Heather Wisner


Dance review: Singing, strife and stray oranges

NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances will send you into summer with a song

They’re going Gaga at Lincoln Hall this weekend, and I don’t mean the Lady variety. NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances, which run nightly through Saturday and close the company’s season, feature work by Ohad Naharin ambassador Danielle Agami, a master teacher of Naharin’s Gaga movement language.

Agami’s 2013 piece This Time Tomorrow illustrates the benefits of Gaga study, which emphasizes heightened physical awareness and clarity of form. Although much of this ensemble piece is set to fuzzy electronica, the movement is clean and purposeful throughout, whether it’s slithering/rolling/crawling across the floor, silly walks, multiple fouette turns or full-body freakouts.

Samantha Campbell, Julia Radick, and Elijah Labay in Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow” in NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

It’s a wonderfully weird piece—choreographically varied, with sharp tempo and directional changes—and absurdist in feeling (kudos to the dancers for not wiping out on the oranges that come rolling out from the wings across the stage). It likely stretched the company kinesthetically and artistically, and it gives the rest of us something to mull over long after the show ends.


Oregon Ballet Theatre: Come ‘Closer’

OBT’s season-ending program at BodyVox puts premieres in your lap

When they named it “Closer,” they weren’t kidding.

The Oregon Ballet Theatre show title is a play on words: “Closer,” now running through June 3, closes the 2017-2018 season. And as danced in the intimate confines of BodyVox’s studio, it offers a much better view of OBT’s dancers than you get at the Keller or Newmark.

“They’re actually people-sized,” rightly observed BodyVox dancer Daniel Kirk, who served on the opening-night crew. From this vantage point, you can see rib cages heaving and sweat flying, a reminder of the sheer effort involved in looking effortless.

And, too, the four world premieres on the program offer a closer look at the creative potential of ballet and its practitioners, something dancers already understand and viewers may be happily surprised to discover.

Following 2017’s Choreography XX Project, for which OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving commissioned new works from international female ballet choreographers (a vastly underrepresented group in the dance world), “Closer” drew new talent from closer to home. OBT company members were invited to submit a proposal and show five minutes of work to be considered for this program. OBT dancers Katherine Monogue, Makino Hayashi and Peter Franc, plus OBT rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, made the cut. Each collaborated on original music for their pieces with Portland resident Andre Allen Anjos (aka RAC), who also happens to be a Grammy-winning remix artist; you might know him from The Shins’ “Sleeping Lessons (RAC Mix).”

Xuan Cheng and Michael Linsmeier performing Makino Hayashi’s world premiere ‘What do you see…’, part of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Closer, May 24 – June 3, 2018 at the BodyVox Dance Center. Photo by Chris Peddecord

“Closer” is an evening in two parts; the premieres debut in the latter half. Because they’re all set to the same composer, they feel in some sense like a suite of dances, although they’re choreographically divergent. Kipp, whose Trance of Wondrous Thought is the most classically balletic of the four, traces the different stages of a dancer’s career through ballet’s hierarchy. Three couples, from apprentice Alexa Domenden to principal dancer Chauncey Parsons, sail through lyrical pas de deux, the women en pointe. It’s deliberately pretty: As Kipp noted in her onstage introduction, “Sometimes it can be very touching to see something pretty.”


Ballet Hispánico: Dance for the people

Eduardo Vilaro and Ballet Hispánico embrace the unconventional as we'll have a chance to see at White Bird on Wednesday

The first thing to know about Ballet Hispánico? “Don’t get hung up on the name,” says artistic director Eduardo Vilaro. When you hear Ballet Hispánico, he suggests, “you think of a ballet company or a folkloric company. It’s neither. It’s as diverse in style as people are diverse.”

Case in point: the program the New York-based company is bringing to Portland through White Bird offers three different boundary-pushing works by choreographers whose influences stretch from Colombia to Mexico to Spain.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s flamenco-inspired Línea Recta (Straight Line) will be part of Ballet Hispanico’s program on Wednesday/Photo by Paula Lobo

Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Línea Recta (Straight Line) approaches flamenco, which she studied as a child, from a contemporary dance perspective, bringing the dancers in closer physical contact than is common for the genre, and creating lines that intersect, bend and swirl. Mexican-American choreographer Michelle Manzanales sets what Vilaro calls her “identity struggle”—feeling too Mexican in some circles, too American in others—to Julio Iglesias and rock-en-español in her sometimes comic contemporary piece Con Brazos Abiertos (With Open Arms), which incorporates the Mexican symbols she distanced herself from during her Texas childhood. Mexican contemporary choreographer Tania Pérez-Salas rounds out the evening with her athletic 3. Catorce Dieciséis (3. Fourteen, Sixteen), inspired by the circular characteristics of the mathematical formula Pi.

The rich panoply of Latin culture is evident not just in the work that Ballet Hispánico stages, but in its very existence. In 1970, founder Tina Ramirez, a Venezuelan native and the daughter of a Mexican bullfighter, created the company “to give voice to Latinos. We were voiceless in the arts” in the U.S. says Vilaro. As a Cuban native who immigrated with his family to New York when he was a youngster, Vilaro is dedicated to furthering Ramirez’s mission of education and representation, “showing what diversity can mean, and starting a dialogue,” he says. “Once you have a voice, what do you say?”


Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus flies through the air on KQED

Jack StockLynn and his circus describe what it would be like if Portland could dance

Gentrification is pushing performers to the outer limits of the cities they call home, and local performers are no exception. A new web-based video series called If Cities Could Dance, produced by Bay Area PBS affiliate KQED, zooms in on eight urban areas—San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Detroit, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New Orleans and Portland—where performers are fighting to maintain their spaces, their voices and their cultural identities.

Sir Cupcake is the subject of an episode of KQED’s “If Cities Could Dance” series./M.Fayre Photography

On May 8, the series will profile Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus, a Portland-based troupe of clowns, aerialists, dancers, jugglers and contortionists, led by the self-described “bumbling trickster” character Sir Cupcake, aka Jack StockLynn.

“Our shows are glittery, campy and full of love and positivity,” StockLynn says of the company, which is composed of queer and transgender performers and their allies. “We are seeking to uplift our community and ourselves by working together to tell queer stories in a fantastical way.” In this dance-centered series, the circus occupies a special niche: although its eight core members aren’t dancers per se, some have trained in contemporary and underground dance styles, as well as the specialized performance movements circus arts require.

StockLynn, a Portland kid, ran off to Seattle in the early 2000s to study with a clown master at Cornish College of the Arts. He moved back in 2006 to train as an aerialist and acrobat before joining physical theater company Do Jump! in 2010. It was about that time he noticed something was missing in the circus world. Although Portland has a large circus community—“four big studios that teach, and a number of smaller ones,” StockLynn says—“there are a lot of queer circus artists, but not a lot of queer circus content.”


Dance Week Diary, Part Five: Punjabi folk dance

To conclude her National Dance Week celebration, Heather Wisner takes Bhangra from DJ Anjali

Editor’s Note: With a last Punjabi folk dance class at Viscount Dance Studio, Heather Wisner completes her five-day, five-dance class sashay through Portland dance studios. We’re hoping her celebration of National Dance Week will inspire you to make it National Dance Year. Good dancing out there!

Part Five: Bhangra and Giddha at Viscount Dance Studio []
What is it? Punjabi folk dance
What makes it fun? Buoyancy
Who is it for? People who like group dances/clubbing/Indian pop music
Who is it not for? People with knee issues

Between the luck of the draw at BeMoved® and my 10-minute accidental warmup at Vitalidad, I’ve done more Indian dance than I expected this week: my only deliberate attempt is a Bhangra and Giddha class at Viscount Dance Studio. Up to this point, my Bhangra training has consisted of a barefoot bop at Arbor Lodge, where Jai Ho! host DJ Prashant taught the basics during last year’s Portland Parkways.

DJ Anjali teaches Punjabi folk dance forms at Viscount Dance Studio/Photo by Heather Wisner

So I have some catching up to do—and if you haven’t been to Viscount in the last five years, so do you, since the studio moved from its longtime Burnside location around the corner to Sandy. The new space isn’t huge, but there’s a good-sized dance floor bordered by a long wall of framed vintage album covers (Polka Party! looks promising).

Our teacher is Anjali Hursh, better known locally as DJ Anjali, who, with the Incredible Kid, has been deejaying Indian-themed dance parties for the last 18 years. She studied classical Indian dance herself, from her Kathak-trained mother and from Bharata Natyam instructor Jayanthi Raman; she learned Bhangra, as many people do, on the dance floor.

If you haven’t heard of Giddha, it’s sort of the female counterpart to Bhangra, which was traditionally done by men. This being a nontraditional setting, the male and female students in our class learn both. At the beginner level, at least, it’s not complicated, but it is aerobic: there’s near-constant hopping—on one foot, on two feet, in triplets—paired with shoulder-shrugging, face-framing, windshield-wipering arm movements.

The challenges come in when the music speeds up, the combination begins to integrate all the elements you’ve learned in the last hour and the class dances those elements in the round. DJ Anjali smiles beatifically throughout the class, and unlike the rest of us, never seems to break a sweat, despite the warm day and the close surroundings. This is a dance you could do just for the exercise, but the camaraderie and the music make it seem less like a workout and more like a social event.


National Dance Week ends April 28, so there’s still time to officially celebrate by trying a new class, seeing a performance (check out Oregon ArtsWatch’s calendar of local dance concerts), going dancing with friends or even cutting your living-room rug with loved ones. As someone who grew up in a small town with one dance studio and very few performances, I’m gratified by the wealth of choices Portland offers to learn and explore.

This was a challenging week, physically and mentally. I’ve realized that I’ve been out of a studio for too long, defaulting to the gym to avoid rush-hour traffic and for other not-very-compelling reasons. But this was also a fun, soul-rejuvenating week, and I intend to keep celebrating dance unofficially once National Dance Week is over.

I left Viscount with a flyer for Tropitaal!, billed as “A Desi-Latino soundclash” remixing Bollywood tunes with reggaetón. It’ll be held June 9 at Goodfoot, so look for me there: I’ll be the one bouncing down an imaginary runway, grinning like an idiot, waving my jazz hands and swinging at serial killers.


Dance Week Diary, Part Four: Vogue femme

Daniel Girón takes his vogue class to lands beyond "Paris is Burning" and RuPaul

Editor’s note: We’ve reached Day Four of Heather Wisner’s five-day course through Portland dance classes in honor of National Dance Week, and, of course, that means Vogue Femme! Previously in the series, we’ve encountered Laura Haney’s BeMoved class, Latya Wilkins’ hip-hop class and Kody Jauron’s Broadway jazz class.

Part Four: Vogue Femme at Vitalidad Movement Arts Center
What is it? A crash course on the form’s history and fundamentals
What makes it fun? Feeling like a supermodel
Who is it for? Designed to uplift queer people of color, but all ages/races/body types welcome
Who is it not for? Introverts, anyone with joint or flexibility issues

As a first-timer to Vitalidad, I get a quick tour from front-desk staff, ending at the classroom (one of four in this spacious studio, located around the corner from Vega Dance Lab) where Vogue Femme will be held. During our warmup, the instructor plays Indian music and guides us through gentle stretches, which isn’t quite what I was expecting. Then he turns to face us. “OK,” he asks, “Does anyone have any questions about Bhangra or Bollywood?”

I run back to the front desk.

Daniel Girón leads the vogue class at Vitalidad Movement Arts Center/Photo by Heather Wisner

As it turns out, Vogue Femme has moved to another room; I dash in just in time for a set of intense quad stretching. After the warmup, instructor Daniel Girón gives us a voguing history lesson and lays down Vogue Femme’s five fundamentals: catwalk, hand performance, duck walk, Spin Dip and floor work. If your voguing knowledge is limited to Paris is Burning or RuPaul’s Drag Race, Girón recommends catching up with New York Vogue Nights:

Remember when I said that you don’t have to be young and pliable to dance? [Editor’s Note: That was in Part One: “You don’t have to be young and pliable.”] That doesn’t apply here: pliability is actually a huge advantage.


Dance Week Diary, Part Three: Jazz hands

Kody Jauron leads the Broadway jazz class at NW Dance Project, and truly, jazz hands are involved

I wake up sore from the previous day, so I’d like to think I was doing something right. [Editor’s note: In yesterday’s installment of Dance Week Diary, hip-hop instructor Katya Wilkins had said that if you aren’t a little sore after class, perhaps you could apply yourself more the next time.]

Kody Jauron leads Broadway jazz class at NW Dance Project/Photo by Heather Wisner

I wave goodbye to my husband with jazz hands and head to Broadway Jazz, only to find, once teacher Kody Jauron gets class underway in the sunny studio at NW Dance Project, that jazz hands are indeed on today’s menu. The warmup begins with Sweet Charity’s “Rich Man’s Frug,” which musical nerds will recognize as one of Bob Fosse’s most memorably groovy dance sequences. Following chest and hip isolations, we power through a set of double-time crunches as Tina Turner belts out “Proud Mary.”

Part Three: Broadway Jazz at NW Dance Project
What is it? Jazz dance foundational class
What makes it fun? Informal dance-party vibe
Who is it for? Broadway babies
Who is it not for? Self-serious types

Once we’re sufficiently loose, it’s back to Fosse: Jauron teaches us most of the “I Gotcha” sequence from the 1972 concert film Liza With a Z, a Fosse and Fred Ebb production with all the Fosse slink: jazzy box steps, coyly pointed fingers and swiveling hips, plus something Jauron dubs “the chicken run” (Y’know that thing Mick Jagger does with his hands on his hips and his elbows cocked behind him? That.)

It’s a substantial amount of choreography to absorb in one session, but it doesn’t feel intimidating—Jaron keeps the mood light, throwing himself into the steps with such genuine enthusiasm that he laughs along with everyone else when his glasses go flying after a saucy toss of his head. Like Wilkins, he emphasizes the mood that the choreography should evoke, by turns casual and intense.

When someone asks him how a run should look, he pauses to consider the question. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “Maybe like you’re running away from life?” And if that sounds dramatic, remember that we’re talking about a Liza Minnelli concert.

We finish with enough time to run the combination twice, and if we didn’t get all of it, well, Jauron points out, there’s always next week.