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.

DramaWatch: Musings on behavior, blackness, and what shows to see

Some thoughts on theater etiquette, on ideas about race and cultural preference, and on what shows to see this week in Portland.

Ben Cameron is a former executive director of Theatre Communications Group and program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and when he was in those roles  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak about a variety of arts issues. One of the memorable observations he would make, a decade or two ago, was that the audience for the arts in America was made up predominantly of the kind of people who had been good at school in the 1950s and ‘60s — that is, well-educated, well-to-do, often white, with mainstream sensibilities and manners. The reason, he suggested, wasn’t just that these were the folks with the money to attend art events, but that they were the folks comfortable at art events, that art events operate by the same sorts of rules and conventions they’d thrived in before at school: “You come in, you sit over there. No, not up there on the stage — that’s for somebody else. You sit there, pay attention and be quiet. They get to talk, you don’t. You respond when we tell you to.” And so forth.

His point being, the arts — perhaps theater in particular — are presented in a context that carries behavioral expectations, and those aren’t the expectations that everyone is used to. So, if more people are to engage in the arts, the question then becomes about who has to adjust, the arts or the audience. 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre can feel like a sanctified space, as in this 2019 production of As You Like It, directed by Rosa Joshi. Some folks like it quiet and full of rapt attention. Photo: Kim Budd.

Cameron was addressing broad and ongoing issues about cultural engagement and growth, but his observation came to mind recently in a narrower context: theater etiquette.

Complaints about a decline in theater etiquette are evergreen. My apologies for burdening you with yet another. I just seem to be encountering the topic from all angles these days.


For one thing, on my most recent trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was stunned to observe something I don’t think I’d ever seen before in what is, to me, a kind of sanctified place: in the August Bowmer Theatre, just two seats away from me, someone eating during a performance! Yes, lobby concession stands sell snacks, and I don’t know the theater policy about bringing food into the auditorium itself; I just hadn’t imagined someone breaking the spell of that place in particular in such a way.

And to the woman in the row behind me at the Armory during opening night of Redwood last weekend: The line that you missed — and loudly told your companion that you’d not heard — was, “Did you really just use your stepmom to Love, Actually-stoop-scene me?”


You’re welcome. But is that you didn’t hear a line sufficient reason to keep those around you from hearing the next one? I believe it isn’t. Instead, try to hold the details of the moment in your mind until intermission or curtain and then ask your friend, “By the way, did you catch what she said when…”

As exasperated as I can get by such moments, I’m always aware that I’m in that audience as a matter of privilege, usually by the grace of complimentary press tickets. If I’d paid $40, $80 or $100 for my seat, I might feel freer telling fellow audience members that they’re disturbing my experience of the show (waiting until intermission, of course). Then again, if I’d made such an investment, maybe I’d feel more entitled to chat or eat or otherwise enjoy myself. (Well, I wouldn’t, but maybe that’s why others do.) 

Those instances fresh in my mind, I came across a short piece in The New Yorker about a 10-year-old’s Ten Commandments of theater etiquette going viral on Twitter this summer. That led me to an article in Town and Country Magazine by the aforementioned young theater fan’s uncle, a New York publicist named Seth Fradkoff, who apparently gets more exasperated than I do:

“I am, admittedly, more of a stickler than most,” he writes. “I recently found myself at Tootsie: The Comedy Musical for a second time. I love this show, but I only made it as far as the second number before the staff of the Marquis Theater asked me to leave. Why? The woman in Row B of the mezzanine crinkling her Twizzlers after inhaling a bag of pretzels during the overture was the last straw! After an usher declined to assist me, I walked to her row, reached across the man seated on the aisle, and grabbed the Twizzlers. I threw them into the aisle, and went back to my seat—for about a minute, until I was asked to leave.”

I must admit, I’m with him on the matter of crinkly candy wrappers. Cell phones are capable of causing all manner of mischief during a performance, but something about the prolonged static crackle of someone slowly unwrapping a sweet or a cough drop, all the effort to be careful and unobtrusive backfiring horribly, really sets the teeth on edge.

In 2016, the Hollywood Reporter surveyed a few dozen Broadway performers about what audience behavior bothers them, and the most colorful response came from (no surprise) Harvey Fierstein: “In my 44 years of trodding the boards, I have witnessed everything from people passing a whole roast chicken up and down a row, to someone trying to take down the script in dictation, to folks videotaping the show through cameras taped inside their hats, to guys getting blowjobs. People, please — this ain’t the movies!” 

That’s a funny line, but there’s something crucial there, I think. At least to my mind, the rules are different in a movie theater than they are in what I’ll snobbishly call a real theater. Unless someone’s being truly obnoxious, I don’t much care about talking during a movie because I know I could come back and see it again; whatever I might have missed still will be there, unchanged. However precise a theatrical performance, part of its thrill is in the unreproducible moment.

Then again, there are viewpoints more snobbish than mine. Seeking some set of guidelines with a ring of authority, I came across a list from the Etiquette School of New York. I suppose attending a Broadway house isn’t the same as popping down to the Shoebox Theatre, but in either case I’m not on board with rule No. 1 on this list, to dress as for a special occasion. Casual attire is fine, but so is sloppy attire. It’s only stinky attire that should concern us. And I’ll choose how to show my appreciation, thank you; that I should stand to applaud a show just because others are (rule No. 16) strikes me as overbearing.

But that brings things back yet again to the question of who decides.

A 2018 article on the Folger Shakespeare Library website references a book by a British academic researcher named Dr. Kirsty Sedgman: “The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience… argues that theatre etiquette is bound up in sexist, racist, and ableist social norms, designed specifically to produce separations between elite and ‘mass’ audiences…As Dr. Sedgman explains, when we talk about theatre etiquette now (she prefers the term ‘behavior policing’), we need to acknowledge both its notable and suspect aspects: That it’s a way to reinforce a shared vision of socially-acceptable behavior that makes public space better for all, and also a morally suspect act that is disproportionately wielded against people of color, the working class, etc.”

That sounds reasonable. Except that, unless there’s verifiable, quantifiable data (and perhaps Sedgman has some), isn’t this in itself a racist/classist presumption — that those falling afoul of the rules of etiquette must be those of certain social strata, that such strata somehow determine our behavior?

Maybe we’re left to rely on the great spiritual insight from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “You’ve all got to figure it out for yourself.” I like the theater to be almost like a holy place, a place of engagement and absorption, where the moment onstage lets me know what’s appropriate, whether that’s raucous laughter or silent, rapt attention. Maybe you like theater to be someplace to forget the strictures of everyday life, a place to feel spontaneous and free, Twizzlers included. But we each have to be cognizant of each other when we’re sharing the theater space, and negotiate, in a manner of speaking, accordingly.

So…see you at the theater! …but please don’t pass me the chicken.

Best line(s) I read this week (annotated)

The epiphany that sets in motion that plot to Redwood, the world premiere currently at Portland Center Stage, takes place in a hip-hop dance class: “I was grooving away…when a great and powerful love overtook me. Love for the beautiful black bodies in that room, the beautiful, black, tunes. And I thought: history!” Later on in the play, another character responds to her mother’s claims about the family’s hard work and success by asserting that her family had denied and hated their blackness and instead “moved mostly in white spaces at great cost to our sense of ‘heritage.’”

Charles Grant leads the hip-hop dance element in Redwood at The Armory. Photo: Russell J. Young.

The White Bird dance series show at Lincoln Hall this weekend, Power by Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, is a kind of choreographic thought experiment about the African-American legacy within the spiritual expressions of the Shakers. More history, more black bodies moving in (presumed) white spaces.


And so all this has your humble DramaWatcher — whose black body grew up in the decidedly white space of Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood — pondering what “blackness” means, culturally speaking. (I mean, I just looked up at my TV screen and saw Tyler Perry’s face — beneath ludicrous Madea wig and make-up — followed by the words “stream black culture.” If I hate that, am I hating blackness, or just hating the commercial promulgation of some of its lesser traits? Or am I just, justifiably, hating Tyler Perry??)

All of this leads me back to the files to find a favorite old clip from, oddly enough, exactly 25 years ago:

“Lately I’ve realized my idea of what’s ‘Black enough’ now extends to whatever gets me open. For example, my Top 10 list of albums for this year will be dominated by white-boy singer-songwriters—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, Richard Thompson, Jeff Buckley, Chris Whitley, Bryan Ferry—because they’re making music out of the sorts of emotional scar issues my 37-year-old soul scrapes up against on the daily….Moreover, when I think of my favorite artists of ’94, I think of them as my niggas. Neil Young? That’s my nigga. Bryan Ferry? He my nigga too.

…I’ll be a Black chauvinist for life, but what makes that chauvinism so chewy and gooey are the contradictions. These pop up whenever anybody tries to nail Blackness in a coffin. At that [Organization of Black Designers] conference in Chicago, [cinematographer] Arthur Jaffa talked about how ‘My Favorite Things’ is dope more because of John Coltrane than Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I thought, maybe to you, my brother. I treasure the Julie Andrews and the Coltrane renditions of the song equally. And cherish even more Betty Carter’s version because Carter feasts on Andrews’ spritely but manic reading of the lyrics and Trane’s arabesques to arrive at something even more bugged out, Black and beautiful. I dig work that flips the script on our received notions of Black and white. I also dig things that are so Black even most Black folks don’t know what to do with them.”

—The great music/cultural critic Greg Tate in a November 8, 1994 column in the Village Voice.

Opening

Among the various tragedies occurring along the southern border of the U.S. has been the disappearance of hundreds of young women from around Ciudad Juarez — women often last seen on the route home from factory jobs, and presumed murdered or kidnapped into sex trafficking. La Ruta, which premiered last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, shines a light on this dark history, focusing on two mothers desperately hoping for their daughters’ return. Playwright Isaac Gomez—a native of El Paso, just across the border from Juarez—calls it both “a play about a group of women living in the wake of unspeakable loss” and “an interpersonal journey of healing, of growth, of resilience and of empowerment.” Dámaso Rodríguez directs for Artists Repertory Theatre, which is staging the show at the Southeast Portland headquarters of Portland Opera.

La Ruta tells a tale of loss and resilience along the U.S.-Mexico border. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

For years, Tony Fuemmeler’s mask and puppetry work has contributed to shows by Artists Rep, Oregon Children’s Theatre and others, so Portland theater fans should be a natural part of the audience for a two-decade retrospective of his masks, Reveal/Conceal, that’s just gone up in the Parrish Gallery of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. But—theater being a collaborative art form—Fuemmeler also brings other artists into play with the companion exhibit A Universal Feeling. After fashioning unpainted papier-mâché masks for a set of emotions (fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and disgust) Fuemmeler shipped them off to 62 other artists around the world, inviting them to complete the pieces. Collaborators including local theater makers such as Cristi Miles, Jamie M. Rea and Damaris Webb, but cover a gamut of artistic disciplines, ages, genders and so forth. Friday’s opening reception looks like a good time to catch these exhibits, but they’ll continue until just after the New Year.

Tony Fuemmeler in his mask-making studio. Photo: Dennis Galloway.

“After their last show ends in a disastrous theater fire, two vaudevillians wake up to discover that they may not have survived.” But if they wake up, then that means they must have…oh…right…it’s just a story. In which case, I suppose there’s your key metaphysical conflict right there. Duo Doppio’s Fabrizio & Cabriolet In: The Afterlife features the aforementioned vaudevillian buffoons in a life-and-death comedy that draws on the circus, puppetry and improv backgrounds of creators Ari Rapkin and Summer Olsson. As the show’s press release says of the two: “They are clowns. Unless you are afraid of clowns. Then they are physical comedians.”


Ah, here’s a show I won’t be caught dead anywhere near: FLASH AH-AHHH!!,  StageWorks Ink’s parody of the campy 1980s Flash Gordon flick. You? Go ahead and give it a try, you might enjoy it, it’s been popular enough to be celebrating this Clinton Street Theater engagement as its “fifth anniversary and finale run.” Me? It features the music of ‘70s/’80s rock band Queen, and I hate Queen more than you want to know, so, I’ll pass.


Billed as a “a 21st century TRANSlation” of the rock musical Hair, the cleverly titled Wig updates the story from 1968 New York City to the experimental drag scene of contemporary Portland’s eastside, from which the cast is drawn.


Gresham’s Eastside Theater Company presents Frozen Jr., a stage adaptation of the paradoxically hot Disney film musical, tailored for child and teen performers.

One night only!

Even amid the generally agreeable members of Portland’s theater community, Matt Zrebski presents an especially sweet-natured disposition. But behind that soft-spoken facade, dark forces must be roiling. Zrebski’s writing returns over and over again to quasi-apocalyptic  fantasies and luridly nightmarish scenarios, high dives into a subconscious cloudy with fears. 

His new play In the Darkest Hallway is based on a true-crime mystery known by the grim name of the “Boy in the Box.” Zrebski has approached the story with his characteristic formal invention, crafting a four-character play for one actor that dribbles out details from differing perspectives across time, distilling a potent atmosphere of dread and yearning. 

The terrific Sharonlee Mclean performs the play in a Sunday-night reading at Milagro, directed by Casey McFeron. 


Playwright Milta Ortiz’ Judge Torres premiered in January at Milagro and ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson judged it “a loving, entertaining and—most of all—imaginative tribute” to Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Xiomara Torres, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 as an undocumented nine-year-old. That production was directed by Mandana Khoshnevisan, who is bringing it back for one performance at The Vault Theater in Hillsboro, home to Bag & Baggage, where Khoshnevisan is an associate artist. The show will be followed by a talk-back discussion with the cast and director, facilitated by Pacific University Assistant Professor of English, Elizabeth Tavares.


Live renditions of radio drama hardly count as a rare thing, nor do performances of spooky tales. But performing by candlelight and presenting it all along with food and wine? Sounds like a promising package deal, called Lights Out! A Night of Radio Horror, on offer from Seven Sails Vineyard on Northwest Germantown Road. 


Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, an hilarious yet socio-politically astute satire about American history and liberal guilt, was a hit at Artists Rep in the spring of 2018. So, if you missed it or would like seasonal refresher, Readers Theatre Gresham presents a reading. 

Closing 

“At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly,” wrote ArtsWatcher Bennett Campbell Ferguson, “Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play.” But if you’re not to miss the latest Dia de Muertos celebration at Milagro, this weekend is your chance. 


With Women of Will, an astute explication of the feminine in Shakespeare by renowned actor/director Tina Packer, the time has passed to catch the engaging overview that Bob Hicks reviewed for ArtsWatch. But some of Packer’s deeper dives into particular periods of the Bard’s development are on tap at Portland Playhouse this weekend.


And should you want to take in the touring Broadway production of Miss Saigon at the Keller Auditorium, performances continue through Sunday.

The flattened stage

OK, so the pay-off is a bit late in arriving with this clip, but…all the same…“No soggy bottoms here!”


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time. 

The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates

Continues…