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

By JAMUNA CHIARINI

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.

****

EVENT OF THE DAY:

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 Weekly: and all that jazz

Portland Jazz Festival joins the parade of arts festivals in town; a new "Swan Lake" flies at Oregon Ballet

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Festival Town. (And Valentine’s Day. Don’t forget Valentine’s Day.) Three film celebrations – the Portland Black Film Festival, the Cascadia Festival of African Films, and the big-kahuna 40th annual Portland International Film Festival – are still spooling out stories on screens around town.

And on Thursday the PDX Jazz Festival 2017 roars into action with a packed program through February 26 arranged loosely around an homage to jazz centurions Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Buddy Rich, each born in 1917. Things kick off Thursday with a blast of Branford Marsalis, a thump of bass virtuoso Thundercat, and more, and the festival continues with the likes of the fabulous Heath Brothers, The Yellowjackets, and more. It’s not all old-style and it’s not all new, but a healthy-looking blend of tradition and exploration.

ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell offers tips for this week’s shows, beginning with Thursday’s Marsalis quartet appearance “with the great jazz singer Kurt Elling, Maria Schneider’s orchestra and Ralph Peterson’s trio in separate shows Friday, the hip jazz-rock fusion band Kneebody and the old-school all-star band The Cookers on Saturday. On Sunday, you have a choice of pop jazzers the Yellowjackets with Mike Stern, avant jazz guitar deity James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, or rising piano star Aminca Claudine Myers (or see all three!).”

2017 PDX Jazz Fest honoree Dizzy Gillespie, at Deauville, France, July 1991. Photo: Roland Godefroy/Wikimedia Commons

In his preview PDX Jazz Festival: Signs of Life, Campbell sets the table more completely, talking about the state of jazz in Portland and internationally. Here’s just a taste of what he has to say:

Continues…

Film Watch Weekly: “Sing Street,” “Purple Rain,” and more

This week's movies take us from 1980s Dublin to the slums of New Zealand, and from 1980s Minnesota to the dusty streets of Niger

It’s a relatively slow week movie-wise, as the big studios take a breath before beginning their summer assault next Friday, and the indie theaters continue to ride hot titles like “Midnight Special,” “Green Room,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” and “Miles Ahead.” That doesn’t there’s not movie goodness out there, though, as detailed below:

ARTSWATCH REVIEWS:

“Sing Street”: John Carney, the writer and director of “Once” and “Begin Again,” return with another semi-autobiographical, music-driven film, and it might be his best yet. Set in 1985 Dublin, it centers on a teenager named Conor who starts a band for the most ordinary of teenage boy reasons: To impress a girl. But his group of musical misfits ends up crafting some catchy tunes, and Conor just might end up with that girl in the end. Sure to be an art house crowd-pleaser. Eric D. Snider reviews. (Regal Fox Tower)

The cast of "Sing Street."

The cast of “Sing Street.”

“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba”: In the late 1950s, a Miami newspaper reporter wrote a fan letter to Ernest Hemingway, and ended up being invited to Papa’s Cuban estate, becoming a surrogate member of his family, and witnessing the Cuban revolution first-hand. Marc Mohan reviews. (Regal Fox Tower)

ALSO OPENING:

The Dark Horse”: New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis delivers a reportedly outstanding performance in this biopic about a Maori chess champion who overcame mental illness to become a chess coach for a group of at-risk youth. (Living Room Theaters)

Lyel Timu stars as Rangimarie and Te Rua Rehu-Martin as Murray in Broad Green Pictures release, THE DARK HORSE. Credit: Kirsty Griffin / Broad Green Pictures

Lyel Timu stars as Rangimarie and Te Rua Rehu-Martin as Murray in Broad Green Pictures release, THE DARK HORSE.
Credit: Kirsty Griffin / Broad Green Pictures

“White Lies”: A Maori medicine woman is hired by a wealthy white woman to help her abort a pregnancy and keep a secret in this New Zealand-made drama from the writer of “Whale Rider.” (Liberty Theater)

“Keanu”: The duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele make the leap to the big screen after five years of their acclaimed sketch comedy series “Key & Peele,” playing cousins who pose as drug dealers to try to rescue a kidnapped kitty. (multiple locations)

“Mother’s Day”: From the people who brought you “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve” (no, really) comes another star-studded ensemble designed to capitalize on holiday sentiment. Jennifer Aniston, Chris Pine, and Julia Roberts (still paying back “Pretty Woman” director Garry Marshall) stars in a film that’s already been called “a goddamn trash masterpiece” and “a cinematic adaptation of Walmart.” (multiple locations)

Ratchet and Clank”: A computer-animated feature-length product adapted from the popular video game series about some sort of Rocket Raccoon knock-off and his robot buddy. Let’s hope that Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, and Rosario Dawson spent their voice-over checks wisely. (multiple locations)

REVIVALS:

“Purple Rain”: As the world continues to mourn the death of Prince, there’s no shortage of options for those looking to revisit the 1984 film that turned him into a multimedia superstar. The most alluring of those options are the 99W Drive-In in Newberg (Friday-Sunday), the Hollywood Theatre (Monday), and the Laurelhurst Theater (all week).

“Saboteur”: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller features a memorable climax atop the Statue of Liberty. (Laurelhurst Theater)

saboteur

“Little Miss Sunshine”: This sharply-written indie crossover hit follows a dysfunctional family on a road trip to a child talent contest. It features an eye-opening performance by Steve Carell, and Oscar-winning one from Alan Arkin, and a retrospectively typical one from Paul Dano. (Academy Theater)

“Waitress”: Actress Adrienne Shelly’s third feature as a director would turn out to be her last, as she was murdered months before it premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Even that tragic legacy, though, can’t tarnish this charming comedy about a pregnant, unhappily married waitress (Keri Russell) who falls for her doctor (Nathan Fillion).

WEEKLY SCHEDULE:

Friday, April 29

Carmen from Kawachi”: The final entry in the Film Center’s 14-film Seijun Suzuki series, this rarely-seen transposition of Bizet’s opera to 1960s Tokyo was made during the same fertile period that produced the director’s most notorious films, “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill.” Northwest Film Center, 7 pm. 35mm

As You Like It”: This 1963 adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, screening as part of the 400th commemoration of his death, stars Vanessa Redgrave in a role she made famous on stage. Clinton Street Theater, 2 pm, FREE.

Neil Stryker and the Tyrant of Time”: This locally-made action-comedy follows its titular hero, a special agent from the future, as he hops around the timestream trying to recapture his escaped nemesis. With appearances by David Ogden Stiers, Walter Koenig, and a bevy of handcrafted puppets. Hollywood Theatre, 7 pm & 10 pm

Saturday, April 30:

“Fat City”: John Huston made so many great movies that a late masterpiece like this can easily get lost in the shuffle. It shouldn’t, though. Stacy Keach and a young Jeff Bridges star as a couple of small-time boxers in this all-American tale of dreamers, strivers, and losers. When people talk about the early-1970s golden age of American cinema, this is what they’e talking about. Susan Tyrrell gives the best performances of her career as a miserable barfly. Northwest Film Center, 7 pm. DCP (also Sunday, May 1, 4:30 pm)

Saturday Morning Sword and Planet: Flash back to those halcyon days of childhood with this assemblage of animated episodes, including “Thundarr the Barbarian” and “Flash Gordon.” Breakfast cereal will be served. Hollywood Theatre, 2:30 pm.

Rock’n’Roll Mamas”: Local documentary maker Jackie Weismann profiles three women balancing independent music careers with motherhood. A benefit for the Masonic youth organization Job’s Daughters. Clinton Street Theater, 4 pm.

“The Witch Who Came from the Sea”: This 1976 British horror flick was banned by the BBFC as a “video nasty” for a time, and is now considered one of the best exploitation flicks of the period. A woman (Millie Perkins, “The Diary of Anne Frank”) goes on a killing spree in a coastal town. Hollywood Theatre, 9:30 pm.

NWFC Student Screening: The free public screening showcases the work of the students in the Northwest Film Center’s Winter 2016 classes. Northwest Film Center, 4 pm. FREE

“Son of the Sheik”: The sequel to the film that made Rudolph Valentino a romantic screen icon would prove to be his last, as the star died mere weeks after the film’s premiere in 1926. Presented with a live organ score by the Columbia River Theatre Organ Society. Hollywood Theatre, 2 pm.

Sunday, May 1:

“Neria”: This screening of the highest-grossing film in Zimbabwean history—a 1993 drama about a woman struggles to survive after becoming a widow—is a fundraiser for Portland’s sister city of Mutare, Zimbabwe. Hollywood Theatre, 2 pm.

“Smoke Signals”: The opening title in the Northwest Film Center’s series “Through Indian Eyes” is also the best-known. A mismatched pair of Native American buddies embark on a road trip in director Chris Eyre’s 1998 film. Screenplay by Sherman Alexie, based on his own book “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Northwest Film Center, 7 pm.

“SMART”: This documentary by local filmmaker Justin Zimmerman profiles the Los Angeles-based Specialized Animal Mobile Rescue Team as they rescue a whole lot more than cats from a whole lot more than trees. Zimmerman will be in attendance for this screening sponsored by Multnomah County Animal Services. Hollywood Theatre, 6 pm.

Monday, May 2:

“Drunktown’s Finest”: Writer-director Sydney Freeland follows the lives of three disaffected Navajo youths in her impressive first feature, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Part of the series “Through Indian Eyes.” Northwest Film Center, 7 pm.

“Tuareg Purple Rain”: The movie’s full title in its original tongue is “Akounak Tedalat Taha Tazoughai.” It’s the first ever feature film shot in the North African Taureg language, and it’s inspired by Prince’s “Purple Rain.” (The title translates literally as “Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Bit of Red,” because there’s no word for ‘purple’ in Taureg.) It was made by Portland-based ethnomusicologist Chris Kirkley, but was shot on location in Niger. It may be the most offbeat way you’ll be able to pay tribute to the dearly departed Purple One. Kirkley will be in attendance. Hollywood Theatre, 7:30 pm.

Tuesday, May 3:

“Shadow Warriors”: The holy trinity of 1990s B-movies—Hulk Hogan, Carl Weathers, and Shannon Tweed—unite in this 1997 monstrosity about terrorists with poison gas and the mercenaries who love them, or something. Also known as “Assault on Devil’s Island,” if you care. Presented in B-Movie Bingo style. Hollywood Theatre, 7:30 pm.

Wednesday, May 4:

“The Spaces Between the Cities”: Seattle filmmaker Salise Hughes organized the creation of this “exquisite corpse”-style collaboration between twenty international filmmakers that resulted int a feature-length road movie. Northwest Film Center, 7 pm.

“Frankenstein Island”: The Joy Cinema’s Weird Wednesday offers this 1981 oddity, often ranked as one of the worst films ever made, about a quartet of hot air balloonists who land on an island populated by hot chicks in leopard-print bikinis. Based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Joy Cinema & Pub, 9:15 pm.

Thursday, May 5:

“Erasures and Spaces: The Revisionist Films of Salise Hughes”: The second night of Hughes’ work features her playful, subversive reinventions and manipulations of found footage, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and the 1963 Cary Grant flick “Charade.” Northwest Film Center, 7 pm.

“Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho”: Basho, who died at 46 in 1986 in a freak chiropractic accident, was an eccentric, even otherworldly, master of the 12-string steel guitar. All of his records were out of print at the time of his death, but a resurgent appreciation of his life and work has led to this documentary portrait. Hollywood Theatre, 7:30 pm.