Groovin’ Greenhouse heats up the dance

The dance part of Fertile Ground was a whirlwind of styles and choreographic ideas. Next year: a little more?

Portland’s recent Fertile Grounds festival of new works included six nights of new dance in Groovin’ Greenhouse, hosted by Polaris Dance Theater. I attended two of them (January 24 and 31), hoping to get a good cross-section in the process. Performing those nights were Polaris, PDX Dance Collective, Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance, WolfBird Dance, Automal and six troupes from Portland’s new Belly Dance Guild. The range of offerings in style, content and ability was gigantic, even just those two nights.

The evenings began with an upbeat, pre-curtain speech by Robert Guitron, Polaris Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director and host of Groovin’ Greenhouse. I am not usually a big fan of pre-show speeches, because they tend to drag on and slow down the momentum of an otherwise exciting evening. But this one was important. Guitron told us that Polaris will be losing its dance home in May to make room for condos. This, sadly, is a recurring theme of late in this town, and in others, for that matter.

But on with the show.

Starting off both programs were three new pieces for Polaris Dance Theater by Guitron and company members M’Liss Quinnly and Gerard Regot. Both Guitron and Regot also composed their own music.

M’Liss Quinnly's “Pierce,” performed by Polaris Dance.

M’Liss Quinnly’s “Pierce,” performed by Polaris Dance.

Pierce by Quinnly was about being confident in who you are at this very moment in time. She originally choreographed it in 2006 for her synchronized swimming World Championship Competition solo, and has since adapted the movement for land. It employs music by Apparat & Ellen Allien with electronic beats combining bass and violin. Dressed in black-and-white geometric patterned leggings and black tops, the 11 dancers mimicked the fabric patterns in the angularity and sharpness of their dancing.

Dominating the entire stage, the dancers moved fearlessly as one unit, moving through choreography that was sexy and powerful. The synchronized swimming aspect became apparent midway through the piece when arm movements dominated the choreography. Most impressive was the linked arm circle, organized from low to high from front to back, essentially creating a wave that snaked around the circle in mechanical syncopation. It was dramatic and impressive in its timing and precision, and the audience loved it.

Identity, choreographed by Regot, was about the monotony of life. The dancers were dressed in crisp white button-down shirts and ties, and moved their bodies rhythmically and robotically, stepping forward and back to a heavy beat, systematically building up energy and then exploding one by one, only to fall back into the collective beat. In the end, the beat of the music became an unseen force repetitively knocking their heads back over and over, until finally they were knocked off balance and fell backwards into the dark.

Guitron’s work-in-progress What’s Wrong is based on the idea that humans can believe in something so strongly that it becomes a crutch. The dance began with a giant pile of tangled bodies and chairs, something like the Zoobomb bike pile on Southwest Burnside and 13th Avenue. These chairs became many things as the dancers pushed and pulled them around, turning them into pedestals and obstacles for each other. Midway through the dance the chairs were formed into a diagonal line, creating a platform for each individual battle. The chair became the partner, and multiple possibilities were expressed: sitting, standing, rolling, leaping off, leaning on, or flying off the chairs, and much more.

The three Polaris pieces shared an aesthetic and choreographic voice, which makes sense: all the dancers train and perform together under the same roof. This experience created a strong cohesive group, but also a lot of repetition.  At times the movement choices felt safe and formulaic. Part of this feeling of safeness, for me, came from watching the dancers perform in socks. Their movement felt inhibited and conscious of the risk of falling.

Next up was PDX Dance Collective, a nonprofessional company that works in a collective spirit. The collective offered two dances: the first, an experimental work in progress using the rhythms of tap dance combined with contemporary dance by Rachel Brown in collaboration with tappers Jordann Wallis and Briana Whitehead. The second, called Cycle and Seek and choreographed by Hannah Downs, was about the obstacles we create for ourselves, using soft, lilting, lyrical movement, simple partnering, and juxtaposing forces and emotive gestures to convey its theme.

I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the tappers, but the contrast of the rhythmic tapping with lyrical movement didn’t work for me. The two parts happened in different sections of the stage and never connected rhythmically, physically or visually.

In Cycle and Seek, occasionally two of the dancers, Gabriel Green and Hannah Downs, would cross paths, partner for a moment, and then separate. I found myself wishing they would dance together more. They are a matched pair in their height, skill and willowy movement quality, and were beautiful to watch.

Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance. Photo: Emily Zarov.

Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance’s “The Servant.” Photo: Emily Zarov.

Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance, directed by Rachel Slater and Suzanne Chi, brought us West Rising Sun, choreographed by Slater, and The Servant, by Tracey Durbin.

West Rising Sun, performed by Slater, Chi and Eliza Larson, investigated what is happiness and where it lives, using bright, vibrant, expansive movement, comedy and pantomime. Dressed in cutoff jean shorts and colorful tank tops, the trio danced together and separately, always coming back together again. The choreography had a couple of jarring moments, when we were lulled into comfort listening to soft melodic music and watching beautiful dancing, and all of a sudden a dancer would break out in some form of “club dancing” with a big smile on her face. These were undoubtedly funny moments, as the audience laughed along, but threw a wrench in things for me. I was confused. Maybe this was the point? Are we all just performing happiness? Happiness is performance? Is it all that superficial? I don’t know. Muddy Feet is planning a full concert in the future, and it will be interesting to see where this piece goes. Stay tuned.

The Servant, Muddy Feet’s second dance, was choreographedby Portland jazz teacher and choreographer Tracy Durbin and danced by Slater and Chi. The program quoted Alice Walker: “Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?”

It’s a circular dance of sisters alternately rejecting and accepting each other. With long legs and weighty partnering, Slater and Chi go back and forth within this duality until the end when Chi exits the stage alone, through the middle of the audience risers, with Slater following behind.

The dancers wore cap-sleeved lace mini-dresses, one black and one beige, with bra and briefs visible underneath. They reminded me of the slumber party scene from the movie Grease. I wasn’t convinced that these were the right costumes for the piece. Perhaps they represent intimacy between siblings? I don’t know.

WolfBird Dance: Selina DiPronio and Raven-Jones. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

WolfBird Dance: Selina DiPronio and Raven-Jones. Photo: Christopher Peddecord

WolfBird Dance presented an excerpt from YOUR BACKWASH IS BETTER THAN NOTHING, choreographed and performed by Raven Jones and Selina DiPronio. This short segment under dark lighting seemed to be a deep, intimate conversation between DiPronio and Jones. It consisted of Jones crouched on the floor with her fingers in her mouth, floppy sweaters, and wild flailing movements of arms and legs in total abandon. I was drawn to the connection between the two dancers and their comfort with each other in touch and unspoken communication. Their movement felt unself-conscious and undefinable in any realm of dance. It was just them. 

**** 

The program’s second half featured six belly dancing companies, representing a variety of styles, from the Portland Belly Dancing Guild and directed by Elise Morris. There was a huge shift in energy from the first half of the concert: the lights got brighter, the energy got livelier, the focus shifted to a whole different aesthetic of the female form as natural, voluptuous, and powerful. Each choreographer was playing with a shared theme of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark.

The dancers’ names and music credits were not listed in the program but if you are interested you might find them on the Portland Belly Dance Guild Facebook page.

Raqa Ayana Belly Dance—a trio based in the American Cabaret style of belly dance—is what the majority of us would think of when we think of belly dancing. But they were anything but typical. Wearing colorful sequin bra tops, matching hip scarves and voluminous layers of tie-dyed silk skirts, these dancers so meticulously and beautifully isolated head and shoulder from hip and arms, eliciting uluations (tongue trills) from the belly dance fans in the audience. So specific were these articulations that at one point the dancers were posed in a reverse plank on the floor and the only movement happening was a small continuous ripple in their bellies. Truly amazing.

Maia, a soloist with an Egyptian focus, wore a long-sleeved, floor-length white kafta and a burgundy scarf tied around her hips. Adorned only with a few bangles and large earrings, her presentation was more subtle but no less articulate as the movement was mostly hidden under the fabric.

Scarlett Thistle, with Traci Stenson Hildner, Debi Budnick, Colette Todorov and Tabra Bay. Phoebus-foto.

Scarlett Thistle, with Traci Stenson Hildner, Debi Budnick, Colette Todorov and Tabra Bay. Phoebus-foto.

Scarlet Thistle, a Tribal Style Belly Dance quartet, appeared to be a little darker in mood. With ornately decorated hair styles with flowers and chairs, wearing back choli tops and earth-toned patterned skirts and large medallion belts, they danced a little more slowly and a little more weightily into the ground with cymbals and swords. Most impressively, they lowered themselves to a kneeling position and moved in a circle, the whole time balancing swords on their heads, mixing seduction with ferocity.

Darjeeling Dance Collective, a collective combining historic and modern belly dancing, donned tight, colorfully striped kaftans and black hip scarfs, and combined cane dancing and belly dance, spinning the canes around and clicking them on their partners canes. All smiles and ease.

Amrita, an experimental duet based in Classical Indian Dance, Persian dance and tribal fusion, sang live as they danced in long, form-fitting green dresses and head scarves carrying gold pots on their heads. It reminded me of a scene out of an opera, where two girls fill their pots and reminisce down by a river. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the song was or what they were singing about, but it was lovely anyway.

Lucine Dance Company, a theatrical contemporary belly dance quartet, created high drama with shiny, copper-colored costumes and sleek futuristic hair and makeup, moving in a reptilian creature-like way combined with the isolations and staccato movements of traditional belly dancing. They were out of this world!

All of the belly dancing groups were simply stunning to watch in their variety of styles, movements, colors and themes. This performance really upended my preconceived notions of what belly dance could be.

 

Saturday, January 31

 

This final program consisted of Polaris Dance Theater, Automal, and Polaris’s junior company, which performed a suite of six dances choreographed by M’Liss Quinnly and Gerard Regot.

Graft, choreographed by Automal’s artistic director, Kate Rafter, was danced by Paris Cannon, Ross Calhoun, Sara Himmelman, Ella Matweyou, Rafter, and Lauren Vermillion. This ritual-based inquiry into our human interconnectedness was demonstrated conceptually and physically using white Silly Putty to show connection, elasticity, recycling and replication, to name just a few concepts. The dancers began by repeatedly dropping the putty from one hand to another. They let gravity take over, allowing the putty to stretch out and fall behind their backs. They wrapped it around their necks and arms,  covered each other’s faces with it and poked holes in it. There was a sense of risk here as the putty was unpredictable, but the dancers handled it with calm, and the Silly Putty cooperated.

Automal's Paris Cannon and Ella Matweyou. Arnista Photography.

Automal’s Paris Cannon and Ella Matweyou. Arnista Photography.

The dancers – dressed in high-waisted, straight, full-length, stretchy skirts and crop tops in beige, off-white and black – moved around solemnly, quietly, and systematically, like high priestesses preparing for a ceremony. There were great moments of explosion when the group moved together, jumping and falling, stretching and pulling the skirts, making interesting and unusual shapes as they moved. I particularly liked the movement choices of Sara Himmelman and Ella Matweyou, because they approached the movement unadorned, without extra gestures or emotions, gliding seamlessly through the choreography with an internal focus that seemed fitting. In the end the Silly Putty was transformed into a larger form of a white cloth that slowly enveloped everyone on stage to the line “dull flame of desire” by Bjork, and the lights went out. Cosmic.

 Opportunities in Portland for choreographers to show work without having to produce the show themselves are few and far between. The Fertile Ground Festival is a perfect untapped opportunity for choreographers to do so without the expense of producing the entire show by themselves. Polaris was able to take only the first six companies that applied to Groovin’ Greenhouse, which makes me think this would be a great opportunity for other dance presenters in town to open their theaters and spaces to presenting new dance works as part of the Fertile Ground Festival in the future. Cheers to the future.

 

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