DANCE

DanceWatch Weekly: Katie Scherman on having it all

Before leaving town for Japan, choreographer Katie Scherman presents a concert of collected works on her experience of being female

Today is the first day of spring. It’s bright and sunny but cold, and I am meditating on the movement style and choreography of dance artist and BodyVox artist-in-residence Katie Scherman. Scherman’s company, Katie Scherman + Artists, an all female cast collected from Portland, Seattle, New York City, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco, will debut three works this week at BodyVoxAssez, Complicated Women, and To Have it All (a world premiere in collaboration with composer and pianist Michael Wall). The works show Scherman’s evolution as a choreographer and explore the complexities of what it means to be female, including what it means “to have it all.”

When I watch Katie Scherman dance I see a fern delicately but forcefully unfurling its fronds in every direction. When Scherman dances, she is a container of contradictory/opposing forces and I can see her “working it out” in real time. Her movements are smooth and silky, but powerful, heavy and large. They can also be small, detailed, and delicate, and she seamlessly/effortlessly transitions between highs and lows, sometimes appearing to move in all directions at once. Strong technique is present, but it doesn’t overshadow the movement. These are the forces present in her choreography as well.

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By HEATHER WISNER

Adapting Ibsen’s dark drama Hedda Gabler for dance is an ambitious undertaking: that much is clear when you’re greeted by two pages of program notes explaining the plot as you settle in for the world premiere of NW Dance Project’s Hedda. It’s sort of a heavy lift for viewers, although once you’ve read through the lengthy synopsis, you have a pretty good idea of what’s happening onstage.

Good thing, because this particular play is driven less by outright action than buttoned-up, Victorian-era emotional turmoil. Company artistic director Sarah Slipper has managed to pull a compelling contemporary movement narrative from it, aided by composer Owen Belton, from whom the company commissioned a score, and set designer Luis Crespo. Belton’s moody score amps ups up the dread, and layers in the sounds telegraph specific settings and actions. Crespo’s set design for the main characters’ home, where most of the action takes place, is simple but effective: black beaded curtains to the left and right, suggesting entryways, and a piano at the center banked by several bouquets of flowers.

Andrea Parson as Hedda in NW Dance Project’s “Hedda” at the Newmark Theatre/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Why flowers? Because Hedda (Andrea Parson) and her husband, Tesman (William Couture) have recently returned from their honeymoon, during which he worked on his academic research and she, presumably, slouched around the hotel, bored witless. She is still bored when the curtain rises: We find her draped over the piano, practically oozing ennui—that is, until her maid, Berte (Katherine Disenhof), begins ushering in a series of guests.

There is Hedda’s old schoolmate, Thea (Lindsey McGill); Tesman’s old academic rival, Lövborg (Franco Nieto); and Judge Brack, a friend of the Tesman family. Each arrives with an agenda. Thea loves Lövborg, an alcoholic, and is trying to save him from himself; Lövborg, who has dried out, is trying to publish a promising new paper; and Tesman, who is sweet on Hedda, has come with the warning that Lövborg may land the professorship Tesman wants.

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Dance review: Jesús Carmona’s reinvention of flamenco

The quick and charismatic Jesus Carmona has entangled ballet and flamenco to make something astonishing

By HEATHER WISNER

Pure happiness doesn’t seem to exist in flamenco; a hint of melancholy, a sense of world weariness, suffuses the music and the dance. But there is pure happiness to be found in watching flamenco, especially when it’s done very well.

Ballet Flamenco Jesús Carmona does flamenco very well. Following a weekend stint at New York’s Flamenco Festival, the Madrid-based company made its Portland debut with Ímpetus, a suite of dances that delivers substance with style.

Carmona—wiry, charismatic and impressively fleet of foot—has stretched himself beyond traditional flamenco: He is a former principal dancer with Ballet Nacional de España and has studied tap with American hoofer Jared Grimes. That artistic expansiveness comes through in the show’s technical and stylistic variety. Backed by live musicians and singer Jonatan Reyes, Ímpetus features six dancers (Carmona among them) performing in shifting configurations against a simple backdrop of criss-crossing black lines, dramatically lit by David Pérez. The opening piece, set to the music of Albéniz, is a prime example, with spotlights on soloists switching on and off suddenly, and dancers emerging and receding in starkly contrasting pools of light and shadow.

Jesus Carmona marries flamenco to ballet/Courtesy White Bird

Carmona’s ballet training is most obvious in a batterie-filled pas de deux for a man and a woman (batterie is the beating or crossing the feet or calves together during a leap) , and in the pirouettes that unspool throughout the show, although they differ from classical ballet as the performer, arms curved overhead, angles the upper body forward instead of keeping it upright and centered. Carmona, who choreographed the show, is especially adept at whipping off multiple turns, although this is a technically accomplished group all told.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Sarah Slipper choreographs ‘Hedda’

NW Dance Project debuts two new dances about lying, including Sarah Slipper's version of "Hedda Gabler"

It’s all about liars these days. Recognizing them, calling them out, keeping them in check. It’s the new reality. What truth is, has shifted for some, but truth is fact, it doesn’t shift. Only the shifty shift. And, this week’s two premieres from NW Dance Project dig deep into liar psychology. The first is Hedda by NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper, and the second, Flamingo 37 by Ballet BC resident choreographer Cayetano Soto.

Hedda is based on the play Hedda Gabler written in 1890 by Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen’s work at the time was groundbreaking because it explored the realities of the human condition through everyday topics and everyday people. Hedda Gabler tells the story of a restricted Victorian housewife, bored and trapped in a loveless marriage to a very boring man. Her only entertainment is in the manipulation of others.

NW Dance Project studio rehearsal for Sarah Slipper’s Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert. Photo features Kody Jauron, William Couture, Elijah Labay, Anthony Pucci, and Franco Nieto.

Slipper’s Hedda is a deep examination of Ibsen’s text and the character Hedda told through dance, music, and theatre. On Monday I was able to sit down with Slipper and discuss her process in creating Hedda, her history in dance and theater, and what it’s like to be a choreographer in today’s world. That conversation unfolds below.

Flamingo 37 is about liars, Soto told me in his rehearsal last week. “Flamingo” is the name he gives liars and 37 is the number of times a particular individual in his life has lied to him. “Good liars, they make a living, the liars are the fighters,” he said. “They are the ones that survive. If you’re not a liar you won’t survive in this world…If you’re going to be a liar, be a good one.”

That may sound a bit dark, but Soto is anything but. Originally from Barcelona, Soto is like the bubbles in champagne: light, energetic, and off the wall. His energy is contagious. This is his third work for the company: the first was Not Yet in 2007 and the second was Last But Not Least in 2008. Since 2015 Soto has been the resident choreographer at Ballet BC, and he creates ballets on dance companies worldwide. Next week he’ll be in Germany.

Cayetano Soto rehearsing NW Dance Project dancers Andrea Parson and Kody Jauron for his new work Flamingo 37. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Flamingo 37 is really a party in disguise. The dancing takes places on a gigantic, round, white shag carpet to the crooning of Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, Tito Puente, Dean Martin and others.

The dancers are dressed in pink kilts, black shirts and black socks with rhinestone tiaras adorning their heads. The contemporary ballet choreography is coquettish, technical and quick, theatrical, witty, and over-the-top with plenty of flamingo motifs to satisfy.

For Soto, the principles of his work are “to be generous, to be the best that you can be, to not lie, and to be honest.” When talking about the dancers he said, “I’m giving you (the dancers) space to have the possibility to reach another level with your artistry. I don’t want them to be a copy; they have to find their own way to express my movement. I think we are doing it; it’s hard.”

NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper rehearsing Katherine Disenhof and Lindsey McGill for her new work Hedda. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Interview with Sarah Slipper

Why did you choose the story of Hedda?

I love stories that feature women, his (Ibsen’s) women are quite strong. I just thought she’s such an interesting character, I love that. there’s so much conflict going on within the play and I like using conflict both physically and then emotionally and literally. It provides me some dynamics in choreography to create pressure, to feel the tension or to feel the expansion in the breath. She’s a nasty character, she’s manipulative, she’s destructive, it’s all about her. But I love her for some reason…

How do you translate a play into a dance piece?

This one is particularly hard because so much of it is in the brilliance of the text. The subtly, the innuendo, it’s all in the words. Also some of the action, some of the back story, and some of what you don’t see on the stage is built into the text. So if I even followed the text, you wouldn’t know what the hell is happening, right?

I mostly tried to take the language of Ibsen and transform it into a feeling, physically, choreographically, so I wouldn’t have to say everything literally. I am following kind of the path of the play, but so it’s not so wildly off. I took some of the offstage stuff and tried to bring it onstage. So what was said in words that happened last night, we kind of get a glimmer of what happened last night, danced out. Or, this happened 10 years ago, so I did a little bit of that to help make sense of it all. Hopefully you feel some of the tension built up between all the characters. There are a lot of triangles in the play—it’s really built on triangles. Louis, who built the set, built it as a triangle.

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Jessica Lang Dance: Classically modern

White Bird gave us a good survey of the work of forward-leaning ballet choreographer Jessica Lang this weekend

This weekend, Jessica Lang Dance, which Lang founded in 2011, visited Portland for the first time. A Juilliard graduate, Lang is a former member of Twyla Tharp’s company, THARP!, and is widely recognized as one of the most talented choreographers of her generation. Though she’s still in the prime of her career, Lang’s CV is stuffed with accomplishments and awards, including her 2014 Bessie Award and her Arison Award in 2017. Outside of her work for JLD, her choreography has been performed by prominent companies around the world, from original compositions for American Ballet Theater and the National Ballet of Japan, to her work on the production of Aida directed by Francesca Zambello for the San Francisco and Washington National opera companies.

As a company, JLD has also accomplished an impressive amount in less than a decade. The mission “to enrich and inspire global audiences by immersing them in the beauty of movement and music” takes them around the world for more than 50 annual performances at some of the most prestigious venues in the performing arts world. As part of that mission, Lang developed the LANGuage program to provide high-quality educational activities in relationship to their programming, both at home in New York with a focus on the Queens community and in cities around the world when they tour.

Jessica Lang Dance visited Portland with a set of six dances, including “The Calling.”/Courtesy of White Bird

The program for this performance was an excellent opportunity to survey the range of Lang’s choreography and the strengths of the company. Like Lang’s career, the show covered a lot of ground in a short time. The six separate pieces represent original compositions by Lang from 2006 to 2017, demonstrating the span of motifs and themes that have defined Lang’s choreography since before JLD up to some of her most current work developed specifically for the company.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Jessica Lang and Jesús Carmona

Two White Bird concerts and a South Asian American cultural festival highlight the week in dance

Two White Bird shows—New York-based Jessica Lang Dance Company and Compañia Jesús Carmona from Barcelona—bookend this week’s performance schedule. Both choreographers defy categorization, and their hybrid choreographies draw heavily on lighting and visual elements to craft their story.

Jessica Lang, artistic director of Jessica Lang Dance, decided six months into dancing for Twyla Tharp that she wanted something else. She realized that there was a discrepancy between the variety that her dance education, which had culminated at Julliard provided, and her real life as a professional dancer— “you don’t keep changing what you’re doing,” she said in an interview with Liz Johnston for Dallas’s D Magazine in 2013. “You keep repeating what you’re doing. And I am not a repetitive person in that respect…”

After Tharp’s tour came to a natural end after a year and a half (because you don’t quit a Tharp tour six months in), Lang entered her choreography into Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s first choreographic competition, and she was one of two winners. The other was Robert Battle, now the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

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Urban Bush Women: ‘We’re going on a journey’

Urban Bush Women brought 'Hair and Other Stories' to town and a lot more than just talk

Urban Bush Women returned to the White Bird Uncaged series with a new work this weekend, Hair and Other Stories. The company’s first work with stage director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this ambitious, multidisciplinary performance is definitely about hair and definitely about those “other stories.”

The piece runs a little more than two hours with one intermission, and is dense by nearly every measure. The themes, the movement, the performative strategies, and the direct discussion with the audience covers an enormous amount of ground as it “debates the center of perceived American ‘values’ and celebrates the persevering narrative of the African Diaspora,” in the words of the press release. Right away Urban Bush Women acknowledge that some of the territory will be difficult or uncomfortable, but the almost-superhuman generosity of the performers carries us all through it together.

Urban Bush Women brought “Hair and Other Stories” to Portland/Courtesy of White Bird

The show opens with a quiet moment between dancer Samantha Speis, who is also the company’s associate art director, and Aminata Balde, who is two years old and impossibly cute. While audio samples from interviews with black women talking about the role of hair and the rituals around its care (or destruction) in their lives, Speis picks a few plain but significant hair care products off a table and hands a comb to Aminata that looks enormous in her tiny hands. With a few deft movements, Speis bundles Aminata onto her back under a printed cloth, and walks off stage with a sense of purpose. We have begun our journey.

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