By HANNAH KRAFCIK
On an unsurprisingly rainy and cold November night in Portland, I am sitting next to the heaters in a large dance studio, trying to keep warm while I wait to watch a rehearsal of choreographer Tahni Holt’s Sensation/Disorientation.
Lights are low and raindrops trickle down the inside of a drainage pipe in the corner, soon to be drowned out by the music of composer Luke Wyland, who has just finished setting up his equipment. Holt is preparing the dancers—Tracy Broyles, Muffie Connelly, Carla Mann, Eliza Larson, Suzanne Chi and Aidan Hutapea—to run through a section of the piece. “I’m not going to give any prompts, because I just want to see what happens,” she says.
I know Holt through the Portland dance community. We co-facilitate an ongoing movement practice at FLOCK, the dance center she founded and currently serves as Executive Director. I have had glimmers of insight into her creative process; yet, in this moment, I have no idea of what to expect.
“Let it go,” She tells the dancers. “I’m not interested in it looking super clean. Really get into it.”
Sensation/Disorientation could be said to offer a nuanced framework for witnessing and considering female-identifying bodies. If this does not make any sense, that is OK—just expect it to be a vivid dance experience that is entirely available for your own interpretation. Those who plan to attend the debut at Reed College, January 18-22, may do well to assume that Holt’s invitation—to let it go, to really get into it—also extends to audience members.
Though Sensation/Disorientation has roots in Holt’s solo practice and previous collaborations, this dance was created after the venerable Portland dance presenter, White Bird, awarded Holt the Barney Creativity Prize in 2014. The prize, funded by the Dorothy Lemelson Trust and the White Bird/MKG Financial Group New Works Fund, commissions evening-length works that are included in White Bird’s season of performances.
White Bird’s co-Founders Paul Jaffe and Walter King spoke with me about commissioning Holt, whom they have been following since she began creating professional work 18 years ago. They look forward to what Jaffe described as “a different experience” for White Bird audiences.
“She [Holt] has always been true to her own voice [. . .] She is an artist that we feel is on caliber with any artist performing in North America or the rest of the world,” “We’ve co-commissioned 35 works in 19 years,” King added, “but in the case of Tahni, we’re especially excited.”
With the funding and faith of the most prominent dance presenter in the Northwest, Holt made the decision to hold off on presenting the commission for a year, which is why Portland audiences will see her new work this season. She also opted to present Sensation/Disorientation in Reed College’s Diver Studio Theatre, instead of Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, traditionally used by White Bird for its Uncaged series. The Diver Studio offers the possibility of performance in the round, more appropriate for Holt’s dance than Lincoln Hall’s proscenium stage.
Sensation/Disorientation emerged as a dance during Holt’s year-long collaborative process with a multigenerational cast of six female-identifying dancers (ages 15-60). Conceptually, the work has been steeped in her investigation of the material nature of bodies, their sensation, emotion, and feeling. Its origins also extend back to her time researching ‘70s-era feminist artists and their decision to incorporate activities generally associated with women in their art. “Weaving, quilting, domestic life, labor, motherhood [. . .] all of these things became fodder for artistic expression,” notes Holt.
However, do not anticipate an exploration of any of these subjects in Sensation/Disorientation. “Womanhood” does not take center stage; female-identifying bodies do. This is an important distinction to make, and for good reason: “The piece itself is very permeable. It isn’t asking you [viewer] specifically to project something onto these bodies,” Holt shared. “It actually is insisting that you do whatever you do to them. And hopefully it holds up in a way that makes you reflect on why you do that.”
In my conversation with Holt, we also discussed how her work might sit in relation to the current socio-political climate. She reminded me that the piece debuts the week of the 2017 Presidential Inauguration and that audiences can even join the January Women’s March downtown and then attend Sensation/Disorientation later the same evening if they want. In the space of friction where identity politics rubs up against both individual and collective lived experience, Sensation/Disorientation may prove timely for considering such disorienting questions as: What do you see when you see what you see? And what does that say about how you think?
Or, maybe Sensation/Disorientation will do no such thing. Holt leaves the interpretation to the audience, and her work has historically opened itself to multiple readings of movement, sets, and costumes.
Holt is a native Portlander, and Sensation/Disorientation represents an exciting next step in her uncompromising body of work. When I asked Holt why she continued to create work in Portland, as opposed to basing herself in another city, she responded that, for a time, she had “one foot here and one foot in other places.” Portland offered something vital to her early career, though: “There was something about Portland that was generous enough, that truly allows me to fail, and I think that’s incredibly necessary for artists.”
“If you can find a place that allows you to fail,” she continued, “then you’re going to get to succeed sometimes.”
Sensation/Disorientation will be presented as part of White Bird’s Uncaged 2016-17 Series, January 18-22, 2017, at Reed College’s Diver Studio Theatre.
Hannah Krafcik is a writer, dancer, and recent transplant from Brooklyn, New York, where she spent the past five years working in nonprofit arts and community-based organizations. She holds a Master of Art in Performance Studies from New York University, and her curiosities lie with the potency of artistic process. She has been an organizer and performer in Fleet Moves Dance Festival since 2011. Her research continues to be guided by the structures and depth of communities around her.
This story originally appeared on Artslandia.