OBT: after 25, a leap into the future

The ballet's vigorous school shows and season-ending company performances balance new and old directions

“And how do we keep our balance?  I can tell you in one word, it’s tradition.”

I thought of those lines as I watched 14 would-be ballerinas – backs straight, heads held high, some in yellow tutus, some in red – make their imperial entrance onto the stage of the Newmark Theatre to take their places late last month in Paquita,  the opening piece of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary showcase. The show, which had two matinee performances, was, as it should have been, very much a part of the company’s silver anniversary celebrations. Those celebrations conclude May 28 with a fundraiser at the Left Bank Annex on North Weidler Street, near the east end of the Broadway Bridge. And they could well include an unofficial bonus: As it enters into its second quarter-century, OBT is expected to announce very soon its long-awaited plans to move into a new office, studio, and rehearsal center.

Sarah Griffin leaps high in Nacho Duato's "Rassemblement." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Sarah Griffin in Nacho Duato’s “Rassemblement.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof address Jewish survival in the pogrom-driven Russia in 1905, a matter of human and cultural life and death.  The cultural part of that can also be applied to the survival of classical ballet in the United States in 2015, where Oregon Ballet Theatre, which was born in 1989, is scarcely the only company finding it difficult to stay afloat. If Ballet San Jose, for example, doesn’t raise $3.5 million by October, the 29-year-old company is likely to close its doors forever, and where have we heard that before?

Paquita, Marius Petipa’s 1881 arrangement of the pas de deux and divertissements from the 1846 French story ballet about an officer in Napoleon’s army whose life is saved by a gypsy girl (she’s not Carmen!), fairly oozes the traditional set pieces we associate with the same choreographer’s trinity of ballets set to Tchaikowsky.  These are The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake, for which Petipa choreographed Acts I and III, and Lev Ivanov Acts II and IV.  OBT has danced all three ballets in various versions in the past 25 years, and currently has George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in the repertoire. Throughout that time, SOBT students have been integral to fleshing out the corps de ballet, and the performance of children’s roles.


Every SOBT director has been responsible for passing on the torch of tradition, schooling his or her charges in the tour jetés, pas de chats, pirouettes, bourrées, fouettés and port de bras of l’École de la Danse, whose language is French, but can be, and is, “spoken” in a variety of accents, from the finish and flourish of Russian style, to the speed and directness of Balanchine’s neoclassicism. The Danes dance these steps with the ease and buoyancy of Bournonville; the British with controlled theatricality; the French with arrogant chic; and today’s Americans in whatever accent the repertoire requires. Each school director (the principal ones have been Haydee Gutierrez, brought in by James Canfield, and Damara Bennett, who came and went with Christopher Stowell) has worked closely with OBT’s artistic directors to prepare students to dance in whatever repertoire reflects  their particular vision. Now, Anthony Jones, who staged Paquita, leads SOBT in tandem with Kevin Irving, OBT’s third artistic director.


Dance Weekend: Ballet, Broadway, Bharatanatyam

Portland dance, you are feeling so grown up now!

This is a BIG week. Ballet to Postmodern, Bharatanatyam to Broadway, new dance, big dance, dance composers and dance filmmakers. It’s all happening right here in Portland this week. Is our little city growing? This feels like a big city week to me. Lots to celebrate and see. Can you make it to all of the events? I would love to know.

The Tempos

The Tempos

Dance Wire
May 12
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1501 SW Taylor St.
Refinery, a work in progress showing, is the latest in DanceWire’s many outreach programs connecting the Portland dance community and featuring DanceWire members, The Tempos, Eliza Larson, Moxie Dance Company and Alicia Cutaia. This will be an informal showing that includes an audience feedback session and a potluck.

OBT/25 Retrospective
Oregon Ballet Theater
May 2-June 14
Multnomah County Central Library, Collins Gallery, 801 SW 10th Ave.
Located in the Collins Gallery at the Central Multnomah County Library, this exhibit, curated by Oregon Ballet Theater’s dance Historian Linda Besant, showcases memorabilia from the last twenty-five years, featuring highlights from both the James Canfield and Christopher Stowell eras as well as the company’s more recent achievements under the new leadership of Kevin Irving. Costumes, sets, photography and other artifacts are on exhibit.

The Phantom Of The Opera
May 13-23
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
Originally produced in London’s West End in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous story of a beautiful soprano obsessed with a mysterious disfigured musical genius is now on a US tour and has landed here in Portland, with new choreography by Scott Ambler.

Philip Glass
in Conversation with Christopher Mattaliano
Powell Books
May 14
Newmark Theatre, Antoinette Hatfield Hall at 1111 SW Broadway Ave.
A favorite of dancers and choreographers worldwide, Philip Glass is a musician and composer known in the dance world for his collaborations with many kinds of artists and notably with post modern choreographer Lucinda Childs and Roberta Wilson on his opera, Einstein on the Beach. Glass has written a memoir, Words without Music, and he’ll be joined onstage by Christopher Mattaliano, general director of Portland Opera for a conversation about Glass’s life in music. Price of admission includes a copy of Words without Music.


PICA’s 20th Anniversary Gala Ball and After Party
May 16
The Redd, 831 SE Salmon St.
PICA  (Portland Institute For Contemporary Art)  is celebrating its 20th anniversary and 20 years of bringing experimental and contemporary dance to Portland audiences. To celebrate they are bringing back the infamous Dada Ball. Inspired dress and costume encouraged.

Pure Surface #16
Ajna Lichau (film) / Endi Bogue Hartigan (text) / Dawn Stoppiello (dance)
May 17
Valentine’s, 232 SW Ankeny St.
Curated by Stacey Tran and Danielle Ross, Pure Surface is a new performance series where movement, text, and film happen together in the spirit of improvised collaboration. This weeks performance will feature movement artist Dawn Stoppiello, writer Endl Bogue and filmmaker Ajna Lichau.

Jayanthi Raman Dance Company
May 17
Winningstad Theatre, Antoinette Hatfield Hall, 1111 SW Broadway
Jayanthi Raman, a critically acclaimed Bharatha Natyam dancer, choreographer and recent author of two books on the history and technique of Indian Dance, presents an evening of Indian dance, music, and theatre through the telling of 2500-year-old folk tales from the Panchatantra. Leaping monkeys, beautiful peacocks, elegant swans, crocodiles, and dancing snakes will fill the stage.

Feelings are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer
Portland Queer Documentary Film Festival
May 16
Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd
Part of Portland’s Queer Documentary Film Festival previewed by Lily Hudson for Arts Watch:  “Jack Walsh’s documentary Feelings are Facts: The Life of Yvonne Rainer begins with a dance: Trio A. In footage from 1978, Rainer performs her own 1966 choreography, now considered a hallmark example of postmodern dance. It feels casual, improvisational, fragmented, not defined by physical virtuosity but by small, modest movements. It subverts the body’s “natural” inclinations at every turn. If the body naturally wants to step out of a particular phrase, Trio A drives it to collapse; if the body wants to move swiftly through a gesture, Trio A deliberately slows it. A dancer in Yvonne’s company describes it as “choreography as theory” and “a leveling of Western Dance history.” Director Jack Walsh and producer Christine Murray will be in attendance.

Back to Nature: Wobbly Dance’s “Waking the Green Sound”

Portland dance company explores new territories in debut film project.

Wobbly Dance co-founders Erik Ferguson and Yulia Arakelyan spent years trying to create and perform dance. But until recently, their hometown of Portland offered few opportunities for wheelchair-using dancers like them.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in mainstream contemporary dance, especially contact dance,” says Ferguson, “and [we know that] if you’re serious about being a performer or artist, you need to be practicing many times a week. If we had waited around for the next disability event or workshop, we wouldn’t be where we are right now,” says. “In both the disability and dance worlds, we’re on the fringes. We have to make our own opportunities happen.”

Ferguson & Arakelyan.

Ferguson & Arakelyan.

Wobbly did just that by creating a space for dance that suited the needs and abilities of disabled artists. “I’m OK with being a little marginalized and doing my work,” Ferguson says. “There are tons of people more athletic than I am who are making inroads into the mainstream. That’s not us. We’re off to the side, and we embrace that.”

Now approaching the beginning of its second decade, the company has created a series of increasingly ambitious dance works, some with Portland choreographer Mizu Desierto, including 2010’s Dreaming/Waking, 2012’s Underneath, and last year’s You Too Are Made of Stars. 

This month, Wobbly and its collaborators are demonstrating how accessibility helps spark artistic innovation. With guest artist Grant Miller, cinematographer Ian Lucero, plus original music by Sweetmeat and photography by Kamala Kingsley, the company’s Waking the Green Sound: a dance film for the trees for the first time incorporates film as well as dance into a Wobbly project. And it sent them into another kind of new space: outdoors.

wobbly waking the green trees

“We had just finished a residency where we had done a performance that was very durational and strenuous,” Ferguson remembers. “It had really heavy costuming, and stretched the limits of breathing and certain aspects of our physicality. After that, Yulia was looking for a way to control the time duration, and for the freedom to go back and refine things without dangerous physical exertion.”

IMG_8145-1-2Arakelyan found the solution after participating in a long-distance collaborative project involving dancers in three different cities. “As part of our process, the three of us kept a daily dance diary for one month. Each day, I filmed, edited and posted a dance video to our YouTube channel. I was using a really old camera … on a really old and slow computer, but I loved it,” she recalls.

Using film allowed Wobbly to direct the audience’s attention to the wheelchair-using performers’ smaller, subtler movements that might otherwise be missed by viewers seated at the typical distance in most venues. It also helped Wobbly escape the boundaries of the theater itself — an important factor, given the subject matter they wanted to explore.

IMG_8462-1“We’ve been working for 10 years with the aesthetic of [the postwar Japanese dance form] butoh, which is suffused with natural imagery, full of the essence of big natural forces, storms and toxic things and large animals — things that create extreme sensations,” explains Ferguson, who’s recently been reading the work of disability scholars on the way different bodies and mobility devices can limit access to nature. “For a long time, we’ve been bringing nature indoors, so we finally went outside to work with nature! We can shoot on location outside, and include the grass, the trees, the elements.”

With fellow disabled performer Grant Miller, they’ve created what Ferguson calls “a lot of lush, still-life natural imagery. I come up with all these images, but can’t tell where it’s going to go,” he says. That’s where Arakelyan’s traditional dance training takes over. “Erik and I work so differently; I start with music, or explorations of the body moving, where Erik approaches it from imagery,” she says. “We complement each other.”

Another collaborator, Portland filmmaker Ian Lucero, helped them flesh out shots and scenes. “We went to him with all this imagery, and he never once lost patience and said ‘How do you expect me to put this to film?’” Ferguson laughs. “We spent basically a week of shooting six hours a day.”

Waking the Green Sound: a dance film for the trees PREVIEW from Ian Lucero on Vimeo.

The film eschews a traditional narrative in favor of three scenes, including a mad tea party, wild bodies, and a ritual shrine scene involving frankincense and dry ice. But the primary subjects throughout are the dancers.

IMG_8072-1“From a choreographer’s point of view,” Arakelyan notes, “the more body diversity there is, the more opportunity for creativity and uniqueness.” Ferguson also views the new project as a way to transform challenges and differences into artistic opportunity. “I love disabled people,” he says. “The diversity of the disabled form never ceases to excite me. This film gave us the opportunity to create a unique environment where other people can see the unearthly beauty of disabled bodies, a world where people can share my fascination with this diversity.”

Waking the Green Sound: a dance film for the trees premieres May 22-24 at Portland’s Headwaters Theatre. Tickets are $10-15 through Box Office Tickets. An earlier version of this story appeared in Artslandia.

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Dancing on the Cotton Blossom

Portland Opera's "Show Boat" is a kick in the dance, when the choreography gets a chance

No opera is known for its dancing interludes: interludes are what they are, from the party scene in La Traviata to the victory processional in Aida (in which, in a late ’80s Portland Opera production, Tiki the Elephant executed a demurely sculptured arabesque with her right hind leg).

Susannah Mars as Parthy cuts a rug with her grandaughter Kim, all grown up, played by Katrina Galka. Photo: Cory Weaver

Susannah Mars as Parthy cuts a rug with her grandaughter Kim, all grown up, played by Katrina Galka. Photo: Cory Weaver

But many musicals – most, really – are known as much for the dancing as the singing and the book, especially since the glory days of Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, and Bob Fosse.  When I think of Show Boat I invariably think of Marge and Gower Champion dancing in the 1951 film version, though I confess I was mistaken in my memory of what they danced to. On YouTube you can see them tapping their way through Then I Might Fall Back on You with charm and éclat in choreography by Robert Alton. At Keller Auditorium, where Portland Opera is performing Show Boat (it closes Saturday night; ArtsWatch’s review is here), the number goes by so fleetingly, I had to make sure it had actually been done.

I suppose it’s predictable that when Show Boat gets promoted to the ranks of opera, the dancing would be minimized, and, as is also traditional, be given damn-all in the way of stage space for dancers (and there are some good ones in this production) to strut their stuff.  The best of them is Joe Grandy, cast as Frank Schultz, the villain in the Cotton Blossom’s stage melodrama (but not in Show Boat itself), whose long legs, rubbery body and wielding of his cane in the abovementioned number are all reminiscent of Champion. When “shot” by a couple of Cotton Blossom audience members who look like fugitives from Duck Dynasty, Grandy dies dramatically and effectively, clutching his throat, collapsing to the floor, legs flopping as he’s dragged off the stage.

As Ellie May Chipley, the soubrette of the troupe, Megan Misslin moves her way pertly and provocatively as she sings Life Upon the Wicked Stage; and perhaps the most charming of the dances in the first act is a brief two-step during Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine, connubially danced by Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie and the extraordinary basso Arthur Woodley as her husband, Joe, with chorus members stepping along with them. Jerome Kern’s music is eminently danceable, always, and was played that way by the orchestra, which was conducted by Hal France.

Most of the actual dancing comes in Act II, when the time advances a decade and the scene shifts to Chicago; and then a decade or so after that, back to Natchez, Mississippi, where the Cotton Blossom is docked. But in Act I, we are treated – and I mean treated – to a physical-theater tour de force by Allen Nause as Captain Andy, when, in the best “the show must go on” tradition, he performs all the roles in a melodrama involving (of course it does) a voluminous black cape. I thought of Robin Williams’ 90-second summary of the history of modern dance in The Bird Cage, and wondered, too, if Nause had been influenced in this performance by the work he did with  Jerry Mouawad when he performed in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at Imago Theater a while back.

Period social dancing gets featured in some very clever ways in Act II, choreographed by Becky Timms and Ray Roderick, who also directed.  A quite wonderful cakewalk gets danced by Chipley and Grandy; and back in Natchez, chorus members perform a pretty fantastic Charleston on the dock.  But the dance that touched my heart, and my doting grandmotherly soul, was the Charleston duet by Susannah Mars as “Parthy” Hawks, grown old and tottery, and Katrina Galka as Eve, Magnolia and Ravenal’s grown-up daughter: the bond between them already has been set by Mars’ singing of Why Do I Love You to the newborn child earlier in the show.

That’s an example of dancing driving the plot and developing character in the best tradition of musical theater. I wish I’d seen more of it in this Show Boat.

Dance weekend: poles apart

The PDX calendar celebrates dance styles as different as rain and shine, from relay choreography to ecdysiast, inclusive dance to contemporary

This week in Portland dance feels very fresh, experimental and risky. What is dance about, anyway? – as many things as there are people in the field, but generally, and among other things, it’s about self-expression, learning, connectivity, community, pushing boundaries, and sharing. It’s complicated, but, so relatable, and so enjoyable to watch. This weekend’s offerings touch on all of these attributes and more.

Pole acrobatics. Photo courtesy Ecdysiast Dance Company

Pole acrobatics. Photo courtesy Ecdysiast Pole Dance Company


Solo Relay Installment # 3 featuring Matthew Shyka & Linda K. Johnson

May 8-9

Performance Works NW, 4625 S.E. 67th Ave.


This is Stage Three of Linda Austin’s new multi-year project that functions like a great game of telephone. This-pass along solo is a vehicle for the making, unmaking, transmitting, transforming, and distilling of performance material (movement, tasks, objects, text and vocals) and the performative self.” In Leg #1, as Austin describes it, she “played with timing and tangential realities in a solo brimming with unpredictable perceptual, physical, textual, and emotional currents. Plus just a few objects!” Then it was Jin Camou and Keyon Gaskin’s turn. They were tasked to perform their own versions of the solo, playing out what they remembered and misremembered. Now we are on the third leg of the journey, and will see Matthew Shyka and Linda K. Johnson perform what they remember from Camou and Gaskin’s performances.



Ecdysiast Pole Dance Company

May 9th

Alberta Rose Theater, 3000 N.E. Alberta St.

Pole dancing reinvented. Out of the clubs and into the proscenium theater. While flying high through the air on 21-foot poles, the aerialists of Ecdysiast Pole Dance Company will tell a story, through tdance, pole dancing and acrobatics, of how strength and tenacity connect all humanity. Nostalgia, the high pressures of the modern world, and joyous moments will be present.


Reed Dance Department Spring Performance

May 8-9

Reed College, Greenwood Performance Stage, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.


Performed by Reed’s Contemporary Performance Ensemble, the concert will feature seven-student created pieces as well as works by guest choreographers Alexander Dones (in collaboration with Autumn Marie Dones, his sister), Laura Haney, James Healey, Luke Gutgsell, and faculty members Carla Mann and Minh Tran.



Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company

May 8-10

Studio 2, 810 S.E. Belmont St.


Inclusive Arts Vibe Dance Company is a cross-disability, integrated youth/young adult dance company. Authenticate will showcase the company’s innovative choreography, skill and creativity, helping to expose integrated dance to new audiences with the goal of furthering the expression of people with both apparent and non-apparent disabilities.



Polaris Dance Theater
May 8-10
Polaris Studio Theatre, 1501 S.W. Taylor St.
Polaris enters the second and final weekend of its annual collaborative performance exposing company members to new choreography, and audiences to the artistic process. New dance works by Artistic Director Robert Guitron and guests Kieraqmil Brinkley, Blake Seidel, Jocelyn Edelstein, and Gerard Regot. Local musicians include Gerard Regot, Robert Hoffman, and Anthony DeMarco.


The joy of tap, like falling in love

Dorrance Dance and "The Blues Project" rap out the rhythms of "the most cutting-edge dance form in America" to close White Bird's season


I skipped the bus and walked home after watching The Blues Project at the Schnitzer last Wednesday night.

You know that feeling, a little bit like falling in love, that possesses you after an extraordinary performance and leaves all your senses bright and fresh and wide awake? That’s what I felt after seeing tap virtuoso Michelle Dorrance and her company of six dancers mix it up with Toshi Reagon’s aptly named, genre-expanding blues band BIGLovely in White Bird’s season closer. In spades. The feeling lingered. I needed to be out in the city, to hear the echoes of tap dance in its rhythms: the sound of a woman’s high heels tapping against the sidewalk, the electric shimmy of the streetcar, a man singing to himself while drumming out a steady beat, beat, beat against a bench in the Park Blocks. I even tried out a few steps of my own, clumsily imitating what I had just seen on stage.

Photo: Christopher Duggan

Photo: Christopher Duggan

Mostly, though, I was thinking about how we are living in a golden age of tap dance. The art form has managed to keep a firm hold on its traditions while innovating and expanding the definitions of what constitutes that tradition. A generation of gifted dancers and choreographers – including, in addition to the 35-year-old Dorrance, Savion Glover (the astonishing king of contemporary tap), Jason Samuels-Smith, Roxane Butterfly, and Dorrance’s co-choreographers on this show, Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards – all have the history of tap deep inside their bodies, but they are not content to rest in the past: they’re revolutionaries who refuse to turn away from their roots.

The first thing that grabs you about The Blues Project is the music. Toshi Reagon’s voice is the heart of it. The songs she’s composed for Dorrance take in a range of styles—a kind of tour of the blues, from the work song that opens the show to folk and rock, but always with the blues as the ground for each number. She can caress a phrase or shout to heaven. But it’s all effortless, without any strain (you can sense the huge reserve of power in her voice even when she’s singing in a whisper); and she has that uncanny gift for imbuing the words she sings with emotion.

Reagon and the four members of BIGLovely are seated on a platform behind the dancers, but really there’s no separation between dancer and musician here. Tap is of course a percussive dance form, and the members of Dorrance Dance are in effect a part of the band. The band doesn’t provide accompaniment for the dancers; rather, the two groups are in conversation and take turns at controlling the beat and rhythm. When the band is in charge, the dancers will frequently move between the beat rather than on it. The sounds they produce with their taps are as varied and complex as any of the music made by the band.

At one point Juliette Jones, the band’s violinist, jumps down and jams with the dancers in a bluegrass- and zydeco-inflected number that truly is an exchange of equals. The sequence, danced by the entire ensemble, has a loose, open-air feel that’s made even stronger by the fact that two of the dancers perform barefooted. The onstage microphones actually pick up the distinctive slap of their feet as they jog through a breezy swing-step. Another key moment comes later, when drummer Allison Miller asserts herself with a solo that leaves Gene Krupa in the dust (honestly) and amps up the rhythms to a speed and complexity that propel the dancers to even greater feats of footwork. The whole show rockets by at such a pace that at 60 minutes it feels short.

Dorrance and her collaborators have structured the show so that the dance sequences alternate between choreographed numbers (generally for the entire ensemble) and improvised numbers for the soloists (Dorrance, Grant, and Sumbry-Edwards). The two form a seamless whole — this isn’t a variety show or a series of acts, but a unified evening of dances. Throughout the show you see an attention to the torso and the arms — both are used expressively — so that the dancing is always about more than the feet. Each member of the ensemble has an individual way of moving (this is a company of individuals), but they all are tight and right-on in the unison sections. Dorrance has built the big numbers with craft and care for spacing and patterns. She uses the entire stage space. I especially loved the extended overlapping arms exhibited by two couples, paused in a rare moment of stillness, that looked for all the world like something out of Balanchine. For the second half of the show I moved to the back of the auditorium just so that I could more easily take in these shapes.

All of the dancing showed a level of virtuosity that was awe-inspiring and had the audience screaming and talking back to the dancers (“You go, girl!”), with one large very vocal contingent letting out regular bursts of ululations. At times the dancers’ feet are hitting the floor with such speed and force that they are a blur of motion; and then a sudden change in rhythm brings a relaxation, and each tap is discernable, sometimes speaking softly, other times beating out fluid but staccato bursts of sound.

The emotional complexity of the solos is such that they function as soliloquies, eloquent, dense, articulate as any human speech. As mentioned, they are improvised, and as a further challenge to the dancers the band doesn’t reveal what songs it will be playing for the soloists before the show.

Dorrance is the first to take a turn. She’s all angles, sharp-elbowed with a beautifully tough, intense stage presence and a Mona Lisa smile. She hits the floor harder than anyone else. There’s a lovely, slightly eccentric quality to her dancing. She is very fond of stopping on her heel, and she risks more tricky balances, it seems, than any dancer since Suzanne Farrell. The sheer variety of sounds she produces in a phrase is amazing — a soft sandpapery shuffle will then turn to hard clicks (those heel-stops again) and then into a flood of drum-like stomps. And again, each step and phrase has an emotional meaning. Dorrance moves from anger to joy to bawdy sexiness and more. Everything she does is supersized.

Grant is utterly different. He’s a big, muscular guy, tough-looking, but he taps with a cat’s lightness and with a smile that is all sweetness. He’s at his best when he’s lyrical, but you sense the reserve of strength in all he does. Just when you think he’s all smoothness and soft, slightly blurred rhythms, he lets that power off its leash, and he has somehow traveled across the stage in a jet-speed series of hard taps.

Sumbry-Edwards’ solo began in response to a flamenco-inspired guitar solo by Reagon. It covered more space and had the widest emotional range of all the dances. In part this had to do with where Reagon took the music. As the dance reached its climax she sang, almost chanted, the sad refrain “a dream deferred,” coupling it with references to the riots in Baltimore. I don’t know how, but Sumbry-Edwards somehow matched her, finding movement and tap rhythms that amplified and elaborated the message of protest in Reagon’s music. The show closed with a finale that had much of the audience standing and dancing. Gorgeous as it was, I couldn’t shake that conversation in percussion and song between Sumbry-Edwards and Reagon.

The dance historian Constance Valis Hill claims that tap dance is the most cutting-edge dance form currently to be seen in the United States. What makes tap stand out for Hill is the intense innovation going on in the form, coupled with an attention to emotional and political content. It’s the sort of notion that can’t really be proven or disproven, but The Blues Project left me feeling that Hill just might be right. Let’s hope White Bird invites the company back and soon.

Memories of a Dying Swan

Maya Plisetskaya, Nov. 20, 1925-May 2, 2015: encounters in Portland with a ballet legend

Maya Plisetskaya, the great Russian ballerina, died today in Munich at the age of 89.  I have strong memories of her dancing, all of them in Portland, where the first time I saw her she was dancing her signature solo, “The Dying Swan” (choreography Fokine; music Saint-Saens, at of all places the Memorial Coliseum when Stars of the Bolshoi appeared there in 1965).  She was 40 and she was furious. Vendors were going up and down the aisles selling popcorn; people were talking over the music; every sinuous move of her seemingly boneless arms, every stab of her pointe shoes, was as terrifying as a real swan in pursuit of a human toddler.  Beautiful they are, those birds, but they are also treacherous.

Plisetskaya in "Swan Lake" with the Bolshoi Ballet, 1966. Photofest/Wikimedia Commons

Plisetskaya in “Swan Lake” with the Bolshoi Ballet, 1966. Photofest/Wikimedia Commons

She came back in the mid-’80s, also with Stars of the Bolshoi, and danced a ballet that had been made for her based on Anna Karenina, very elegant, very expressive, and of course the show ended with not one but two performances of “The Dying Swan.”  By this time she was in her early 60s and I remember Patricia Miller, another gorgeous ballerina then dancing with Pacific Ballet Theatre, saying to me as we left for the lobby at intermission, “You’re not going to catch me in pointe shoes when I’m 62.”

That time, Plitsetskaya taught a master class in the PBT studios, which in those days were in what used to be the Masonic annex to the Portland Art Museum.  I took my daughter, then about 11, to watch her teach, and lordy, she was tough.  Alice was riveted, watched for two hours, while I took 60 pages of notes.  At one point, Plisetskaya squeezed none too gently the thigh of a very talented dancer from Eugene whose name I can’t now remember, and said, “Must be harrrrrrd.  Like irrrrron,” and turned and looked at Alice and winked at her.

She was tough, that lady (a thorn in the side of the Soviet regime, as well as the administration of the Bolshoi Academy when she was a student there) and she was beautiful, and smart, and passionate; and all of that showed in her dancing.

According to her obituary in today’s New York Times, at her 80th birthday celebrations, Plisetskaya – who did not defect to the West to find artistic freedom as did the younger Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolph Nureyev, and Natalia Makarova – summed up her career thus: “I danced all of classical ballet and dreamed of something new.”

Fokine’s Dying Swan was something new indeed, when he made it for Anna Pavlova.  With Plisetskaya’s death, as far as I’m concerned, the swan has sung her last song, danced her last dance.

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