Fertile Ground Review: Groovin’ Greenhouse

Polaris premiered new works in progress, and opened its annual showcase with Automal and PDX Dance Collective.

Automal lost their music but kept their cool on the opening night of Polaris-hosted Groovin' Greenhouse.

Automal lost their music but kept their cool on the opening night of Polaris-hosted Groovin’ Greenhouse.

Polaris Dance’s Groovin’ Greenhouse is a Fertile Ground Festival mainstay, one of the first dance events on the mostly-theater roster, and still the most abundant source of dance shows in the fest. This year, Polaris will host 10 other dance companies at its studio, closing each evening with its own workshop performances. (Though the openers will change each night, the Polaris shows will stay consistent throughout the run.) It’s a rare opportunity for the company to rehearse in front of an audience, and, true to the “Greenhouse” metaphor, you can watch the shows growing.

When Polaris artistic director Robert Guitron announced the opening night program, he seemed eager to differentiate his company’s shows from the visitors’. “They’re not adjudicated, and we take them first-come-first-serve,” he said. Well then. We’ll see what we get. But let’s not trample the tender shoots.

Polaris (through Feb 1)
Polaris’s latest explorations, Exams and a piano-accompanied work yet to be named, share a common theme: rebellion against regimented systems. The former spells out schoolroom angst; the latter hints at office neurosis. And the fact that they’re presented in that order gives a feeling of chronological progression: First the teacher keeps you down, then the Man. Ironically, the best way to depict a regimented system through dance is to perform tightly-synchronized choreography, the discipline of which…and we’re full circle. Rules have been made, to show that rules are made to be broken.

Exams is set to a rhythmic soundscape (metronome clicks, a piano loop of minor arpeggio) overlaid with the spoken word of British poet Suli Banks, who rants about the irrelevance of standardized exams and status quo teaching methods in the information age. The expressive faces of Kieraqmil Brinkley and an unlisted male dancer are a focal point in the hoodie-clad, co-ed troupe; Brinkley seems to portray a general spirit of defiance, while he acts out the narrator’s words as a problem child that the rest of the dancers keep in check. For instance, when he turns his head out of sync with the others, they reach over and wrench it back. Playing uniformity against chaos, the piece accelerates to a high-intensity ending, giving Banks’ confrontational voice the last word.

The unnamed second work takes a similar form, but a dramatic, original piano track by Guitron and the dancers’ shirt-and-tie uniforms raise the stakes. First, there’s the metronome-like repetition of a single piano note, gradually elaborated by other contra-rhythmic notes that take shape into an eerie melody. Dancers’ legato maneuvers are punctuated by frenetic, neurotic flurries. They mime calculation, distraction, finger-pointing, and overseeing. As the piano whirls fuller and more manic, dancers embody fatigue and neurosis, at turns sinking to the floor and scrabbling after something.

Like Exams, the piece shows periods of synchrony and outbursts of deviation, but compared to Exams, this work also explores more infighting. At one point, dancers in a tight cluster jostle each other as though moshing. I did wish the piano were performed live rather than played on a track, but one can imagine many logistical challenges to that approach. Maybe once the show moves from workshop to full performance mode, that’ll happen? Fingers crossed.

Between these two live works is Body Love, a film set to spoken word by Seattle musician Mary Lambert over a soundscape that sounds less like Lambert’s pop hit “She Keeps Me Warm” than like instru-experimentalists The Books. A recognizable screen cameo by Polaris’s M’Liss Stephenson ties the film in with the live pieces; even so, it feels less like part of a triptych than a passive interlude between two more active scenes. Lambert’s message is an essential one, decrying objectification and echoing most body-positive conversation, but it doesn’t seem to add new arguments or insight. The imagery (diagonal close-ups of dancers and nude flesh being pre-surgically marked) doesn’t quite cohere or enlighten, either. It’s Feminism 101: essential, but also basic. For new, surprising feminist rants, I prefer the linguistic twists of Lambert’s fellow Seattlite Lindy West—just as body-positive, but less prone to cliché.

Automal (opening night only)
Think Maxfield Parish, think Ghost of Christmas Past. Bearing lights, and wearing white, each dancer entered Automal’s Amends carrying a translucent basket of white tamari balls with glowing golden centers. First they used the objects for play, then proffered them as sacred offerings.

Their moves, softened extrapolations of African folk, were those of harvest, offering, and blessing, their arms often arching in moonish crescents. The music, too, was Afro-inspired but not African psychedelia (Animal Collective? Vampire Weekend? In that oeuvre.) Dancers played with the balls of light, rolling them, hopping over them, and eventually tearing some open and carefully balancing the LED candles from inside on choreographer Kate Rafter’s spine in what looked like a ritual of healing (hot wax?). Briefly, the dancers disbursed into the audience, each leading an audience member onto the stage, where Rafter bid them to mirror her tai-chi-like moves.

“Your computer died.” A sudden pronouncement from Guitron momentarily broke the spell as the music fell silent. Maybe he meant to be simple and direct, but the statement sounded accusatory and dire. Taking the three-foot walk to whisper in Rafter’s ear would’ve been more tactful; some creative show-saver like dancing onto the stage and handing off a light ball (with a discreet message) would’ve been ideal. Fortunately and amazingly, Rafter kept her poise, counting back in and singing the rest of the cut-off song a cappella. It might be time to hire a stage manager.

PDX Dance Collective (opening night only)
This company chose the most classical accompaniment of the evening: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons—though they mentioned that it was modified, which from what I could tell meant “more reverb.” PDC’s choreography ran the gamut from ballet to modern, from fouetté turns and graceful partnering to splayed hands and angular shapes. Distinct lighting changes helped delineate each season, and dynamic choreography corresponded well with the score. In their brown blouses, the dancers looked like falling leaves.

During Spring, they danced in the round, as if clustered at a maypole, even perhaps quoting Rite of Spring with some ritual folk gestures. Summer brought a pas de deux of well-matched partners who traded the supporting role: when he swooned, she caught him, and vice-versa. A quickening flurry of solos ushered in Autumn, then another duet with two women, one of whom was left standing as the other rolled away. Winter brought the final crescendo, pulling the ensemble back into a circular folk formation, and the denouement that settled the dancers into a pile from which they drifted offstage one by one. The piece was nuanced, varied, and a nice blend of momentum and fluidity.

After opening night, Polaris proceeded into a packed weekend featuring Bridge City Dance Project’s tribute to the feminist movement, TripTheDark’s History set to 20(!) Portland bands, and the aerial dexterity of AWOL Dance, featuring their unique “aerial pole.” They’ll continue the run through next weekend with works from Collective Northwest and NW Fusion, a two-man duet from TopShakeDance, and a premiere from Beat Bangerz, a tap/hoofing fusion company.

Four years in, Groovin’ Greenhouse remains a hotbed of talent and experimentation.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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