Tahni Holt’s ‘Sensation/Disorientation’ reveals the heart of dance

White Bird's world premiere of a dance by Tahni Holt gives us a glimpse into the deep structure of dance

Tahni Holt Dance’s Sensation/Disorientation at Reed College this weekend is the result of some truly heartening collaboration and mutual support in the Portland dance community. Holt, who has been making original work in and out of Portland for 20 years and is the founder of the dance center Flock, was recently awarded White Bird’s Barney Prize, which involved a commission for this project. Given Flock’s dedication to providing the resources for local dancers to make original work, it’s very satisfying to see Holt herself get such tangible support. Likewise, the piece has garnered a lot of attention from local critics, so you have many well-written opportunities to indulge your curiosity about the show.

Holt’s last major piece, Duet/Love, demonstrated her ability to gather major players in Portland’s contemporary dance community and push them to create something intimate, dense, and confrontationally enticing. The dancers’ unfiltered experience as artists, bodies, and people comprised much of the material of the piece, with Holt sculpting and directing its flow more than diagramming it with conventional choreography. Holt has clearly taken the space afforded to her by this commission to cultivate this approach further with Sensation/Disorientation.

Tahni Holt’s “Sensation/Disorientation”/Photo by Kamala Kingsley courtesy of White Bird

In the Q & A after the show, Holt reminded the audience that her main inquiry is how perception differs between perspectives. How one person can see or experience something in a completely different way than another can. For this piece, Holt focuses on the “…the material nature of [female-identifying] bodies, their sensation, emotion, and feeling,” as Hannah Krafcik says in her preview for Artswatch. The community of dancers that have been gathered for this show reflects a rich number of perspectives on that experience, and, like Duet/Love, showcases many facets of Portland’s dance community. While this is the debut performance for dancer Aidan Hutapea, age 15, she shares the stage with local dance veterans Tracy Broyles and Reed professor Carla Mann. Fellow dancers Muffie Connelly, Eliza Larson, and Suzanne Chi are also all active members of different, occasionally overlapping segments of the local dance community. Chi, whom audiences might recognize from Holt’s Sun$hine, is not the only former collaborator with Holt on the bill, as the prolific Luke Wyland of AU, who composed music for Duet/Love, performed his original score live.

Luckily, you have your choice of thorough previews and reviews to consult for a sense of what this show will be like, and whether it is for you or not. So I’d like to focus on the particular intentions of this piece, and how they are realized through a structure that may seem obtuse at times to some viewers.

The title is accurate, so you should be prepared for the first half to be intense and sensory, and for the second half to be somewhat disorienting. Much of the movement and direction is there to put the dancers through a process that accumulates in either a sensation or a particular kind of personal disorientation.

Tahni Holt’s “Sensation/Disorientation”/Photo by Kamala Kingsley courtesy of White Bird

The evidence of Holt and company’s sensitivity to this process is clear in how the dancers are able to stay on task, though their tasks are strange. The piece opens with the dancers piled together on the floor, and the first “movement” consists of them dealing with being intertwined, dependent, in each other’s way yet supporting each other. It was clear throughout the show that they had developed a set of responses to the conditions of this pile and their other challenges, such as what to do with a foot in the face, or how to crawl without seeing where you’re going. In less rigorous work, similar methods can fall flat when it seems that the performers really do not know what they are doing, rather than appearing to be knowingly attempting something that is fundamentally tricky and strange.

So here is where it’s worth really taking seriously Holt’s statement that her practice comes from her interest in other perspectives, and the way other people perceive things differently. Holt’s work is very much about creating a temporary space where this can be addressed. The process of resolving your perspective with ones you don’t understand is full of conflict, confusion, and revelation. Unfamiliar movements and intense situations are very appropriate tools for taking a group of people through this experience. The heaving pile of bodies is not arbitrary.

White Bird’s website cited Holt’s “dedication to whatever the piece is… She’s almost uncompromising in her vision.” These are terms that are thrown around a lot in the arts world, but they are specifically appropriate to describe the way that Holt builds performances. “Uncompromising” means that if, in the process of developing the piece, the dancers discovered something meaningful within the framework of the piece through something that was unpleasant or, well, disorienting, then Holt will work with them to find a way to preserve that process in the piece rather than cutting it short to please an antsy audience.

After the show, the dancers remarked on Holt’s insistence on taking away their most familiar techniques during rehearsal, Hutapea laughing about how her desire to project a narrative on the sections had been “violently ripped away from her.” This piece, literally and theatrically, is a process of finding and expressing a shared experience of female-identifying dancers trying to be someone and do something together, on stage.

The trick here is not to watch through a conventional interpretation, or to expect the movement to be symbolic—that walking on your hands means you’re confused or that sweeping the floor refers to housework, etc. Dancers, privately, are artists who engage with their experience of the world through movement. This piece is a structure that invites an audience to observe that process with unusual intimacy, and to almost participate in it.

If you allow that, you’ll better enjoy all the ways in which it seduces the audience a little, such as the wild, wonderful patchwork costumes by Alenka Loesch, or some truly gorgeous and sometimes silly moments with gold balloons. These pleasures are made stronger because following even the difficult steps of the experience of the dancers will keep you on your toes and make you attentive in the way that is the charge of contemporary art.


Sensation/Disorientation continues Saturday (7 and 9 pm) and Sunday (7 pm), January 21 and 22, at the
Reed College Performing Arts Building, Diver Studio Theatre.

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