A roaring kickoff to the Second Dance Season

Portland’s dance renaissance just keeps on kickin’.

True, nobody knows exactly what’s in store for Oregon Ballet Theatre, which is under new leadership and still undergoing organizational and financial difficulties.

Hamilton in "Friends." Photo: David Krebs

Hamilton in “Friends.” Photo: David Krebs

But White Bird’s contemporary dance series is about to take off again after a holiday break, with the Australian Phillip Adams BalletLab (Adult content! Contains nudity!) at Lincoln Hall January 23-25. A passel of dance is barreling down the road in the city’s annual Fertile Ground festival of new works, much of it in Polaris Dance Theatre’s “Groovin’ Greenhouse” series. Northwest Dance Project performer Lindsey Matheis is about to open two weekends’ worth of “(a)merging,” her continuing series of short works by rising young choreographers, starting January 17. Butoh artist Meshi Chavez and his students have just completed a series of performances at The Headwaters. Conduit continues to crackle with classes, workshops and performances. Northwest Dance Project is preparing an early-April show featuring some of the best work from its first decade. OBT is featuring choreographic star Christopher Wheeldon, along with the return of retired company star Artur Sultanov to partner about-to-retire star Alison Roper, on its February 22-March 1 program.

And dancer and producer Eowyn Emerald’s Pacific Dance Makers has just finished two sold-out nights at BodyVox Dance Center of fresh works by eight dancemakers, two of them in collaboration with filmmakers. Enthusiasm was high at Friday’s opening-night show, which was so sold-out that a line of people squatted on pillows in front of the front row, their legs carefully tucked away so they wouldn’t accidentally trip the dancers.

The choreographers’ pedigree was high, too. Included were pieces by Anne Mueller, the former OBT favorite and interim artistic director after Christopher Stowell left the company; Jim McGinn of TopShakeDance; Tracey Durbin, partnering with filmmaker Janet McIntyre; Emerald, with animator Anouck Iyer; Seattle’s Elia Mrak; Samuel Hobbs; Chase Hamilton; and Eric Skinner of BodyVox and skinner/kirk Dance Ensemble.

Among the grab-bag were several pieces of considerable charm, and one big, ambitious work – Durbin and McIntyre’s “Ebb & Flow” ­– that lowered the emotional boom, demanding that the night be taken seriously and poetically.

Hamilton’s “Friends,” a duet that he danced with Zoë Nelson to a Steve Miller Band song, was quick and friendly and appealing. Emerald’s “Vessellessev” was a fluid duet for BodyVox’s Holly Shaw and Josh Murry, a little dark with Iyer’s grayish projected animations and the occasional big shadow-play behind the screen.

 

Svetlova (front) and Shaw in Skinner's untitled work. Photo: David Krebs.

Svetlova (front) and Shaw in Skinner’s untitled work. Photo: David Krebs.

Mueller’s “Variation in a Vacuum I,” set to a Chopin nocturne, was a solo for Katarina Svetlova, returning to the stage after a long layoff, and interesting both for Mueller’s continuing progress as a choreographer and the opportunity to see Svetlova dance again. Mueller and Svetlova danced together at OBT in the James Canfield years, and Svetlova then spent several years dancing in Germany before retiring and moving back home. She’s still in her early to mid 30s, and now that she’s stepping back out (she’ll perform again with skinner/kirk in April) she could have several good years left. “Variation” pairs Mueller’s penchant for quirky comedy (Svetlova enters the stage haggard and sleepy, in a robe and a pair of comic-book oversized fluffy slippers) with more serious stuff. Svetlova’s always had star power, and it’s still there. Part of it’s technique and part is pure presence. Like OBT’s Roper, who also danced with Mueller and Svetlova in the Canfield-era OBT, she’s balanced somewhere between grace and power, standing out from the crowd, not pretty like a princess but compelling and formidable. Roper’s regal. Svetlova’s fierce; poised to eat up a stage. Skinner’s untitled new piece also features Svetlova, dancing with Shaw, and it’s quite successful: beautifully shaped and sensitive to the strengths of both dancers. Skinner is familiar with Shaw through BodyVox, and they seem to understand each other intuitively. He, too, is a onetime OBT dancer from the old days (are you beginning to see a pattern here?) and his familiarity with ballet  technique helps him stretch Svetlova back into some classical territory, but in a contemporary context.

I’ve admired McGinn’s long works, which tend to have underlying narratives, and I especially like him as a performer: his concentration is riveting. Here, he presented two excerpts from “Float,” which debuted in November at Conduit, and which I didn’t see. Maybe it’s because they were only excerpts from a longer work, but Friday’s dark-toned performances by four dancers left me unmoved and a little confused. The ideas seemed to run out before the dancing did. Nor did Mrak’s “Erica,” a solo for dancer Erica Badgeley, grab me. The dance began promisingly, with Badgeley poised and expectant in a loose Greek-goddess dress, a smile on her face and an hourglass by her side. But the ideas seemed thin. Sometimes she rolled around on the stage like an Olympian lolling in a grove. More often, she ran, athletically, in large circles, apparently seeking a way out. With no music, the soundtrack was her labored breathing. And she ran, and ran, and ran, until finally she discovered an exit stage left, and just kept running until she disappeared.

 

"Ebb & Flow." Photo: David Krebs

“Ebb & Flow.” Photo: David Krebs

Durbin and McIntyre’s “Ebb & Flow” was the heavyweight of the evening, danced by a fine ensemble (Anna Hooper, Heather Jackson, Alexandra Maricich, Northwest Dance Project’s Franco Nieto, Claire Olberding, Rachel Slater, Emily Zarov) and marrying dance and film fluidly, with each supporting the other: at one point the dancers sit down onstage, backs to the audience, and watch the film, too, absorbed in images of themselves underwater, sinking and swimming. The images are autobiographical for McIntyre, who chose this project to explore her anger over her mother’s death at age 45, and her own journey through rebellion toward a reluctant acceptance and a kind of grace. “I always thought I’d remember the sound of my mother’s voice,” the film’s narrator laments. “But it’s gone.” The piece begins in jarring dissonance, and includes, in the filmmaker’s words, “a sense of drowning with a sense of dreaming. … this is my attempt to crack open past memories and release something raw, probing, and brave.” While McIntyre clearly takes the lead here, Durbin does an excellent job of partnering and translating the tale into movement. McIntyre’s been down a similar path before, collaborating with choreographer Josie Moseley (and dancers Skinner and Daniel Kirk) on “Flying Over Emptiness,” a lovely and moving work about choreographer Mary Oswald and her battle with a debilitating illness. And her film work, which has ranged from pieces about binge-drinking teenage girls to a profile of “Dead Man Walking” nun Sister Helen Prejean, almost always has a tough bent, coupled with a tenderness aimed at understanding. “Ebb & Flow” has an earnestness that amounts to fearlessness: It’s unabashedly ABOUT something, and it lets its nerves run raw. In its naked embrace of genuine emotion, if not in its movement vocabulary, it’s reminiscent of Martha Graham, and of the everyday-heroic images of the painter Thomas Hart Benton, and even of the novels of John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis. It doesn’t veil itself. It grabs its truth by the neck. Yet it’s also, finally, sweet.

Hobbs’s “Early,” a duet for himself and Jessica Evans, was the program closer, and except for having to deal with the reverberations of “Ebb & Flow,” which immediately preceded it, it was an ideal choice. It’s the most poetic piece of the evening, a fluid and lovely collaboration that moves in circles and circles of intimacy. Set to Hobbs’s own music, it begins with him seated and still while Evans, lying down, moves one leg in a slow windmill sweep. She takes her time, until gradually they are both on their feet and moving together in something that seems simply “about” the  beauty of bodies in synchronized movement. It’s a charming piece, really, its mood like a modern-day Haydn. It’ll be repeated next weekend on the “(a)merging” program at Northwest Dance Project. If you missed it here, you can catch it there.

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  1. This statement “she could have several good years left” in reference to Katarina Svetlova’s performance at Pacific Dance Makers bothers me on so many levels.

    Personally it was like a punch in the stomach. I would hate for you see me dance for fear of you judging me over the hill. I will be 40 this summer. I don’t train as often as I used to because I am a mother and a wife and my time is divided but I am no where near done dancing. I have many years left in me and I will be “done” when I’m dead. This is something that is determined by the dancer and not society or critics. You are not inside their bodies and you don’t know what they are capable of. And what is it exactly that determines if she has “good years left”? What is it you are seeing that’s valuable that you think might disappear as she gets older? Is she an object or a commodity? Does she depreciate in value like a car or a horse or cow? Do you think she will be pointing her foot less as she gets older? She might but that doesn’t change her value as a performer. These are myths propagated by critics who write things like “She’s still in her early to mid 30s, and now that she’s stepping back out (she’ll perform again with skinner/kirk in April) she could have several good years left.”

    This isn’t a reality anymore. It’s a very old-fashioned notion that youth is better. There are plenty of examples of dancers that shine and shine and shine into their twilight years. Many in Portland alone for that matter. And there are more examples of how difficult it is to work with young inexperienced dancers. Times are changing. Dancers are rewriting the rules and frankly there aren’t any. What a dancer has to offer an audience is vast and varied. It isn’t only about a pretty smile and a nice pair of legs. It’s not up to the critic or an audience to determine when someone is done.

    That “star quality” you see in her is because of her experience and age. These abilities only get better and more refined with time.

  2. What a great review of the Portland dance scene. Portland is such a wonderful place for everyone, young and old, to express themselves in their art. Oh, wait, maybe not if you’re a dancer in your 30’s, or, heaven forbid, older. You probably only “have several good years left.” You should just put that all away in the closet and become a yoga instructor or work at Intel. Oh please, have we learned nothing over the years! Are we still living in an era where we believe the advertisers who are peddling the idea that youthful beauty is the golden standard? For crying out loud, this is Portland! The expression of creativity is ageless! One of the most moving pieces I’ve seen here in Portland, and I’ve seen quite a few, was one with Linda Austen and Gregg Bielemeier. This one line in the article–“She’s still in her early to mid 30s, and now that she’s stepping back out (she’ll perform again with skinner/kirk in April) she could have several good years left.”–is insulting, not only to Katarina Svetlova, but to all dancers and anyone who enjoys dance. It would have been a better article without it. Please Bob, update your head.

  3. Jamuna and Gail, thanks for your comments. I’m going to respectfully disagree with your disagreements. Of course there are a lot of good older dancers, in Portland and elsewhere. You’ve named several; I could name many more. And I’ve written on many occasions about the advantages of experience. That said, it’s also true that dancers are athletes, or akin to athletes, in the stresses they put on their bodies, including injury. This is especially true of ballet, which puts extraordinary stresses on the body. It’s unusual, though not unheard of, for a ballet dancer to remain active at age 40, by which point most have already retired. Many dancers older than that change what they do, switching to styles that are less stressful on their bodies. Please note that I don’t say “lesser.” Baryshnikov is a famous example. Many others are in Portland, enjoying fruitful careers, informing their current approaches with their first-hand experience of ballet technique. What I wrote was not meant as an insult to Katarina Svetlova or anyone else. It was, rather, a recognition of the welcome revival of a very good career, and of the hope that we’ll have more years of watching this very good dancer performing at a high level. Age happens, and it has its advantages as well as its drawbacks. I’m more interested in Jeff Bridges now than when he was a young Adonis. Age brings wisdom (sometimes), and grace (sometimes), and limitations (always). It’s the way we’re built. It’s not insulting to simply recognize those facts. One more note: I first saw Katarina dance when she was a teenager. Her star quality was evident then. It had nothing to do with age, although experience can help an artist learn what to do with her star quality.

  4. Thank you Bob for your response. I think for me it was more about the language you used to talk about her longevity as a dancer. It struck a cord and reminded me of the idea that our society feels that women’s worth or shelf-life (as if she were an object) runs out when she looses her “beauty” or “usefulness” in some way. It’s a particular way of thinking that is prevalent in the dance world as well, as I’m sure you know. I personally am struggling with these ideas right now so I am particularly sensitive.
    Thank you again for taking the time to discuss.