb." Photo: Lauriel Schuman

So you walk into Conduit Dance and stop at the doorway to the performance hall, under orders not to proceed farther until a guide with a flashlight appears to take you to your seat, because it’s dark. And although it’s not really all that dark you go along with the game, ducking through the tunnel and stepping through the half-light into the womb.

If the conceit seems a little college-dance-troupe earnest, it turns out it isn’t, because Jim McGinn, leader of the contemporary troupe TopShakeDance and creator of its newest piece, Jamb, has a specific physical rationale for this imposed entry, and as it turns out it’s not an entrance into but an entrance down: down into the dug-out depths of a mountainside. And even though you don’t need to know that to appreciate the sound and movement of the dance, it’s interesting because it suggests the emotional and historical wellspring of what’s essentially a highly impressionistic work of art. So let’s listen in on McGinn’s telling, in his program notes, of the story:

“After my first year of college, I took a summer job working in the Climax molybdenum mine essentially inside Mount Bartlett, just outside of Leadville, Colorado. … I quickly learned that my choice to live in the mountains in a tent and work the mine would not be a time of comfort, but that it never has been for those who have chosen to extract the earth’s elusive metals. For many of my fellow workmates that summer, the confinement of the mine was an incremental freedom compared to their recent experiences in prison. The underground is another world from our terrestrial surface. While some tunnels are a jet stream of fast-moving ventilation, others stagnate with an ancient stillness that makes your heartbeat a deafening roar. … In the deep blackness there is no balance as standing is nearly impossible. …. We relied on our fellow workers one day and distrusted them the next. … I learned to distrust the real and artificial nature of the subterranean. With one brief moment of inattention I was lashed across the neck and flung against a rock wall by a taut steel cable of an equipment train. Living alone in a tent sheltered me from the frequent fist fights and stabbings that were a regular occurrence in the bars of America’s highest city nestled below the mine and built upon a century of tailings. Over the summer I grew more lonely, disconnected, and dreary from the hard hours underground.”

So there it is: a dance about hard labor, and ever-present danger, and claustrophobia, and emotional isolation, and maybe even, at some level, satisfaction. And knowing all of this, you begin to understand a little of the sense and feel of the movements by the five performers, who include Dana Detweiler, Chase Hamilton, Amanda Morse and the riveting Pamela James in addition to McGinn. The moments of rough unison, like workers joining on a common task. The flare-ups: angry looks, little pushes and shoves. The accidents: workers hauled helpless away from the scene. Maybe most of all, the sweat pouring freely from the dancers’ tensed bodies. Even the winched metal claws dangling from the ceiling, like a biplane above Kitty Hawk or a pair of giant colanders, begin to make sense: McGinn writes of the workers “squeez(ing) ourselves between large boulders and two-ton steel scoop shovels.”


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