Dance weekend: 4 men and a chancy machine

Troika Ranch premiered "Enter Comma Prepare" at Reed.

It’s been a busy week in dance, but let’s face it: In Portland these days, almost every week is a busy week in dance. More of note is coming soon. Northwest Dance Project’s spring show March 9-10 at the Newmark features new work by company director Sarah Slipper and international dancemakers Patrick Delcroix and Wen Wei Wang, both returnees to this troupe of talented young dancers. And White Bird follows shortly after with the return March 15-17 of the audacious Canadian/German troupe Kidd Pivot, also in the Newmark.

First, what I missed over the weekend: alternate casts of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Giselle (which might have shifted the ballet’s emphases in subtle or significant ways), and BodyVox-2’s program of works by BodyVox founders Ashley Roland and Jamey Hampton. I especially regret missing the latter: I like this young company, and seeing it perform works created specifically for an older generation of dancers might have been illuminating. It’s a recurring question in the world of dance: What happens to a piece once it breaks free from its original circumstances?

Now, on to what I did see: 4 Men Only, a quartet of solo works that played Friday and Saturday nights at Conduit (just try to imagine any of these pieces being performed by anyone other than their creators); and the premiere of Troika Ranch’s Enter Comma Prepare, a piece balanced precariously between tyranny and chance, at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

4 Men Only wasn’t, really. It was more by men only, and not even entirely that: Lisa DeGrace’s loosely sprung and melodically deliberate music was essential to the success of Meshi Chavez’ Une fleur pour mon amour, and Robin Greenwood’s lighting design was crucial to the entire evening.

Gregg Bielemeier: anchovies and teeth.

Then again, what’s in a name? Veteran dancer Gregg Bielemeier calls his fluid and funny new work I Chipped my tOOth on an Anchovy, and while the title’s reference to the currently hot Portland performance troupe tEEth is obvious, we’ll leave it to him and them to figure out exactly what it means. Matters of bite aside, I’ll suggest that Bielemeier has some of the attraction of a good anchovy: a little salty, a little spiky, maybe even an acquired taste, but once you’ve acquired it the salad’s hopelessly bland without it.

As a performer, Bielemeier is a fascinating combination: a natural comedian who cultivates a streak of irreverent anarchy, coupled with a genuine and historically informed gracefulness that’s more romantic than sentimental. As his movements to Joni Mitchell’s smoky-jazzy Both Sides Now suggest, he’d be a remarkable ballroom dancer, but with a jagged edge: he breaks up the rhythmic sweep with sudden counterintuitive shrugs, hurrying the beat, rubbing it the “wrong” way, which somehow ends up being right. Dipping into a bag of clothing onstage, he slips in and out of various costumes, telling stories of his small-town childhood and tipsy nuns and predatory priests, making the memories both affectionate and caustic (anger, or at least deep frustration, the quickening matter of so much comedy, slips past the playful façade). Plus, he turns a grinning satyr’s-promise of nudity into a PG-rated belly laugh.

Bielemeier actually plays well with others: I’ve seen him perform seamlessly in ensembles. But he doesn’t care overly much about formal structure (his pieces tend to switch gears abruptly, although not disconcertingly), and he’s such a singular performer that it’s also good to see him playing by himself – and, of course, with his audience, which he never forgets. As he made clear in the title of one of his signature works, Odd Duck Lake, he’s an irredeemably odd duck. Lucky for us.

Meshi Chavez is a highly talented up-and-coming Portland performer, and his intensely absorbing Une fleur pour mon amour could hardly be more different from Bielemeier’s chipped tooth. Yet the two work well together in the same program, combining sharp contrasts in approach with similar levels of self-assurance and craftsmanship. Despite its French title, Une fleur has Japanese antecedents, specifically in the post-World War II performance art of butoh, which finds beauty in an obsessive slowness of motion and sometimes (but not always) grotesque contortions of the human body.

Meshi Chavez: from soil to light.

Chavez performs in the white facial and body makeup of a geisha, and stillness is at the center of his art. Quoting his very brief program note is actually helpful in understanding the painstakingly lovely progression of the piece, which moves in a deep and rigorous graduation until almost the end, when it spins in quick release: “Without the darkness of the soil a flower never would unfold into the light. It cannot know the exact moment or condition that will cause it to bloom. Yet once that yearning has awakened, it has no other choice than to spill forth that which we call beauty.” I couldn’t, and won’t, say it better.

Bob Eisen, a longtime fixture on Chicago’s post-Judson contemporary dance scene who now splits his time between New York and Russia, made his Portland debut with For Lulu, performed to Lulu, last year’s unlikely buzz-saw of a collaboration by Lou Reed and Metallica. Lulu is something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a musical mating – you’re not exactly in favor of it, but its sheer audacity makes it tough to keep your eyes or ears off it, either — and Eisen transforms it into a hyper-energetic and surprisingly exhilarating act of slightly crazed and entertaining movement.

His distinctive appearance helps him pull the thing off. Eisen is long and whooping-crane lean, with a prodigious wingspan, and he wears his 65 years with an easy economy of motion and head-banging intensity of effect. Dressed in pajama tops and multi-pleated harem pants, he looks like Ichabod Crane in a white shock of Art Garfunkel hair. I thought For Lulu continued a little too long after the music ended, although Eisen’s eventual emphatic trod off the stage gave it a bang-up finale. Put Eisen and Bielemeier together on the same program and you get a whole lot of Gray Power. Learn from it, kids.

“Very American,” my seatmate called the evening’s fourth and final piece, Greg Sax’s what is not still …?, by which I think she meant open and loose-limbed, and to which I might add innocent and a little self-absorbed. Not that self-absorption doesn’t partly define almost any solo piece: it’s the nature of the beast. Lacking mirrors, Sax, who’s also a filmmaker, adds filmed versions to his live performance, screening images of himself dancing on three long cloth banners that drop from the ceiling. In the process he addresses the audience like a potential lover, a little awkwardly, overly eager, as if he were composing a personals ad and wasn’t quite sure how best to present himself. Like a product to be sold? With brutal honesty? With brutal honesty that is in fact a product to be sold? “I just wanna … make you … happy,” he declares, or implores. It’s a dance of self-definition, and the fact of its disconnection is how it connects.

Troika Ranch’s Enter Comma Prepare was part of Reed College’s annual RAW, or Reed Arts Week, which this year had a theme of “Rupture.” And things were erupturing Friday night all across campus. What with drums banging and torchlight paraders marching and chanting through the square, it felt a little like Halloween before the candy manufacturers took over.

Troika Ranch was formed in 1994 by Dawn Stoppiello, who grew up in Portland and performed in high school with the Jefferson Dancers, and composer Mark Coniglio. The troupe was based in New York for 15 years, and is now based in Portland since Stoppiello (who’s also put in a stint with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company) moved back to her hometown. The intersection of technology and human culture has been the group’s focus for many years, and the binary rigors of the computer world — coupled, it seems, with some of Merce Cunningham’s explorations of the vagaries of chance ­– is at the heart of its performances: humans and machines, partners for better or for worse.

I mentioned above that Enter Comma Prepare seemed like a precarious balance between tyranny and chance. The tyranny wasn’t entirely the machines’. The piece imposed a human-made herding mentality on its audience, first crowding it together in the lobby until after curtain time, then throwing the doors open with an imperious and disembodied “enter” command to a sort of staging area where the performance began with forced intimacy. The performers (a fine group of accomplished locals including Vanessa Vogel, Carla Mann, Jonathan Krebs, Nancy Ellis, Suzanne Chi and Stoppiello) circled around the audience, which was mostly leaning against the walls, and occasionally gave someone a hug.

Dawn Stoppiello of Troika Ranch.

Dawn Stoppiello of Troika Ranch.

This was, depending on your understanding of the implicit contract between audience and performer, either a generous inclusion in the dance or a violation of private space. On the other hand, I was familiar with most of the performers and a lot of the audience, and it appeared that at least the dancers were hugging people they actually knew, whether they’d been clued in beforehand or not. And this certainly was an interesting rupture. For performers — and particularly dancers, who work with their bodies and other people’s bodies — physical closeness is as natural as air. For some people in the audience, it’s a sign of welcome and inclusion. For others, physical intimacy is private and mutually agreed upon. So was the intimacy given freely, or imposed? All performances, of course, are tyrannical in a sense: the performers determine where the audience will go, and guide it there. But usually audiences enter the theater understanding the rules of engagement. Here, part of the performance was that the rules of engagement were to be broken.

Finally audience and performers alike moved into the larger auditorium, where chairs were clustered cleverly in several small islands so the dancers could flow around them like electrons coursing through a mother board. And so they did, to a drone of computer-generated instructions intoned over loudspeakers in a metallic voice like Hal 9000’s in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Jonathan. Southwest,” it would say, or “Nancy. North,” and off the performer would go. At one point I had a fleeting image of Cary Grant ducking into a cornfield while a homicidal pilot chased after him from above, shouting “North by northwest!”.

Skill and rigor and even a dollop of humor marked the performances, in which, if you tried, you could detect traces of exhilaration as the dancers trotted through the maze. But once you got the point that the performers would be following their instructions without question (stage managers must love this show) the evening became something of an endurance contest. At least for me, and on this particular night, there wasn’t enough intrinsic interest in the movements to hold my attention through the repetitions, and by the time a few lines from Plato were delivered via microphone, I’d pretty much checked out.

That was certainly partly my own fault. Like a Cunningham dance, Enter Comma Prepare is at least as much an experiment as it is a traditional performance, and probably more so. That means you have to be willing to be experimented upon — and sometimes you are, sometimes you aren’t. It’s a matter of chance in more than one way.

I was lucky enough during his lifetime to see Cunningham and company perform several times, and on most of those occasions the results were revelatory. But you had to be with it. I know this confession could get me drummed out of the League of Tough-Guy Arts Observers, but once I discreetly ducked out of a Cunningham performance at intermission. It wasn’t that it was a “bad” show. On that night, Cunningham’s mind and mine simply didn’t mesh. And when the experiment isn’t working for you, it’s OK to give it a break.

And to know, in the case of Troika Ranch, that it’s going to be worth giving the experiment another try.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I think, says your seatmate at Four Men Only, not to mention Troika Ranch, that you have pretty much said it all. I can’t, nevertheless, help expanding a little bit: When I said Greg Sax’s performance was very American, I did mean the openness, and naturalness of his delivery, but I also meant Sax is very 21st century American, representing the “Me” generation, always watching himself, always watching the watchers.
    Beyond that, I really loved Meshi Chavez’ performance, found it completely gripping and very beautiful, would add that the white powder is part of the butoh tradition, and it’s a reaction to the artificiality of geisha make-up as well as a reminder of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    As for the “gray” factor: man [sic] do those guys know what they’re doing. In Bielemeier and Eisen’s performances timing was everything, very precise timing indeed. Gregg is a close and dear friend of mine–that’s the disclaimer–and he’s “done” Sister Corinne in my kitchen several times, and always sends me into hysterics, but for public consumption, he’s honed his body language and polished his speech, making it all even funnier. And poignant. Eisen, too, is a fantastic mover, diverting me from physically painful music (sorry, but that’s my take) with the subtlety and detail of the way he deploys his lanky limbs.
    Troika Ranch…I agree, I want to see what comes next, since Stoppiello has said this is a work in progress. I was one of the people who got hugged, but unlike Minh Tran, an audience member, only once and by only one person. It was good to see Stoppiello dance again, not to mention the other pick-up company members, but I’d like to see more variety in the choreography, less didacticism, and because I’m very American myself, I don’t like being given orders over a loudspeaker as an audience member, or watching the performers obey them slavishly.
    Last word: it is deeply gratifying to me that we’re enjoying a dance boom in this city, so much so, that it’s impossible to see everything. I salute all the followers of Terpsichore, please continue to bring it on!

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