Every now and again I glance beyond my two left feet and realize with pleasure that Portland’s in the middle of a dance renaissance. It’s not as if anyone’s getting rich in the process. And it’s not as if, at least at this point, the rest of the world is beating a path to the city’s sprung floor. Still, the evidence is real and compelling.
Between the vibrant poles of Oregon Ballet Theatre at one end and White Bird Dance at the other are such flourishing outfits as Northwest Dance Project, BodyVox, Conduit and tEEth, as well as individual choreographers and dancers as varied as Tere Mathern, Gregg Bielemeier, Josie Moseley, Rachel Tess, Linda Austin, and Katherine Longstreth.
And new performers just keep flowing into the city, or cropping up from its own development programs. These days, if you’re a dance follower, you can spend some very busy nights keeping up with what’s going down. You can even, if you really want to, take sides: ballet vs. contemporary, structured vs. improvisational, athletic vs. intellectual, chamber vs. electronic vs. rock ’n’ roll.
So it was only a little bit of a surprise on Saturday evening when I showed up at the BodyVox Dance Center for the first of two performances of new works by dancer/choreographer Eowyn Emerald and discovered a packed house.
Apparently the abundance of the opening-show crowd was just a test run.
“The 8 o’clock show was sold out even more than the 6 o’clock,” dancer and concert co-producer Rachel Slater told me later. “It was standing room only.” That means, by rough count, that something on the order of 340 people chose this small show as their destination on a busy Saturday night.
BodyVox’s move three years ago from rented digs on the upper floor of a working brewery to its own new space in a renovated former Wells Fargo carriage house and stable on Northwest Northrup Street has played a significant supporting role in Portland’s dance revival. It’s not only given a much better showcase for BodyVox’s own programs, it’s also provided a fine space for independent companies looking for a good spot to put on their own shows.
The BodyVox link was strong in Emerald’s short program of six loosely linked dances in about 45 minutes. Dancers Emerald, Josh Murry and Jeff George also dance with BodyVox-2, the company’s younger second troupe, and Jonathan Krebs has been a stalwart of both BV-2 and the main company. They were joined at various times by Slater, Holly Shaw, Claire Olberding, Andres Peraza, Amy Ashley and singer/songwriter Eden Hana, a group whose collective experience ranges from Beaverton’s Arts & Communication Magnet Academy (Peraza is a senior there) to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Emerald’s aesthetic is more earnest than BodyVox’s, which can be light-hearted and skillfully illusionary. Emerald’s carries a touch of the romantic – especially in blurred, her langorous and sultry mating duet with Murry that may be the date dance of the season – and more than a dash of rehearsal-hall trust exercises to the concert stage: If I fall, will you catch me?
One of the advantages of having a critical mass of dancemakers in the city is that you can follow dancers as they move from project to project, the way that theatergoers take in shows based partly on who’s acting in them. So it’s intriguing, for instance, to see George swooping across the stage in a vivid tinted Mohawk, or Murry, in vintage hipster mode, tipping a porkpie hat. And Krebs is a fine, nuanced dancer whose work always interests me. He partners with Emerald on a pair of pieces – the opener hexe ist and Mine/Ours, which also features Slater and isn’t the closer but probably ought to be. The two dances seem to feature different stages in a complex and difficult romantic relationship: hexe ist is a brash push me/pull you of attraction and repulsion; Mine/Ours carries the relationship into deeper, sadder, and more intimate waters, to a place where patterns have been set and the parties have come to realize the consequences, good and bad, of impulsiveness.
There isn’t a lot surprising in the choreography of this show, but the work is polished, athletic and professional, and enjoyable for all of those things. Emerald (who also bills herself as Eowyn Emerald Barrett) is particularly adept at smoothly bridging the evening’s six dances so that they flow naturally and seem to be movements from a single composition.
As it turns out – and this is a quietly exciting thing – you can make a life (if not a living) in dance in Portland, Oregon. And you can call that a renaissance. Or you can say, maybe this city’s growing up.
Editor’s Note: With this post, Oregon ArtsWatch welcomes the incomparable Bob Hicks to our regular writing team.