DramaWatch Weekly: Left Hook

Rich Rubin's Portland boxing tale, part of Vanport Mosaic, takes a jab at the city's woozy racial history. Plus the week's openings and closings.

“Let me tell you somethin’, boy. You never know what’s comin’ … and the sooner you learn that, the better off you be!”

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A few years ago, when playwright Rich Rubin approached Damaris Webb about directing some of his work, she chose the play Cottonwood in the Flood because it told a piece of history unfamiliar to her, the fascinating story of the 1948 Vanport flood. Left Hook, another Rubin play that Webb is directing, in a production that opens Thursday night at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, gets closer to a history she knows. Extending the story of the repeated displacement faced by Portland’s black community, Left Hook is set in the 1970s, as urban renewal roils the Albina neighborhood that had absorbed the black Vanport diaspora a quarter century earlier.

Damaris Webb directs Rich Rubin’s play “Left Hook,” running May 24-June 10, as part of Vanport Mosaic. The cast includes Anthony Armstrong, Kenneth Dembo, Jasper Howard, Shareen Jacobs, Tonea Lolin, and James Savannah. Photo: Shawte Sims

Webb, who has chronicled her bi-racial background in a solo show called The Box Marked Black, grew up in the Irvington neighborhood and none of her family was forced to relocate for the major construction projects of the era – Memorial Coliseum, the I-5 freeway, and an abortive expansion plan for Emanuel Hospital. But she recalls that during the development of Left Hook she was shown a photo of the Black Panthers Portland headquarters when it was in the midst of being shut down by city officials. She recognized someone in the photo: her father, who worked for the Portland Development Commission.

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MusicWatch Weekly: from Maxville to Vanport to here and now

Musical celebration of Oregon’s African American history highlights the week's concert picks

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting” ― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

So much of what ails America and Oregon has roots in our history. So much could be prevented or at least healed if we knew and listened to the lessons history teaches. But too many Americans find history boring, or irrelevant or maybe even threatening, and therefore make political choices that history will wind up revealing as dangerous, destructive or worse.

Art can bridge that gap between history and action by making the past come alive. And art that reveals hidden but important history by telling the stories of people and communities is even more valuable, not just for what it tells us about yesterday, but about today — and tomorrow.

Marilyn Keller performs in ‘From Maxville to Vanport’ Saturday.

Which is why From Maxville To Vanport: A Celebration Of Oregon’s Black History this Saturday night at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre promises to be such a valuable as well as entertaining show. Almost 70 years to the day after the Vanport Flood, this is the final performance of Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s concert of original songs and film shorts inspired by the stories of the multicultural populations of Oregon’s lost, short-lived predominantly African American communities, Maxville and Vanport, after last month’s shows in La Grande, Enterprise, and Baker City.

Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa County is where Maxville was built in 1923. Many of its loggers, homesteaders and ranchers came to Oregon in the Great Migration, when African Americans headed north seeking opportunity and equality denied them in the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, the Oregon they encountered turned out to host its own white racist refugees, who frustrated, too often violently, their aspirations for decades. As has become obvious in recent years, their hateful legacy lingers.

But along with the challenges, including the losses entailed by pulling up roots and moving far from their families, churches and other nurturing institutions, Maxville’s residents also registered triumphs and created their own vital community before the town was shut down in 1933.

The same goes for Vanport, whose ultimate fate, if not necessarily its rich history, is likely more familiar to more Oregonians. In its six-year existence before it was destroyed by the horrific Memorial Day flood of 1948, the city (briefly Oregon’s second-largest) harbored a thriving community of shipyard workers who helped build the warships that helped win World War II.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Helen Simoneau and “Closer”

Oregon Ballet Theatre ends its season at BodyVox with an intimate program, led by Helen Simoneau's "Departures"

This week Oregon Ballet Theatre closes out its 2017-2018 season with “Closer,” an intimate showing at BodyVox Dance Center of new works choreographed by OBT rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, OBT company dancers Katherine Monogue, Makino Hayashi, and Peter Franc, alongside Helen Simoneau’s Departures. Simoneau’s ballet was commissioned by OBT in 2017 as part of OBT’s Choreography XX project to discover new women choreographers in ballet. The works by OBT dancers will be accompanied by commissioned musical compositions from Grammy award-winning remix artist, Andre Allen Anjos.

Additionally, OBT artistic Director Kevin Irving will rehearse the dancers in a Nacho Duato duet, live, as a means to open up the creative process experience for audiences to see. Each night—and there are eight of them—will involve a lottery to choose which of the company dancers gets to dance in the open rehearsal that night.

Last summer I sat down with choreographer Simoneau, to learn about her work, her process, and her dance company. Included in my conversation with Simoneau were questions I had at the time about how Portland State University’s shuttering of its dance program would affect the Portland dance community, how she defines classical ballet, and where ballet is headed.

Simoneau is an independent choreographer, dancer, and teacher, who, at the time of our interview, lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and directed her own 12-member dance company. Helen Simoneau Danse had a yearly season in North Carolina and seasons every other year in New York.

Since I spoke with her last, Simoneau spent the rest of summer 2017 at the Banff Centre in Canada performing in a work by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Chekaoui, provided choreography for a Joan Baez music video performed by New York City Ballet dancer Claire Kretzschmar, worked with LA-based company BODYTRAFFIC at The National Choreographic Center in Akron, was a Fall Fellow at the New York University Center for Ballet (where she created a new ballet on pointe for six dancers), toured her evening-length work Land Bridge with her company, created and restaged works for the students of University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Goucher College in Baltimore, and for Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. She is currently an artist-in-residence at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY, while maintaining a performing season in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Simoneau is an incredibly inspiring artist, to me, and one of the few people I know actually making a living full-time as a dance artist. Our conversation unfolds below.

Performances this week

Closer
Oregon Ballet Theatre
Choreography by Peter Franc, Makino Hayashi, Lisa Kipp, Katherine Monogue, and Helen Simoneau
May 23-June 3
BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Avenue

The Portland Tap Dance Festival Faculty Showcase
8 pm May 27
St. Mary’s Academy 1615 SW 5th Ave.
The Portland Tap Dance Festival, founded in 2015 by Pamela Allen, Erin Lee, and Kelsey Leonard, will feature classes and a performance by faculty members and leading names in tap from Portland and beyond. The faculty—Sarah Reich, Melinda Sullivan, Jason Janas and his company Co.MMiT, Bril Barrett, Elizabeth Burke, Jessie Sawyers, and Jillian Meyers will perform alongside residency student to Portland jazz musicians David Goldblatt on piano, Adam Kessler on drums, and trumpeter Farnell Newton.

Interview with Helen Simoneau

Choreographer Helen Simoneau. Photo by Todd Turner.

Can you describe the first day audition/rehearsal, and how did you pick dancers out of that scenario?

The first day for me started during the audition. I came in like I usually do. These are things I like to do coming into a new process, especially with new dancers. Just go to the different steps of the process that I find have always worked for me. And one is to come in and have a phrase that I have already developed in my own body and to teach it and teach it with as much specificity as possible to see which dancers are able to capture those details. And in this case, I was definitely looking for fluidity in the movement and an ease of going into plie and a dancer who pays attention to the transitions.

I talk a lot about not showing the seams, and that is the dancer’s job, to smooth out that seam. So I look for that. And then I gave them a task of pairing up with someone and making a complementary phrase.

So the first phrase we called the “root phrase.” And that is the root phrase because all the material for the piece will come from that phrase, that’s our starting point. That allows there to be a sense of continuity and a sense of one source. So they paired up and one person was doing the root phrase and the other person is creating new movement that complements, somehow decorates, or accentuates that phrase. But it’s not unison. We worked on that for a while and that developed a whole set of material. And then we did the post-it notes you saw. [There were six pink post-it notes that had different body parts written on each one].

We had the post-it notes on the wall, and they each wrote different body parts on them and then they connected those body parts, and then we created material in between those connection points. How specific those connection points are is no longer important at a certain point; it just becomes about the movement. It just gives us a more specific task so that we are not regurgitating things that are familiar in our bodies. […] A task like that also allows both partners to be more equally engaged in the task.There’s not one person who’s going to dictate how it goes.

Helen Simoneau’s notebook that she is using to chronicle the making of her new work, as part of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Choreography XX commission. Simoneau creates a new notebook for every project. This helps her keep a record of the choreography and her ideas, translate the ephemeral nature of dance to the stage, and remind her of the behind-the-scenes work involved. Photo by Yi Yin.

What is the name of this piece?

I’m thinking of calling it “Departures.”

What is the music?

The music is by David Schulman. He’s based in D.C., and the second track you heard is a piece he already created. It’s funny—the title of the piece is called “Acts of Arrival” (Helen is laughing), but I’m thinking of calling the piece “Departures.”

Part B was already created. I heard it through one of my friends who had used a section of it for a work she was making. I loved the structure of it and also that there are spaces in it that have a lot of leeway. There are moments that are very counted and have a very clear flavor, and then also a lot of openness. I spoke with him about creating another section that would match, that would complement. I was thinking the piece would be about 15 minutes. So he created the first track you heard, especially for this process.

How long is the piece?

I think it’s going to be 14 minutes, exactly? [Laughter]

Is it all going the way you envisioned it? Is it OK if it doesn’t get finished in the way you imagined?

I think I didn’t have such a strict idea of how it would go. I find it really difficult to decide ahead of time when I don’t know the dancers, because they are such a big part of inspiring the piece. And so even though I knew what the root phrase would be, generally what the material would look like, had the music already, and a sense of the energetic flow of the piece, I really didn’t decide much more than that because I wanted to leave it open for them.

OBT dancer Xuan Cheng in Helen Simoneau’s Departures. Photo by Yi Yin.

How does the dancer dictate what you do?

I think it’s more that they inspire what I do. The way that a dancer might choose to interpret the phrase work first of all, can inspire. So, I can see a lot of different people do the same material and just be like, “No, no, see how this person’s doing this? That’s interesting to me.” And I didn’t know that was interesting ahead of time. […]

I find that the dancers who are less precious are the ones I am drawn to, and then I start making for them, or in conversation with them. […]

I enjoy a process where the dancers feel comfortable enough to try something that they’re not 100% sure is going to work out. Then we’re all in the same space of not knowing, not having an answer all the time.

I’ve been in some processes where people at this stage of the process doubt that I know what I’m doing, because I’m not 100 percent [sure] on what I want. I don’t know what I want sometimes until I see it. In this process, that has not been the case. I feel like they are comfortable with that. […]

I like to leave a certain ambiguity sometimes, because that’s when the happy accidents happen, and that’s where dancers will make a choice where they thought I meant something else, but maybe what they do is more interesting than if I had decided ahead of time. The confusion can lead to some really great discoveries.

How did you develop as a choreographer and how did you develop your choreographic skills?

By doing it over and over.

I think early on, I realized in my training, that choreography was a stronger suit for me than maybe even dancing for other people, and also where I found myself to be most fulfilled. And so I focused on that really early on. It was prominent in my training at NCSA (North Carolina School of the Arts) when I was doing my BFA there in dance. But then when I graduated, I started right away to choreograph. I was living in Montreal at the time and dancing for another choreographer, but also making my work in my down time.

That practice of making never stopped. I always continued. I always would finish a piece and then as that piece was being performed here and there I would already start something else. There were certainly moments in my life where there was less happening, but I always had that practice consistently of making. And within that developed some of my own methods that I can rely on. I’m always trying to find new ways of building new material so that I’m not making the same dance over and over.

Are you a modern dancer, or are you a ballet dancer. How do you fit into his whole scheme?

That’s a tough question. I think I’m just a dancer. I definitely have more experience in the contemporary.

If I had to pick one or the other, I would say I am more of a modern dancer, especially my experience as a performer is as a modern dancer. I did not perform for a ballet company, but I trained in ballet almost as much as I trained in modern in terms of the conservatory where I was.

That’s all in my body and in my experience. I don’t feel the need to pick one or the other, I enjoy both. Where I did my training at NCSA there were two majors, like a lot of places, and I had friends in both and we would choreograph on each other and it didn’t really matter what your major was. So for me as a maker, both are exciting. Both offer something different and some overlap, and both have a specificity that is unique. Like in this case working with these dancers, who are really capable working on pointe, I don’t get to do that all the time, and it’s an additional skill set that I’m enjoying having access to.

Helen Simoneau’s Departures. Photo by Yi Yin.

I’m trying to figure out what ballet is. It seems like ballet can only go so far and then they have to look and see what the contemporary dance world is doing.

I think that there is a sense of tradition in ballet that is really wonderful and joyful, and I can also see how it could limit choreographically what you think you are allowed to do, or can go into. And I have to say that being here, Kevin [Irving] has not restricted us in any way. It was really up to us whether I wanted to do pointe work or not, how many dancers, if it was an even number of men and women. None of that was prescribed. He made it very clear from the beginning that he trusts us, based on our experience already and what he’s seen, to make the right choice.

And that’s wonderful to have that trust. The dancers are the same way. They are very open and willing to try anything. I definitely can tell what my movement choices are: there certainly is a modern dance influence, and I don’t really care, I don’t worry about that. I haven’t yet watched the piece and said, “Is this ballet or is this modern?” It hasn’t occurred to me to contain it.

I think that line is getting more and more blurred. I think dancers that are training now have to be well versed in all of it, I think more so than ever. If you’re dancing in a ballet company you are going to be doing a lot of contemporary work, and you may be dancing in bare feet, at some point. And you have to be comfortable with that.

OBT dancers Hannah Davis and Kimberly Nobriga performing in Helen Simoneau’s Departures. Photo by Yi Yin.

Because Portland State University just axed its dance program, I am curious to know how having universities that have dance programs in your area influences what you do. How do they feed into what you do?

For us the relationship with NCSA is crucial. I could probably find another dance department, but I don’t know if I could find that quality of studio space. But It’s more than studio space, the relationship with that school is one that is mutually beneficial. […]

Since 2004 I’ve been teaching as an adjunct faculty member and more recently I do a lot more guest choreographer spots. I’ve been doing something with them almost every single year. I really care about that program, I care about those students. We’ve offered a lot of apprenticeships to graduating students from that program, because I get to know them when I set works on them.

There is a gap there because the program is not in New York or a major city. Those students don’t have access to professional dancers regularly. We have an open door policy so when we rehearse, any student can come and watch, and see the process. And it is a different process. If you’re working with a seasoned 32-year-old performer it’s a different process than a 20-year-old. And I think that’s been helpful.

For us, the (company) dancers get to take class, any class they want from these amazing faculty members. But they dance alongside the students, and what that does, especially for the graduating students, is it just pulls them up a little bit more when they are having senioritis—if they can go across the floor with one of our company members, it just really pulls them up. It also introduces them to people who are currently in the field and who are just a little bit older than them. There’s been a lot of networking or asking questions.

Often we will have an informal pow-wow and talk about life after graduation, and realizing how much pressure those seniors have and how stressed out and anxious they are about entering the professional market. Sometimes having a conversation with someone who is three years further in, is really helpful.

Upcoming Performances

June
June 1, #INSTABALLET NO.25, artistic directors Antonio Anacan and Suzanne Haag
June 1-2, J (()) Y by Leralee Whittle and a work-in-progresss by Mizu Desierto
June 2, Passages-The Journey of Our Ancestors, presented by the Tamburitzans
June 3, Shobana’s Trance, presented by Rasika
June 8-10, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 10, Coppelia, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
June 14-16, World Premiere – Ihsan Rustem, MemoryHouse – Sarah Slipper, This Time Tomorrow-Danielle Agami, NW Dance Project
June 15-23, Waters of the World, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre/Northwest
June 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance
June 16, Dance Film Double Feature: Standing on Gold and Moving History, hosted by Eric Nordstrom
June 22-23, Waters of the World, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre/Northwest at the Faired-Haired Dumbbell Building
June 22-23, Recipe: A Reading Test (1983) and Raw Material (1985), Linda Austin
June 24, Salem World Beat, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Salem
June 29-July 1, Risk/Reward Festival of New Performance

July
July 6, #INSTABALLET NO.26, artistic directors Antonio Anacan and Suzanne Haag
July 19-21, RELATIVES // apples & pomegranates, Shannon Stewart and Tahni Holt
July 27, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater presents UPRISE, Washington Park Summer Festival

August
August 2-4, Galaxy Dance Festival, Polaris Dance Theatre
August 3, #INSTABALLET NO.27, artistic directors Antonio Anacan and Suzanne Haag
August 3-12, Art in the Dark: 10 Laws, A-WOL Dance Collective
August 10-12, JamBallah Northwest
August 12, India Festival, produced by the India Cultural Association of Portland

September
September 1, #INSTABALLET NO.28, artistic directors Antonio Anacan and Suzanne Haag

‘Outset’ and ‘Confluence’ series: improvisation institutions

Creative Music Guild series bring both local and touring creative improv performers to Oregon audiences

Story and photos by PATRICK McCULLEY

Coffee shop/vintage clothing/used record store by day, and bar and music venue by night, Northeast Portland’s Turn Turn Turn has become a host, laboratory, and hub for the city’s small but thriving improvised and non-traditional music scene.

“Local” is the operative word here. The Creative Music Guild, which creates and promote concerts for improvised and/or experimental music throughout Portland, uses its Outset Series to showcase local talent every first and third Wednesday.

Outset showcases the local scene’s diversity. Last December, in a nod to their round robin duo performances from the Improvisation Summit of Portland, the CMG put together an ad-hoc improv night that randomly selects from a pool of musicians four ensembles which take the stage in turn to bring to life, to improvise, twenty minutes worth of completely new music.

Dead Death killed it at the Outset Series.

The first band of the night, with Blue Cranes saxophonist Reed Wallsmith, Derek Monypeny on guitar, and TJ Thompson on drums, sizzled, spat, and shimmered with the noise of free improvisation in the beginning of their set. But the feeling soon changed as Thompson’s driving, tom-heavy groove began to drive the band in a more rhythmically structured direction, with minor-key melodies from guitar and saxophone fluttering on top. After several minutes their intensity dissolved into an arrhythmic, nebulous, bright wavering of tone, dominated by distorted guitar and and shimmering cymbals.

The following band, with Andy Raybourn on bass clarinet, Tim DuRoche on drumset, Blue Crane Joe Cunningham on tenor saxophone and slide whistle, struck a more humorous tone. Rayborn’s bass clarinet melodies flapped and wandered like some kind of zany forest creature between DuRoche’s sporadic snare and cymbal hits. Cunningham added another zoological element to the music with the bird-like utterances of his slide whistle. As the set progressed, however, and Cunningham’s saxophone joined the fray, our musical jungle soon echoed with plaintive wails and screams of large, extinct creatures, as well as a strangely appropriate melodic fragment from Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” And oddly enough, although I doubt it was intentional, the set ended with a similar exchange of melodies and utterances with which it began.

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Katherine Bradford’s luminous nocturnes

"Magenta Nights" at Adams and Ollman considers atmospheres of air and water and the paint that can create them

“art is the power that causes the night to open.” — Maurice Blanchot, The Gaze of Orpheus

Katherine Bradford is a prolific and imaginative contemporary painter from New York City. Meeting her at the opening reception for her show Magenta Nights at Adams and Ollman gallery (through June 2) was like seeing a friend: Bradford’s social affability is that genuine and infectious. This is in keeping with proprietor Amy Adams, who worked closely with Bradford before the show to select works in her NYC studio. That evening, I got to talk with her a little about her acrylic paintings in that show, and then some more through correspondence. One takeaway from that initial interaction and my first looks at her work was Bradford’s affinity for atmosphere, the play of light and dark that is quintessential to the human experience, abstract and actual.

Katherine Bradford, “Swim at 6:10”, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 18 inches/Courtesy of Adams and Ollman

In a 2016 interview with Jennifer Samet, Bradford said, “what interests me the most is the language of painting—how people are able to say things using paint.” She then refers to a vernacular forever common to both poets and painters: the sea, the sky and clouds. Having seen two of her exhibitions in person, both at Adams & Ollman, I’ve asked myself, what is it then, that Bradford is saying with her pictures? She’s telling me about revery, buoyancy, fun—all perhaps contingent upon meditation and reflection. And then there’s the mysterious depth of the night that Bradford summons, that and the deep sea, the human mind. It’s all exciting, beyond sense, mystical, and yet utterly clear, approachable.

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‘Rigoletto’ review: toxic masculinity in high office

Portland Opera’s production of Verdi’s classic captures the composer’s critique of misogynistic leaders

By BRUCE BROWNE

Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto may be a popular classic today. But a beleaguered, thin-skinned political leader tried to strangle it at birth for daring to depict a ruler who would abuse the women around him. And who would do that in this day and age?

POA chose to open its 2018 season with one of the great works to be plucked from Verdi’s middle period (late 1840s to mid-1850s), which also included La Traviata and Il Trovatore. The 30-something-year-old composer was successful enough (and financially comfortable) at this time to select his own subject matter — and to break with musical convention.

Portland Opera’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

Verdi and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave chose Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, a play that had been banned in France after opening night in 1832. French censors claimed the play’s misogynistic royal was a reference to the then-current King Louis-Philippe. (Hugo was to have his say about the reign of Louis-Philippe three decades later in Les Miserables).

The Verdi/Piave blueblood, the Duke of Mantua, is the poster boy for misogyny, displaying his attitude with great elan in the beginning of the show with the aria ‘Quest o Quella” (this [woman] or that one), and he’s already seduced a vast number of the female courtiers including wives and daughters of his own henchmen.

The “revolting morality and obscene triviality of the libretto” (Life of Verdi, John Roselli, Cambridge University Press, 2000) was only one of the elements that, according to the letter from the Imperial and Royal Central Director to the composer, precluded Verdi from opening the show. In fact, it’s more likely that Italy’s real King, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III) felt, in these tumultuous times, more than a hint of criticism coming his way, and wanted none of it.

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Vanport Mosaic: story comes home

The Mosaic's citywide exhibits and events bring the many stories of Vanport back to life 70 years after the flood changed Portland history

“Stories need to be freed to do their work.” — Laura Lo Forti

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Memorial Day, 1948, was a seminal moment in the evolution of contemporary Portland. On that day, the city of Vanport, hastily constructed to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, was wiped out when a dike gave way at 4:05 p.m. The swelling Columbia River came crashing through the breach, and by nightfall, there were at least 15 dead. Vanport, at one point the largest housing project of its kind in the United States and the second largest city in Oregon, was under water and some 18,500 people were left homeless.

A few of the fasces of Vanport. Photo: The City of Portland Archives

This Memorial Day week – Wednesday-Monday, May 23-28 – the Vanport Mosaic will commemorate the 70th anniversary of that cataclysmic event with a four-day festival of “exhibits, theater performances, a reunion/celebration of former Vanport residents, documentary screenings and recordings, poetry, tours of the historic Vanport City area and community engagement activities.” You can see the full schedule here.

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