Tahni Holt: Love and seduction, slowly

"Duet Love" at the Time-Based Art Festival starts deliberately and minimally and then starts to get nice and messy

Tahni Holt’s Duet Love is a confrontational joy to watch. It’s testing beginning is compositionally minimalist, but the second half justifies that glacial start.

The dance starts slow. Very slow. The four dancers languorously fall into a cycle of poses and hold them for minutes at a time without moving. The emptiness of the stage and the minimal soundtrack underscore what the slowness is saying—this is a dance without any hidden parts. Everything is simple, solid, and staring you right in the face. The dance is put together like Japanese carpentry.

The poses progress through a familiar, pop vocabulary of gendered, pseudo-sexual declaration—more “I am here, look at me” than “come hither.” Some are culturally specific, like the one I mentally called “the Marky Mark“. Others are general enough to remind us that, given a standard human body, the gestural range of seduction is finite.

Keyon Gaskin and Lucy Yim in Tahni Holt's "Duet Love"/Photo by Eugenie Frerichs

Keyon Gaskin and Lucy Yim in Tahni Holt’s “Duet Love”/Photo by Eugenie Frerichs

The slow start made it seem as though our attention was being stretched and limbered like the dancers had done on stage before the show began. Being forced to take it all in, sit with it, look again, look away, and look back. And repeat.

As the later transformations arrived, I understood the need for preparations like that. However, watching the audience through this section, I think the pauses might have been at least as effective if had they lasted about three quarters as long. Think of the spareness of butoh or noh—there’s a tension that carries over the gaps, a fullness while waiting for the drumstick to strike again. Here, the initial slowness didn’t necessarily require that energy, I think it would have been better for it.


Rachel Tess builds a ‘Souvenir’

The dancemaker, who splits her time between Portland and Sweden, creates a little house to dance in

A lot can happen in a short time in a small space. And a lot did on Saturday night, when Rachel Tess and Kenneth Bruun Carlson, members of Rachel Tess Dance,  performed a 30-minute duet at OPSIS Architecture, using every inch of  a 450-square-foot space and every muscle in their beautiful bodies to make a statement about what Tess calls “the effects of kinesthetic empathy in a confined, intimate space.”

Tess balances on the "Souvenir" house at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Photo courtesy Rachel Tess

Tess balances on the “Souvenir” house at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Photo courtesy Rachel Tess

The space at OPSIS is not the one for which this duet was made.  That is a “house”, titled Souvenir, roughly the same size as the OPSIS space and crafted in modular pieces of hand-planed wood, held together with pegs for easy deconstruction and reconstruction, with a low ceiling, and cubby hole seating for the audience.  It was designed by Tess, who lives most of the time in Sweden, for her Master’s degree in dance, which she received from Stockholm’s University of Dance last year. A second “Souvenir” is being constructed in Portland by Acme Scenic for use in this country, first here in Portland in the spring, then in New York next June, outdoors at Nolan Park on Governor’s Island.

You can see what Souvenir I looks like, with and without dancers and audience, as you go up the stairs at OPSIS, in an exhibition of some spectacular photographs taken by Michael Mazzola, with whom Tess worked for the first time on Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Stravinsky Project” in 2011.  She has done quite a lot of site-specific work in Portland in the past few years, in empty retail spaces and galleries and the like, proclaiming in the 2008 “Details of a Couple,” with a dance that had her worming her way down a table loaded with wineglasses, that art and relationships are risky at best.  Creating your own site, and a portable site at that, is also pretty risky, but so far, so good: At Valmos, between March and July, she did more than 160 performances in it, solos and duets, including the one I saw Saturday night, transferred and adjusted for the space provided by OPSIS.


Ballet Diary 8-9: Curtain Call

ArtsWatch's ballet spy presents closing thoughts on a 9-week learning experience...and flowers


Note: This is the final installment of a multi-part summer series, wherein ArtsWatch writer A.L. Adams bravely broaches beginner ballet classes with Northwest Dance Project and keeps a Ballet Diary for our amusement and edification.

Our ballet teacher Renee Meiffren is such a B4L (Ballerina 4 Lyfe) that as she makes a sad announcement, she habitually flutters her fingers in front of her face like Stravinsky’s Firebird crying. During our eighth lesson, she informed us that our ninth week of class would be her last; she was dipping out early due to family emergency. After that, she’d leave NW Dance Project to give private lessons.


These final two classes have been”crunch time”; time to stretch our necks up and our shoulders down one extra centimeter, time to balance in sous-sus for two extra seconds, time to perk up and point the limp tondues with which I’ve been closing my ronde du jembes en l’air. My battements have also gotten a crash course in follow-through force, with Meiffren crouching in front of me and holding her hand where my foot should kick. “I don’t want to kick you!” I exclaim. “Go ahead!” she says. “I didn’t know it was THAT kind of class,” I quip. “Maybe YOU should be paying ME.” (The class laughs because we’re all adults here, and ballet processes are still painful enough for some of us that S&M humor is oddly appropriate.)

You know the secret of a Hollywood high-five?


Jayanthi Raman rides the tiger

The Bharata Natyam dance master dedicates her updating of the form to Shakti, the tiger rider

Saturday night, at the Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, on a stage crowded with musicians—superb musicians—and their instruments, Jayanthi Raman, richly, colorfully dressed in pleated, jeweled silk, starts her solo from a squatting position, knees turned out to the side, bare feet arched as elegantly as a bas relief of an ancient temple dancer’s.

Slowly, as the music starts, she rises and begins to perform the hand gestures, foot stamps, and shifting facial expressions that are the hallmarks of the South Indian classical dance form known as Bharata Natyam.

Jayanthi Raman dances with keyboardist Osam Ezzeldin and violinist Vidwan Ganesh Rajagopalan/Courtesy Rasika

Jayanthi Raman dances with keyboardist Osam Ezzeldin and violinist Vidwan Ganesh Rajagopalan/Courtesy Rasika

Raman began her dance training in India as a child, and  got a medical degree as a young woman. She came to Portland 25 years ago with her husband, retrained to get her medical license and worked as a research doctor at OHSU. At the same time, she began dancing in street fairs (I first saw her at ArtQuake), started a school and with others founded Rasika, which produces Indian music and dance performances, many of the artists brought over from India. A few years ago she decided to focus entirely on her dancing and choreography, and she has had considerable national and international success, including a National Dance Project touring grant.


Ballet Diary 7: sleek new superhips

In which our reporter advances to adequate in beginning ballet class, and tries a little twerking, too

I should have known that one of these weeks (during my 10-week Adult Beginner Ballet course through Northwest Dance Project) there’d be no time for a contemplative pre-ballet-class stroll, that something (like a guest spot on a Wanderlust Circus Orchestra bill) would send me darting downtown by car, wedging into an “entertainment district” loading zone the second the clock hit 7, hastily dropping off a bouzouki player in front of Dante’s and speed-striding up to PSU in my full ballet-lesson regalia.

I was (almost) late, and to compound my rush, the class had moved up a floor to make use of a room with better AC. Phew.


Now maybe someone can explain to me what the hell has happened to my body. Because it seems to be…suddenly better. And I demand answers.


Ballet Diary 5-6: quicker turnarounds

As she learns to move her feet, our writer/dancer keeps this short and sweet

This week, my ballet diary has to be short. It just has to. If you want longer stories, refer to previous weeks. It’s actually week 6 of Northwest Dance Project’s 10-week Adult Beginning Ballet course, but I had to miss one, making this the fifth post. Every week now, it seems that my philosophical insights are fewer, my movements are slightly more intuitive, and the ballet classes cycle is hurtling by faster and faster. This means it’s time for a Training Montage. ballet56_slippers_web Feel free to set the following to any music you like— Chariots of Fire, Eye of the Tiger, the “song of the summer,” Yakkety Sax. Okay, here goes: My feet on a checkered-tile kitchen floor, repeatedly leaping from fifth position into a wobbling semi-sous sous, crossing heels and closing into the opposite fifth. Sometimes bare, sometimes in ballet slippers, and sometimes in moccasins. My arms wide in second position, then one coming in for third. Right, then left. Me lifting my face with a pseudo-sophisticated air, then breaking character as I totter on my tiptoes. One shot of me affecting arms in third, attempting a right turn, and sweeping things off a shelf. A decent left turn that goes 360, followed by a desperate right turn that goes about 390 and ends in a stagger. Close-up of my face complaining on the phone with ballerina friend. Close-up of her mouth laughing. Me staring intently at the mirror. Head-snap. Head-snap. Head-snap. Regimented sets of my classmates’ feet doing rond de jambes and the foot-stretching weight-baring toe-balance our teacher Renee Meiffren calls “the doo-dad.” Me in class, hands on hips, diagonally skipping across the studio. Thanks to a note from Meiffren about how my feet should meet, sous sous-style, en l’air, I can now do this without looking terrible. The only man in the class and I continue our skip-step across the room after the music stops, then laugh and high-five. Every good training montage ends in a high-five. See you next week.

READ THE REST: Ballet Diary: An Artswatch Writer Tries NWDP’s beginner ballet


A. L. Adams also writes for Artslandia Magazine and The Portland Mercury.
She is the former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!


Stowell heads south as Oregon Ballet Theatre nabs a new ED

Christopher Stowell has a promising new job at the San Francisco Ballet, and his old company has a new executive director

Christopher Stowell, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director from July of 2003 to December 2012, is returning to San Francisco Ballet as ballet master and assistant to Helgi Tomasson, company artistic director and principal choreographer, effective August 25.

“I’m so happy to officially announce that I’m returning to SFB! I’ll be working alongside Helgi both in the studio and as his liaison to the administrative staff,” Stowell said on his Facebook page on Friday, adding that he “can’t wait to get back to the city and company I love.”

Christopher Stowell rehearses "Rite of Spring" at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

Christopher Stowell rehearses “The Rite of Spring” at OBT/Photo by Blaine Truitt Cover

In his role as ballet master, Stowell will teach SFB Company class and rehearse ballets for the repertory season, as ballet masters do in every company, working once again with former OBT dancers Julia Rowe and Grace Shibley, However, as assistant to Tomasson, to whom he will report directly, Stowell will have his fingers in just about every aspect of the company pie on both the artistic and administrative (read financial) sides.

“Many may remember Christopher from his long and successful career in the Company,” Tomasson said in a company press release. “[He] joined San francisco Ballet in 1985 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1990. I look forward to working closely with both him and our current Ballet Master and Assistant to the Artistic Director in these complementary roles,” he said.

Since leaving OBT at the end of 2012, Stowell has been exceedingly busy teaching internationally, choreographing, and staging work by other choreographers, most recently Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush” (which is in OBT’s repertoire) at the Beijing Dance Academy in China and Balanchine’s “Liebesleider Waltzes” (with Francia Russell) for SFB.

In an interview I had with Stowell last month,slated down the road for publication in Ballet Review, I asked him what his ideal company would be. His answer? “One in a city which has a history of supporting ballet,” citing San Francisco as one which gives just as much support to the arts as it does its sports teams. San Francisco Ballet is well established; it is the oldest professional ballet company in the United States and one of the largest. Looks like Stowell has struck gold.


While Stowell was heading south, Oregon Ballet Theatre was making some news itself, today announcing that its current artistic director, Kevin Irving, has signed a three-year contract to lead the company’s artistic side. At the same time, OBT announced that after an 18-month search, it had chosen a new executive director, too. He’s Dennis Buehler, and comes to Portland after leaving as executive director of the Milwaukee Ballet in February of this year.

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte's "Petrouchka"/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Petrouchka sees himself and everything changes in Nicolo Fonte’s “Petrouchka”/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“I quickly felt a strong connection with Oregon Ballet Theatre and could not be more delighted to be joining Kevin and the entire OBT team at this time,” Buehler said in the press release announcing his appointment. “They have positioned themselves very well and I am confident we can continue to develop this company into one of this country’s premier dance organizations. Portland is a region that makes access to the arts a high priority and Oregon Ballet Theatre is building a foundation to sustain that for generations to come.”

The budget of the Milwaukee Ballet is very close to that of Oregon Ballet Theatre (around $5 million according to its most recent 990 report), its programming is similar, and it also has a ballet school, which received national accreditation during Buehler’s tenure.

Buehler will start at OBT in September. The company begins its 25th season October 11-18 in Keller Auditorium with a world premiere by Nicolo Fonte, three duets by James Canfield, Stowell, and Trey McIntyre, respectively, and Balanchine’s “Agon.”

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