Dance Month: A recap of a month’s hard dancing in Portland

Reviews of Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, Northwest Dance Project, and three White Bird shows

Franco Nieto, Ching Ching Wong and Andrea Parson in Northwest Dance Project's “This Time Tomorrow"/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Franco Nieto, Ching Ching Wong and Andrea Parson in Northwest Dance Project’s “This Time Tomorrow”/Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

For the past few years, October has functioned as Portland’s unofficial Dance Month, and if anything, this one has been especially dense, both with the sheer number of large-scale performances and the importance that some of them have had for the companies involved. ArtsWatch dispatched Martha Ullman West, Nim Wunnan, Jamuna Chiarini, and Bob Hicks to take on these shows and make some sense of their context in a series of serious reviews. I even got in on the action.

Because dance is such an ephemeral art form, even more than theater because its “language” is so unsettled these days, dance writing is unusually important. It can take us back to the concerts in question, remind us of crucial moments, suggest possible interpretations, attempt to summarize that which resists summary. That’s why we spend so much time and effort at that work here at ArtsWatch.

Here are our reviews of the month’s major shows from White Bird, Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and Northwest Dance Project, in case you want to go dancing again.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet/White Bird

Visiting dance companies usually program in the following way: one bright peppy dance to start to get the audience in the mood, intermission, one edgy experimental dance in the middle just to prove they can do it, intermission, one grand finale to leave everyone on a high note. As Martha Ullman West pointed out in her review, Aspen Santa Fe certainly has the repertoire to design such a show, but instead the company danced three darker pieces, built around Jiri Kylian’s brilliant early work “Return to a Strange Land.” They danced them beautifully and the crowd had a good time at this White Bird opener, but the younger choreographers might have been better served by a little contrast, West argued.

Kylian was under thirty when he made “Return to a Strange Land,” but he knew his craft. The ballet has a beginning, a middle and an end, Janacek’s music providing what Trey McIntyre (who has also been commissioned by this company) has referred to as a “road map” for the choreography. Would that Norbert de la Cruz III, who like a quarter of Aspen/Santa Fe’s dancers is a graduate of Juilliard, class of 2010, had chosen one piece of music instead of a collage of dissonant electronic sound and glorious arias by George Frederic Handel to accompany “Square None,” his first commission. It, too, began on a darkened stage, spliced with shafts of gray light – hardly brightening the viewer’s mood, as closers are supposed to do.

Martina Chavez, Makino Hayashi, "Por Vos Muero." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Martina Chavez, Makino Hayashi, “Por Vos Muero.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

“Dream”/Oregon Ballet Theatre

For the two-part program that opened both Oregon Ballet’s new season, Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Mueros” and Christopher Stowell’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”and the tenure of Kevin Irving as artistic director, Martha Ullman West first sat in on one of Iriving’s rehearsals.

Irving is preparing the dancers to perform Duato’s signature movement, in which the emphasis is on shape rather than line, and technique is in the service of dramatic expression. Over the years, the Spanish choreographer (he was born in Valencia, in 1957) has developed a vocabulary that fuses the classical vocabulary—pirouettes, jetés, pas de chats, pas de bourrés, and the like—with the floor-bound, swooping curves of traditional modernism as developed and practiced by, among others, Martha Graham and José Limon. Not performed in point shoes, “Por Vos Mueros” nevertheless is a ballet, and an intensely theatrical one at that. The title, which comes from a Renaissance poem, translates as “For you I would die.”

Then she reviewed the concert, which went very well indeed.

Toward the end of Nacho Duato’s “Por Vos Muero,” which Oregon Ballet Theatre performed for the first time on Saturday night, six women, dressed in the square-necked bodices and full skirts of Renaissance Europe, executed a series of 20th century backward flutter kicks. It was proof, indeed, that the company, with newly arrived artistic director Kevin Irving at the helm, is still alive and kicking up a storm.

And that was what was truly at stake in this season opener: Oregon Ballet Theatre has been struggling for a while financially, and the sudden departure of Stowell about a year ago, along with other key management personnel, added to those problems. Starting the season with a bang sent critical message to OBT’s community: We are still here, and we can still dance.

Compagnie Maguy Marin in "Salves"/Christian Ganet

Compagnie Maguy Marin in “Salves”/Christian Ganet

“Salves”/Maguy Marin/White Bird

For those who believe that dance is all gumdrops and lollipops (not ArtsWatch readers, of course!), Maguy Marin provides a serious wake-up call, both because her work often doesn’t LOOK like dance at all and because her critique of life in these times is so acute. Nim Wunnan’s review was a full-throated defense of Marin’s work and provided some of the decoding work it requires.

The only reason I was happy when I left the show is that I’m the kind of jackass that thinks more people should feel unsettled, doubtful, and afraid of the future like I and many people I admire do in our studios, and it makes me happy to see work that is so good at digging into a comfortable audience to make them feel that way. There’s some comfort in knowing others feel it too, but with the price of having the reasons for those feelings confirmed.

I jumped into the fray a bit, too, to elaborate on how subversive “Salves” (French for “Salvos,” not creamy medications) truly was in a post that also dealt with Portland Playhouse’s “Detroit.”

“Salves” is oppositional, analytical, discomforting (as Wunnan wrote). It refuses to quiet us with fine old music and fine new dancing. It tells us that our culture is casually racist, casually violent, halted by sentiment. If I look for something “positive,” it’s the speed and organization with which the dancers sometimes organize work–moving and building things. But opposition to the dominant ideology isn’t a gentle business. Marin’s object is to wake us up.

“Body Opera Files”/BodyVox

BodyVox extended a fine idea that artistic directors Jamie Hampton and Ashley Roland had back in 2009: String together a set of Tom Waits songs, assemble a band to play them and enlist opera singers to sing them, and tell their little stories in dance form, utilizing the production and prop magic that BodyVox is known for. For this show, new song narratives were added to the string, but the basic idea remained, and so did the humor and the pathos in the songs, according to Jamuna Chiarini’s review.

My favorite dance in the program was a solo choreographed and performed by Erik Skinner called “Baby Plays Around,” an Elvis Costello song sung here by Dru Rutledge. Skinner employed a smooth ballroom dance-style, partnered (or propped) by a railroad luggage cart on wheels—leaning on it, standing on it, lying on it and then stopping on a dime and spinning it in a circle with one foot anchored to the floor and then sending it off in a new direction and doing it all over again. Magically, the cart never crashed into the audience, always running out of steam just before the first row. It was amazing how symbiotic man and machine were, especially given how clunky the machine was. We were spellbound.

Consider this a franchise successfully extended!

“Weather”/Lucy Guerin/White Bird

After White Bird’s excursion into French politics, Lucy Guerin’s witty abstraction was something of a relief, and I enjoyed the brilliant dancing and inventive propwork (supplied by a ceiling full of plastic bags, some of which descended to the stage like snow to be ruffled by dancers or employed as props during the dance).

Alisdair Macindoe’s opening solo suggested perfectly what was coming up for the rest of the hour. How could a body that sturdy and strong seem that boneless and fluid? He supplied the windy sound effects with his breath and sliced and spun at high speeds and various levels seamlessly, without a single sign of stress.

Sydney Dance Company dances "2 One Another"/Ken Butti

Sydney Dance Company dances “2 One Another”/Ken Butti

“2 One Another”/Sydney Dance Company/White Bird

White Bird concluded an incredibly busy month with Sydney Dance Company, which followed hard on the heels of fellow Aussie Guerin with a show even bigger and more spectacular. Nim Wunnan was again on hand to provide the commentary.

The extra player in “2 One Another” is an enormous wall-of-light composed of a grid of LEDs behind a translucent, crumpled fabric screen, nearly the size of the Schnitz’s formidable proscenium. The show is a technically-challenging collaboration between the dancers, Cisterne’s lighting, a soundtrack by composer Nick Wales, and Australian poet Samuel Webster. This dense arrangement is directed by SDC’s relatively new and adventurous choreographer Rafael Bonachela and production designer Tony Assness.

Bonachela’s play with spectacle was knowing and witty—he used it to set-up quieter passages as much as for its sheer visceral effects, and when it relied on the latter too much, it wasn’t as interesting, according to Wunnan.

“New Now Wow!”/Northwest Dance Project

The month ended with three world premieres by young choreographers with impeccable credentials as dancers, which is one of the primary delights of Sarah Slipper’s Northwest Dance Project. The other is an athletic dance company that by now is able to engage fully with new work no matter how various its movements or ideas. Bob Hicks sifted through the work on display and settled on young Israeli choreographer Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow” has wit, twisted elegance (for all the odd angles, Agami insists on purity of line), and a sophisticated sense of how dance works with music and silence. And the movement can be startlingly fun. The piece is well-shaped, and it has a sense of controlled entropy, seemingly random variations that nevertheless have a discernible theme. The dancers, costumed in luscious creamy-white by designer Tobi de Goede, sometimes slither across the stage, making peekaboo entrances from behind the curtain and gliding on their backs like multiply jointed centipedes, knees bent and fast feet propelling them forward. Oranges, oddly but endearingly, roll all over the place.

As Hicks pointed out, Northwest Dance Project has pursued this course for the past ten years, and these days from that foundation, it seems confident and clear about what it does. And that all by itself was worth a “Wow” from the dance community.

So, quite a month of dance, overall. November is full of a smaller, more independent concerts, which we’ll be collecting and then addressing a little later. Stay tuned.

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