Conduit’s Dance Plus: Same fierce dancing, new location

Conduit’s Dance+ Festival enters its fourth year in a discombobulated state, uprooted from its home in the Pythian Building in downtown Portland and relocated to Reed College’s spectacular Performing Arts Building, after Conduit was unceremoniously evicted by its landlord. Oregon’s laws governing landlord-tenant relationships are heavily weighted toward landlords, after all.

So, yes, discombobulated but still kicking! This year’s festival, July 8-11, is arranged in two programs, each of which play each night of the festival. I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, and I can tell you that some fierce dancing is involved along with several solo performances, a dancing choir, and a Barbarian Princess.

The theme of Dance+ since its invention by Conduit artistic director Tere Mathern is collaboration. Some of these performances were more collaborative (the dancing choir!) than others, though it must be said that dance tends to be a collaborative enterprise, a lot like theater, combining costumes, lighting, music, sometimes the spoken word and sets, to movement. Not that it has to be, a solo danced in “silence” (John Cage taught us enough about the relativity of that word to demand the quotation marks) in a bare room or outdoors (which one of this year’s Dance+ performances manages, via video) can be a very powerful thing.

But I digress! I was alternately bemused, amused and moved by the seven dance works I saw, not equally, of course, though I’m going to deal with each of them in the same rapid-fire manner.

“Ready?” the soloist in the video I just mentioned, Barbara Tait, asks at one point toward the end of her dance. “Ready,” responds Eliza Larson, who is dancing in front of us in the well-appointed (and cool) studio at Reed College. She then starts to back away from us…

Catherine Egan in "Lichen"/Photo Stephen Miller

Catherine Egan in “Lichen”/Photo Stephen Miller

Program A

Catherine Egan, “Lichen”
Egan can move in a sharp, definitive, almost martial arts sort of way that combines precision and strength in its turns and gestures. I sit up a little straighter when I watch her dance because you can’t make those turns with her from a slouch. Here, she contrasts that clean space-carving with the physical manifestation of dissembling, and it’s alarming: Is the character she creates falling apart mentally, those strong phrases simply another symptom? Is this a post-apocalyptic landscape? She did slither out from under something that looked mushroom-like after all, and her absorption with lengths of fabric seems…obsessive, PTSD-like.

Anya Cloud and Eric Geiger, “Fingertips Toward Floor, Head Follows or The Lazy Sexy Peepshow”
At the beginning of this dance, the phrase “This is a peephole that you get to peep through,” is repeated several times, and yes, sometimes dance offers a peephole to the audience so we can see stuff that’s usually private. In this case, it’s Cloud and Geiger, who teach in San Diego, and their relationship together. At the start at least they are in unison, which makes their physical differences—he’s shorter and muscular, she’s taller and rangier—interesting to look at as they negotiate the stretch-y, very physical movements the dance demands. By the end, though, we are watching them engage in very physical wrestling that left me wondering whether they’d be able to dance the next night…they really went at it! And then they spread their legs apart and ran in place very fast for a very long time. It left me thinking of Elizabeth Streb, a master of collisions without injury, and Molissa Fenley, whose pieces in the early ‘80s demanded an astonishing amount of stamina.

Takahiro Yamamoto and Jesse Mejia, “Three Songs”
The stars of “Three Songs” were the members of CHOIR, the vocal group that Mejia has assembled to perform post-World War II choral music. The ability levels and experience of the members were really wide—hey, that bass can really sing!—but they plunged into the music (which wasn’t named or attributed in the program) with determination. I know at least one of CHOIR’s members is a dancer, in fact she led a three-woman back-up singer group during the first piece, a bit of choreography arranged by Yamamoto. I doubt that very many other CHOIR members had ever danced on stage before, so Yamamoto moved them into interesting patterns and poses as they sang, playing up the humor side of things.


Heather Stewart, “roil”

Canadian Stewart collaborated with composer and fellow countryman Marc Bartissol in “roil,” a long, accomplished solo that begins almost in darkness with Stewart crouched with her head down,  what light there is reflecting off of her back and spinal column. The dance has a vulnerability about it, though part of that must come from Stewart herself, who moves in an ethereal way. Part of that is technique—the precise long arms and straight legged pivots are balletic, and is the way she rises on her toes. But she also spends a lot of time on the floor, almost in supplication, and though we can’t “read” the semaphore of her arms, I suspect it has something to do with anxiety. Or maybe that’s just me.

Samuel Hobbs, “Whisper”
Hobbs choreographed and composed the music for “Whisper,” which he dances here with Jessica Evans, a member of Hobbs’ Portland company Push/Fold, each in voluminous blue pants, each topless, though much of the dance is performed with the dancers’ backs to the audience. The duet starts on the floor and somehow I had the image of synchronized swimmers pop into my mind, and then I started interpreting the movement phrases as strokes—a lot of backstroke! Like “roil,” the mood is somber, and Evans and Hobbs move together quite well.

Eliza Larson in "Solo/Solo"/Photo by Bill Watt

Eliza Larson in “Solo/Solo”/Photo by Bill Watt

Eliza Larson, “Solo/Solo”
Larson has recently returned to Portland, where she co-directs the Mountain Empire Performance Collective, after earning an MFA in dance from Smith College, and this dance started when Larson and her collaborator Barbara Tait decided to turn texts into movement. Not literally. Tait performs in a video projected on the large back wall. She’s in woodsy looking space and her dance involves a lot of work on the ground, spinning. Does she hear the score we do in the audience (Now Ensemble, Topaz Rags, Nils Frahm)? It’s much brighter there, and somehow that contrast with the more darkly lit space that Larson inhabits makes the dance in front of us seem plaintive, separated from that wood and from that dancerly companionship. Larson is a skilled dancer and possesses a good singing voice, and even though one of her sections had a certain sensuality to it, I couldn’t shake the nostalgia for the sunlit space on the screen.

Lauren Edson, “Barbarian Princess”
See? I know you were wondering when the Barbarian Princess would come along, and here she is. But she’s not related to Conan the Barbarian—she’s Zelda Fitzgerald, which allows costumer Michelle Lesniak (the Season 11 “Project Runway” winner) to play with designs from the ‘20s with the company, three women and three men. Edson as Zelda is definitely flapper-inspired, and the guys are in baggy shorts with suspenders and socks held up by garters. The Boise company, called LED, is athletic, dramatic, and almost as determined to put itself in danger as Cloud and Geiger were. Edson’s partner Andrew Stensaas supplies the sound design, which is rock-oriented, and provides live percussion and vocals. Edson herself makes an excellent Zelda in this context, in the push-pull of her relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald and her own mental health. Actually, if Zelda had the sureness of Edson on stage, things would have gone much better for her. Anyway, “Barbarian Princess” concludes Dance+ on a rousing note.

Conduit’s Program A begins at 7 pm, July 8-11, and Program B follows at 9 pm. In between POV dances in the lovely atrium at Reed’s new Performing Arts Building, on the west side of campus, 3203 SE Woodstock.

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