A Flock of movement at Disjecta

Tahni Holt carves a new exploratory dance space out of North Portland's prominent arts center

Tahni Holt’s dance career blossomed in Portland, and grew to performances in Seattle, New York, Austin, France, and Romania. But her most recent move is more unusual for Portland artists who have found success beyond our vibrant but sometimes confining city.

Last year she brought it back home, on purpose.

Tahni Holt

Tahni Holt

Her turning point was having a child, which she describes as “a moment in my life that brought reflection and intention for the future.” Suddenly able to imagine living in Portland for the next 20 years, she began asking herself the question of how to build the conditions her career needed to develop in such a way that she could share those resources with other “dedicated artists in the community.”

Drawing on a robust professional network and spurred by a timely offer by her old friend and Disjecta director Bryan Suereth, Holt celebrated the opening of Flock at the close of the Disjecta 2014 Biennial. The opening night roster, including Linda Austin, Tere Mathern, and Biennial artist Kelly Rauer, immediately placed Flock into the middle of Portland’s highly connected web of contemporary dance projects.

Do we need another dance space in Portland?

Zoomtopia has studio two, hand2mouth recently opened the Shouthouse, Performance Works Northwest has been a bastion for years, BodyVox has a full calendar of events, Conduit is producing interesting work, so does Portland really need another collaborative center for dance? If you don’t know about all of these spaces, you should, and if you do it’s quite a nice feeling to run you fingers over each item in the list and feel their subtle but important differences.

Flock is different still — it’s more of a shared laboratory for new choreography and dance. From the floor to the membership structure, Holt has designed the project to facilitate the production of new work by serious dancers within the community that supports them. It’s meant as a home-base for dancers to develop their careers and projects, not just a springboard to bigger cities. Admirably, most of the press for Flock avoids the use of the word “incubator,” which might be applicable if it hadn’t been worn to shreds by the tech industry.

On July 16, flock will present "An Evening with 'Trio A,'" featuring Linda Austin, Licy Yim, and Jen Hackworth performing Yvonne Rainer's postmodern landmark under Linda K. Johnson's guidance. Johnson also will show a video of the Axis Dance Company (pictured) performing her variation of Rainer's piece for them earlier this year, and Austin will perform her "MUTT," an homage to "Trio A."

On July 16, Flock will present “An Evening with ‘Trio A,'” featuring Linda Austin, Licy Yim, and Jen Hackworth performing Yvonne Rainer’s postmodern landmark under Linda K. Johnson’s guidance. Johnson also will show a video of the Axis Dance Company (pictured) performing her variation of Rainer’s piece for them earlier this year, and Austin will perform her “MUTT,” an homage to “Trio A.”

As anyone who’s signed a lease on an art space knows, those papers and the keys that follow give you alternating gusts of freedom and weighty dread. You can go there whenever you want, and do whatever you want! But you’re on the hook – that rent check comes out of your account, and you’re the one cleaning up in the morning. Holt has structured the membership and programming at Flock to spread that generative freedom of ownership while avoiding the obligations on the flip side as much as possible. This does mean that she shoulders much of the on-paper responsibility, but it also means that she can make administrative decisions without the inertia of a collective while the other members can focus on their work.

Practically, this means that membership fees cover almost all of the operating costs, so there is little pressure to create public-facing events and classes to generate more income. The workshops and classes likewise have the leeway they need to develop fully. This means higher membership fees than if the project collaboratively worked to generate rent money, but this is another decision made with a veteran’s hindsight. Consistent, quality studio time is the rarest and most valuable commodity to a serious working artist, and it returns compound interest over time. Many measures meant to make a space “sustainable” often corrode the continuity that good, new work requires. Furthermore, the fees, while affordable, motivate members to get their money’s worth and not to join up lightly.

And that membership list is impressive as it is varied. Lucy Lee Yim brings to the table her  “marbled fantasy-fable with degrees of fatty narrative intentionally trimmed”. Kaj Anne Pepper’s, self-described as a “kinesthetic post-realness drag queen”, now has a place to catch the sparks his bottle rocket of a career has been spraying over Portland in recent years. Dawn Stoppiello brings conceptual body-based work, “creating scenarios for bodies interfaced with computers through sensory systems and moving in synchrony with projected video images,” while Tracy Broyles brings a varied practice that includes body-work and healing. The ever-busy Danielle Ross casts her eye on  “moments that allow awkwardness, vulnerability, the self-aware, and quirk to rise to the surface,”. Allie Hankins’s deeply researched work and Stephanie Lanckton’s investigations into the evolutionary nature of dance and performance seem particularly well-paired. And finally, Deanna Carlson has the distinction of stepping up to Flock membership directly out of college.

Until I talked to Tahni, I hadn’t understood the qualitative difference between what a good practice space means to a dancer as compared to other fine artists. All the good painters I know can make good work anywhere with not-awful light, less ventilation than is healthy, and enough space to turn around without knocking something over. Of course they will have a better time with a better studio, but as long as it’s not actively standing in their way, they can get their work out with some space and time. Our relationship to work space is like seeds looking for bare patches of grass, wherever they are. Then there are installation or environmental artists, who need a space that will at least fit their work, and sometimes they tear up the boundaries like a tree in a too-small plot.

Dance seems to be more like heirloom produce cultivation, with production tied intimately to the local conditions and how they are tended. The quality or convenience of dancers’ work is affected by all the things that affect anyone in need of space to work, but it seems that their work is tied to their space in a way that is slightly but significantly deeper. The floor, the schedule of availability, the dimensions, the heating — all of these things affect not just the quality of the work, but whether certain work can even be conceived in the first place.

So Flock has been created, very carefully, to serve the particular needs of contemporary dancers and choreographers in Portland who want to produce new work. The floor was carefully selected by Holt, built on rubber pieces with woven subflooring for even breathability and bounce under a new hardwood surface. Its members are an exciting list of diverse talents and backgrounds, and their landlord happens to be one of the largest centers for contemporary art in town. As a painter, I’m envious of the dance scene for finding and seizing such a valuable intersection of opportunities. As a lover of contemporary dance, I’m thrilled.

Check Flock’s website for events and workshops, all located at its space within Disjecta.

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