DANCE

Dancing down the Ganges, Agatha Christie style

Anita Menon's "Murder on the Ganges" takes a famous murder mystery and dances it in a new place

This has been a good month for Indian dance teacher/choreographer Anita Menon and her Anjali School of Dance. It started with a Newmark Theatre production of Murder on the Ganges, a dance adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile that gathered various local Indian dance groups into one stunning dance travelogue. It ended with the announcement that the Regional Arts and Culture Council had awarded Menon its $20,000 performing artist fellowship this year, along with choreographer Linda Austin, who founded Performance Works Northwest.

For me, Murder on the Ganges was very personal: When I was in 8th grade my parents took me out of school for six weeks to travel across Northern India. We traveled by train from Delhi to Agra and to Jaipur. On the Jaipur leg of the trip I bought an Agatha Christie novel from a train station bookseller. I was already a Christie fan, so it was that much more thrilling to be in someplace so unfamiliar and find something so familiar and comforting.

"Murder on the Nile" was a dance version of Agatha Christie/Photo courtesy Anita Menon

Alisha Menon, Shaila Ramachandran, Maya Jagannathan, Saloni Parikh and Renuka Ramanathan in “Murder on the Nile”/Photo courtesy Anita Menon

I read this novel (sadly I don’t remember which it was anymore) while traveling by train across the Jaipur desert, sitting in a vintage club chair on an old train, watching the desert flash by the windows as the train chugged and swayed side to side. It was wonderful. It was visceral. It was my Agatha Christie come to life.

Since that trip, Christie has become synonymous with India for me. I have also grown a small, maybe large, obsession with Hercule Poirot and his little gray cells. I enjoy his attention to detail, his sense of order and his confidence that everything will turn out OK in the end.

I am also a big fan of Indian classical dance. It was the first form of dance I ever learned as a child, and I have revisited it over and over in my dance training throughout the years.

So when I saw that Menon had taken Death on the Nile and transformed it for the stage into Murder on the Ganges, I was elated – and very curious about how this transference from text to dance and Egypt to India could be done.

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Eisa Jocson dances beyond exotic

Reliving a TBA performance of gender exaggerations, sexy technicianship, and unintended crowd control.

All these poles. Bus stop poles. Parking sign poles. Load-bearing poles upholding boxy overhangs, with people’s bikes locked to them. They stood out to me as I headed to Eisa Jocson’s Death of a Pole Dancer, and I wondered: Why have I never seen someone dance on one of these? Portland being one of the most stripper-rich cities per capita, as well as a DIY/guerilla/performance art mecca, it seems like you’d routinely spot someone casually practicing a few moves, but never. It just doesn’t happen.

Why not? Well, the minute it did, honking and hooting would ensue. “The places you do see it, and the way that people think about it, are…do I want to say ‘symbiotic?'” says a dancer friend.

“Conversant?” I suggest.

She means: the venues in which pole dancing is typically performed limit the way it’s perceived; in turn, the way it’s perceived confines it to certain venues. Typically. But TBA performers* break many rules. As it turns out, Jocson, who must have noticed the same thing we did about poles’ ubiquity and latent performance potential, began “pole tagging” in 2010:

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And now, with Death of a Pole Dancer, she’s attempting to bring to the discipline further breakthroughs. For instance, it must be a rule that pole dancers don’t show their audience the pole setup process. In a performance space where a pole isn’t perma-installed, you can still put one in. Jocson’s TBA performance in the BodyVox Education Studio highlighted that process.

Dressed stripper-style in a black halter top and ultra-short miniskirt, platform stilettos bound onto her feet with black electrical tape, she hauled a long gear bag into our circle of silent bystanders. The only sounds in the room were the clop of her shoes and the rasp of Velcro as she undid her gear bag, producing the chromey pieces of a dancing pole that might as well have been a giant woodwind or a gun. Methodically, she lined up the pieces on the floor and locked them together, tightening them with a utili-key. The anticipation of what was about to happen was about half of the show, and established the performer as more of a technician than a mere pretty face.

While she was doing that, a note on the seating arrangement: in the small gallery-like room outside BodyVox’s main theater, there was no official seating, which forced some ad-hoc problem-solving and crowd cooperation. The constraints of the room were such that we had to squish, and some of us had to sit. At least two couples deemed themselves too special for this process, standing in front of others seated on the floor, or other standers shorter than themselves. They deflected gentle requests with snappy shutdowns and curt excuses.

“I have bad joints,” said a man who was about 6’5″. I can’t sit down.” The crowd accommodated, clearing a space at the back where he could stand and see without blocking others. He refused to take it; the back row was symbolically beneath him.

I hadn’t seen this type of crowd consternation at TBA since several years ago, when David Eckard’s outdoor performance was upstaged by a very vocal drunk homeless heckler. Two TBA ticketholders had tried to shush that outsider with their best theater manners, and were shocked when it didn’t work. Why didn’t he understand that the other man in the park (Eckard) was implicitly allowed to orate to the crowd, while he was not? Another ticketholder performed an interesting duality, loudly voicing “requests” for the crowd to hear, yet whispering threats of violence (more audibly than he thought) in the offender’s ear.

All this to say: TBA’s crowd management snafus sometimes create their own spontaneous social practice/experimental performance moments, beyond the official shows. When confronted with personal inconvenience, which of society’s character tropes will you take?

Now back to the performance: Jocson took her sweet time installing the pole, polishing its shiny surface with a chamois until it responded with rhythmic shrieks, and enlisting an audience member to help her complete its erection. Then she began to subject the object to tensile testing, yanking on it with first just her arms, then her full body weight, forcing it over and over to bow out and snap back, wedging it tighter into place. Her tugs and exhalations became rhythmic and the pole became firmer. Now she reversed her movement, flinging her body at the pole sternum-first, chest-bump style. She glowered and breathed sharply like a filmic ninja fighter as the lights lowered. “Railing against the rod,” one onlooker described it. Does this description sound steamy? It was. Dangerous, too, as Jocson segued into advanced pole-dancer moves, looping round and round, climbing up and hanging upside-down to finally cue some music–a slowed-down, distorted rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.”

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She rotated in a circle so all sides could take in her lithe body and tortured expression. She was at least trembling, possibly sobbing as she slipped down the pole, catching herself with her hands and finally collapsing face-down as a bright light swept in diagonally to cast her image as a shadowy, high-contrast noir comicbook graphic.

The lights came up, and again, the crowd had an opportunity to perform its various selves. One of the most obnoxious resisters to sitting down was also the first to shrug and leave the room, stepping around the prostrate Jocson while others were still nervously watching. Some of us thought this might be a test, that if we continued to watch Jocson, we might see more performance—until house manager Paul Susi** peeled us reluctantly away.

Ten or twenty minutes later, we were invited into the much more spacious BodyVox auditorium for Jocson’s second act, Macho Dancer. Jocson, who, oddly enough, got into both pole and macho dancing upon the suggestion of her aunt and studied with the forms’ masters, certainly commits to her performances, to an extent that the TBA previews call “hauntingly accurate.” In camo shorts, knee pads, a tank, and cowboy boots, she burst onto the catwalk to a playlist of ’80s headbangers and husky-voiced radio ballads, as a fog machine enveloped her in vaguely vanilla-scented clouds that caught and suspended the light.

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Macho dancing—a phenomenon Jocson deems unique to the Phillippines, but that at least echoes Western male entertainers like the Chippendales and country/rock/metal singers—uses a small, distinct vocabulary of moves that include looming and crouching, grinding hips and flexing thighs, various hair tosses and finger run-throughs, bicep curls and ab flexes, and the saunter and nose-wipe moves so often made by b-boys. In a 45-minute routine, the repetition got—I’m sure depending on who you ask—either redundant or hypnotic. But like most exotic dancers, the variation was provided by an escalating state of undress. Jocson first freed her hair from a ponytail, then stripped her shorts, revealing lace-up skivvies stuffed with a large diagonally-tucked dildo. Eventually she removed her top, too, leaving a dog-tag-length crucifix dangling between her breasts. The full effect of a figure with flowing hair, gender duality, and a sacred amulet, looming above the crowd on a catwalk ensconced in clouds, evoked some ancient deity in a way that transcended any tawdry flesh-peddling. Jocson had made herself less spectacle than specter.

The crowd—either subdued by sitting or dumbstruck by the performance—filed out in an orderly fashion.

 

 

*It’s worth noting here that Portland Center Stage also hosted out-of-element pole dancers this summer as part of the lobby entertainment for long lines waiting to attend the JAW festival.

**Susi, seemingly still in character from his recent turn as The Player in Anon It Moves’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, was both dashing and perfunctory as he corralled the large crowd out front and within the BodyVox space.

 

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

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

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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