DanceWatch Weekly: Spenser Theberge talks dance in Europe and dance in Portland

The Portland native has danced with major European companies, and he's returned for a concert Friday night.

This weekend there is one dance performance, and it’s a significant one. Portland native Spenser Theberge who danced with Netherlands Dance Theatre, and his partner Jermaine Spivey, who dances for Kidd Pivot, will debut a new collaborative work, “RATHER THIS, THEN,” that investigates identity and perception.

You will be able to see these two dance for one night only, Friday, at Disjecta—the contemporary arts center in North Portland, which is also home to choreographer Tahni Holt’s dance center, FLOCK. It is a chance to see world class dancing in an intimate setting, as opposed to viewing it over the heads of hundreds of people sitting in front of you in a large theatre. Both are good, but this is better, in my opinion. You will also get a chance to drink cocktails and mingle with Theberge and Spivey before and after the show.

Theberge grew up dancing at The School of Oregon Ballet Theatre and Columbia Dance in Vancouver and went on to attend Juilliard and to dance with the Netherlands Dance Theatre and The Forsythe Company.

His partner Jermaine Spivey, also attended Juilliard and went on to dance for Ballet Gulbenkian and the Cullberg Ballet, joining Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s company Kidd Pivot in 2008, where he dances now. You might have seen him perform back in April when White Bird brought Betroffenheit to Portland—a collaboration between Kidd Pivot and the Electric Company Theatre that combined dance and theatre, which ArtsWatch’s Nim Wunnan captured in his review, which you can read here.

Therberge describes this new collaborative work between the two as “highly physical and highly human, calling on body, voice, and visual elements to reveal truths about each other. It’s privacy made public, it’s tenderly voyeuristic, and the result is an opportunity for the audience to see something of themselves represented in another.”

Over several days, in between rehearsals, I was able to ask Theberge a barrage of questions that sprouted from my own curiosity about why so many people are moving to Portland, what his dance life has been like, and what it’s like to dance in Europe.

But first, the performance info!

Spenser Theberge and Jermaine Spivey
7 pm September 30
7 pm Cocktails
Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave


Spenser Theberge and Jermaine Spivey performing an excerpt of “RATHER THIS, THEN,” at Place des Arts in Montreal. Photo by Shumpei Nemoto.

Why, after all of the places that you have danced, did you come back to Portland? Why not New York or another bigger city? (I’m not saying it’s a bad choice, I’m just very curious about what attracts people to Portland)

We came back to Portland because it’s my home. I haven’t performed in Portland since graduating high school—I miss sharing the work I’m doing with my family and community. Jermaine and I had already planned this visit for the whole month of September, so it seemed like a great opportunity to put on our own show! My sister, Amy, is an event planner and works at DISJECTA. She made this whole thing happen, which is so awesome. Why not New York? I love New York, but making work there is difficult. It’s hard to carve out a space for yourself in such an intense field, and it’s hard, when you’re an emerging creator, to convince people to take a chance on you. It feels like there’s more room and open ears for new work in Portland and the West Coast. I also feel like it’s important to contribute to the place you come from. The Portland area has supported me so much and I’m really excited to start sharing back with the city.

Are you planning on staying?

We won’t be permanently residing here, but I will always visit regularly to see my family, and Jermaine and I hope to start cultivating creative ties here.

What are your dance plans after the 30th?

After the 30th Jermaine and I go to NYC to rehearse for a tour, then we’ll be performing in Montreal with the ARIAS Company. We’ll be working on our own work in LA for the rest of the year. In the new year, Jermaine will go back on tour with Kidd Pivot’s Betroffenheit (seen in Portland last April), and I will be in Rome, Lyon, and Tulsa re-staging works from Netherlands Dance Theater on companies there.

I’ll be restaging “Cacti” by Alexander Ekman at the Rome Opera Ballet and Tulsa Ballet, and “I New Then” by Johan Inger at Lyon Opera Ballet. (I believe both pieces were performed by NDT2 when they were in Portland a few years ago)

How long have you been dancing for Netherlands dance theatre and what has that been like? What choreographers have you worked for and what did you learn about yourself, dancing and choreographing?

I danced for NDT for 4 years, and that was an incredible learning experience. I travelled all over the world, dancing from the Sydney Opera House to Lincoln Center, and I was a cultural ambassador on behalf of the Dutch Royal Family for diplomatic visits. At NDT I worked with Jiri Kylian, Ohad Naharin, Crystal Pite, Alexander Ekman, Lightfoot Leon, Johan Inger, Hans van Manen, among others. I learned how to be a chameleon, how to slip into different styles and pick up on the essential details valued by each choreographer. NDT was where I began to realize that I enjoyed writing and speaking on stage (I wrote the text for Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, and totally caught the text bug) and began exploring that in my own choreography. At the beginning of my 4th year there I realized that I was getting to sample many styles, but not specializing in anything. I wanted to dig deeper into specific work, so that’s when I made the choice to leave NDT and was fortunate enough to join The Forsythe Company later that year. Working with William Forsythe totally changed me as a dancer—I learned to be myself and to understand how I want to dance, instead of just being good at doing what someone else asks. It was a pivotal time for me in the value of ownership and identity as a performer. And, of course, the work on improvisation was mind blowing.


Spenser Theberge and Jermaine Spivey performing an excerpt of “RATHER THIS, THEN,” at Place des Arts in Montreal. Photo by Shumpei Nemoto.

Can you talk about what it’s like working as a dancer in Europe compared to the United States?

Working as a dancer in Europe means you’re really well taken care of. You get paid all year, have health care, vacation time, physical therapy, a pension plan. Dancing is the same as any other job there (for the most part, although Europe is beginning to see similar budget cuts in the arts as we do in America) and the conditions and benefits of the all jobs are the same. Also, working in Europe is so special because of your proximity to other places. I travelled so much in the 7 years I lived there, going places it would have been harder for me to get to from America.

As far as comparing that to working in America, I can’t really say! This is my first year working as a dancer in America so I’m just beginning to learn the ropes. As a freelancer, however, I can say that’s different from working for a company. No one is doing anything for you as a freelancer, so I’m learning so much about things I didn’t have to take care of when I worked for a company. It’s more work now, but it feels good to be doing it myself and really understanding all the pieces of this profession.

How are the processes of creating dance different in both places?

Creating in Europe is what I’m most familiar with. I think the main difference between creating there or in America is that theaters and residency houses in Europe are government subsidized, so fundraising is a very limited portion of creative life there.

Why not stay in Portland?

My partner and I have been looking for a place to live for the past year, knowing that we want to be back in America. We’ve decided to go to LA because of the art renaissance it’s experiencing. There’s a huge push to rival the NYC art scene, and people are being generous with their money and resources. It feels like a place full of possibility and potential right now, and it’s a great opportunity to go there and be a part of the creation of something. (I never thought I’d say that about LA!!) So I don’t feel like we’re saying no to Portland—it’s more like LA is the place we’re saying yes to.


Spenser Theberge and Jermaine Spivey performing an excerpt of “RATHER THIS, THEN,” at Place des Arts in Montreal. Photo by Shumpei Nemoto.

Is there anything about yourself or your dancing life that you would like to add?

We’re interested in commenting on assumptions and prescribed notions about race, gender, and sexuality. However, instead of making statements about broad ideas, we’re working on showing our personal dynamic. Instead of telling you what we believe, we’re just being what we believe in front of an audience—trying to be private in public. The goal is that by zooming in on our micro point of view, we can shed light on macro ideas.

Upcoming Performances

October 6-8, Diavolo-Architecture in Motion, White Bird
October 7-25, A Photo Exhibit of Fuse-Portland Dance Portrait, Jingzi Zhao
October 8-15, Giants, Oregon Ballet Theatre
October 13-15, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, White Bird
October 13-15, Bolero, NW Dance Project
October 20-29, BloodyVox, BodyVox
October 20-22, Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak, White Bird
October 21-22, Traces, Mark Koenigsberg & Sara Naegelin
October 21-22, Lines of Pull, The Holding Project
October 24-November 5, Marginal Evidence, Katherine Longstreth
October 28-30, INCIPIO, PDX Contemporary Ballet
November 3-12, Reclaimed, Polaris Dance Theatre
November 4-6, Obstacles and Victory Songs, Stephanie Lavon Trotter and Dora Gaskill
November 11-13, Epoch, Jamuna Chiarini and push/FOLD-Samuel Hobbs
November 12-20, the last bell rings for you, Linda Austin Dance
November 17-19, Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, White Bird
December 2-4, N.E.W. Expressive Works Residency Performance, Dana Detweiler, James Healey, Jessica Hightower, and Renee Sills
December 8-10, In Good Company, NW Dance Project
December 8-10, ARCANE COLLECTIVE, Presented by BodyVox
December 10-26, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, Oregon Ballet Theatre
December 15-17, Complicated Woman, Katie Scherman/2016 Alembic Resident Artist
December 18, Gifts, a film by Clare Whistler/2015 Performance Works NW visiting artist
December 22-24, Cirque Dreams Holidaze, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland

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