DANCE

The Complexion of the times

Bach, Bowie, and Maya Angelou: White Bird kicks off its 20th season of dance with the contemporary ballet company Complexions

The mood was festive in the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland Thursday night: a new White Bird dance season was beginning, and Complexions Contemporary Ballet was in the house. The lobbies were bump-into-you bustling, the seats were almost all filled in, and though the jeans and casual shirts that so define Portland sartorial style were on plentiful display among the audience, plenty of fine plumage was on show, too. Dressed up or dressed down, the crowd was pumped to get this thing going again.

White Bird was embarking on its 20th season of presenting contemporary dance from around the world to Portland audiences (Thursday night’s program repeats Friday and Saturday), and Complexions, which was founded in 1994 by a pair of Alvin Ailey dancers, was on the program for the first time since 2009. It was, all in all, a welcome return.

The company, in “Star Dust” mode. Photo courtesy White Bird

All three works on Thursday’s program were choreographed by Dwight Rhoden, who founded Complexions with Desmond Richardson, and though the influences range from the purely balletic to jazz and hip hop and the theatrics of the arena rock ‘n’ roll stage, and the movements are often distinguished by a contemporary, deliberately awkward elegance, they are also classical in their centered balances and line.

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DanceWatch Weekly: White Bird turns 20, OBT season opens

A big week in dance starts with White Bird and Oregon Ballet Theatre and then moves to Indian dance and "Moving Through Darkness"

Twenty years ago Paul King and Walter Jaffe moved to Portland from New York City and launched White Bird, Portland’s biggest dance presenter and the sole, dance-only presenter West of the Rockies.

Their 20-year contribution to Portland’s dance scene and to the dance community at large is huge. Over the 20 years they have presented 250 dance companies from around the world, commissioned and co-commissioned 36 new works in a range of styles and choreographers from Portland and beyond, and have developed some of the most enthusiastic, dedicated, and educated dance audiences I have ever seen. White Bird’s 20th season is dedicated to those audiences.

Jamuna Chiarini

Complexions Contemporary Ballet from New York, co-directed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, opens that season. Rhoden was a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Richardson was the first Black American Principal dancer at American Ballet Theater.

The company is 23 years old itself, and has been called “America’s original multicultural dance company.” They pride themselves on being based in ballet but not limited to it, expanding their movement vocabulary into any and every genre, proposing an alternate view of classical ballet.

The company will perform three pieces, all choreographed by Rhoden: Ballad Unto…. for 14 dancers, performed to Bach, that explores love’s many facets; IMPRINT/MAYA, a solo performed by Richardson,
danced to a pre-recorded track featuring Melanie Nyema on Vocals, Ron Pedley on piano and Mat Fieldes on bass and the words of Maya Angelou; and STAR DUST, a tribute to David Bowie.

Journalist Joe Lynch, for Billboard magazine online, stated in his impassioned review of STAR DUST after it premiered at The Joyce Theatre in New York in January, that STAR DUST “isn’t a cheap attempt to capitalize on Bowie’s fame, but a thoughtful exploration by choreographer Dwight Rhoden of the way movement reveals additional layers in Bowie’s music (something Bowie himself did onstage, mimicking gifted movers from Pierrot the Clown to kabuki actors over the course of his career).” Lynch says if you’re a Bowie fan, “Star Dust is a must—whether you think you enjoy the ballet or not.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre kicks off its season this weekend with the world premiere of Rhapsody In Blue, a collaboration between Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte and Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale. With permission from the Gershwin Foundation, Lauderdale created a new arrangement of George Gershwin’s jazz classic that lengthens the score, draws out nuances in the music, and allows for more movement possibilities.

The score, originally created for a solo piano and jazz band, will instead be performed live on two grand pianos by Lauderdale and Hunter Noack. The program also includes Never Stop Falling (in Love), Fonte’s 2014 piece created for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary. It features Pink Martini singer China Forbes and a medley of Pink Martini songs.

Rhapsody In Blue the dance, softly weaves together abstract contemporary ballet choreography with a narrative describing the mood of the blue hour or “L’heure bleue.” A French phrase with no exact English translations, it describes the magical hours between daylight and night that lovers might meet before returning home to their spouses. A kind of magical time of day when things become less linear and boundaries become more fluid.

Last week I sat in on a rehearsal for Rhapsody In Blue as the costume designer was trying out different costume possibilities on the dancers. The room was abuzz with activity, full of company dancers, stage managers, costume designers, lighting designers, and other artistic personal. I am always amazed at what a massive production ballets are and how many people it takes to put a production together, compared to many smaller productions I regularly see where the choreographer does almost everything.

The costumes for Rhapsody are a gorgeous, textural mix of electric blues in satins, laces, brocades, and matte cottons, with swirling skirts, and tailored suits, evoking decadent sumptuousness and ease. The movement, like the chosen color, is also electric and explosive, shooting out from the dancer’s centers like arrows, creating dramatic, stretched lines with arms and legs. The movement sweeps and falls, rebounds and flies, describing the music and the space around the notes perfectly. Sometimes the dancing is large and uses the whole cast and sometimes it is quiet and uses a singular gesture. It’s a beautiful, dynamic work that might make you see/hear Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue in a whole new light.

Performances this week

Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Sachyn Mital Photography

Ballad Unto…., IMPRINT/MAYA, and STAR DUST
Complexions Contemporary Ballet
Choreography by Dwight Rhoden
Presented by White Bird
October 5-7
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
See above.

Eugene Ballet Company’s Mowgli. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

Mowgli – The Jungle Book Ballet-Eugene
Eugene Ballet Company directed by Toni Pimble
October 6-8
Hult Center for the Performing Arts, 1 Eugene Center, Eugene
Toni Pimble, the artistic director of Eugene Ballet, retells Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” through ornate costumes, masks, sets, and world music, in the story of orphaned Mowgli, his friend Baloo the Bear, the terrifying Tiger Shere Khan and the snake Kaa.

Dance artist Oluyinka Akinjiola performing at Ten Tiny Dances in Beaverton.

Moving through Darkness
This is a Black Spatial Imaginary
Featuring Intisar Abioto, Akela Auer, and Oluyinka Akinjiola
5 pm October 7
Paragon Arts Gallery, 815 N Killingsworth St.
Moving through Darkness, is a movement and dance performance featuring writer, dancer, photographer, and the author/photographer/curator of The Black Portlanders Intisar Abioto; writer, poet, dancer, and choreographer Akela Auer; and dancer, choreographer, teacher, scholar and artistic director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre, Oluyinka Akinjiola.

“This Is A Black Spatial Imaginary’ considers the movement and fixity of Black communities, by activating past, present and future spaces for Black life. This is a Black Spatial Imaginary brings together installation, video, print media, performance, and public intervention, exploring new forms of practice at the intersection of art, collaboration, historical record, urban planning, collaboration and creative exchange.”

Bharatanatyam dancer Jayanthi Raman. Photo courtesy of Jayanthi Raman.

Dance Of The Hummingbirds
Jayanthi Raman and dancers
7 pm October 7
Dolores Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway
Combining live music, poetry by Oregon poet laureate Paulann Petersen, artwork by Shashank Rao, and guest dancers from Chennai, India, Portland Bharatanatyam choreographer/teacher Jayanthi Raman reflects on finding inner strength to overcome life’s obstacles in her new work Dance Of The Hummingbirds.

Rhapsody in Blue by Nicolo Fonte. Photo courtesy of Oregon Ballet Theatre.

Rhapsody In Blue (World Premiere) and Never Stop Falling (in Love)
Choreography by Nicolo Fonte
Performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre directed by Kevin Irving
October 7-14
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St.
See above.

Upcoming Performances

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DanceWatch Weekly: Embracing the matriarch

Mizu Desierto says good-bye to the matriarch of her family and channels her final teaching, plus PWNW Alembic and Kalakendra

Portland dance this weekend is a magical convergence of female energy, wisdom, spirituality, discussions of death and dying, creation, and letting go of it all. On Friday, three powerful choreographer/performers who defy definition—Mizu Desierto from Portland, and Haruko Crow Nishimura and Joshua Kohl, co-artistic directors of Degenerate Art Ensemble from Seattle—will share an evening. The works are based in Butoh but expand beyond, utilizing dance, theatre, live sound, and video to address and meditate on a variety of human states and experiences.

Jamuna Chiarini

This week I interviewed Desierto, a dance/theatre artist with a 20-year practice in Butoh and the co-founder of Portland’s Water in the Desert, a major hub of artistic activity that includes The Headwaters Theatre, Prior Day Farm, and the annual Butoh College. Desierto, who has been a major contributor to the Portland dance and art scene in many ways for many years, will present her solo Matriarch, a dance/film collaboration with composer Lisa DeGrace and video designer Stephen Miller. Matriarch examines death and dying, lineages, and bees—specifically queen bees.

My email interview with Desierto about what inspired the work and how she created it, begins below after this week’s performance listing.

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DanceWatch Weekly: A very large nutshell

The week in dance wanders from drag to Tiny Dances to solos to a book about older dancers

Two drag performances, a musical based on a graphic novel, a book release party, some solos and not solos, and a fundraiser performance featuring Ten Tiny Dances: your dance weekend in a nutshell.

Jamuna Chiarini

On Thursday night at Performance Works NW in Southeast Portland, dance writer Emmaly Wiederholt and photographer Gregory Bartning will unveil their new book, Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond. A gorgeous, 9×12, hardcover book, Beauty is Experience contains 210 pages of interviews and photos of 54 West Coast dance artists over the age of 50. Out of the 54 artists, 19 are from Portland. The book is for sale on Amazon.com and on Wiederholt’s website, Stance on Dance. I highly recommend checking it out.

Within its pages you will find intimate portraits of Portland dance artists Linda Austin, Susan Banyas, Mike Barber, Gregg Bielemeier, Nancy Davis and Jim Lane, Tracey Durbin, Patrick Gracewood, Jamey Hampton, Laurel and Gene Leverton, Carla Mann, Tere Mathern, Jim McGinn, Josie Moseley, Jayanthi Raman, Eric Skinner, Melissa St. Clair and Carolyn Stuart, plus 35 more dancers from up and down the coast.

Why is this book important? By simply acknowledging dancers over the age of 50, the book subverts the patriarchal dance orthodoxy that says, “younger is better.” Showing everyone, everywhere, how beautiful and amazing dancers are at any age (and that you can’t actually age out of dancing) can change the dance world as we know it and how audiences see dancers. So buy the book, support the cause, subvert patriarchy, and keep dancing.

Performances this week

Portland dancer Mike Barber photographed by Gregory Bartning for his new collaborative book project with Emmaly Wiederholt called Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond.

Beauty is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond-Book Launch Party
Emmaly Wiederholt and Gregory Bartning
7 pm September 21
Performance Works Northwest, 4625 SE 67th Avenue
See above.

Drag artist Lahore Vagistan in Lessons in Drag with Lawhore Vagistan. Photo courtesy of Reed College Performing Arts.

Lessons in Drag with Lawhore Vagistan
A Lecture Demonstration by Kareem Khubchandani
Presented by Reed College Performing Arts
6:30 pm September 21
Reed College Performing Arts Building, Performance Lab 128, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.
FREE
Combining his research in dance studies, queer nightlife, South Asian diaspora, global queer politics, performance ethnography, critical race studies, masculinity, femininity, and drag, Khubchandani brings to life his drag persona LaWhore Vagistan, “your favorite desi drag aunty,” to enable “conversations about dance cultures, Third World feminisms, globalization, and queer pleasures.”

Kareem holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, and is working on a book titled Ishtyle: Improvising Gay South Asian Nightlife, a performance ethnography of gay nightlife spaces in Bangalore and Chicago.

Check out Khubchandani’s interview with by Rajit Singh in 2016 and his music video Sari. You won’t be sorry.

The musical Fun Home featuring actors Aida Valentine as Small Alison, Karsten George as Christian Bechdel, and Theo Curl as John Bechdel at The Armory. Photo by Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Fun Home
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, directed by Chris Coleman
September 16-October 22
Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave.
The winner of five Tony Awards, including Best Musical in 2015, Fun Home, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, allows the audience into the intimate world of the author at three different stages of her life as she tries to make sense of her closeted and distant father, his death, her family, growing up in a funeral home, and coming out as an adult.

Photo of dancer/choreographer Carlyn Hudson. Photo courtesy of Carlny Hudson.

Solos, and Not-Solos…(But Mostly Solos)
Carlyn Hudson
September 22-24
Performance Works Northwest, 4625 SE 67th Avenue
SubRosa Dance Collective co-founder Carlyn Hudson presents her first independent evening of choreographic works, Solos, and Not Solos…(But Mostly Solos). The program includes six solos, a duet, and a quartet that effortlessly slip between contemporary dance styles, ballet and vaudeville, and weave together stories of love, loss, and beauty in whimsical and sometimes not so whimsical ways.

Hudson is originally from New York, attained her BFA from SUNY Purchase, performed with Connecticut Ballet and co-founded SubRosa Dance Collective in 2011 with Cerrin Lathrop, Jessica Evans, Kailee McMurran, Lena Traenkenschuh, Tia Palomino and Zahra Banzi.

Photo of Wayne Bund by Wayne Bund.

Critical Engagement Series: Wayne Bund / Feyonce
8:30pm September 22
Flock Dance Center in the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, 8371 N Interstate Ave., Studio 4
In this month’s Critical Engagement Series at Flock Dance Center, multidisciplinary artist Wayne Bund presents Feyonce, an evolving performance piece that uses comedy, theater, music, dance and drag to discusses the power of femininity and sass – more succinctly put as “genderfuck,” as Feyonce says in her performance.

The Critical Engagement Series is curated by dance artist Tahni Holt, and “brings together audiences and choreographers in hopes to reveal some of the mystery surrounding the languages around dance and the unique practices of individual choreographers. We start with the question: What does the choreographer need at this particular moment in their process and how might this also serve the wider community.”

The Ten Tiny stage used for Ten Tiny Dances establish by Mike Barber in 2002. Photo courtesy of Ten Tiny Dances.

Inspiring Amity: A Ten Tiny Dances Fundraiser for New Expressive Works
5:30 pm September 23
810 SE Belmont (corner of SE 8th & Belmont)
Join Ten Tiny Dances in a performance fundraiser for New Expressive Works (N.E.W.). N.E.W., established in 2013 and directed by Subashini Ganesan, is home to a diverse dance community and provides space and support to contemporary dance and arts of all kinds. DanceWatch featured New Expressive Works in several previous stories which you can read here and here. The evening will be catered by Art Fortuna & Vibrant Table Catering and Division Wines, and will feature performances by Unit Souzou, Natya Leela, members of Obo Addy Legacy Project’s Okropong, Raul Gómez-Rojas (artistic director of Metropolitan Youth Symphony), Oluyinka Akinjiola (artistic director of Rejoice: Diaspora Dance Theater), Jessica Hightower, Shaun Keylock, Stephanie Lanckton, Ruth Nelson and Luke Matter.

Upcoming Performances

September
September 29-30, Diphylleia Grayi (Skeleton Flower) + Matriarch, Degenerate Art Ensemble and Mizu Desierto, presented by Mizu Desierto and Water In The Desert
September 29-30, Episode III, jin camou, Julia Calabrese, Mary Sutton, Leah Brown, a PWNW Alembic Co-Production
September 30, Katha – A Thematic Classical Dance Presentation w/ Live Music, presented by Kalakendra

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Takahiro Yamamoto’s direct path

TBA: In the premiere of the final section of the trilogy "Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus," the focus often goes to the detours

For Friday evening’s premiere in the TBA Festival of the third part of Takahiro Yamamoto’s Direct Path to Detour, Single Focus trilogy, the exhibition space at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s West End location has been separated from the offices by tall curtains, making for a focused, intimate space that seems well-suited to Yamamoto’s one-man show. There’s a ceremonial feeling to the circular stage, which is ringed with purple pillows and remote-controlled LED lights in the shape of tea candles. Yamamoto mills casually among the crowd until the soundtrack, controlled by sidony o’neal, starts up.

The first passage, as Yamamoto takes the stage, cuts between samples, sound effects, and a sudden, brief emergence of the Doogie Howser theme song (more on that later). This soundtrack, like the performance, never really comes together, but that experience of disharmony seems to be at the core of the piece. Considering the name literally, or as a koan-like algorithm, can be useful for getting one’s bearings. In the sense that a choreographed show, meant to be watched, takes a direct path to a state of performance, this piece does what it says by detouring at almost any point where it might solidify.

The project description in the program says:

Direct Path to Detour seeks to evoke various mental and physical states that arise at the intersection of multiple value systems, social pressure, expectation, personal experiences, and body memory.”

Takahiro Yamamoto at TBA. Photo courtesy Robin Cone-Murakami

The first system Yamamoto engages, striding into the center of the stage, is the finicky world of a yoyo. Though he’s in control of it, he regards the toy at times like a strange animal that’s wandered onto the stage with him. He doesn’t perform tricks as much as he just responds to and moves with the yoyo. But already there is some sort of internal tension, and a mismatch of energies, as if his performance is in two places at once. The yoyo, with its own rules of momentum, acts as an indicator of these mismatches. The halting duet ends with Yamamoto muttering at screwing up an exchange with the yoyo, laughing and walking off stage.

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It’s mid-TBA and there is still so much to see and do! If you’re just tuning in, TBA, or Time-Based Art, is the Portland Institute For Contemporary Art’s yearly festival of performances, workshops, artist talks, visual art exhibitions, music performances, and after-hours parties. This year’s 11-day festival, spread out to venues across the city, is inherently interdisciplinary and features local, national and international artists coming from as far away as Singapore, Morocco, and France.

Jamuna Chiarini

Earlier in the festival ArtsWatcher Nim Wunnan caught Korean performer Dohee Lee’s work MU/巫; a piece based in Korean shamanism that combines technology, ritual, and the sounds of drumming and voice that explores myth as the thread that “connects us to our lands, nature, history, belief systems, and to each other.” You can read his in-depth review here.

Closing tonight Is Dead Thoroughbred by Portland artists keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal. If you’re interested in hearing about the process and concept behind this new performance project, join them in conversation at 12:30 p.m. today (Wednesday, Sept. 13) with scholars Sampada Aranke and Kemi Adeyemi at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art). Wunnan also reviewed Dead Thoroughbred and you can read about his experience seeing the performance here.

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TBA: A dark, dead thoroughbred

Earplugs, distortion, and a 9-foot figure in a gown amp up the mood for o'neal and gaskin's packed house: "Is TBA a place for rage?"

The press release for Dead Thoroughbred reads, in entirety:

“DT is peri-conceptual, dis-experimental, and a-nihilist.

DT is a blackened performance that is never not happening.

DT is après-queer and post-ratchet.

DT is anti anti-capital capital.

DT is heavy evasion– worthless.

DT is useless currency devoid of value and wide in circulation.

DT has null intension and null extension.

DT is dead frivolous af.

DT is detrital presence; an exhaustion of lack.

DT is at least sidony o’neal and

keyon gaskin.”

The performance in the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival took place in the black-cinderblock box of the PICA annex space. Seats and a few spots on the floor surrounded a clearing for a stage, divided diagonally to make space for two audio setups – laptops, mics, an Ableton pad, various pedals. A lattice of what appeared to be IV bags filled with either black or clear liquid hung near the door to the main building.

keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal

It was a packed house, and everyone had been emphatically encouraged to use earplugs. The door shut and the audience had a few minutes to shift in their seats, adjust their earplugs, and then all the lights went down with an audible clank from some switch somewhere.

We sat for a beat in darkness cut by the red exit signs, then the enormous roll door that made up most of the outside wall churned to life and began to rise. As it rose, it revealed the defiant stance of gaskin’s legs, shod in a pair of severe, black stilettos, but as it continued up, their silhouette appeared impossibly tall and massive, draped in a black satin gown. When the door finally opened enough to reveal the whole figure, we saw it was topped with oneal’s head. o’neal was sitting on gaskin’s shoulders, and their whole form fit into the incredible, authoritative garment. The gown would fit just as well at a formal gala for a secret society as at the head of some interplanetary council, where 9-foot figures were expected.

They strutted in, and the room tensed with the precariousness of the situation – gaskin somehow navigating the room he could see only through the fabric over their eyes, walking on stilettos, pulling a black satin train that must have been 20 feet long. It was captivating, challenging, and incredibly effective for how simple an illusion it was. Once fully in the room, o’neal stepped down from gaskin’s shoulders, creating a centaur-like form as gaskin stayed under the trailing fabric and they moved in unison.

Eventually they split to opposite corners of the room, and the lights went down after o’neal lit a hurricane lamp and a cigarette. From there the show became harder to describe, which seemed to be by design.

For the rest of the show, which was about half an hour, gaskin and o’neal dueled on their audio setups, with loops of feedback, distortion, ragged tones, samples, and drones. gaskin worked the room with a movement performance seen mostly in shadow, lit his own cigarette, and o’neal spoke lines, whispered to individuals in the crowd, triggered audio samples and effects, and paced the room, at later points pouring bleach onto the floor. The two kept the audience in this diffuse, angry, dark, and challenging space until the lights clanked on with a brutal clarity at the end.

The mood ranged from ponderous to openly hostile, and I think choices were made to leave interpretations open-ended for much of the show. Many choices were also made to make the audience uncomfortable – filling the increasingly warm room with cigarette smoke, the grinding audio, and the direct interactions with the audience. o’neal’s most repeated and audible statement was “Is TBA a place for rage?” The last part, “a place for rage” was sampled live and later triggered by both o’neal and gaskin throughout the performance, underscoring its sentiment. It seemed to dovetail with the audio of a clip of Jim Carrey tearing down the very concept of New York Fashion Week, which played in full, punctuated by the ongoing dissonant soundscape.

o’neal repeated another phrase, or variations of it, but I was unable to catch the whole thing.

“People are disappointing precisely because they …”

I think the last word was “disappoint,” but I’m not certain.

Out on the courtyard afterwards, in the milling crowd, I found myself straining in the same way to catch snippets of the murmurs of the audience.

“Did you have fun” “Fun” “Yeah, that was the word I used.”

“The bleach was what put me over the edge.”

“…the dark thoughts that you would, like, vacuum the house instead to avoid thinking.”

“It’s a sinker.” As in it sinks in.

*

gaskin and o’neal will be speaking about this performance at 12:30 pm on Wednesday, September 13.