TBA dance: new forms and new connections

Reviews of three TBA Festival dance concerts: Alessandro Sciarroni, Michelle Ellsworth, Amy O'Neal

This year, I chose to see just three of the performance pieces offered by Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s (PICA) Time-Based Art Festival (TBA): Folk-S by Alessandro Sciarroni, Preparation for the Obsolesce of the Y Chromosome by Michelle Ellsworth, and Opposing Forces by Amy O’Neal.  For me, TBA is similar to standing in the cereal aisle at the grocery story; overwhelmed by the possibilities, I tend to chose none. Real life is also happening simultaneously, which makes seeing everything that I want to see, impossible.

So I did some choosing and I’m glad I chose what I did, I walked away from these performances with three vastly different experiences and many lingering questions, which is a good thing.  If a dance leaves a lasting impression, good or bad, the choreographer their job.

Some similarities between the pieces: each choreographer intentionally created ways to connect with the audience outside of the traditional audience performer relationship; all subject matter involved research around identity shared through social commentary context; all three choreographers successfully transcend established choreographic forms and created new ones.

Alessandro Sciarroni

“Folk-S ,Will you still love me tomorrow?” by Alessandro Sciarroni. Photo by Andrea Macchia.

Folk-S, Will you still love me tomorrow? by Alessandro Sciarroni, PSU’s Lincoln Hall, Saturday, September 12

No, I won’t love you tomorrow, OK, maybe I will. This piece, also reviewed by Andrea Stolowitz for OAW, was the most challenging of the three to watch, but gave me the most food for thought and the longest lasting impressions.

This was a very tough performance to sit through. Total duration: One hour and a half. The audience was allowed to enter the theater just five minutes before the show was scheduled to begin. As we took our seat, the dancers, five men and one woman stood in a circle, facing inward around the center of the stage, feet slightly apart, arms hanging naturally by their side.

The dancer with his back fully to the audience was wearing lederhosen, tall socks and a matching cap with a feather in it. Already a clue. The other dancers were wearing contemporary clothing: shorts and shirts of various styles and colors and sneakers. Later, I would spend a great deal of time staring at those sneakers, wondering many things about them and their wearers. Did they choose the sneakers themselves, were they comfortable to wear while jumping for so long, did they enjoy performing this dance etc.?

In unison, the group began gently stomping one foot rhythmically, nine times and on the tenth one, a louder final stomp. Then they started over. I counted with them for a while to check for variations. After a while it changed to eight stomps and stayed like that throughout.  Then they added on. Arms slapping the thighs four times, two kicks to the front, one back, another to the front but bent, hands tapping feet, a lunge to the floor, hand slap and a few other movements that I can’t recall. It looked like a European folk dance (lederhosen!) as it moved clockwise and counterclockwise in and out of the circle.

Midway through this opening section I realized that the dancers had some sort of tape over their eyes, and they were doing this entire dance completely blind. I was so shocked, that is extremely difficult to do.  Then I honed in on the movement quality and noticed that it was a little wonky but still accurate. The man with the lederhosen was the only one not blindfolded. Was he cuing them? How did they keep such a neat circle? Were they able to see a little? Why wasn’t he blindfolded?

A break. The dancers stopped, pulled off the tape covering their eyes, crumpled it and threw it onto the stage where it stayed for the duration. At this point one of the dancers grabbed a mike from offstage (all curtains were pulled back and the entire backstage area was exposed) and came up to the front of the stage and addressed us. He said, and I paraphrase, that we were watching a typical Bavarian and Tyrolean dance called Schuhplattler, meaning “shoe batter” because of the constant beating of the shoes and legs with one’s hands. He also said that if we wanted to leave, performers and audience alike, we would not be allowed back. Funny and frightening all in the same, a foreshadowing that left me with a sense of dread.

It is unusual for a performance to stop and for the performers to break character and transcend that invisible barrier that divides us to addresses us. I got the sense that he felt sorry for us. Compassion for the audience? A warning? An interesting moment.

The dance began again as it had ended. And again and again and again and again. Sciarroni is interested in repetition and the exhaustion of the form, this was quite clear. We were all exhausted, and watching the dance repeatedly was excruciating. After the announcement, audience members began a steady trickle from the theater. Dancers also began to randomly exit the stage one by one never to be seen again.

I deeply desired to leave as well, but I couldn’t. My reasons for not leaving: one, it’s rude,; two, I would never know how it ended; three, I have faith that PICA would not produce a piece that they didn’t feel was important in some way; four, I am committed to regularly stretching my brain to re-look at art that I have decided I don’t like. Is there something else I can focus on to shift my attention away from the negative? Yes: shoes, feet and rhythm.

There were several significant breaks in the dancing that I can recall. The collective audience relief in these moments was palpable. My favorite break was when the dancers dispersed and spread out across the front of the stage, some sitting some standing, watching the lederhosen dancer walk off the stage and bring back an accordion. He sat down in the center of the stage and prepared to play, instead all we heard was air escaping as he pressed the billows in and out and not the keys. Accordions breath. It was beautiful. The audience laughed. The dancers stood up, gathered around the center in a circle and resumed the dance.

At one point I thought, this is how tradition disappears. Take something, drive it into the ground over and over and eventually people get bored, lose interest and stop doing it and before you know it, it’s gone forever.

In the end only two dancers remained. The folk dance slowed to a crawl and you could see that they were competing with each other to be the last one standing. Poetically, instead of  continuing on, they took hands and walked off together.

The audience gave them a standing ovation, who wouldn’t. This was an amazing physical feat. We were released, and all was forgiven. I’m just annoyed with myself that I can’t remember the dance after seeing it a thousand times, you would think we would all be doing the Schuhplattler out into the lobby at the end.


“Preparation for the Obsolesce of the Y Chromosome” by Michelle Ellsworth. Photo Courtesy of TBA.

Preparation for the Obsolesce of the Y Chromosome by Michelle Ellsworth, Winningstad Theater, Thursday, September 19

On the stage at the Winningstad Theater was an assortment of medium-sized objects placed in a semicircle open to the audience, a podium and a giant screen behind them.

Michelle Ellsworth, a dancer and performance artist dressed in a vertically striped, ‘60s style knee-length dress (the dress pattern is a barcode) and white gogo boots, entered the stage in a quick, excited manner and told us about her project in detail. She had read an article once that said that the Y chromosome would eventually lose all of its genes, and that men would become obsolete. In this eventuality, she began collecting male data of all sorts and making apparatus that would substitutes the activities that men do and provide for women. Data like different male smells, prosthetic hand molds to hold hands with and molds of shoulders to cry on with adjustable chest hair density. She also introduced us to some of the apparatus’s she had invented to re-creates male activities like a giant eye-ball that simulates the male gaze and watches your every move, a sock flinger, that randomly flings socks onto the floor, and smaller-izers, things that make women feel small, like giant utensils. This is all tongue and cheek of course, with a little bit of truth, well maybe a lot. I personally loved the sock flinger as I have one of my own at home, a human one, not an apparatus.

Ellsworth’s performance was insanely brilliant, witty and reassuring. I know that when all the men disappear, Ellsworth has my back. I will never feel lonely again. Did I mention she passed out red vines to the audience, to entice the men to come up onstage and record their man dances and make hand molds for her archives? She did. And they did, two in fact. One recorded his dances in the corner behind her while she talked and the other hung out on the stairs with his hand sitting in goo. It was beyond hilarious.

The best part about this performance is that you can continue to enjoy her performance even after the live performances have ended through her website, which she referred to many times throughout the show and and is an actual website.

I bet you are wondering where the dancing played a role in all of this. Well, I’m not sure a non dancer could have moved so skillfully around on stage as she did, and there were a couple of short “dances” to explain scientific ideas that words could not, long, leggy squirmy dances. But mostly it was a pedestrian style post modern approach. Once a dancer, always a dancer, no matter what you are doing. If you would like to see her dance more you can go to her choreography generator and put together your own dances. You can even buy your own aparati at Daedalus’s sister Surplus, but most products  are already sold out. Enjoy!

Amy O'Neil

“Opposing Forces” by Amy O’Neal. Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom.

Opposing Forces by Amy O’Neal, The Works at The Redd, Friday, September 18

It was Friday night and party time at The Redd. Inside The Redd, which is a warehouse space in SE Portland, were illuminum stadium seating on three sides of a long rectangular dance floor and on it was Portland gettin down to the cool stylings of DJ WD40 also know as Waylon Dungan. Having a live DJ and pre party immediately connected you and made you feel a part of the experience.

When the show got rolling we were introduced to Hip Hop choreographer Amy O’Neal’s six dancers; Alfredo “Free” Vergara Jr., Brysen “Just Be” Angeles, Fever One, Michael O’Neal and Mozes Lateef.  The setup of the seating on three sides was intended to create intimacy and help us feel like we were in the middle of a dance battle. The topic of the evening was masculinity within Hip Hop culture through a female lens, opposing forces, exploring the range of who men are within the container of B-Boy culture and hip hop at large.

The evening was separated into smaller dances, each one touching on a different aspects of the larger conversation. The first was a commercial-boyband piece that had the audience cheering madly and women’s bras and underwear were dropped onto the dancers from above, it was full tilt commercial hip hop dance, a moving solo about being a single father that took place in lighted squares that moved around the stage to the recorded sound of his daughter (I’m assuming) giving him instructions on how to make a dance, a dark abstract piece, dancers dressed in all black with hooded sweatshirt that completely hid their identity and talked about B girls relationship to the culture, the surprise in that section was that the main dancer was actually a woman, I think her name is E. S., and a traditional B-Boy cypher which is the close in circle of dancers where each one takes a turn free styling in the center. It was a densely packed evening with a lot of meaning.

The dancers were exciting to watch. Their energy was boundless, they were generous, emotional and expressive to the hilt. Each one had their own way of moving and came from a completely different dance background, but I could see that through the process of creating this piece, that they had adopted new movement ideas and had evolved. I could see every dance style represented in there somewhere.

Something really special that didn’t get much attention in the program was the set design by Ben Zamora and the lighting design by Amiya Brown. The floor and wall behind the dancers was taped out with white tape and patterned to look something like a moroccan tile designs. When the floor was lit, only certain shapes within the pattern were highlighted. It was simply amazing, I have never seen anything like it. I would have loved to have known more about why they chose this design and what it meant in the context of the show.

Unfortunately the bleachers became uncomfortable after a while and I did spend quite a bit of time twisting my body and craning my neck to see the dancing.

I really thought this piece would bowl me over because it was the “danciest” of the visiting artists pieces but it didn’t. I felt like the dance as a whole was a little disjointed and the ideas and investigation were incomplete. There were a lot of ideas packed into a short evening, information overload. I wish I had seen the piece twice and sat in a different seat the second night.


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