Bob Hicks


A mellow ‘Meadow’ like old times

BodyVox's "Urban Meadow," a blend of repertory favorites and a celebration of dancer Eric Skinner, is like a dinner party with old friends

Going to opening night of BodyVox’s Urban Meadow at Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday evening was a little like dropping over for dinner with a bunch of old friends you haven’t seen in a while, and remembering why you liked them in the first place. The table was set nicely, the food and wine were good, and everybody swapped old jokes and stories with easy familiarity. There was even a guest of honor, who was fondly feted, and who told a few good tales himself.

The “guest,” or more appropriately the member of the family, was dancer Eric Skinner, an original BodyVoxer whose final Portland performances with the company after twenty years will be at the end of this brief run on Saturday. And the show, though technically a Portland premiere, is made up of a bunch of favorites that longtime BodyVox followers will recognize, and generally be pleased to see again. (Newbies will have the pleasure of meeting the members of the family for the first time.) This is the program, assembled a year and a half ago, that BodyVox takes on tour: It’s been from Germany to China, and is heading soon to China again.

“Hopper’s Dinner”: an exuberant feast. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Urban Meadow is an expansive program, running a little over two hours with the addition of three celebratory pieces chosen by Skinner as a sort of final tip of the hat, but because all of the works are short and well-shaped, it doesn’t feel overstuffed. The whole thing’s introduced with wit and charm by co-artistic director Jamey Hampton (his mother-in-law, he noted wryly on Thursday, liked to refer to him as the Dick Clark of dance) and, before Skinner’s portion of the program, by Ashley Roland, Hampton’s co-founder, co-artistic director, and wife.


The poisoned art of Donald Trump

The 45th president ascends in part by being a master storyteller. Can artists, and citizens, reclaim the right to the truth of their own stories?

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in late October, in that odd period of presumed normalcy before the national elections when it was broadly believed that plurality would win the day, I wandered among the centuries and eventually landed in the pair of rooms that contain America Today, the glorious set of murals that Thomas Hart Benton created in 1930 and ’31, during the depths of the Great Depression, for the New School for Social Research.

Looking back on that visit from the brink of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, it seems a premonition, or at least a fascinating chapter, in a tangled tale that weaves through hope and cynicism and disease and demagoguery and the politics of outrage and the demonization of the outsider and the role of art in culture and the tottering of the great American experiment, and if that seems like an unlikely jumble of loose ends, let me try to tie them together for you.


“Coal,” Thomas Hart Benton. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

BENTON WAS PROBABLY THE MOST PROMINENT of the American Regionalists who flourished from the 1920s through the ’40s until Abstract Expressionism largely swept them off the contemporary map. With his brawny approachability and celebration of everyday life and work, he seemed an ideal candidate for making America great again, in an unspun sense: a vigorous hero of the people (even if his family background was American patrician), a chronicler of the virtues of the good anonymous men and women who used to make the nation work.

For decades Benton, despite his years in Paris and long tenure in New York, was largely dismissed as an agrarian, an anti-modernist, and a nostalgist, out of step with the push and power of the contemporary world. He was alternately praised as an upholder of traditional values and panned as a sentimentalist and a reactionary: very bad readings, as it turns out, from both the right and left, each of which misunderstood him in its own way.

On that October day at the Met, the America Today galleries were crowded practically cheek-to-cheek, and they were crowded with what struck me as a magnificent sampling of the hopeful nation Benton’s murals chronicle: young, old, middle-aged, black, brown, white, native speakers and immigrants and visitors from other countries, all gathered to marvel at a vision of a country of opportunity. It was an expansive vision, and one of its time: locomotives steaming, propeller planes whirring, blimps flying, steelworkers sweating, loggers sawing, construction workers building, bootleggers selling, dancers dancing, jazz bands playing, boxers slugging, secretaries holding onto subway straps, mothers and children playing, women sitting at a soda fountain, a bowler-hatted gent reading his newspaper, acrobats soaring, lovers kissing, farmers checking their cornstalks. Benton’s depiction of the nation was celebratory but far from naïve. He saw the flip sides. He painted black lives and white lives, but rarely together: It was a segregated and unequal nation. Outreaching Hands, a startling strip running more than eight feet wide across a doorway and just about a foot and a half high, is Depression realism approaching cynicism: a woman’s hands raising a coffee percolator on high and pouring into a cup; desperate workers’ hands grasping toward it, a businessman’s hands offering a buck or two; a top-hatted plutocrat holding out a fat wad of bills; and guess who’s going to get served first (and possibly only)?

“Outreaching Hands,” Thomas Hart Benton. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Benton’s America was not a perfect America, but it was an America to build on: a bustling, forward-moving America, built on diversity and difference into a collaborative vision of what a dynamic and progressive culture could be. In Benton’s America – which seems so painfully elusive now, slipping like that cup of coffee from so many people’s grasp – there is room for all sorts. In his America everybody has a story, and everybody’s story is worth telling.

And that, in late October of 2016, was the America I thought would prevail in this most tendentious and dangerous of elections in my lifetime. Like so many others, I was wrong. Lulled by all the stories, I missed the Story.


I AM A CHRONICLER OF OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES, not a teller of my own, and I do not like the idea of telling the particular story this is leading toward, because it is private. But the invasion of the private, and the unleashing of resentments and fears that has ridden shotgun with it, has been one of the major stories of the election campaign and its aftermath that we have just endured, and haunts the future we face. We will invade your body. We will invade your movements. We will invade your private information, and use it against you, and pass it to whomever we please. We will incite violence against our opponents, as with Trump’s notorious campaign suggestion of a renegade solution by firearm to keep Hillary Clinton in her place: “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.” We will keep lists. We will take names.


Eric Skinner’s happy landing

After two decades as a mainstay of BodyVox, the Portland dancer is ready to move on after this week's "Urban Meadow"

On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.

His high forehead was framed by tight wiry curls, his eyes were quick and curious, his smile relaxed.

Or maybe not.

When BodyVox opens its new show Urban Meadow at Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday evening, Skinner will be starting his final Portland run with the company he’s performed with since its beginning, close to twenty years ago. And where he’ll be landing, not even he knows. “I’m not quite sure what’s next,” he said, “but I thought that after nineteen years it was time to do something else.”

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

BodyVox, the contemporary dance troupe founded by Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland to create movement for a Portland Opera production of Carmina Burana, quickly spun off on its own. Based at first on Hampton and Roland’s experiences in the physical-theater troupes Momix, Pilobolus, and ISO Dance, it soon developed its own style, a blend of contemporary ballet, physical theater, and mime, whipped up with wit. Through all of its years Skinner, his partner Daniel Kirk, Roland, and Hampton have been the consistent members and most prominent faces. The current company is a vital blend of older and newer, the original quartet blending easily with a core of sharp younger dancers who’ve added fresh zest to the BodyVox style.

Skinner is 53, which would be very old for a ballet dancer but not necessarily for a contemporary dancer: If he can’t do everything he once did, he can do plenty, and with the benefit of more than thirty years’ experience built into his muscles and bones, he can dive deeply into the mysteries of movement. “As long as I make age-appropriate dances for myself … you can dance until you’re 90,” he said.


ArtsWatch Weekly: let the good times reel

NW Film Center's "Reel Music," plays about D.B. Cooper and Ben Linder and a guy named Fly Guy, atlas art from post-Gutenberg days

“Tradition!” Tevye the milkman barked, and with that emphatic proclamation the song and dance reeled on. The traditions that last the best are the ones that constantly reshape themselves within the structures they’ve set up, and certainly the Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Festival, which spools into its 34th annual edition on Friday, fits that category. The basic idea is the same as always: pull together a whole bunch of films about music and musicians (documentaries, primarily), but do new ones every year, and let the good times roll. Or reel.

Thelonious Monk with his band in 1959, from “The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith.” Credit 2016 The Heirs of W. Eugene Smith, FilmBuff

This year’s edition, which runs through February 5, kicks off with a foulmouthed film about the Rolling Stones (Robert Frank’s 1972 Cocksucker Blues) that followed the band on tour after the Altamont debacle, and was so raunchy and revealing about the seedier side of rock that it was shelved, and is only rarely seen. Here’s your chance. You might want to pair it with the more genteel, if that’s the right word, The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!, filmed on last year’s Latin American tour. I like the looks of 1957’s The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, filmed by the Life Magazine photographer when he lived and worked in an illegal loft teeming with artists and musicians and house parties and jam sessions in Manhattan’s Flower District during a golden age of jazz; A Poem Is a Naked Person, a cinematic portrait of Leon Russell directed by Maureen Gosling and the great Les Blank that was unreleased for 40 years because Russell, a co-producer, didn’t like it; and Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole the Blues, Paul Bernays’ portrait of the essence-of-hip pianist and singer who was yet another member of last year’s sizable artists’ march into the final sunset. You, no doubt, will find your own favorites. Check the schedule and put on your toe-tapping shoes. It’s a tradition.


ArtsWatch Weekly: let’s start over

A new year, a fresh start: Oregon gets set for a cultural revival in January and 2017

We’ve got that nasty old 2016 in our rear-view mirror now, and as our newest Nobel Laureate for Literature once warbled, Don’t look back. Nothing to see there. Or too much to contemplate. Sure, sure: what happens in 2017 will build on what happened in 2016, which built on what happened in 2015, and on and on down the line. But right now, let’s look ahead.


TRADITIONALLY, JANUARY IS IN THE MIDDLE of the artistic season and also the beginning of what’s called “The Second Season” – a chance to buckle down after the holidays and reinvigorate. Here are a few things, big and small, coming up this month to keep your eye on:

Kara Walker (American, born 1969), “The Emancipation Approximation (Scene 18),” 1999–2000, courtesy the artist. Part of “Constructing Identity” opening Jan. 28 at the Portland Art Museum.

Fertile Ground 2017. This is one of the biggies, made up of all sorts of “smalls.” Begun as an annual festival in 2009, it’s blossomed into one of the biggest, most sprawling, and most intriguingly unpredictable events on Portland’s cultural calendar. For eleven days, in venues scattered across the city, dozens of new performance works by Portland artists will take the stage: plays, dances, solo shows, puppet shows, interactive shows, musicals, more. Shows will range from the biggest companies to indie pop-ups, and from full-blown world premieres to workshops and readings. Trying to keep up is bound to leave you breathless. Jan. 19-29.


Art: new images for a new year

The first First Thursday of 2017, and other January visual arts events

Well, we pretty much got out of 2016 with the shirts on our backs, and suddenly here we are in a fresh new year.

January brings some intriguing visual art possibilities, including a major retrospective on Oregon master Louis Bunce (1907-1983) opening Jan. 21 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem. On the same day in Eugene, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art opens Sandow Birk: American Qur’an, a visual exploration of how the Muslim holy book intersects with American life. On Jan. 17 the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College opens youniverse: past, present, future, by veteran Portland artist Tad Savinar, focusing on works conceived in Florence, Italy, in 2014 and 2016 and on prints, paintings, and sculpture from 1994 through 2011.

And the Portland Art Museum has several things coming up this month to help fill the Andy Warhol void: Rodin: The Human Experience, a show of 52 bronzes opening Jan. 21; Constructing Identity, a major look at the work of contemporary and historical African American artists from Henry Ossawa Tanner to Faith Ringgold and beyond, opening Jan. 28; and the Portland Fine Print Fair 2017, which brings together offerings from 20 top dealers, and which the museum hosts Jan. 27-29.

MORE IMMEDIATELY, THURSDAY is the first First Thursday of the art-gallery year, and galleries across town will be opening new monthly shows. (Some have holdovers, or different opening dates.) Here are a few shows that have caught our eye. There’s lots more, so get out and explore on your own:

Carl Morris, “Voyage Unknown,” 1946, oil on canvas, 52 x 32.5 inches. At this point his art is moving away from figurism but not yet into the abstract expressionism for which he’s best known. Photo: Russo Lee Gallery

The iconic Oregon artist Carl Morris (1911-1993) has a show at Russo Lee Gallery, sharing space with Alex Hirsch. Morris moved from WPA-style murals (the Eugene post office) to his own form of earthbound abstract expressionism that kept vital touch with the mysteries of the Northwest landscape. Morris was at once regional and wise to the movements of the international art scene, and this exhibit covers roughly 50 years of development.


ArtsWatch Weekly: season of gifts

Closing out 2016, giving to the groups that keep Oregon's culture alive and help it thrive

We are almost to an end and almost to a beginning, and neither is truly an ending or a beginning except in the way we divide and parcel time. Because we are a calendar- and clock-driven species, though, and because we live in a culture that regulates the trading chips we call “money,” the division of time between one year and the next has consequences. One such consequence is that we are in the time of giving, to the nonprofit organizations we believe in, and taking, of the tax credits available when we give those gifts before the end of the calendar year.

Like other nonprofits, arts groups large and small can’t cover their costs on ticket income alone. Figures vary, but it’s not unusual for cultural organizations to cover roughly half of their costs through earned income, and rely on grants and gifts for the rest. And while large donations are crucial, the lifeblood of most cultural groups is those smaller, regular, individual or family donations from everyday people – from you and me.


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