Is Portland the newest dance destination?

Recent transplants tell us why they moved to Portland to choreograph and perform  

By BETH WHELAN

The other day, I stumbled across the Oregonian article  “13 reasons to leave Portland and go back to where you came from.” Quick flashback to 14 months ago: Me, squeezing everything I owned into my car and trekking across the country to Portland, where my only local connection was a rented Craigslist room. In 2017, Oregon was rated the second most popular state for relocation, and Portlanders have been experiencing the effects of that migration for the past decade, including skyrocketing real-estate costs and traffic congestion. As one of the transplants, I hear you, Portland! There are drawbacks to everyone realizing what a gem this city is and abruptly moving here.

But there are benefits, too, including the growth of Portland’s dance community. I moved here because I felt I could have it all: a full life within and outside of dance in a right-sized city surrounded by natural beauty. Once I arrived, I was surprised to find so many recent transplants like myself; people with a passion to leave their creative mark on the place. Why pursue a dance career in Portland, though? I asked some of these new artists what brought them here, the differences they’ve found between Portland and the dance communities in their cities of origin, and what their experiences have been like. Here’s what they told me.

Kristalyn Gill Early:

contemporary-fusion choreographer, dancer, poet

Kristalyn Gill Early’s “The Breakup Club” at Disjecta, 2018. Photo by Kristalyn Gill Early

North Carolina native Kristalyn Gill Early moved to Portland in October of 2017, determined to find a community of artists that would challenge her and help her grow creatively. Just over a year later, this dancer-poet-choreographer has established her place in Portland’s dance scene.  

An East Carolina University dance graduate, Early’s senior thesis was an evening-length work featuring text from her first book of self-published poems, which explored dual perspectives. Like her prose, her choreography is a study in contrasts. She calls her quirky, precise style “contemporary fusion”; it blends the fluidity of contemporary movement with the quick, sharp hits of hip-hop.

And it has found a home in Portland. Shortly after arriving, Early debuted a new work, I’ll swallow you whole, in Amorphous, a mixed bill that Downright Productions cofounders Anna Mara and Emily Schultz presented in January 2017. Early also set a piece on BodyVox’s junior company, JAG, and a short-and-sweet comedic piece for The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven’s Oddville show. In her most recent creation, The Breakup Club, the audience selected audio recordings of her recent poems from a laptop at the front of Disjecta’s performance space as Early and her cast executed preset choreography correlating to the text. Viewers essentially controlled the trajectory of the piece: had they stopped selecting poems, the piece would have ended.

Seeing audiences connect to her work has been a pivotal part of her artistic process. “Dance is the physical prose of our lives,” she explained. “Whether it’s a story or an idea that we are expanding on, [it] has immense power to connect communities and create respect and trust across diverse beliefs and perspectives.”

Her dedication to choreography is matched by her passion to perform. Now dancing with Shaun Keylock Company and 11: dance co, as well as working on freelance projects, Early trains at BodyVox and NW Dance Project. Finding classes that challenge her artistry as well as her technique are paramount, she said, and not always easy to find. Her desire to strike a balance inspired her to teach a BodyVox workshop in which participants worked on creative expression within the parameters of strong technical training. “Teaching there was a dream for me,” she said. “Bringing people together and seeing how responsive [they were] to my style was fulfilling.”

Early found fulfillment, too, in the 2018 Launch program, a grueling NW Dance Project intensive that provides high-caliber training and the chance to publicly perform work by top-level international choreographers. She admired her fellow participants’ clear drive to succeed. “People here say they want to do something and they do it,” she said of the dancers she’s met here. “The sheer will power of everyone in this city will shake the nation!”

Another thing Early appreciates about her new home is seeing the same dancers and viewers regularly making it out to support performances. There seems to be a place for everyone here, she said. Whether you’re a dancer, choreographer, teacher, or viewer,  “no matter what your relationship with dance is, you can find it here in Portland.” After my own year of dancing, choreographing, and writing on dance locally, I had to agree.

Decimus Yarbrough:

hip-hop dancer, choreographer, Cypher Culture Conference director

Cypher Culture Conference 2018. Photo by Cameron Ousley

When Decimus Yarbrough finds something lacking, he takes the initiative to provide it. A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Yarbrough trained in martial arts but learned street-dance styles at clubs in Washington D.C. and in local cyphers. Noting a lack of formal training in street-dance styles, Yarbrough and friend Will Riddick started a hip-hop department at the Virginia Beach dance studio where they taught. They directed a choreographic team and handled bookings.

Yarbrough spent some time in Portland as a youngster, but when he moved back to the city in 2016, initially planning to open a food truck, he was surprised to find bigger neighborhoods, more people, and more dance. “This city was a lot different than I remembered when I came back,” he said. He also found that the hip-hop community was much younger than he expected, with an interest in taking class and learning about street-dance culture. “A lot of younger cats are knowledge heads,” he said. “[They’re] still young and can pretty much do anything. They don’t have to care [about dancing], but they do, and they show it,”

When the food truck plan didn’t pan out, he jumped into the local hip-hop community, adopting what he described as a “hustle mentality” out of financial necessity. “I was put under pressure due to certain circumstances,” he said. “Usually your best self can come out when you’re under pressure.”  Last May, that pressure motivated him to organize Portland’s first-ever Cypher Culture Conference, a four-day event designed to preserve urban street-style culture through parties (which he calls the roots of street dance) and accessible classes that united the Portland community with dancers from around the country. The conference generated a more supportive response than he expected: he found that dancers liked having a place where they could come together to learn and have fun without the typical intensity of battles.

In addition to organizing events and teaching, Yarbrough has found fulfilling work as a freelance performer and company member of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater. Yarbrough connected with the company after dancing work by founding member Michael Galen in a 2016 New Expressive Works residency performance. Yarbrough went on to secure one of these coveted dance residencies for himself in 2018, another highlight of his Portland career. “I was in a shell for a while, and not wanting to create,” he said. “NEW helped get me out of that.” (For more on his work at NEW, see my review.)

Yarbrough’s next project is to tackle what he sees as a lack of urgency in local dance training. (I understand what he means. In my experience, professional dancers are expected to take class more often in East Coast dance hubs such as New York or Washington, D.C.)  Just as pressure motivated him, Yarbrough believes that pairing Portland’s immensely creative and supportive dynamic with more rigorous training will help local dancers shine—and could help Portland achieve a reputation as a U.S. dance hub.

“People here see value in things; that has to happen for anyone to show up,” he said. “But past all that, when people see the value, they invest in that … people see the value in aspects of the culture. They find the value and they don’t hesitate, they make things happen. There’s a lot of really inspiring artists here, and that’s exciting to be around.”

Adrianna Audoma and Lauren Smith:

Tongue Dance Project dancers, Floor Center for Dance co-managers

Adrianna Audoma (left) and Lauren Smith in Tongue Dance Project. Photo by Elliot Petenbrink

Tongue Dance Project was born in 2014 at Los Angeles’ Idyllwild Arts Center, where dancer Lauren Smith and director Stephanie Gilliland were on the faculty and dancer Adrianna Audoma was interning. The group relocated to Portland in September 2017, lured by a growing arts community and new opportunities to teach and perform as a company. They have been steadily building a local following thanks to their refined artistry and exploratory, animalistic, athletic style.

This past November, the group opened Floor Center for Dance, located near St. John’s Cathedral Park. “It’s been exciting, stressful, overwhelming, rewarding, and for lack of a better word, fun,” Tongue members said in an email statement. “It has been a crazy adventure and one of the most powerful experiences to be able to create a space from the ground up and to be a part of an endeavor that goes beyond our comfort zone.” The center offers classes for all levels and styles, in addition to master classes and open Tongue company class, which whips dancers into shape and challenges them to approach their dancing with new creative concepts.

Like Yarbrough, Tongue’s members favor a more regimented approach to dance training. Accessibility is also at the forefront of their mission, which is reflected in Floor’s affordable rates and all-are-welcome approach. “We hope to bring more attention to the smaller, less funded companies as well as give a platform for more dancers to take classes and share work more consistently,” the group said.

In addition to providing affordable education for local dancers, Tongue has performed at local shows since their arrival. (Skip to 3:40 to see them at Polaris Dance Theater’s Galaxy Festival this past summer.) “The biggest challenge has been striking a balance between running the studio day to day and still finding time to dance and rehearse as a company,” Tongue wrote. With a beautiful new space, the company now has access to create whenever inspiration strikes.

Trevor Wilde:

modern dancer, choreographer

Trevor Wilde in Dillon and Wilde + Artists’ “Riverdaze.” Photo By Kristalyn Gill Early

Two years ago, Portland’s Polaris Dance Theater hired Trevor Wilde away from Salt Lake City, where he had been dancing with Kinuko Modern Dance Company and guesting with Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company and Snow College’s dance ensemble. A modern/contemporary dancer with training in ballet and Bharatanatyam, Wilde has expanded his horizons since he moved to Portland, although it wasn’t always easy. “Networking here was a challenge,” he admitted. “I had to do a lot of work to get connected to other dancers … I didn’t feel like there was one place where the majority of the community convened.” The networking  paid off, however: Wilde is about to embark on a choreographic residency at Pacific University, a gig he got by reaching out to the department’s director, Jennifer Camp.

Wilde has remained busy in the interim, dancing with Shaun Keylock Company alongside Early and freelancing in project-based work. Wilde said performing with Keylock’s company in the same NEW residency cycle as Yarbrough was one of his most satisfying experiences as a dancer. “I feel very inspired by the dancers I work with, their movement and drive, the motivation,” he said of the company. “They really inspire me to rise with them.”

Wilde has exercised his choreographic muscles, too. He and Lucy Dillon—a former Portlander now based in San Francisco—formed the project-based company Dillon and Wilde + Artists. The first work the pair successfully co-produced, choreographed, and performed together was Riverdaze, a silent work inspired by, and paying tribute to, the Willamette River. This free performance, held in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, made good on the company’s mission to make dance more accessible to the public. Wilde called the process his biggest success thus far in Portland.  “Everything that we did: marketing, choreography, finding dancers, was all self-sourced,” he said. “We generated the whole piece together and discovered how to make a concert happen.”

In a city where creativity runs rampant and passion for the arts is strong, there are still roadblocks to creative expression. Affordable space for rehearsal and performance has been hard to come by, in Wilde’s experience. “Several dance studio spaces here charge $30 or more hour. I see a lot of classism in rental rates,” he said. That said, he and his fellow artists are persisting. “Everyone is making art happen!” he exclaimed. “People are performing, people are creating, people are researching, and I feel that overall, the people around me are cultivating a very rich [and] authentic environment.”

Yashaswini Raghuram:

classical Indian dancer

Yashaswini Raghuram in performance. Photo by Mr. Tyagi.

Yashaswini Raghuram, a native of India who has trained in the classical Indian dance forms Odissi and Bharatanatyam, moved to Portland from Dallas, Texas, where she earned an MS in computer engineering. Like many recent transplants, she has found a supportive dance community in her new home. “In just the first few months, I saw that the Indian community in Portland provides a lot of encouragement,” she said. “In this manner, we can be an example to other cities.”

Raghuram studies Odissi with Dr. Aparupa Chatterjee. (For more on Chatterjee and Odissi, see Jamuna Chiarini’s article here.) With Shubha Dhananjay, Raghuram studies Bharatanatyam, a style originating from southern India involving intense footwork paired with hand gestures; themes are regularly drawn from Indian mythology. “Both the dance forms are physically challenging but emotionally and spiritually very enriching,” she said, adding that it would take a lifetime to even scratch the surface of either one.

Despite the support she has found within the local dance community, Raghuram said that differences in language and culture can make it difficult for local audiences to fully understand the nuanced beauty in learning, teaching, and performing these ancient forms. “There’s an extra responsibility of the Indian artists here to increase sensitivity [and awareness],” she said, adding that the exchange goes both ways: “I have a lot to learn about the culture here in the USA regarding how other artists work, what their processes are.”

Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair:

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer, House of Makers co-founder

Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair and Kelsie Nobriga in rehearsal for OBT’s “Napoli.” Photo by Yi Yin

If you caught Oregon Ballet Theatre’s recent production of Napoli last fall, you saw another of Portland’s new dancers in action. Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair joined OBT in August of 2018; a month and a half later, he was dancing Gennaro, Napoli’s leading man.

A Tuscon native, Pawlicki-Sinclair had just spent ten years in Amsterdam, dancing with the Dutch National Ballet and working on House of Makers, an interdisciplinary arts company he founded with his wife, Dutch writer Sterre van Rossem, and former Dutch National Ballet dancer/choreographer Peter Leung. House of Makers produced film, art installations, and live performances for stages and site-specific locations, aiming to remove barriers between disciplines and between art and audiences.

Pawlicki-Sinclair and his wife moved to Oregon to be closer to family and have more space to raise their own. “We bought a 650-square-foot apartment in Amsterdam five years ago, and the city has developed so much since then that we didn’t see many options to move into a larger space,” he explained. “We also wanted to live somewhere we could more easily access nature, but [that] still had a strong cultural scene and offered a connection to the arts. Everyone we spoke to said Portland had a vibrant arts scene and obviously there is tons of beautiful nature, so it shows a lot of promise in terms of fulfilling those desires.”

Now that he has landed in Portland, Pawlicki-Sinclair will supplement his performance duties by choreographing on OBT2 this upcoming season. He said he and his wife also intend to continue creating through House of Makers in the U.S.. He’s encouraged by the new creative potential he has seen in classical ballet: “The openness and flexibility companies have and are given to invite creations from choreographers from different backgrounds allows for some beautiful collaborations and allows us as dancers to experience a broader range of contemporary styles and learn more about ourselves as movers, artists, and people,” he said.

Like Wilde, Pawlicki-Sinclair has found that relocating into full-time job has made branching out into Portland’s dance scene challenging. “I wish I had more time to see other companies and dancers,” he said. “ I haven’t been to take class anywhere other than OBT.” But, he added, “I am impressed by what I’ve seen from my colleagues here, and hope Portland and the rest of Oregon know and appreciate the world-class repertoire and dancers this company is presenting.”

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All the artists I spoke with are helping shape the future of Portland’s dance scene, and this season, you can see what many of them are working on, myself included. Trevor Wilde and I will present new works of our on a split bill called Two of a Kind, held February 15-16 at Performance Works NW; Pawlicki-Sinclair will perform in OBT’s Cinderella Feb. 16-23 at the Keller Auditorium; Yarbrough will perform with Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater March 16-17 at Self Enhancement Inc.; and Wilde and Early are tentatively scheduled to perform with Shaun Keylock’s company May 10-12 at New Expressive Works. For more on Tongue and the Floor Center for Dance class schedule, go here.

 

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