Dance preview: Allie Hankins channels her inner Nijinsky

"Like a Sun That Pours Forth Light But Never Warmth" premieres this weekend

In the mid 1920s, Ida Rubinstein commissioned Maurice Ravel to make an orchestral transcription of Albéniz’s Iberia. Copyright issues, of all things, sent that plan sideways, and the world got Bolero instead. Rubinstein performed in the premiere of Bolero in 1928, when the future-choreographer Maurice Béjart was one year old. More than a decade earlier, she danced with the legendary Vaslav Nijinksy in the then-scandalous Scheherazade for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, for audiences that included Sarah Bernhard and Pablo Picasso. This is the same company that, with Nijinski’s help, altered the path of 20th century music and dance with their performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and the apocryphal “riot” caused by one of its first shows.

Béjart would reinterpret this work some 30 years later, cementing its influence as a modern work rather than a “new classic” to be lifelessly propped up by school drama departments. Then, in 1961, he reinterpreted Bolero, with the incredible Jorge Donn performing the male-solo variation. Ever aware of their influences, Béjart and Donn later paid homage to Nijinski in Nijinksi, Clown of God, in which Donn directly inhabited the role of the dancer who had influenced his career and the careers of countless other dancers in the 20th century. Donn reprised this role in 1990, just two years before his death from AIDS, by which time the innovative and genre-crossing techniques for which Béjart had often been criticized had become standard fare for contemporary dance.

Allie Hankins' "Like a Sun..." premieres Friday at Conduit.

Allie Hankins’ “Like a Sun…” premieres Friday at Conduit.

This is a thread that winds through 80 years of explosive innovation and exploration in not just dance, but every branch of modern art and the roots of postmodernity. If you tug on it, more connections and lines of influence become clear. If you need a map to follow it all, ask Allie Hankins. For the past three years, she’s wound herself up in these threads and the legacy of movements, choreography, and performance that they have created. On Friday, October 24, she and 80 pounds of crimson lycra will weave them all together for the first time in full at Conduit dance studio.


Dance review: Michael Clark knits together ballet and glam rock

It took a while, but the Brit choreographer finally gave us a glimpse of a parallel universe

In the parallel (and fictional) universe in which classical ballet emerged in the era of Studio 54 rather than Renaissance Italy, Michael Clark is without a doubt the star choreographer of that world. He’s the natural choice to unite pointe ballet with the music of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop. Having studied in London in the mid-’70s, Clarke made his name as a bit of a wild child in genre-crossing collaborations with performance artists, fashion designers, directors such as Peter Greenaway and such musicians as Wire, Laibach, and perhaps most unforgettably with the Fall.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewKnown for mixing brash, inventive and downright sassy choreography with classical ballet vocabulary and the dancers with the chops to do it, Clark has seen his career move in this universe from provocative wunderkind to influential, established talent, just like Iggy Pop, Bowie, and Reed have.

In that parallel universe, I imagine that there are entire schools and sub-genres dedicated to opposing philosophies about how to properly interpret the lo-fi menace of classics like Heroin. We’d see as many seasonal productions of Ziggy Stardust as we do Swan Lake. This particular time in the history of popular music would melt into place with the dance, rather than sticking out as a conversation piece.

By the third act the Michael Clark Company finally opened the door for David Bowie./Photo by Jake Walters

By the third act the Michael Clark Company finally opened the door for David Bowie./Photo by Jake Walters

I would like to see that universe’s version of this show, which Clark’s company danced for White Bird this weekend. I credit Clark for inventing that universe and taking the first, Major-Tom like steps out into its cosmos. But we are in a universe where “the music of David Bowie” and just the idea of “the Velvet Underground” references a known aesthetic, an existing back catalogue, a certain time and place, and a relatively finite set of expectations—at least finite compared to the mythically-inventive days in which the material for the show was recorded. Bowie himself realizes this, and I wonder how much it weighs on Michael Clark regarding his own career.


Orchestra Next and Eugene Ballet: Creating The Total Dance Experience

Orchestra brings live music to dance, training to musicians, a complete experience to audiences.


When the Eugene Ballet Company performs Sergey Prokofiev’s 1944 ballet Cinderella at Eugene’s Hult Center next weekend, it will do so with live music provided by Orchestra Next, a Eugene-based ensemble founded by UO associate professor of music Brian McWhorter.

The Grand Ball with Yoshie Oshima as Cinderella, Brian Ruiz as Prince Charming. A guest (Isaac Jones) and stepsister Clarinda (Beth Maslinoff) look on. Photo: Toni Pimble.

Live music performances with the Eugene Ballet started three years ago when McWhorter learned from EBC Managing Director Riley Grannan that the 2012 production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker would use pre-recorded music as it had in past seasons. McWhorter proposed that he organize an orchestra to perform live with the ballet during its two-day run. Grannan and Artistic Director Toni Pimble agreed and the idea for the orchestra was born.

“We had to put things together very quickly — I think about three months or so,” McWhorter recalls. “There were all sorts of challenges that included getting all the principals on board, auditioning for the student positions, getting the website up and running, generating a buzz, making sure we had all the sheet music, getting insurance, arranging rehearsals, and, of course, raising all the money to pay everyone. The administrative team was just myself and (general manager) Sarah Viens … who continues to be an invaluable asset for the orchestra.”

McWhorter saw an opportunity to both benefit the ballet company by bringing its listeners live music, and to benefit local musicians by creating a long-needed training ensemble that bridges the experiential gap between student and professional musician. “The most iconic examples of training orchestras are the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and New World Symphony — but even these orchestras don’t provide the students the chance to regularly sit next to professionals,” McWhorter explains. “Orchestra Next does. And I think our collaboration with the Eugene Ballet makes us all the more unique.”


OBT25: a gala, a reunion, a celebration of ballet

Oregon Ballet Theatre's 25th anniversary show brings back the company's past and looks toward its future

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurated its twenty-fifth anniversary season on Saturday night with OBT25, a program that was part gala performance and part family reunion – and, if you will, a serious celebration of a performing art that historically has had a hard time getting established in Portland.

Wearing his opening-night purple tie for his pre-curtain speech delivered from the floor of the orchestra, artistic director Kevin Irving dedicated the performance to three OBT artists who are no longer on the planet: Dennis Spaight, the company’s first resident choreographer and associate artistic direct; Mark Goldweber, who as ballet master was instrumental in instilling the company’s strong work ethic; and Michael Rios, an impeccable and mischievous classical dancer.  And Irving set the audience thinking by quoting French film theorist André Bazin, who said: “Art emerged from the human desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings.”

Artslandia-ORAWreviewI didn’t see much decay, inevitable or otherwise, in dancers, musicians or choreography, although the Keller’s ever-decaying sound system nearly wrecked the pas de deux from Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love. The Fleet Foxes music was ear-splittingly loud. Come to think of it, most of the music, whether live or recorded – with the exceptions of the piano and violin accompaniment to Christopher Stowell’s Seguidilla Pas de Deux, played by Carol Rich and Nelly Kovalev, respectively; and  Thomas Lauderdale’s heartfelt playing of the Chopin Berceuse and China Forbes’ singing for Nicolo Fonte’s Never Stop Falling (In Love) – was almost unbearably over-amplified.

There’s been considerable passage of time since George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky made Agon, which opened the show, and yet there’s definitely no sign of wear in this work that expresses the jittery, cocky, competitive atmosphere of post -World War II New York – and when danced well, which it was here, is equally reflective of our own increasingly terrifying times.


Dance review: Diavolo rocks the stage

In White Bird's season opener the dancers risked and were rewarded

An incredibly strong start to White Bird’s 17th season, Diavolo returned to Portland for the first time since 2003 on Thursday. Under artistic director Jaques Heim, Diavolo has produced boundary-pushing, often dangerous performances under the concept of “architecture in motion” since 1992.

Working with a range of sculptors, architects and designers (including Portland’s local puppeteer Michael Curry), Heim develops massive kinetic playgrounds for his gymnastic dancers by creating structures and apparatus for them to explore and manipulate. These become world-building devices, each transforming the stage with their new demands of movement. It’s impossible not to start imagining the possibilities and lives of these structures as soon as you see them, starting with “how on earth did they ship that thing up here?” In some ways, the performances can be seen as a challenge for the dancers to demonstrate wilder expression for these new worlds than the curious audience can imagine.

Diavolo opened White Bird's 17th season with daring acrobatics./Photo by Alexander Slanger

Diavolo opened White Bird’s 17th season with daring acrobatics./Photo by Alexander Slanger

The first piece, Fluid Infinities (2013), centers on a glossy quarter dome pierced by holes like a moonscape designed by Eero Saarinen, countered by a large transparent tube that would be right at home on the set of the original Star Trek series. After a long intermission, the dome is replaced by a 3000-pound rocking stage that looks like the cross section of a boat with a parquet deck. Diavolo has carried this imposing, playful platform around the world since 2002 to perform their seminal Trajectorie. The show is short, intense, and amazingly entertaining.


OBT25: the Agon and the ecstasy

Oregon Ballet Theatre leaps into its 25th season with a Balanchine masterpiece, salutes to its past, and a creative new venture with Pink Martini

Oregon Ballet Theatre inaugurates its 25th anniversary season on Saturday at the Keller Auditorium with a bold, demanding program that  pays homage to the company’s past and celebrates its continuing, if often financially fragile, presence as the city’s resident ballet company.

The program starts with Agon, Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine’s mid-twentieth century jazz-inflected masterpiece, and ends with the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s  Never Stop Falling (In Love), made and performed in collaboration with Pink Martini. These two pieces bookend excerpts from longer works by choreographers who have played significant roles in shaping OBT’s eclectic style.  They include founding artistic director James Canfield’s “bedroom pas de deux” from his staging of Romeo and Juliet, former artistic director Christopher Stowell’s “jail house” pas de deux from Carmen, and a duet from former resident choreographer Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love, which premiered in the spring of 2013, originally commissioned by Stowell.

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing "Never Stop Falling (In Love)" at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Eva Burton and Colby Parsons rehearsing “Never Stop Falling (In Love)” at OBT Exposed in Pioneer Courthouse Square in August. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Rehearsals for OBT 25, as this opening show is called, began in late August, when the public open rehearsals called OBT Exposed were in residence for the first time at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was hotter than hell’s hinges, which didn’t stop the dancers from giving Fonte their all as he started making, and demonstrating, the high-energy movement for Never Stop Falling (In Love). Thomas Lauderdale, Pink Martini’s leader, came to see what was going on the first time I was there, and returned the next day, which was just as hot as the previous one, with lead singer China Forbes, and a violinist. A piano was found for Lauderdale, and they joined the rehearsal, energizing the dancers as only live music can.

During a joint interview with Fonte and Lauderdale the following week, both emphasized that this is a true collaboration of musician and choreographer, with both artists working together on the selection of songs for what Fonte called “a soundscape,” and the tempos at which they are played.  “This has been a fantastic learning experience for me,” Lauderdale said. “When we selected some of this material, I realized that some songs we recently recorded, the tempos were just really too fast for dance, and [need] much more space to breathe and jump.”

At the time of the interview, they were still changing the playlist, in part because, Lauderdale said, “I don’t want this just to be Pink Martini with dance, I want for us to write something that feels new, not just a rehash.”

Lauderdale characterizes his music as “old-fashioned global symphonic pop,” making it a good match for Fonte’s contemporary take on neoclassical ballet.  Nevertheless, as OBT’s audience knows, Fonte usually makes dances to classical scores. Left Unsaid is accompanied by Bach; Petrouchka and Bolero, which Stowell commissioned Fonte to make for OBT during his tenure as artistic director, are performed to Stravinsky and Ravel, respectively.

Kevin Irving, who took over the company last year, and is Fonte’s partner in private life, gives him a lot of well-earned credit for “finding his way into music he doesn’t usually respond to,” and creating “very physical movement for the whole company.”

Never Stop Falling was looking good in a run-through at OBT’s studios earlier this week that included the Pink Martini musicians, with Lauderdale at the piano and Forbes at one point moving among the dancers holding a water bottle in lieu of a microphone.  The dancers were still in practice clothes rather than Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak’s costumes, which I’ve not seen. Watching were Dennis Buehler, the first company executive director I’ve seen set foot in the studio since Johann Jacobs, and OBT School director Tony Jones, whose soft-voiced, relaxed style of teaching company class several dancers have told me they love.

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in "Never Stop Falling (In Love)." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Martina Chavez and Brett Bauer in “Never Stop Falling (In Love).” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

It is indeed a high-energy piece, although it begins quietly, with Martina Chavez alone on stage, unfolding one of her beautiful legs to the side in an endless développé, then closing it into a tight fifth position just before Chauncey Parsons makes a rapidly pirouetting entrance. This beginning proclaims clearly that this is a classical ballet, made to be performed by 21st century classically trained dancers. It’s a celebration of the art form as well as of OBT’s anniversary.

The rest of the cast enters one at a time, extending their limbs with Balanchinean space-devouring reach.  As the piece  and the music build, the rhythms become infectious, and I realize I’m tapping my foot on the floor, at the same time that I spot Lauderdale, seated at the piano, pounding out the beat with his left foot, dancing along with the dancers.

Much of the 40-minute piece involves a substantial number of high-flying jumps and some extremely risky lifts (especially for Xuan Cheng, who gets sent flying through the air by Brian Simcoe and Avery Reiner). It ends, as is customary for program closers, with everyone on stage dancing joyously – and in this case, some dancers playing drums, including Michael Linsmeier, who has rock band experience, and Brett Bauer.  There is respite for the audience if not the dancers in a section danced by Parsons and his brother Colby, new to the company this year, to Chopin’s Berceuse, played by Lauderdale.  With Fonte’s assistance, the brothers were still polishing movement that demanded both impeccable musicality and control.

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing "Agon" at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Bart Cook, repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing “Agon” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

There is no part of Agon, a rather different collaboration of composer and choreographer, that does not demand those qualities, with the added challenge of music that is almost impossible to count. Balanchine, according to Todd Bolender, who originated the Sarabande and first pas de trois, which Chauncey Parsons will dance opening weekend, never did counts for any of his ballets, leaving it up to the dancers to make up their own.  Fortunately, for OBT’s dancers, Balanchine Trust répétiteur Bart Cook, who during his career with New York City Ballet danced all four of Agon’s male roles, was rapping out counts like mad when I watched a rehearsal late last week. OBT ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, who danced the central pas de deux countless times with Pacific Northwest Ballet, was taking notes. Irving, who danced it during his eight-year stint with Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, was also in the studio. Each learned the ballet from different people: Cook from Balanchine himself, who changed a bit of the choreography for him; Stanton from Francia Russell, who was present at the creation; Irving from Sara Leland, to whom he says he owes his career. When OBT performed Agon the first time, in 1999, it was staged by Patricia Neary. Which is all by way of saying that no version of Agon is set in stone.

“With purpose,” Cook instructs the dancers, as the run-through begins with Parsons, Kindell, Adam Hartley and Brian Simcoe standing, facing upstage. They turn and break into a pelvic-thrusting dance that briefly tosses classical spinal placement out the window.  Parsons dances the first pas de trois with Sarah Griffin, who joined OBT this season and is clearly an extremely talented addition, and company artist Eva Burton, who is equally gifted.

As the rehearsal proceeds, Cook makes gentle suggestions and sardonic comments: “this is much ado about nothing,” he says, and at one point, “this is a weird, uncomfortable step.”  To Kindell, who dances the second pas de trois with Hartley and Candace Bouchard (who gets a terrific Spanish tinged solo), he says, “Don’t rush it.  The timing is more important than the size of the jump.” Chavez, whose long-limbed body seems made for the Agon pas de deux, and Brian Simcoe, one of the few native Oregonians in the company, move smoothly through the body-bending duet, and Bart tells the dancers they “are mechanically correct, [but they] need to be less academic.”

A great deal has been written about Agon, its intellectuality, Balanchine’s radical casting of Caucasian Diana Adams and African-American Arthur Mitchell in 1957, the year the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown vs the Board of Education that at least attempted to end the segregation of public schools. Historians put the moment into the context of the Russians’ launch of Sputnik into outer space; Balanchine himself called Agon a “computer that smiles”; critics for the past half-century have written about it in the same reverent tones as Christ’s apostles used to describe the Epiphany.

Forget it.  Jittery, sophisticated, urban and urbane, at the end of the day, when danced with the “verve, aplomb, dynamic power and artistic expression” that Irving wants from OBT’s dancers no matter what they’re performing, Agon provides a hell of a good time for the audience. I came out of New York City Center, the year it premiered, a 19-year-old college student, feeling as high as I got in those days on two glasses of champagne. And, while the music, which will not be performed live, is not exactly easy-listening, it’s not a chore, either. If you watch the dancers closely, their combative, courtly movement clarifies the clashing rhythms of the score (“agon” means “contest” in Greek) as well as the Renaissance court dances Stravinsky used to structure it.

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield's "Romeo & Juliet." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Ansa Deguchi and Brian Simcoe in the Bedroom Pas de Deux from James Canfield’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I’ve been watching OBT all of its life, and before that, Pacific Ballet Theatre (for which Canfield originally made Romeo and Juliet, his first evening-length ballet) and Ballet Oregon, founded by V. Keith Martin, which after much negotiation merged in 1989 to form the present company. Over the years, most of which have been bumpy financially, there have been a great many changes in company personnel, in the size of the company (it was down to fifteen dancers in 2000 when Lauderdale and Canfield started to collaborate on an evening-length ballet based on Felix Salten’s Bambi, don’t ask) the repertoire, and  the funding.

There has also been an astonishing amount of continuity.  Lisa Kipp, who is now OBT’s rehearsal director, danced with Ballet Oregon and Pacific Ballet Theatre (she understudied Juliet in R and J) and then briefly with OBT.  She returned as ballet mistress when Christopher Stowell assumed the artistic directorship in 2003.  Tracey Sartorio, now Irving’s assistant, was one of OBT’s 25 company members its first season, partnered frequently by the late Michael Rios. BodyVox’s Jamey Hampton, who was on the search committees that found both Irving and Buehler, choreographed Wild Man for OBT, commissioned by Canfield.

In April, OBT will celebrate the future with the inauguration of OBT II, a second company of apprentices and advanced professional students from OBT’s School, with a bow to the company’s past. Carol Shults, former company historian and teacher, and with Sandra Baldwin, a director of the Dennis Spaight Trust, has already staged Spaight’s Crayola, which is performed without music, to the sound that pointe shoes make as they hit the floor.

Meanwhile, OBT starts a five performance celebration of its Silver Anniversary Saturday night at the Keller, in a program that enlightens, amuses, and proclaims loudly that this company is still here, dancing its collective feet off.



OBT25 opens Saturday, Oct. 11, at Keller Auditorium, and continues through Oct. 18. Ticket and schedule information here.

Dancer meets legend: a diary

Portland's Mizu Desierto went to study with the legendary Anna Halprin, now 94. What she discovered is ageless.

Portland butoh artist Mizu Desierto, of  Water in the Desert and The Headwaters Theatre, traveled to Big Sur over the summer to study with dance and movement legend Anna Halprin, who is still active at 94. She recounts her adventures for ArtsWatch readers.


When Anne Adams asked me to write a camp diary of my reflections on traveling to be with one of the most influential and pioneering artists of the day, the incomparable dance legend that is Anna Halprin, I had an absurd notion that this would be an easy assignment. Months later, I am still at a loss for adequate expression. For those who do not know the work of Halprin, let me simply start by stating that at 94 years old the woman continues to forge a prolific international legacy of political, social and transformative art-making, beyond anyone else I know of.

Anna was a movement virtuoso who politicized dance back in the days when most Americans were just beginning their love affair with bleach and polyester. Abandoning an enviable professional career in New York, she headed out west – not only leaving the urban context for modern dance, but also its overall stagnancy in form and repetition. From that point on, her work became a revelation of dance as social practice, with the creation of projects that first and fearlessly unpacked the most challenging subject matter of the day. Other notable developments in her work include the creation of an international educational institution, Tamalpa, and the “The Planetary Dance” – a community-based open-source ritual that continues to take place all over the globe.

Halprin (in hat) and acolytes at Esalen. Photo courtesy Mizu Desierto

Halprin (in hat) and acolytes at Esalen. Photo courtesy Mizu Desierto

Anna has been a hero of mine and an inspiration for nearly 20 years, and during that time I have had the opportunity to work with her on two other occasions. Once in my mid-twenties and then again more recently when she created and filmed a score with a number of local dancemakers at Lovejoy Fountain (designed by her late husband, Lawrence Halprin). On both occasions, Anna bestowed upon me that oozy golden fuzzy dream moment that any aspiring artist hopes for when confronted with a mentor and muse – she told me that she FANCIED ME! So what does one do when your hero fancies you? I personally am making damn sure that I get to spend as much time as possible under the influence of the source while she is still around.

When I found out Anna would be teaching at Esalen Institute over the summer – an oceanic terrain of hot springs and human potential pioneers in Big Sur – I jumped. I have wanted to visit Esalen for at least as long as I have been interested in the work of Halprin. Upon my arrival there, I felt as if I was entering into some kind of surreal and timeless dream-state – you know, where the plants glow with a communicative radiance and the people are almost iridescently vibrating, yet still intelligent. The thermal waters are housed in an architecturally astounding building perched just above the sea, and inside the tubs is a near-constant buzz of emerging creative and evolutionary ideas. I felt like an insider peering into the next waves of thinking in human embodiment and consciousness. During my stay, I made a ritual of soaking late at night, quietly mesmerized by the streams of words and stars surrounding me. Clearly, the works of the many great pioneers whose ideas were born of this place (Alduous Huxley, Alan Watts, Franz Perl, Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf) continue on here like evolutionary threads, into new and unchartered trajectories. No wonder Halprin is here, as she has also been an instrumental part of all of that history. She tells humorous and enlightening stories about her relationships with most of those trailblazing contemporaries.


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