Dance review: ‘Body Opera Files’ from Skid Row

BodyVox reprises and expands a 2009 dance to good effect

Eric Skinner in "Baby Plays Around"/Photo David Krebs

Eric Skinner in “Baby Plays Around”/Photo David Krebs


BodyVox’s “Body Opera Files” opened last week, featuring 17 dance vignettes performed by Bodyvox and BodyVox-2 dancers, alongside members of a live band and four amazing singers. The show is built on 2009’s “Foot Opera Files,” expanding beyond that show’s Tom Waits material, but retaining its general “life on skid row” feel. And by continuing to use trained opera singers to perform the songs, the stories get the same boost toward the “mythic” that they did in 2009.

The production moved from BodyVox’s home studio to the NW Industrial Warehouse, a gigantic warehouse space used to house the floats for Portland’s Rose Parade that has a gritty, back alley, speakeasy underground/black market feeling to it. As intended, the warehouse also gave the production multiple, multi-level performance spaces and gave the audience a more immediate experience of the dances.

The performance began in a side section of the warehouse in front of an industrial size garage door. Jamey Hampton, company co-artistic director, begins the “dance” as he changes out 1950’s family vacation reels on an old projector and writes notes on cards and hands them out randomly to audience members. There is a loud banging on the garage door; it slowly opens to reveal the many pairs of dancer legs to hoots and hollers from the crowd. And then a big explosive dance erupts, introducing the characters and their relationships in this tight space surrounded by the audience. A boxer character (Jonathan Krebs) emerges hopping around and punching the air. As the dance ends he leads the dancers single file through the crowd, and we follow them to the stage area where the five-piece band and the singers are waiting, and we take our assigned seats.

From there the show takes off at full speed, unveiling the individual stories of the characters in movement and song.


BodyVox's "Bottom of the World'"Jim Lykins

BodyVox’s “Bottom of the World'”Jim Lykins

The dances were varied: big musical theater-styled numbers featuring the entire cast, sexy duets, jazzy trios, quartets, quintets, solos, and in BodyVox style, lots of props—a bed frame, a 2×4, watering cans, and a luggage cart—all in service to the soulful songs of Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sam Phillips.

My favorite dance in the program was a solo choreographed and performed by Erik Skinner called “Baby Plays Around,” an Elvis Costello song sung here by Dru Rutledge. Skinner employed a smooth ballroom dance-style, partnered (or propped) by a railroad luggage cart on wheels—leaning on it, standing on it, lying on it and then stopping on a dime and spinning it in a circle with one foot anchored to the floor and then sending it off in a new direction and doing it all over again. Magically, the cart never crashed into the audience, always running out of steam just before the first row. It was amazing how symbiotic man and machine were, especially given how clunky the machine was. We were spellbound.

I also enjoyed Skinner and Daniel Kirk in the duet “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” choreographed by Kirk to the Tom Waits song, sung by Hannah Penn and Rutledge. A touching and tender duet, this is the sort of piece generally danced by a man and a woman, and perhaps we give it closer attention danced by men.

Eric Skinner and Jonathan Krebs in "Let Him Dangle"/David Krebs

Eric Skinner and Jonathan Krebs in “Let Him Dangle”/David Krebs

Another great piece was “Let Him Dangle,” written by Elvis Costello, sung by Brendan Tuohy, choreographed by Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, and performed by Jonathan Krebs. Krebs enters pulling a huge bundle of ship-sized ropes like he’s pulling in a giant ocean liner to prove his strength. The ropes are attached to three other people, and as they enter, the stage transforms into a boxing ring. The story unfolds: a boxer at the top of his career, murders someone, falls from glory and is hung. As the dance ends Krebs is engulfed in the rope and is dragged off to the gallows. Completely absorbing and moving.


The dances that featured the men seemed more creative and complex than those for the women or duet dances. At times the movement for the female dancers felt very canned and restrictive, and I really wanted to see them break free, but they rarely did.

Similarly, the warehouse space seemed to offer greater possibilities for experimentation, especially to redefine or abolish the traditional barriers that separate audience and performer.

“Body Opera Files”: Iconic characters, contemporary ballet with musical theatre stylings infused with a spectrum of human emotions, and nothing too complex or opaque to understand. It was a simply enjoyable evening.

Dance Month: A recap of a month’s hard dancing in Portland

Reviews of Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, Northwest Dance Project, and three White Bird shows

Franco Nieto, Ching Ching Wong and Andrea Parson in Northwest Dance Project's “This Time Tomorrow"/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Franco Nieto, Ching Ching Wong and Andrea Parson in Northwest Dance Project’s “This Time Tomorrow”/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

For the past few years, October has functioned as Portland’s unofficial Dance Month, and if anything, this one has been especially dense, both with the sheer number of large-scale performances and the importance that some of them have had for the companies involved. ArtsWatch dispatched Martha Ullman West, Nim Wunnan, Jamuna Chiarini, and Bob Hicks to take on these shows and make some sense of their context in a series of serious reviews. I even got in on the action.

Because dance is such an ephemeral art form, even more than theater because its “language” is so unsettled these days, dance writing is unusually important. It can take us back to the concerts in question, remind us of crucial moments, suggest possible interpretations, attempt to summarize that which resists summary. That’s why we spend so much time and effort at that work here at ArtsWatch.

Here are our reviews of the month’s major shows from White Bird, Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and Northwest Dance Project, in case you want to go dancing again.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet/White Bird

Visiting dance companies usually program in the following way: one bright peppy dance to start to get the audience in the mood, intermission, one edgy experimental dance in the middle just to prove they can do it, intermission, one grand finale to leave everyone on a high note. As Martha Ullman West pointed out in her review, Aspen Santa Fe certainly has the repertoire to design such a show, but instead the company danced three darker pieces, built around Jiri Kylian’s brilliant early work “Return to a Strange Land.” They danced them beautifully and the crowd had a good time at this White Bird opener, but the younger choreographers might have been better served by a little contrast, West argued.

Kylian was under thirty when he made “Return to a Strange Land,” but he knew his craft. The ballet has a beginning, a middle and an end, Janacek’s music providing what Trey McIntyre (who has also been commissioned by this company) has referred to as a “road map” for the choreography. Would that Norbert de la Cruz III, who like a quarter of Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers is a graduate of Juilliard, class of 2010, had chosen one piece of music instead of a collage of dissonant electronic sound and glorious arias by George Frederic Handel to accompany “Square None,” his first commission. It, too, began on a darkened stage, spliced with shafts of gray light – hardly brightening the viewer’s mood, as closers are supposed to do.

Martina Chavez, Makino Hayashi, "Por Vos Muero." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Martina Chavez, Makino Hayashi, “Por Vos Muero.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Dream”/Oregon Ballet Theatre

For the two-part program that opened both Oregon Ballet’s new season, Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Mueros” and Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”and the tenure of Kevin Irving as artistic director, Martha Ullman West first sat in on one of Iriving’s rehearsals.

Irving is preparing the dancers to perform Duato’s signature movement, in which the emphasis is on shape rather than line, and technique is in the service of dramatic expression. Over the years, the Spanish choreographer (he was born in Valencia, in 1957) has developed a vocabulary that fuses the classical vocabulary—pirouettes, jetés, pas de chats, pas de bourrés, and the like—with the floor-bound, swooping curves of traditional modernism as developed and practiced by, among others, Martha Graham and José Limon. Not performed in point shoes, “Por Vos Mueros” nevertheless is a ballet, and an intensely theatrical one at that. The title, which comes from a Renaissance poem, translates as “For you I would die.”

Then she reviewed the concert, which went very well indeed.

Toward the end of Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” which Oregon Ballet Theatre performed for the first time on Saturday night, six women, dressed in the square-necked bodices and full skirts of Renaissance Europe, executed a series of 20th century backward flutter kicks. It was proof, indeed, that the company, with newly arrived artistic director Kevin Irving at the helm, is still alive and kicking up a storm.

And that was what was truly at stake in this season opener: Oregon Ballet Theatre has been struggling for a while financially, and the sudden departure of Stowell about a year ago, along with other key management personnel, added to those problems. Starting the season with a bang sent critical message to OBT’s community: We are still here, and we can still dance.

Compagnie Maguy Marin in "Salves"/Christian Ganet

Compagnie Maguy Marin in “Salves”/Christian Ganet

“Salves”/Maguy Marin/White Bird

For those who believe that dance is all gumdrops and lollipops (not ArtsWatch readers, of course!), Maguy Marin provides a serious wake-up call, both because her work often doesn’t LOOK like dance at all and because her critique of life in these times is so acute. Nim Wunnan’s review was a full-throated defense of Marin’s work and provided some of the decoding work it requires.

The only reason I was happy when I left the show is that I’m the kind of jackass that thinks more people should feel unsettled, doubtful, and afraid of the future like I and many people I admire do in our studios, and it makes me happy to see work that is so good at digging into a comfortable audience to make them feel that way. There’s some comfort in knowing others feel it too, but with the price of having the reasons for those feelings confirmed.

I jumped into the fray a bit, too, to elaborate on how subversive “Salves” (French for “Salvos,” not creamy medications) truly was in a post that also dealt with Portland Playhouse’s “Detroit.”

“Salves” is oppositional, analytical, discomforting (as Wunnan wrote). It refuses to quiet us with fine old music and fine new dancing. It tells us that our culture is casually racist, casually violent, halted by sentiment. If I look for something “positive,” it’s the speed and organization with which the dancers sometimes organize work–moving and building things. But opposition to the dominant ideology isn’t a gentle business. Marin’s object is to wake us up.

“Body Opera Files”/BodyVox

BodyVox extended a fine idea that artistic directors Jamie Hampton and Ashley Roland had back in 2009: String together a set of Tom Waits songs, assemble a band to play them and enlist opera singers to sing them, and tell their little stories in dance form, utilizing the production and prop magic that BodyVox is known for. For this show, new song narratives were added to the string, but the basic idea remained, and so did the humor and the pathos in the songs, according to Jamuna Chiarini’s review.

My favorite dance in the program was a solo choreographed and performed by Erik Skinner called “Baby Plays Around,” an Elvis Costello song sung here by Dru Rutledge. Skinner employed a smooth ballroom dance-style, partnered (or propped) by a railroad luggage cart on wheels—leaning on it, standing on it, lying on it and then stopping on a dime and spinning it in a circle with one foot anchored to the floor and then sending it off in a new direction and doing it all over again. Magically, the cart never crashed into the audience, always running out of steam just before the first row. It was amazing how symbiotic man and machine were, especially given how clunky the machine was. We were spellbound.

Consider this a franchise successfully extended!

“Weather”/Lucy Guerin/White Bird

After White Bird’s excursion into French politics, Lucy Guerin’s witty abstraction was something of a relief, and I enjoyed the brilliant dancing and inventive propwork (supplied by a ceiling full of plastic bags, some of which descended to the stage like snow to be ruffled by dancers or employed as props during the dance).

Alisdair Macindoe’s opening solo suggested perfectly what was coming up for the rest of the hour. How could a body that sturdy and strong seem that boneless and fluid? He supplied the windy sound effects with his breath and sliced and spun at high speeds and various levels seamlessly, without a single sign of stress.

Sydney Dance Company dances "2 One Another"/Ken Butti

Sydney Dance Company dances “2 One Another”/Ken Butti

“2 One Another”/Sydney Dance Company/White Bird

White Bird concluded an incredibly busy month with Sydney Dance Company, which followed hard on the heels of fellow Aussie Guerin with a show even bigger and more spectacular. Nim Wunnan was again on hand to provide the commentary.

The extra player in “2 One Another” is an enormous wall-of-light composed of a grid of LEDs behind a translucent, crumpled fabric screen, nearly the size of the Schnitz’s formidable proscenium. The show is a technically-challenging collaboration between the dancers, Cisterne’s lighting, a soundtrack by composer Nick Wales, and Australian poet Samuel Webster. This dense arrangement is directed by SDC’s relatively new and adventurous choreographer Rafael Bonachela and production designer Tony Assness.

Bonachela’s play with spectacle was knowing and witty—he used it to set-up quieter passages as much as for its sheer visceral effects, and when it relied on the latter too much, it wasn’t as interesting, according to Wunnan.

“New Now Wow!”/Northwest Dance Project

The month ended with three world premieres by young choreographers with impeccable credentials as dancers, which is one of the primary delights of Sarah Slipper’s Northwest Dance Project. The other is an athletic dance company that by now is able to engage fully with new work no matter how various its movements or ideas. Bob Hicks sifted through the work on display and settled on young Israeli choreographer Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow” has wit, twisted elegance (for all the odd angles, Agami insists on purity of line), and a sophisticated sense of how dance works with music and silence. And the movement can be startlingly fun. The piece is well-shaped, and it has a sense of controlled entropy, seemingly random variations that nevertheless have a discernible theme. The dancers, costumed in luscious creamy-white by designer Tobi de Goede, sometimes slither across the stage, making peekaboo entrances from behind the curtain and gliding on their backs like multiply jointed centipedes, knees bent and fast feet propelling them forward. Oranges, oddly but endearingly, roll all over the place.

As Hicks pointed out, Northwest Dance Project has pursued this course for the past ten years, and these days from that foundation, it seems confident and clear about what it does. And that all by itself was worth a “Wow” from the dance community.

So, quite a month of dance, overall. November is full of a smaller, more independent concerts, which we’ll be collecting and then addressing a little later. Stay tuned.

Dance Review: Lucy Guerin’s plastic storm

Lucy Guerin Inc's "Weather" is a high pressure system with lots of great dancing

Lucy Guerin's 'Weather'/Heidrun Lohr

Lucy Guerin’s ‘Weather’/Heidrun Lohr

So much of our description of a dance (or almost anything else) depends on context and comparison. Suppose you are a dance fan and you saw Lucy Guerin’s “Weather” last night at Lincoln Hall, after seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Dream” last weekend. Maybe you’d describe Guerin’s work as a challenging piece of contemporary dance—the score wasn’t very musical at all, despite the title it was abstract, the point of some of the sections seemed to be to exhaust the dancers, and while the movement may have been impressive it wasn’t “beautiful.”

Or maybe you saw Maguy Marin’s “Salves” last weekend. In that case, maybe you were relieved to see some good, old-fashioned dancing, without Marin’s puzzling content that seemed vaguely angry, even assaultive, and the movement that had nothing particular to do with “dancing.” (One patron told White Bird’s Walter Jaffe that “Salves” felt like a colonoscopy. Yikes!)

And even if you saw neither of those (nor BodyVox’s “Body Opera Files”), still, it’s axiomatic that “context is everything” or maybe “everything is relative” or “the ideology of the ruling class is the dominant ideology of any society.” Wait, that last one is about something else.

Both of our imaginary “Weather” audience members, the balletomane and the tester of Marin’s turbulent waters, might agree on one thing—those Lucy Guerin dancers can really move. And though they aren’t the will-o-the-wisp dancers who might make fine leaves in the wind of the weather, their precision at the high speeds they are able to generate comes from the power of very strong, kinetically aware bodies.

LucyGuerininc_WEATHER #1-81 Image by Heidrun Lohr

Lucy Guerin’s ‘Weather’/Heidrun Lohr

Guerin says “Weather” is based on weather patterns, but I think it could just as easily be called “Molecules,” “Breath” or “More Fun With Plastic Bags Than You Might Think Is Possible,” without losing the sense or enjoyment of it. I suspect it’s a big mistake to sit there and attempt to assign specific weather events to what’s happening onstage at any particular time. I never once thought, “Oh, that must be a low pressure system moving in” or “Wow, what a great depiction of wind shear,” but then I’m not even an amateur meteorologist.

Oh, I suppose that because a lot of the dance divides the dancers into 1 on 5 patterns (one dancer outside a grouping of five) that maybe there’s a political or social subtext on alienation or manipulation inside “Weather.” But remember, I was part of the Maguy Marin group last weekend, and that was the most fleeting of thoughts, even for me.

That left me with the six dancers, a ceiling full of plastic bags (the only and very striking set element), and Guerin’s sublime ability to find interesting ways to manipulate the first two. That was plenty.

Alisdair Macindoe’s opening solo suggested perfectly what was coming up for the rest of the hour. How could a body that sturdy and strong seem that boneless and fluid? He supplied the windy sound effects with his breath and sliced and spun at high speeds and various levels seamlessly, without a single sign of stress. He was replaced by a lengthy duet by Amber Haines and Kyle Page that set them moving in elegant, almost waltzy, patterns. Gradually, those sped up, started to change, reaching a point of seeming exhaustion (not really, Haines is onstage almost the entire show and never showed a hint of slowing down), when other dancers would enter, stir them up to more dancing and leave the stage.

The other three dancers (Kirstie McCracken, Talitha Maslin and Lillian Steiner) having been introduced, some elaborate line dancing began in that 1-to-5 formation, and then the plastic bags fell to the floor.

Not all of them. That would have been WAY too many for the dancers to manipulate. But enough to fill the stage one layer deep. And the last four sections (by my count) are danced among them. The dancers send those bags flying, hide beneath them, shake them like pompoms, shove them to one end of the stage and back, scurry and dance about kicking up little cyclones of them. OK, I just included “cyclones” there because of the title of the piece. I might have just said “helixes.”

LucyGuerininc_WEATHER #1-488 Image by Heidrun Lohr

Lucy Guerin’s ‘Weather’/Heidrun Lohr

At one point Macindoe starts pulling a bag over Page’s head, and they make excellent comic use of this prop, though my mother would have predicted that there was a 100 percent certainty that someone would end up dead. (They made it through alive, Mom!)

It wasn’t all prop play. Guerin herself danced with Tere O’Connor Dance and Bebe Miller and choreographed for Chunky Move and Mikhail Baryshnikov. She’s a proponent of the most energetic, intricate and demanding dancing—complex unison dancing, explosive solos with lots of moving parts, very physical duets—and that’s what “Weather” delivers.

Gradually, some personality started to emerge from the dancers, the humor, sure, and a little attitude. (“Oh, the weather just got angry!”) They started to emerge as single dancers with particular qualities: Maslin’s the long-legged one with precise placements, McCracken is a puckish dynamo, and so on. By the time the stage manager through the switch and plunged the stage in darkness, we were just getting warmed up!

ArtsWatch News & Notes: Dance week, music research, more!

Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox and Maguy Marin, exciting symphony data, football players gone bad, etc.

Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Midsummer Night's Dream"/Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”/Blaine Truitt Covert

If you were a stranger to Portland landing in town this weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking the city was completely dance-obsessed. Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and White Bird all open big shows, and it’s going to be hard to put off the ones with longer runs to another weekend—another batch of concerts hits the following weekend. Maybe we ARE dance-obsessed. At least in October.

A quick rundown:

Maguy Marin's "Salves"/Jean-Pierre Maurin

Maguy Marin’s “Salves”/Jean-Pierre Maurin

White Bird is bringing Compagnie Maguy Marin to the Newmark Theatre for three performances starting Thursday night. I’m not even going to bring up the company’s last visit in 2002, which sent a steady stream of patrons out the door. We’ve grown up a lot as a dance community since then, I think, just because White Bird has brought lots of other challenging work to town since then. (Well, I guess I DID mention it.) The company will perform Marin’s “Salves,” a theater-movement piece that will be no less disturbing. It’s going to be loud, chaotic, full of images and movements that start to make sense and then are replaced by others, then repeated again.

The same night, BodyVox opens “Body Opera Files” in the NW Industrial Warehouse, 2448 NW 28th Ave., not their home base on Northwest 17th. The concert is adapted from 2009’s “Foot Opera Files,” which took a batch of Tom Waits songs of the downtrodden, asked opera singers to give them a sonic ride and then choreographed the stories they told. The company has broadened the music to include Elvis Costello, gospel and Americana, but the basic idea is the same. And the more tenderloin district-like warehouse should be an excellent setting for the stories. It runs through Oc. 26.

Body Opera Files Rehearsal Video 1 from BodyVox on Vimeo.

And then on Saturday, Oregon Ballet Theatre introduces the Kevin Irving Era to the city’s ballet fans. Irving is the new company artistic director, and his first program, “Dream,” includes his predecessor Christopher Stowell’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as well as Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero.” ArtsWatch’s Martha Ullman West previewed this one nicely already, so for more information click the link.


Of all the classical art forms, classical music seems the most at risk these days, which is why ArtsWatch keeps talking about it here, and on Twitter and Facebook. The problems are varied, almost as varied as the number of orchestras in the country, in fact, but fortunately, so are the ongoing experiments in keeping the orchestras and the music vital to the culture.

One of the most innovative orchestras in the country is the New World Symphony in Miami, overseen by Michael Tilson-Thomas of San Francisco Symphony fame. He has used the NWS as a lab to test various programming ideas, and like any good scientist, he has measured the results. Well, probably not him personally.

The NWS measured audience response over time to several of its innovative series—micro-concerts (30 minutes each, three a night, $2.50 admission), Encounters (60 minute concerts with a specific educational focus), Journeys (three-hour concerts that examine individual composers in depth), and Pulse performances (combining dance music and edgier contemporary classical fare). The report itself is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the fate of classical music, primarily because it shows how effective non-traditional formats can be in building interest and creating great experiences for audiences, especially new audiences.

The New World Symphony is not a traditional American orchestra It was started to give young musicians right out of music conservatories the opportunity to play and develop. It’s facility was designed by Frank Gehry, and the educational component was built right in, small studios and a large public rehearsal hall. And Miami’s audiences are likely less “traditional” than those in more northerly classical hotbeds, more willing to accept new things. Nonetheless, the data is fascinating.


The Detroit Symphony endured a strike and major financial problems, but all along it has tried various ways to reach its community. And the payoff finally arrived: The orchestra balanced its budget and raised a whopping $18.9 million in contributions during the past year. Detroit has actually decided it wants to fund a major symphony orchestra! (I followed the 2010-11 strike closely on my old Arts Dispatch blog. Those posts and a somewhat shorter set around the troubles at Philadelphia shaped my thinking on what a successful approach to the modern symphony might look like.)


Around 20 members of the Ole Miss football  taking a beginning theater class thought that heckling a performance of “The Laramie Project,” close to the 15th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder at the hands of bigots, was a good idea.

Artist Jennifer Dewalt decided she wanted to learn to code, so she created 180 web pages in 180 days, some of which are pretty amazing.



Hard to go wrong with the Kronos Quartet at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium tonight. The program couldn’t be more deliciously wide-ranging.


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White Bird opener: It was a dark and moody night

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet kicks off White Bird's season with an oddly monochromatic program

Photo: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Photo: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Dark, very dark. That’s what the oddly monochromatic programming was when Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a company of smart, young, very talented dancers, opened White Bird’s 2013-2014 season at the Schnitz with a single show on Wednesday night.

Each of the three pieces began on a darkened stage, starting with Cayetano Soto’s “Beautiful Mistake,” which opened with a slow walk by a single dancer that was almost the only traveling through space in the piece. Soto, a Spaniard who lives in Munich and has been commissioned in the past by Portland’s Northwest Dance Project, manipulates the dancers’ beautiful, muscular bodies like a chiropractor, or a child playing with one of those rubbery dolls.

There is a lot of heavy lifting, giving the incredibly buff men plenty of opportunities to flex their muscles and the women many chances to extend their shapely arms and legs. Sculptural posing is also a major part of the choreography, all done to an appropriately monotonous score by Olafur Arnalds and Charles Wilson. “Beautiful Mistake” does not have the dehumanizing, relentless pace of the work of some of Soto’s contemporaries (Jorma Elo comes immediately to mind), but his experiments with physicality and physique offer little if any room for individual expression. Ultimately, the piece is about as interesting as a body-building contest.

“Where does all this focus on lifts come from?” Damien Jack, my seatmate, asked me as the curtain rang down on Soto’s final pose. One answer became readily apparent shortly after the dancers began Jiri Kylian’s elegiac “Return to a Strange Land,” made the year Soto was born. But Kylian isn’t obsessed by the lifts. They are an integral part of what the ballet is about: an homage to John Cranko, director of the Stuttgart Ballet, where Kylian’s career as a dancer and choreographer began, and who died in a plane crash in 1973.

The ballet — and it is a ballet: the women wear point shoes — is a skillfully crafted series of trios and duets, eloquently danced by Katherine Bolaños, Craig Black, Samantha Klanac Campanile, Peter Franc, Nolan DeMarco McGahan and Joseph Watson, to a score by Kylian’s Czech compatriot Leos Janacek. I found myself moved by the second pas de deux, which began somewhat combatively and contained a series of backward bourrées combined with a yearning port de bras that was an entirely believable expression of anger and grief. The piece ends with a tangle of three bodies, twisted like pretzels, not at all on a happy note.

Kylian was under thirty when he made “Return to a Strange Land,” but he knew his craft. The ballet has a beginning, a middle and an end, Janacek’s music providing what Trey McIntyre (who has also been commissioned by this company) has referred to as a “road map” for the choreography. Would that Norbert de la Cruz III, who like a quarter of Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers is a graduate of Juilliard, class of 2010, had chosen one piece of music instead of a collage of dissonant electronic sound and glorious arias by George Frederic Handel to accompany “Square None,” his first commission. It, too, began on a darkened stage, spliced with shafts of gray light – hardly brightening the viewer’s mood, as closers are supposed to do. De la Cruz was born in the Philippines and grew up in Los Angeles, and some of his movement has the spiky edge of big-city living. It is also a less muscular piece than Soto’s, although there is a fair amount of sculptural posing. Some hand-wringing at the beginning of the piece gave it some interest, but why it was included remains as mysterious as the score.

When the Handel begins, the movement gets jauntier, livelier, and a little too close to being balletically cute, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Morris’s more lighthearted dances to baroque music, although Morris never makes fun of the music he loves. Nor does he treat the dancers, as de la Cruz does at the end of this piece, like the mechanical dolls that perch on top of music boxes. Using (and I mean using) dancers purely as instruments for choreography is, alas, part of a 21st century trend, particularly in ballet. Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers deserve better, as their performance in Kylian’s work clearly showed.

This was, in fact, surprisingly bad programming. Company artistic director Tom Mossbrucker was a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet for many years — I saw him give a spectacularly evil performance in the title role of “Billy the Kid,” when the Joffrey toured here decades ago — and should know better than to put three moody pieces on the same program. Having said that, the audience doesn’t seem to have minded, delivering the traditional standing ovation and leaving the theater in a cheerful mood.

The evening began traditionally as well, with Paul King and Walter Jaffe giving a pre-curtain speech to welcome the audience to White Bird’s 16th anniversary season and let the audience know, in their words, that October will be dance month in Portland. Coming up next in their season is Compagnie Maguy Marin, for three performances starting October 10. It’s not likely to be light entertainment, but according to the brochure, she will “lead the audience through a journey of darkness and light,” and I happen to find her work fascinating. PSU’s Contemporary Dance Season was the first to present her here; White Bird brought her company several years ago. The Australians also arrive on our shores next month. Lucy Guerin’s company, which has performed in Portland a number of times, will be at Lincoln Hall October 17 to 19, and Sydney Dance returns October 23 to the Schnitz. Both companies do extremely interesting work.

Also in October, Oregon Ballet Theater opens October 12 for two weekends at the Keller, and Jaffe and King announced that Kevin Irving, OBT’s new artistic director, was in the Aspen/Santa Fe audience. Irving is likely to program Kylian’s work for OBT in the future, and I hope he does. Northwest Dance Project also opens its season in October, the 24th-26th, at Lincoln Performance Hall; and BodyVox reprises its Body Opera Files (to live rock music) October 10-26, in a new space for the spooky occasion (I had fun when I saw the premiere), the Northwest Industrial Warehouse. And that’s just for openers. More to come later in the season.

ArtsWatch: Covering more with less

Oregon's cultural scene is stronger and more diverse than it's ever been. But who is telling the stories? ArtsWatch seeks to fill the gap.

On the last Saturday morning in January, as Portland was alight with the Fertile Ground Festival of New Plays and dozens of other significant cultural events, I gave a talk to a good-sized crowd at Terwilliger Plaza, titled “Portland Arts: Covering More With Less.” In it, I talked about the city’s growth in population and culture over the past four decades, the decline of mainstream media’s willingness and ability to reflect those radical changes, and the role that Oregon ArtsWatch plays in providing readers a context for the city and state’s vastly larger and more complex cultural scene. Here is the text of that talk.


THE CULTURAL LIFE OF PORTLAND AND OREGON has never been stronger or more varied than it is today. And yet, surprisingly, this explosion of creativity sometimes seems to be taking place in a vacuum, with scant public notice, especially in the press. How has this seeming disconnection come about? I want to try to bring three threads together to help explain it, and to suggest a way to amplify the creative voices that are reshaping the city’s identity.

The first thread is Portland’s evolution from a big town to a small city, and the boom in arts and culture that’s gone along with that.

The second thread is the catastrophic weakening of traditional journalism, not just in Portland but across the country and beyond. Newspapers are dying a slow and painful death, or surviving on C-Rations as they try to figure out how to find their way in a digital world. Except for a few largely national publications such as the New York Times, cultural coverage has taken a huge hit in the process. It’s all but disappearing from many newspapers and continuing to be largely a non-starter on for-profit television, which has rarely found a way to cover arts and culture intelligently. So, just at the time when Portland’s cultural scene is undergoing something of a scrappy cultural renaissance, mainstream media coverage of the arts is lower than it’s been in decades.

The third thread is Oregon ArtsWatch, the online cultural site where I’m a writer and a senior editor. ArtsWatch has stepped into the void to provide smart reporting and commentary about everything from the art museum and opera to experimental dance and theater and the rich vein of Oregon contemporary composers. You can find us easily online. We are ORARTSWATCH.ORG.

Are we small? Almost every group we cover has a bigger budget, often ten or twenty or a hundred-fold.

Are we scrappy? Although a few of us work well more than full-time on this, everything we produce is done freelance, and almost every penny we raise goes directly to writers or editors. More money, more writers, more stories. It’s as simple as that.

Are we ambitious? We have plans to deepen and broaden our coverage, and to make the “Oregon” part of our title more of a reality than an aspiration. It’s a big state, and while we’ll always focus on the greater Portland area we want to explore all of Oregon’s cultural parts.


Railway worker Tom Stefopoulos and his outdoor art at the Lovejoy Columns.


I’m going to talk today less about specific stories ArtsWatch has written or even the specific arts movements and events we write about, and try instead to give you an idea of the more and the less of how the city and its culture grew to the point that ArtsWatch came into existence, and why I think it’s a good thing that we did. It’s going to take a bit of meandering to get there.

All of us at ArtsWatch come from different backgrounds and places, and I think that’s part of our strength.

I’m a native Northwesterner, born in Centralia, Washington, which happened to have the closest hospital to the little foothills farm where my parents had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area after my father had finished his four-year engagement with the Second World War. Farming proved better in the abstract than the actuality, and I grew up not as a farm kid but as a townie, in a very small town near the Canadian border and North Puget Sound, surrounded by Norwegians and Swedes and members of the Lummi nation, and many more churches than beer halls. It was a good place to grow up, and a good place to grow out of.

We were a working-class family, with seven kids, and although we were far from any cultural center, thinking and learning always came first. Everybody read. Libraries were our friends. We were free as children to read anything in our parents’ home library, which was small but well-selected. My mother had studied art history at San Francisco State College, and I pored over the books she’d kept, with all those magnificent paintings from places I’d never been. We had no television but took two daily newspapers, and also subscribed to the local weekly, where I began my journalism career as a sophomore in high school covering high school sports for two bucks a week. Minus taxes. College happened, and some bumming around, and I found myself in the newspaper racket, where in 1974, when I was working for a morning daily in Upstate New York, I got a call from the old Oregon Journal, Portland’s afternoon daily, offering me a job for twice what I was making. I said yes, packed up the Ford Pinto, and drove cross-country in February, back to the West Coast.

I was 26 years old, and I’ve been here since. I thought I’d spend a couple of years and then move on to Seattle or San Francisco. Portland seemed small and stifling in comparison. Instead I stuck around and grew up with the town. I might’ve left yet, if someone, in those first couple of years, hadn’t taken me down to the underbelly of old Northwest Portland, long before the Pearl District was a gleam in anyone’s eye, and showed me the Lovejoy Columns. The columns were hidden jewels beneath a viaduct near the Broadway Bridge, where the Greek-immigrant railway worker Tom Stefopoulos had created a universe in chalk of mythological and historical drawings.

It was sort of like the Sistine Chapel in reverse: Instead of high and open and famous, it was low and hidden and secret. It had dirt beneath its fingernails. I remember thinking something interesting was happening here, after all. This was a fascinating Portland I hadn’t known existed.



Thread One: Big Town to Small City


WHEN I MOVED HERE Portland seemed like the kind of place that people from the small towns and countryside moved to, not because they wanted to be in a city, really, but because the small towns were drying up and this was where they could find a job. Once you got beneath things it was raw – genuinely raw, not cute keep-Portland-weird raw – with an underbelly that the city’s elite tried to hide under a tea towel, but it kept poking out. In 1970 the city’s population was 382,000 and the metropolitan area was barely over a million. Today the city has about 640,000 people, and the metro area’s pushing 2.5 million.

About a million of those people have been added just since 1990. To let that sink in, since 1970 the metro area’s grown almost 250 percent. Still small compared to the Bay Area or Greater Seattle or L.A., and yet a very different place from 40 years ago. And it is only going to get bigger, with all of the problems and opportunities that come with size.

Culturally, 40 years ago, most everything was West Side, and most of that downtown. Even inner east side Portland, where I’ve lived most of my years here, might as well have been Boise. The Portland Art Museum was here, and sort of stolid. The symphony was filled with part-time players. The opera stuck to the war horses. There were three or four good art-movie houses, one actually called The Movie House.

Chamber Music Northwest was a feisty little summer festival on the Reed campus, performing in the school cafeteria, which had no air conditioning. I remember one hot night, sitting cross-legged and sweaty on the cafeteria floor, when one of the visiting musicians, during a break in the program, suddenly started shouting to the crowd: “What are you doing sitting in here listening to us play? You’re living in Paradise! The mountains are right there! The ocean’s right there! That’s where the music is! Go out and be in them!”

I’m not sure whether he was invited back for the next summer’s festival.


Oregon Gov. Tom McCall giving his farewell speech to the Portland City Club in December 1974, at the end of his second and final term. Far more noted for his environmental accomplishments, McCall made his most memorable contribution to the arts with his free, state-sponsored rock festival “Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life,” which drew somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 (estimates vary wildly) mostly young revelers to a state park near Estacada in 1970 in an effort to draw potential conflict away from a national American Legion convention and mass march in downtown Portland. Photo: Oregon Historical Society


There were a few small amateur or semiprofessional theater companies, which sometimes did terrific work, and a small and underfunded dance scene. Some interesting things were taking place, like the legendary PCVA, the Portland Center for the Visual Arts. From 1972 to 1987 it provided a vital link between Portland’s contemporary arts scene and what was happening in New York and beyond. The city’s parks department operated a series of little neighborhood centers that nurtured small-scale theater and dance and visual art, and lots of arts classes for kids and adults. Artists liked living here because it was cheap and you could try things out.

Portland was a town to begin things, and often a town to reinvent the wheel. It felt like an unfinished place, certainly not a polished place. But it had that grit. And it had a lot of room to grow.

The town DID grow. So did its art scene, which became broader and deeper and much more varied. The city still thrives on a kind of alt-culture sensibility, with big organizations but also a lot of small companies and individual artists striking out on their own. Small is very, very big in Portland.

But the art scene is both vastly larger and much more complex than it was in the 1970s. It reflects the city and the nation better than it did when the town was more ingrown. African American and Hispanic and Asian American and Native American artists are prominent. Women artists have a much stronger impact. And people are much more aware of the work these artists are doing.

When I started writing about theater in Portland, a few people were doing original shows. Ric Young and others were creating new works, some of them quite splendid, at Storefront Theatre. Charles Deemer was writing interesting, usually Oregon-set plays for a variety of companies. Sam Shepard was still in San Francisco, and people here were producing his vivid new American plays almost as soon as they were available. The New Vaudeville movement was in full flower, adding circus skills and acrobatics and mime and juggling and puppetry and countercultural politics to the performance scene. But the emphasis was on revivals (sometimes very good ones) of European and American classics.


When avant-garde met old guard: Ric Young’s “Camille” at Portland Civic Theatre, 1979.


FLASH FORWARD TO 2018. Right now we’re in the middle of the ninth annual Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, which sprawls across the metro area and includes more than a hundred new plays and other performance works. Almost every established company in town includes at least one new play, and sometimes more, in its season.

And the city has more than a hundred theater companies producing shows at least occasionally, according to the membership rolls of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance. New-music groups playing the music of contemporary composers are proliferating, many of them made up of players whose main gig is with the Oregon Symphony. I can scarcely count the number of art galleries. When I came to town there were the Fountain and a couple of others, including one, the Image Gallery, that was run by the irascible painter and very good printmaker Jack McLarty and his wife Barbara. And Portland has become an attractor city. Younger people, many of them part of the creative industries that are driving much of the economy and interlinking with the city’s arts scene, are moving here in droves, because they like the IDEA of Portland, whatever that idea might be.

So. Not New York, not Chicago, not San Francisco or L.A. But for a major-minor city – we’re ranked these days as the 23rd biggest metro area in the nation – Portland punches above its cultural weight. At its best it reflects a sturdy regional flavor that is also fully aware of national and international trends.

And you’d think the newspapers and other news outlets would be hopping with stories about it. But don’t forget Thread Two of this little saga: the breakdown of the Press.



Thread Two: Media Collapse


PORTLAND’S NEW VITALITY has come at a time, to extend the boxing metaphor, when the nation’s traditional media are on the ropes. Into the 1990s urban newspapers were riding high. At The Oregonian the joke was that we were in the business of printing money, and it was only barely a joke. Newspaper profit margins were almost obscenely high.

In The Oregonian’s culture sections we were living in a golden age, although we didn’t realize it at the time – we always felt we needed more staff, more space, more budget, more freedom from senior editors’ expectations, to explore what was really going on. At our height we had full-time critics covering visual arts, architecture, classical music, popular music, theater, movies, television. We had a literary editor and chief critic with a good-sized budget to assign reviews of new books. We had a large freelance budget so we could cover dance, which did not have a full-time staff writer, and send writers out to cover stories the staff writers couldn’t get to. We had a vast calendar of events with its own staff, and we had the essential luxury of attached staff feature writers on the lookout for cultural stories. We traveled up and down the West Coast, and to New York and Chicago and Louisville and Houston and London and even Russia and China and the Baltic States on the trail of stories. We had several editors, and good copy editors and designers.

And then the Internet happened. And readership plummeted, and advertising revenue dried up. Newspapers used to make a mint publishing classified advertisements. All of that went to the Web. Poof! No more mint.


Poster for the original film version of “The Front Page,” 1931: It’s history now. Wikimedia Commons


THE STRUGGLE IS REAL, and it is daunting. Tens of thousands of good journalists have left the business or been pushed out, moving on to be government spokespersons or freelancers or entrepreneurs or teachers or just taking early retirement. We are the coal miners of white-collar America, with no regulatory help from the President, who observes our weakness with glee.

The newspaper industry got caught with its pants down. It didn’t see the train coming down the tracks, and by the time the train smacked broadside into it, it was too late. The damage had been done.

That is very painful for journalists. It is crucially harmful for the nation’s citizens, who are now seeing a full-on attack from the highest levels on freedom of the press, and the grossly cynical coining of the term “fake news” to describe, usually, what is actually the opposite, and the passing off of true fakery as the real deal.

There are signs that the forced compact between the Internet giants and the traditional news organizations that provide them with their mostly free feeds may be shifting. The pattern that’s set in is simple: Traditional news organizations do the hard work of gathering the news and paying the workers who do it. Tech companies like Facebook then link to those stories, with no compensation to their originators. Readers click on the stories online, usually bypassing the news organizations’ own web pages, which are sometimes free and sometimes have a pay wall.

That pattern may be about to change. Earlier this week Bloomberg View published a story titled “Tech Is Starting To Lose Its War on Journalism.” One of the story’s unlikely heroes is Rupert Murdoch, head of the News Corporation, which for years has been mistrusted as a slanted and politically motivated source of information. But politics, and business, make strange bedfellows.

“If Facebook wants to recognize ‘trusted’ publishers then it should pay those publishers a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies,” the Bloomberg story quoted Murdoch. “The publishers are obviously enhancing the value and integrity of Facebook through their news and content but are not being adequately rewarded for those services. Carriage payments would have a minor impact on Facebook’s profits but a major impact on the prospects for publishers and journalists.”

In other words: Internet, don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Will such a change actually take place? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if it does it seems likely only to modify the current balance of power, not shift it back to news organizations. And it is much more likely to benefit large national publications than regional and local ones. There are other ways to shift things. Like finding a billionaire angel. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, bought the Washington Post and bailed it out of a deep financial hole. It’s now doing excellent journalism. Still, it’s troubling that ownership has shifted to a leading player in a financially and politically powerful industry that a newspaper like the Post ordinarily would be watching like a hawk.

In Portland, The Oregonian has reacted in several ways to the financial woes that have beset the industry. It’s cut down to four days of paper delivery a week, placing its bets on its Internet branch, Oregon Live, which it hasn’t substantially beefed up. And it’s gone mostly local in its coverage, although the astounding national events of the past year have forced it to draw back from that a little. Still, it thinks local first, believing it can provide vital local information not available or hard to find elsewhere. Yet it’s trying to do that with a sharply reduced and clearly overworked staff.

And it has slashed its cultural coverage. That seems a huge mistake. What can be more local than a place’s specific cultural life? What more defines what a place is? Having decided to go local, The Oregonian should have put more and more emphasis on the city’s creative and cultural life. Instead, it’s cut that coverage to the bone. (Or to the rib bone: It’s still big on covering the restaurant scene.) To be fair, it’s hardly been alone in that. Newspapers across the country have done the same thing. And so, we begin to live in a nation that is bigger and messier and less informed and more susceptible to angry voices, and does not know itself.



Thread Three: Oregon ArtsWatch


MY LONGTIME FRIEND and colleague Barry Johnson and I worked side by side for more than twenty years at The Oregonian. Barry started ArtsWatch in 2011. He did it mostly on his own, with a couple of grants and a few helpers and the idea that if cultural journalism was going to work in a town like Portland, maybe the best way to go at it was as a nonprofit organization. Money would come from memberships – sort of along the public television line, without the pledge drives – advertising, individual donations, and grants from foundations and government agencies. That’s pretty much how things still work, on a very lean budget that grows a little bit each year. We spend only what we have. We have no debt.

What do our readers get for it?

We write extensively about classical music in Oregon, concentrating much of our energy on contemporary classical, a lot of it produced by Oregon composers and musicians. Less completely, we cover jazz and world music, too.

We cover theater deeply, with reviews, profiles, insider accounts and commentary.

We cover the city’s very busy dance scene, and sometimes dance in Eugene and elsewhere, too.

We write about visual art, including profiles of individual artists, gallery reviews, and news and reviews about museums, among them the Portland Art Museum, the Hallie Ford Museum in Salem, the Maryhill Museum in the Columbia Gorge, and sometimes the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in Eugene.

We write less often about film, television, and the literary arts. We would like to write about them more. When we have the resources, we will. We cover arts politics when the need arises. And we cover everything from a variety of points of view. We can’t hope to cover everything. We want everything we DO cover to count.

IN SHORT, WE PROVIDE a lot of views, from a lot of people, about a lot of art. Our executive director, Laura Grimes, did a count of our contributing writers recently. We have about forty-five – some regular, some now and again. And they come from all over — from Berkeley to Philadelphia to New York City to Germany to the Midwest to the whistle stop of towns that an Air Force family moves through, and beyond. They are jazz saxophonists, art historians, dancers, essayists, singers, biographers, photographers, academics, montage artists, composers, students, poets, actors, small-press editors, drag clowns, members of gamelan orchestras — a lot of experiences, a lot of approaches to the art of writing. Some of us come out of traditional journalism. Some of us come out of the arts world. One of the editors’ jobs is to try to connect the right writer with the right story at the right time.

I’m thrilled when I see good arts and cultural coverage in other publications. The Oregonian’s entertainment editor, Amy Wang, makes the most of the extremely limited resources the newspaper allows her. The Eugene Weekly, in particular, does a fine job of covering the culture in its city. I believe there is no better or more consistent source of cultural reporting and comment in Oregon than ArtsWatch right now.

The collapse of mainstream journalism in Portland – and ArtsWatch is hardly mainstream; people have to take the time to find us – has among many other things changed the relationship between arts groups and cultural journalists. When ArtsWatch began we were less interested in writing traditional reviews than in finding other ways to illuminate the city’s cultural life. Personal essays. Profiles and interviews. Long takes on stories that might be considered obsessions in the mainstream press, but that allowed writers to stretch out and explore the territory.

One of my own first pieces for ArtsWatch, in January of 2012, was titled “Down the rabbit hole: Melody Owen makes a book,” and it was very much down a rabbit hole, about the opening gala for the release of a talented artist’s quirky book called “The Looking Glass Book,” an assemblage of collages she made out of twenty years’ worth of collected images relating to her obsession with the works of Lewis Carroll. Along the way the essay also got into the strange story of the Publication Studio, where Owen’s book was published, and which successfully does things in a way that most of the publishing world would find counterintuitive at the least. In all probability I never would have had the time or priority to write such a story at The Oregonian. It remains one of my favorites.


A strange little rabbit: Illustration from Melody Owen’s “Looking Glass Book.”


We still encourage and write this sort of story. But as mainstream coverage began to disappear, arts groups let us know that they wanted, needed, reviews. And so we began to emphasize reviews, sometimes to a greater degree than we really wanted. Readers, of course, also wanted reviews: they remain the bread and butter of arts coverage. But we try to make them more than simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down pieces.

Our reviews, when they hit the mark, are really essays that take the performance or the exhibition as a starting point for cultural exploration. Sometimes the arts groups like that and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, we suspect, what they really want is good quotes for their grant applications and advertising campaigns. Of course it’s always nice if things turn out that way, but it isn’t our first priority. We continue to believe that honest engagement is better in the long run for everybody – readers, writers, and artists.

I’VE TOSSED AROUND THE WORD “CULTURE” quite a bit. There are two kinds of culture, and I think they overlap. One is more or less a synonym for “the arts.” We talk about the cultural life: going to the opera and symphony and theater and museum. The second meaning is much broader: culture as the belief patterns and history and habits of a society; culture as a crucial engagement in community life. Part of what we write about at ArtsWatch is Definition No. 1, the aesthetic life. But we also believe quite strongly in Definition No. 2 – that everything in Definition No. 1 reflects and helps shape and is shaped by its engagement in the communal life of the entire society.

No man is an island, entire of itself. No work of art is, either. We want our stories and ideas always to connect. And that means we want them to take a broad view. A new piece of music has been premiered. What does it mean in context? How does it fit? A stripped-down production of Bertolt Brecht’s 1944 play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which came out of a specific time and situation, takes place in a Southeast Portland warehouse in the fall of 2017. What does it mean in a city like Portland on a day like today, under the political and cultural realities of today’s United States? We’re not a magazine, but in certain ways we want to think like a magazine: write about now, but with an eye on the future and the past.

ArtsWatch is growing and changing all the time, as any good publication should. And we’re always looking for new talent.

We look for people who know their subject and can learn to write. We look for people who are writers and can learn their subject. We look for people who already have both. We look for people with a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds.

And we look for younger people, who might be able to take this thing over and keep it going through changing times. Metro, the Portland regional government, predicts a metropolitan population of more than 3 million by 2035. If more of the nation grows insufferably hot and water supplies dwindle as climate change takes hold, that estimate could be modest: people will be flocking to those parts of the country that still have a decent water supply. How would that change Portland and Oregon? What shifts would it make in their culture – both kinds of culture?

I’m hoping Oregon ArtsWatch will be on hand, bigger and better than it is now, to help people sort it all out.


VizArts Monthly: March on

You WILL make it through the last dregs of winter, and a new set of visual arts shows will help

I’ve seen March arrive in Portland more than a dozen times, and yet still some part of me thinks “Ok, it’s spring now, right?” It’s not spring, and it won’t be spring for a while. It’s still winter, still time left in the unpredictable progression from spiteful to mightful to sometimes delightful. It’s easy to think things just won’t change. But we Portlanders go through this every year, filling the outdoor cafes as soon as the sun makes an appearance. It’s built into our constitutions to look for signs of progress and renewal when all seems lost.

Checking the news at any point is a quick reminder that the weather’s not the only thing that manages to be both unexpected and depressing in 2018. Even though the clouds haven’t parted yet, some big, colorful developments are already showing. Black Panther is smashing box office records and inspiring intelligent conversation about a comic book movie, vibrant portraits of the Obamas by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald break the stuffy monotony of official presidential portraits, and the tough-as-nails students of Stoneman Douglas have already managed to budge the national conversation about gun control more than Washington has ever been willing to.

Likewise, our local artists and institutions aren’t waiting for the sun to come back to add some color and light to our city. March is chock full of smart, complex, and beautiful shows representing diverse perspectives. This list should give you plenty of chances to jolt the grey away.