It’s the end of the year, and the numbers game is in full swing. Top Five lists (handy to count on the fingers of one hand). Top Tens (double your digits, double your fun). The best of this, the best of that, the movies or books or songs we should feel ashamed, the drumbeat often makes us feel, if we didn’t see, read, or hear.
Here at ArtsWatch, we like to play the numbers game, too. But we see it less as a competition than as a cultural road map. What were the stories or events that gave the year 2015 its distinctive flavor in Oregon? How was the year shaped, as Oregon ArtsWatch’s writers and editors saw it?
It’s been a year when the venerable Portland Opera took its first steps toward reinventing itself as a summer-festival company (the new format kicks in fully in 2016) and the even more venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival raised an international ruckus by commissioning contemporary “translations” from 36 playwrights of all of Shakespeare’s plays: Sacrilege!, the cries rang out. The argument between traditionalists and impatient new-music advocates sometimes seemed to drive a wedge straight into the heart of the classical/serious music world, too.
Meanwhile, the Fertile Ground festival of new works grew even bigger, filling the city’s stages with fresh theater and dance, from rough drafts to staged readings to full-blown productions; and premieres later in the year such as Artists Rep’s Cuba Libre drew enthusiastic crowds. Music festivals in places like Astoria, Jacksonville and Eugene continued to prosper, spreading the cultural wealth around the state. PICA’s TBA festival once again pumped a little outside blood into the city’s scene.
Organizations sometimes moved cautiously or under duress through the economic morass. Oregon Ballet Theatre sold its East Side headquarters and moved to the growing South Waterfront district on the West Side; Conduit dance center lost its downtown space and scrambled to find a new one; Northwest Dance Project and Polaris Dance Theatre also moved because of market pressures. Artists of all sorts were ousted from their Inner East Side studios as speculation overtook a heated-up real estate market. Third Rail Repertory Theatre found itself bunking with Imago just off East Burnside.
Yet Portland’s lively alt-culture and low-budget scenes continued to thrive, from the stages of Miz Kitty’s Parlour and Portland Story Theater and dozens of other smaller-scale cultural operators to the clubs that hosted intimate and relaxed performances by young classical ensembles, beer encouraged. The big boys countered with billionaire Paul Allen at the Portland Art Museum and cello legend Yo Yo Ma at the Oregon Symphony, where his impromptu gig with a group of young Portland musicians ended up also being maybe the sweetest small arts story of the year.
We sometimes think of Oregon as a place apart, and yet of course it’s intimately, intricately, linked with the rest of the world. That means that ArtsWatch responded to major national and international ruptures, too, from January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris (Je suis Charlie? Oui, even here; The Charlie Hebdo murders: What I told my journalism students); to the destruction of ancient cultural sites in Iraq by ISIS in March (On the chopping block: everyone’s culture); to the Oregon Children’s Theatre young professional company’s searing look at school mass shootings that was performed after last year’s Oregon school deaths at Reynolds High School but before this year’s slaughter at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg (Fear and loathing at Columbine); to artist Ryan Woodring’s show at Duplex Gallery in response to ISIS’s destruction of ancient art (Looking for a reaction(ary)).
This year, we gave ourselves 100 numbers to play with. It’s a good-sized number, a nice round number, and it allows us to give an equally rounded reflection of Portland and Oregon’s cultural year that was. Of course, it doesn’t come close to covering everything. But it’s a pretty good snapshot of what’s been going on, from big issues and trends to small moments of triumph and delight. We won’t call it the Top 100, because that’s sort of silly. But, Big: we can live with Big.
Here you have it, then, chronologically from January through December: ArtsWatch’s Big 100 of 2015:
7: A visit with Miz Kitty. Her name is Lisa Marsicek, but when she throws on that saucy corset and bright orange boa she’s Miz Kitty, hostess extraordinaire, queen of Portland’s alt-vaudeville scene. A.L. Adams interviews the indefatigable variety-show host and declares her “about the most down-to-earth and nurturing diva you could meet.”
13: Letter to a Young Composer. “Thank you for pitching your piece to me,” pianist and teacher Maria Choban writes. “I love playing pieces by Oregon composers and nurturing the careers of young composers.” But, she adds, your music should be accessible to audiences, which doesn’t mean dumbed down. That’s just the start of her insider advice.
20: Minority report: highlights from underrepresented voices. The annual Fertile Ground festival of new stage works is a celebration of the cultural variety of the city. But in Portland, that doesn’t always extend to race, gender, and other forms of personal identity. “As a lifelong performer and theatergoer,” Rebecca Waits writes, “it’s weird being the darkest person in the room at performance events (especially since I’m a light-skinned biracial woman). But, that’s how it tends to go.” In Minority Report, Waits spotlights where, in 2015’s festival, that variety came from.
24: Doubly Fertile Ground: Playwright Rich Rubin. With two premieres – Cottonwood in the Flood, about the notorious 1948 Vanport flood, and One Weekend in October, about Clarence Thomas’s controversial Supreme Court confirmation hearings – Rubin was among the busiest people at 2015’s Fertile Ground fest. Brett Campbell talks with him about his late-blooming but auspicious theater career.
28: Enter the Night: the dream world of Maria Irene Fornes. PETE, the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, entered the imagination of the great experimental writer Fornes, whose work is rarely produced here, and lingered in the space between waking and sleeping. Barry Johnson writes that the evening “emerges from a dream state recorded by a very advanced dreamer.”
30: Ted Roisum, 1952-2015: a giant falls. The great Portland actor died of cancer at age 62, leaving a giant void for friends, fans, and fellow theater folk. He had a gentleness, a latent sadness, and a depth of soul that made his work reverberate with empathy; and a voice, as Bob Hicks writes, that “rolled like God’s at the creation of the universe and trembled like Job’s in the face of a plague of locusts.”
Among other deaths that rocked the cultural community in 2015 were those of TC Smith, theatrical tech man extraordinaire; actor and comic Andy Buzan, co-founder and core performer for 3rd Floor sketch comedy; Peter Koehler, businessman, philanthropist, and board member of many arts organizations; David Sargent, a musical-theater regular who co-starred in Triangle’s Looped in September; Elizabeth “Biz” Erickson, a familiar and well-liked figure on and behind the musical-theater stages at Broadway Rose, Lakewood, and elsewhere; Jack Ely, singer of the iconic Louie, Louie for the rock group The Kingsmen; and pro wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper, a performer of prodigious and unique proportions in his own realm.
1: Three’s a crowd (and Vanya, too). “Things got a little overheated Friday night in the basement Ellen Bye Studio Theatre at Portland Center Stage, which might explain what was up with all those clothes flying off those beautiful bodies. Contrarily, the air was a touch chilly in the big bed onstage,” Bob Hicks writes about the premiere of Yusef El Guindi’s stripped-down political dramedy Threesome, which went on to a New York run with the same actors and the same director, Center Stage’s Chris Coleman. At the same time, on the big stage upstairs, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonja and Masha and Spike was pleasing crowds in a production that was “sweet and charming in a baroque, chamber-music sort of way.”
3: Spectravagasm’s Gendergasm goes all the way. Chapter 6 in a late-night series at Post5 from the “wily buffoon Sam Dinkowitz and a small, brilliant team of other clowners-around,” as A.L. Adams describes it, took on all sorts of gender possibilities. It was equal-opportunity offensiveness in a town that takes its pronouns politically. It was also very funny.
8: ARCO-PDX & Cascade Composers: Ready for prime time. “Even before the last notes faded, waves of whoops, rabid applause, and even a high-pitched shriek or three erupted from the ecstatic audience,” Brett Campbell writes. Heavy metal show? No. It was 21st century classical, amplified. And it rocked the house.
13: Wit and dash from Nederlands 2. Nederland Dans Theatre’s second company, in Portland as part of the White Bird dance series, is far from an afterthought: it’s a skilled, witty, inventive company in its own right. “It’s been more than ten years since NDT2 performed here, five since they performed in New York, where they danced at the Joyce before coming to Portland,” Martha Ullman West writes. “That’s way too long between laughs.”
14: Fertile Ground: Finding their way in the storm. The Snowstorm, an imaginative blend of music, dance and theater that was one of the hits of the Fertile Ground festival, was so rich and layered that ArtsWatch tag-teamed the review, with Brett Campbell, Jamuna Chiarini, and Maria Choban approaching it from their own angles.
15: Skinner/Kirk: town & country. With Urban Sprawled and Nat’s Farm, and with dancer Vanessa Thiessen’s joyous presence, Portland’s sterling Skinner/Kirk Dance Ensemble bridged a great divide, Martha Ullman West writes.
20: Cappella Romana’s musical time travel. “Capella Romana, Portland’s premiere choir, is on a roll,” James McQuillen writes on hearing the group’s performance at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, a concert that prompted “the humbling realization that this was a telling of the Passion as it likely would have sounded over a millennium ago in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Jerusalem complex built around the site of the crucifixion and entombment of Christ.”
20: Dianne Kornberg develops the ‘Madonna Bomb.’ Kornberg’s lush images at Augen Gallery, which came out first in a magnificent comic book, touched on scale, poetry, color, and the biblical Mary. Barry Johnson writes about the Northwest artist’s life and career, and the gestation of a fascinating project: “What I love about the prints is how the various elements—the Little Lulu comics, words from the poems, drawings, photographs, loops and marks and squiggles—mush together in a tumble, how my eye jumps from one to the other but still manages to make sense of it.”
1: Nordic Voices’ strange sonic landscapes. Alice Hardesty writes that the Norwegian vocal ensemble enchanted a Friends of Chamber Music audience with “a sonic landscape ranging from Renaissance polyphony to quacks, whistles, groans, and overtone singing, all with great sophistication and ensemble balance.” Yes, we said “enchanted,” and we meant it: “The harmonic overtones were so ethereal, it was hard to tell where the music was coming from.”
2: Italian Style: How fashion design made it cool to be Italian. The Portland Art Museum had eyes on the turnstile with its big show on Italian fashion since 1945, and Portland author Shawn Levy (DeNiro: A Life) suavely explains why Gucci, Pucci, Versace and Prada mattered: You could say they saved Italy as they outfitted the rest of the world.
9: Some reflections on the 2015 Portland Jazz Festival. From superstar Kurt Elling and a disappointing Bebel Gilberto to local luminaries like Darrel Grant and Farnell Newton, Angela Allen writes, this year’s jazz fest did a first-class job of mixing up big names and smaller ones, international hotshots and local stars.
15: After 20 years, Conduit is on the move. Evicted from its longtime home in downtown’s Pythian Building, the innovative dance center hit the road, Barry Johnson reports. After months of peripatetic programming, it moved into new digs in the historic Ford Building at Southeast 11th Avenue and Division Street in October.
17: New home, new show, high hopes. Northwest Dance Project, shut out of its Mississippi District space by rent increases, landed on its feet in a sparkling new East Side dance center off of Burnside Street. And with the addition of the talented Londoner Ihsam Rustem as its first resident choreographer, it found itself … well, leaps ahead of where it had been, and raring to go.
19: Gay Men’s Chorus: journey to a brighter day. Members of this pioneering chorus have been through a lot since the group was formed in 1980, in the midst of anti-gay furor and on the cusp of the AIDS epidemic, Brett Campbell writes. GMC celebrated its 35th anniversary by commissioning a premiere from Portland composer Scot Crandal, with words by Doug Bom.
20: Hillel Kogan’s satirical dance. The Israeli choreographer and dancer’s piece for White Bird We Love Arabs, Barry Johnson writes, “manages to contribute useful observations about life these days in the Middle East in an entirely original way – using his ‘character,’ a leftish Jewish artist trying to make peace with his space.” Plus, it’s really funny.
6: Eugene Ballet’s Tommy: turning rock opera into dance. Gary Ferrington explains how choreographer Toni Pimble takes an iconic rock opera about a traumatized kid who becomes a pinball whiz and turned it into a ballet. Peter Townshend’s tale, Pimble says, “contains all the elements of a classic story.”
7: At Artists Rep, The Price is right. Arthur Miller’s tense and solidly built family drama landed resoundingly and satisfyingly on Artists Rep’s stage, Bob Hicks writes: “In that old-fashioned and ever-contemporary American realist way, the questions linger long after the light fades, unanswered and unanswerable.”
13: Classical Up Close: connecting with audiences beyond the concert hall. In the wake of a canceled trip to Carnegie Hall, Brett Campbell writes, the Oregon Symphony discovered a compelling and long-lasting substitute: the Classical Up Close program, which connects orchestra musicians directly with ordinary Portlanders young and old in intimate, casual chamber-music performances in places as varied as an American Legion post, Powell’s Books, and the Beaverton City Library.
23: ‘Impact,’ Take 2: ballet with a future. Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 25th anniversary spring show, and especially the premiere of young New York choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Instinctual Confidence, was a stirring statement about what’s current and what’s to come in dance, Damien Jack writes approvingly: “It’s a hot mess. … all derring-do.”
4: The joy of tap, like falling in love. “You know that feeling, a little bit like falling in love, that possesses you after an extraordinary performance and leaves all your senses bright and fresh and wide awake?” Damien Jack writes. “That’s what I felt after seeing tap virtuoso Michelle Dorrance and her company of six dancers mix it up with Toshi Reagon’s aptly named, genre-expanding blues band BIGLovely in White Bird’s season closer.”
5: On the road with 4000 Miles. In Artists Rep’s version of Amy Herzog’s drama, beautifully drawn characters meet the right actors, Barry Johnson writes. And who were the right actors? Vana O’Brien and Joshua Weinstein, directed by Alana Byington.
7: Third Rail’s ghost in the Static. Barry Johnson dives into Dan Rebellato’s rock’n’roll-drenched play and its vivid production at Third Rail: “My response began as admiration, but then it morphed into something else – affection.”
14: Back to nature: Wobbly Dance’s Waking the Green Sound. The exciting Portland group Wobbly Dance thrives on creating work for dancers in wheelchairs, transforming the way audiences think about movement. Brett Campbell reports on the group’s equally exciting project, the film Waking the Green Sound. “I love disabled people,” cofounder and performer Erik Ferguson tells Campbell. “The diversity of the disabled form never ceases to excite me.”
20: OBT after 25: a leap into the future. Martha Ullman West watched the student dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre at the school’s 25th anniversary showcase and talked with school director Anthony Jones to get a sense of who and what’s up and coming. Ullman West on their performance of Marius Petipa’s Paquita: “(T)he young dancers seemed to relish each technical challenge, of which there are many, and … danced with assurance, freedom, and, in some cases, palpable delight.”
24: Indian painting: past as prologue. Maryhill Museum of Art’s show American Indian Painting: Twentieth Century Masters was a small but fascinating look at a group of transitional artists between the ledger artists of the 19th century and today’s cosmopolitan and widely varied world of contemporary Native American artists, Bob Hicks writes: the exhibit’s story is “partly a tale of the shifting tides of assimilation and ‘otherness,’ and white expectations for Indian art.”
26: OSF expands its idea of ‘classic theater.’ Dmae Roberts talks with Stan Lai, the most-produced Chinese language playwright in the world, but hardly known in the United States, in the context of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s first American professional production of his Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land. It was a signal event for OSF as well as for Lai, underlining the festival’s determination to expand the idea of “classical” beyond the kingdom of the Bard.
27: A good rain on a Grimm parade. The boys from Grimm came out to play at Portland Center Stage, and did a bang-up job in Richard Greenberg’s drama Three Days of Rain, Bob Hicks writes. Sasha Roiz (the smoldering Captain Renard in the made-in-Portland TV monster hit) and Silas Weir Mitchell (the excitable, wolf-like Monroe) showed that good acting’s good acting, whatever the medium: “They give nuanced, playful, assured performances, easily filling the main-stage space … and working seamlessly with stage veteran Lisa Datz, who is quite brilliant in a pair of crucial and contrasting roles.”
28: Ai Weiwei interprets the Zodiac for you. Barry Johnson reads the tea leaves on the celebrated Chinese artist and political lightning rod, and on his circle of Zodiac figures at the Portland Art Museum. “(H)is art can suck you into considerations that we don’t necessarily consider directly ‘aesthetic’,” Johnson writes. “Following in the tradition of Duchamp, Johns and Warhol, whom he studied during the 1980s in New York City before heading back to China, Ai makes art that twists and turns away from the object at hand, back to art history and the cultural values it contains and the complexities of the cultural present.”
31: Making choral music hot again: PSU choirs, Oregon Rep Singers. Bland is not an issue for the prominent Portland choral director Ethan Sperry, Brett Campbell writes: His various Portland State University choirs “go straight for the heart, with passionate, powerful performances that enrapture classical and pop fans alike.” His other chorus, the Oregon Repertory Singers, turned in a performance of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s deep and challenging 1988 cantata The Sealed Angel that “felt like an epic journey, skillfully navigated, a signal event in recent Oregon choral music.”
2: Portland dance companies on the move hither and yon. After years of residential stability, three prominent Portland dance groups – Oregon Ballet Theatre, Conduit, Polaris – found themselves uprooted and looking for new homes. (Northwest Dance Project had beat them to the punch, finding a new home after it, too, had been squeezed out of its old one.) Barry Johnson explains some of the forces at work, real estate and otherwise.
9: Mel Katz at Hallie Ford: the circus and beyond. Barry Johnson, who wrote the comprehensive catalog essay for this major retrospective on the New York born and trained artist who’s become an Oregon artistic icon, looks at the meanings behind the works: “Some of the pleasures of Mel’s work are immediate. They can be delightful and witty; they make you smile. But other pleasures await those who start asking some questions about where they came from, how they arrived here, what they are saying. Not that we can ever answer them completely, but for me at least, the real satisfactions are found down that road.”
11: The Rake’s Progress, conjuring a timeless tale. Brett Campbell digs deep behind the scenes of Portland Opera’s first production of this 20th century classic. Inspired by William Hogarth’s 18th century series of paintings and prints on a young gentleman’s dissipation, it comes to life with music by Stravinsky, libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, and designs by David Hockney.
16: Diary: Niel DePonte goes to Dayton to hear his With Justice for All. Portland percussionist, conductor, and composer DePonte traveled to an African American church in Ohio to hear the Dayton Philharmonic perform the premiere of his work that weaves the writings of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., and has the melody of Amazing Grace running through it. “I left the concert reminded of the power of music and the power of oratory, the power of ideas, the power of concepts like justice, equality, beauty, spirituality, and God. When you are moved by such ideas and transported to a state of deepest feeling, inspiration becomes available to you in a way that is not normal or usual.”
14: Gods & Heroes, together again. “In the beginning were the Greeks,” Bob Hicks writes about Gods & Heroes, the Portland Art Museum’s sprawling exhibit of works from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. “The Greek ideal of beauty, and the great Greek storytelling myths, shaped the French artistic imagination and for a time held it like a vise. You can see it in all its exaggerated glory” in this traveling show. “In spite of a number of fine intimate-scaled works, it’s a grand-gesture show, a celebration of swagger among the young artists and their instructors, who for the most part had been students at the École, too.”
23: Dramatic effect: St. John Passion at Astoria Music Festival. Bach’s great Passion shone in Astoria, Bruce Browne writes: as conductor, festival artistic director Keith Clark “displayed a mantle of respect and humility not always seen on the podium. He dropped his arms during some of the small ensembles, giving over creative expression solely to the musicians.”
23: Quintana Galleries, home to Native American art, closes. Portland loses a gallery of national importance when the Quintana family retires and can’t find anyone willing to take over with the same vision they brought to the gallery.
25: East Side scramble: enter the N.E.W. As the East Side real estate market heats up and puts the squeeze on performance and studio spaces, the old Zoomtopia emerges in a creative partnership between Subashini Ganesan’s mini-arts center and a real estate investment firm. It’s an unlikely win, Bob Hicks writes, in a part of the city where affordable creative space is disappearing fast.
2: Getting HIP to history at the Oregon Bach Festival. HIP stands for “historically informed performance,” and after many a decade of defying the trend, the venerable Bach fest is getting with it, Brett Campbell reports. What’s old is new, and vital.
13: Through the Twelfth Night, clearly. Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Lisa Harrow’s production at Portland Shakespeare Project, Barry Johnson writes, was about as clear as could be, freeing the audience’s imaginations “to consider and delight in the possibilities of the play, consider alternatives safely, lose ourselves in a moment, confident that we’ll regain our footing.”
14: Judy Cooke and the quiet challenge. “Judy Cooke’s paintings at Elizabeth Leach Gallery are for those who enjoy thinking about painting,” Paul Sutinen begins his review. “They do not grab the viewer with bright color or bold brushwork. They are quietly challenging.” He concludes: “Cooke shows what painting is—or can be. And by looking at what she has made, we can learn something.”
14: Erica Smith gets into character. “Erica Smith hasn’t slept in three days,” Rita Feinstein begins her report. First, she has a sexual health fashion show to get runway-ready, quick. Plus, as makes a certain amount of sense for an apparel designer, she’s obsessed with the world of cosplay – costume play – a realm of fantasy and theater that takes her into fascinating, unlikely, and time-consuming places.
17: Rilling returns, passionately. Helmuth Rilling returned to Eugene and the Oregon Bach Festival that he led for many years and delivered a thrilling, passionate version of Bach’s St. John’s Passion, Bruce Browne writes.
30: If you haven’t already, you should pay your arts tax. It was a popular measure, approved by nearly two-thirds of Portland voters: a local tax to help pay for arts in the schools (mostly) and improve support for arts groups. Then The Oregonian started an unrelenting and misleading campaign against it – and a lot of people decided it was OK just not to pay it. The newspaper’s editorial board “has displayed a near-constant disdain for the arts tax from the beginning,” Barry Johnson writes in his nuanced yet forceful argument for why the voters were right in the first place, why The Oregonian is mulishly wrong on the issue, and how the tax has already made a difference.
7: Oregon Rites of Spring: Drums along the Pacific. Much of the energy of contemporary serious music fans out from the West Coast to the “centers” of New York and elsewhere, Brett Campbell writes. He looks at how the tradition’s playing out in Oregon: percussively, in this first part of a three-part series; the role of Kenji Bunch and others, in Part 2; and a series of composer showcases, in Part 3.
8: Claire Willett’s moment in the sun. “I’d spent my whole career not having to finish things,” Willett tells Marty Hughley. “Then my final draft of this play and my final draft of the novel were due on the same Friday.” Hughley has a ranging conversation with the Portland writer as her sci-fi novel The Rewind Files and the debut of her play Dear Galileo arrived almost simultaneously.
9: Hand2Mouth has its own Idaho. The experimental theater company’s Time, A Fair Hustler “is loose and jumpy, thoughtful and spasmodic, poetic and nostalgic,” Barry Johnson writes. “That’s fair enough, too, because Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho on which it is based, shares a lot of those adjectives, except maybe for the nostalgic part.” The key difference? Time is relentlessly about Portland itself, while Idaho was about a group of Portlanders on the city’s fringes.
11: Clackamas Rep plays its Trump card. “To anyone convinced that government ought to be run like a business, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has arrived just in time to slap that silly idea right out of your skull. It does run like a business, and lord help us all,” Bob Hicks writes, comparing the lightly cynical musical comedy to the descending mob of slogan-spouting presidential aspirants.
11: Hurricane-force fiction: Ellen Urbani’s Landfall. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had to tear my eyes off a page simply to catch my breath, but Ellen Urbani’s Landfall is that kind of a saga, a potent mixture of dread and elation, confusion and comprehension,” Angie Jabine writes in her essay about this post-Katrina novel, a “Celtic knot of a narrative” written by a Virginian-turned-Oregonian and published by Portland’s Forest Avenue Press.
11: Comedy in context: Peter Schickele, Igudesman & Joo. Laugh, Luigi: Chamber Music Northwest walked on the funny side with the creator PDQ Bach and the team of Igudesman and Joo. It was, Dianne Davies writes, an evening of fractured classics and silly sounds.
13: PHAME’s disabled artists stretch out on the big stage. With its production at Artists Rep of the musical Up the Fall, the company of disabled performers moved into perhaps its biggest spotlight ever. Brett Campbell looks into the project and talks with executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin: “We want to make our artists visible. — Here they are. Look at them.”
14: Linda Austin celebrates 15 years at Performance Works NW. Since returning to Portland from several years on New York’s downtown dance scene, Austin has been a singular and influential presence in the Portland dance and performance-art worlds, experimenting unabashedly and establishing her garage-sized Performance Works NW as a creative and surprising center for all sorts of artists. Jamuna Chiarini interviews Austin about her art, outlook, and aspirations.
22: Showcasing new music for new audiences. Is chamber music only for old people? Not if Chamber Music Northwest’s Protege Project and New@Noon series have anything to say about it, Brett Campbell writes in this first of two parts. Part 2: new music for old people, at CMNW and beyond.
3: Third Rail Rep crosses the river. Go east, young men and women. Third Rail, which established its reputation as a feisty, smart, and literary company in little theater spaces around town, hit a hiccup when it moved into the relatively plush territory of the Winningstad Theatre in the performing arts center downtown. Barry Johnson details how the company recalibrated, leaping across the Willamette to bunk with Imago Theatre in the Inner East Side, and reinvented itself in other ways.
8: Henk Pander: after the apocalypse. Pander, steeped in the long tradition of Netherlandish art, is a master of paint in oil and watercolor. He also draws better than most anyone you can name, and that’s what Paul Sutinen responds to in his essay on Pander’s show of nine large drawings at Nine Gallery. They depict, Sutinen writes, “apocalyptic fantasies, typical of one vein of Pander’s work since he moved to Portland from The Netherlands fifty years ago. Vistas feel barren. … Architecture is ruins. Humans are forlorn. Animals are feral. … The drawings are huge for ‘pen-and-ink.’ As Pander says in his posted notes on the show (one of the very few ‘artist’s statements’ that I’ve ever found worth reading), the drawings’ ‘larger formats…create a tension because of the contrasting fine lines’.”
11: Skulduggery in high places. Post5’s production of Bill Cain’s complex drama Equivocation, Marty Hughley writes, was “brisk, engaging, and funny enough that the night I saw it the couple behind me laughed so loudly I feared they might perforate an eardrum. At the same time it effectively brings out many of the threads of philosophical inquiry and political allegory that give the work its heft, as well as the feeling of fellowship and goodwill that give it some heart. And yet, a certain vital tension is lacking.” Still, Hughley concludes: “Let’s not equivocate on this: Equivocation is a play built to last.”
12: Still waiting after all these years. “Gogo’s feet stink. Didi reeks of garlic. And, no, Godot never does show up,” Bob Hicks writes. “These are three unassailable facts about Samuel Beckett’s maybe and maybe not absurdist Waiting for Godot, which opened Friday night in an itchy and morosely funny revival from the Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative. Otherwise, the play’s so open to interpretation that actors and academics, after a drink or three, have been known to break out in fisticuffs over its meanings.”
15: Still mighty and Tiny after all these years. Thirteen years later, Mike Barber’s clever little creation Ten Tiny Dances was still going strong at this year’s TBA new-arts festival, creating opportunities for dancers and audiences alike to rethink space and movement in creative ways. The format is simple, confining, and liberating: 10 dancers, 10 minutes each, performing on a 4-by-4-foot stage. Barber, Nim Wunnan writes, kicked off “a triumphant parade” of performers with “a good bit of boxing-ring bluster. There was a good-natured swagger to this intro that felt mature in a way, a comfortable bravado that comes from doing something weird quite well for more than a decade.”
16: Caught (up) in the act: jazz & sound art. Music is “very nearly my constant companion,” Patrick Collier writes, and two events – a night of jazz at the Creative Music Guild and a sound installation piece by Akio Suzuki at PICA’s TBA festival – opened an ear worm of memories, from pre-teen AM radio in Chicago to FM hippie rock and alternative to a forbidden transistor radio at Navy boot camp. And the stream goes on.
17: Composer David Schiff: finding a musical home in Oregon. “When composer David Schiff moved from his New York birthplace to Oregon to take a teaching job at Reed College 35 years ago,” Brett Campbell writes, “he didn’t know whether he was consigning himself to provincial obscurity. It turned out to be the best move he could have made.” As FearNoMusic prepared a 70th birthday concert tribute for Schiff, Campbell considered the creative benefits that composer and state have conferred on each other.
21: Our Town: through a glass, darkly. “It was a dark and stormy night at Portland Center Stage on Friday,” Bob Hicks writes, “which was odd, because the temperature had turned, and the town was heading once again into one of those sunny almost-autumn spells. But the weather above and the weather onstage are often out of sync, and at PCS you could feel the chill. It was opening night, not just of the theater company’s season, but also of the darkest, bleakest Our Town I’ve ever seen.”
21: Eugene Symphony at 50: looking back, moving forward. “The Eugene Symphony has long enjoyed a reputation as Oregon’s most forward-looking orchestra,” Brett Campbell writes in spotlighting the band’s first half-century. Partly, that’s because it stays current. “Too often, we have this sense that classical music is this dusty canon, this revered library,” executive director Scott Freck tells Campbell. “People forget that all music was new once. New music can be as valuable as older music because there’s a contemporary human relevance to it. And there’s power in putting new works up against old works and seeing what we learn about ourselves and the music.”
24: Or, what? A comedy of opposites. Third Rail’s spry production of Liz Adams Duffy’s quizzical mash-up comedy of possibilities wrapped in a Restoration feminist/spy caper has Marty Hughley ruminating about the slipperiness of definitions and intentions. And by the way, every paragraph of his suave and slyly constructed essay begins with the word “Or” or its plural.
28: Over the hills, to Portland’s multicultural present. “I live in a Bermuda Triangle, an unincorporated area at the intersection of Hillsboro, Beaverton and Portland,” Maria Choban writes. “I now share this once all white farming community (where I was the Greek minority growing up) with communities of Indian-, Pakistani-, Bangladeshi-, Sri Lankan-, Korean-, Chinese-, Japanese-, and African-Americans. For variety, add Mormons. I walk through a park daily where this salad of ethnicities looks like a 21st century Pleasantville: playing basketball, flinging Frisbees, walking the park circle, frolicking on the equipment, whooshing by on skates or cruising in strollers, squealing and yelling and laughing — from toddlers to grandparents.” It is here, and in places like it, Choban argues, that the true and vital future of Portland culture belongs.
29: On rap: How Mic Crenshaw gets on. “In an age when collecting has trumped the library and become a mausoleum of consumer culture, Rap is one of the last cultural holdouts to maintain a sense of the individual as prominent in the artistic process,” Christa Morletti McIntyre writes. “Its fluid appeal is easily translated, copied and replicated from continent to continent.” In a wide-ranging conversation, she discusses music and contemporary culture with Mic Crenshaw, poetry-slammer, KBOO radio co-manager, Black Lives Matter activist, and lead U.S. organizer for the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan, who was music director for Portland Playhouse’s rap-filled production How We Got On.
9: Painting nature, tame and wild. From Brueghel the Younger to Canaletto, Turner, Manet, Moran, Klimt, Ernst, Hopper, and Hockney, the lavish exhibition Painting Nature at the Portland Art Museum contains enough big names to make most any billionaire proud. This particular billionaire is Paul Allen, and his choices reveal a good eye, too. “Allen’s interest in the rough-and-tumble physicality of painting, rather than multiples or conceptual art (although there are concepts aplenty in these ‘traditional’ paintings) suggests a hopeful view of the virtual universe he helped usher in: that computers and the things they can do aren’t substitutes for the physical world, but ways to enhance it, support it, and give it fresh meanings,” Bob Hicks writes.
12: Portland Piano International: locavores’ delight. While smaller classical groups across the metropolitan area are wising up to the wealth of composers in their midst, PPI is upping the ante, commissioning six Oregon composers to write new solo piano works, Jeff Winslow writes.
13: Never mind the politics, Cuba Libre knows how to party. “When Artists Repertory Theatre’s Cuba Libre starts to heat up—when the band Tiempo Libre has time to do some serious digging on a song, the cast of excellent singers is in full voice, and the dancers are stretching and entwining in the most sinuous ways—well, that’s just about the best party imaginable,” Barry Johnson writes about the premiere of the vibrant musical that’s pinned its hopes on Broadway. “The cool distance between audience and performer melts when booties are shaken with intent and abandon.” The show gets a little murkier, he adds, when it delve into politics.
13, 17: Twyla Tharp: a lifetime in dance, and Vintage Tharp, defining America. In an interview with Tharp and a review of the Tharp company’s Portland show in the White Bird series, Martha Ullman West comes to grips with the essential American choreographer and her approaches to life and dance. Does Tharp break new ground in either of her pieces on the program? Ullman West wonders, and then replies: “I’m not sure, and in truth I don’t much care. On her golden anniversary, she puts on one helluva show. That’s enough for me, though I hope it’s not enough for her: I want to see what she does next.”
19: Ching Ching Wong’s princess path. In 2015 Wong, the fiercely talented dancer for Northwest Dance Project, won a coveted Princess Grace Foundation fellowship award – the fourth Project dancer to do so in five years. Gavin Larsen looks at how Wong and the company reached such heights, and what the awards mean. “She’s had a phenomenal year,” artistic director Sara Slipper tells Larsen. “She’s always had this fearless attack, but she’s developing into a different kind of artist … There’s a maturity seeping in, less of an ‘I must prove,’ more of a trust, calmness, an ease and thoughtfulness.”
19: Fresh Shakespeare from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it had commissioned 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, my inbox flooded,” Daniel Pollack-Pelzner writes. “As a Shakespeare professor, I was expected to defend the purity of his language. ‘Aren’t you outraged?’ one friend asked. Another demanded: ‘Isn’t there a law against this?’ Here are my answers: there’s no law, and I’m not outraged. On the contrary, I think OSF’s project could be one of the most exciting things to happen to Shakespeare in years.” Read his vigorous defense of a move that’s sparked wailing and gnashing of teeth internationally in Bardic circles.
19: There’s a dog in my studio … Sabina Poole concludes her series of photos and essays about Oregon artists and their studios, a companion to her book Connective Conversations: Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014. Meet the studio dogs, and check the links to the six previous pieces in the series, on Blair Saxon-Hill, Ryan LaBar, Julia Oldham, D.E. May, and Renee Couture, plus her explanation of why and how she took on the series.
20: Asking for It: funny about unfunny. Boom Arts brings some of the most provocative shows to town that Portlanders get a chance to see, and Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It fully qualifies: She performs it in an intimate space, naked from the waist down. Comedian and writer Rebecca Waits calls it “one of the most intense, emotionally charged, confrontational performances I think I’ve ever experienced.” What seems most fearless, Waits adds, isn’t just the vagina front and center, “it’s Truscott’s complete lack of a Fourth Wall. She professes no boundaries, much like rape culture.”
20: Video game music: turning passives into players. Kids are becoming excited about music, pianist and teacher Maria Choban argues: studying it, breaking it down, creating it. And where do they find it? On their video games.
24: Keeping up with the Joneses. In Will Eno’s sad and sweet and beautifully turned contemporary Chekhovian comedy The Realistic Joneses at Third Rail, a couple named Jones moves next door to a couple named Jones. “Theater is tragedy,” Bob Hicks writes. “Sometimes life is just a situation comedy that deepens and takes on shadings of its own. Or maybe that’s what theater does. Who knows?”
4: Ryan Pierce talks to Gary Wiseman, embedded artist. You’ve heard of embedded reporters, hunkering in with soldiers in wartime for good or ill. But, an embedded artist? Wiseman bunked with Bark, the Mt. Hood National Forest watchdog group, and created art out of his experience. Pierce, co-founder of Signal Fire, the group that funded Wiseman’s residency and whose aim is to help artists and activists engage in the natural world, talks with Wiseman about how it all worked out.
10: Wordstock, Part One, Angie Jabine, and Wordstock, Part Two, Brian Kearney. Dodging raindrops and ducking into author’s talk after author’s talk, Jabine and Kearney tag-teamed the revived Worsdtock literary festival, back after a two-year hiatus, and found a dash of organizational pandemonium but even more to like. Jabine passed along this insight from Stacy Schiff, author of the historical hit The Witches: Salem 1692: “European witches were known for doing quite spectacular things like turning men into frogs, whereas the New England witch might simply prick an innocent girl’s arm with invisible pins. ‘Even in her transgressions,’ Schiff wrote, ‘she was Puritanical.’” One of Kearney’s highlights: hearing speculative-fiction star Ursula K. Le Guin “talking about the condescension of the term genre — ‘the word only the French can speak,’ she called it, in a low growl that was very pleasing to hear come from a birdlike 86-year-old.”
11: Orlando, from page to stage. Martha Ullman West, whose history with Virginia Woolf and her gender-bending romp of a historical novel Orlando goes back many years, follows the tale’s journey from page to stage in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation and Profile Theatre’s Portland production: “And if Woolf’s five-hundred-year family saga in three hundred pages is impressive, Ruhl’s distillation of it in less than two hours of stage time boggles the mind.”
11: Fifteen years at the Northwest Film Festival. Lily Hudson interviews Thomas Phillipson, who is leaving the festival after 15 years at the helm, about what makes the best showcase of work by Northwest filmmakers tick.
17: Adriana Baer talks about leaving Profile Theatre. Marty Hughley has a long conversation with Baer, who brought fresh vigor and recognition to Profile during her stint as artistic director before deciding to move on. “I’m not going to speak for every AD in the world,” she told Hughley, “but every AD I’ve ever talked to spends more time, by a huge margin, administrating, fundraising, budgeting, producing—left-brained stuff—than artistically creating.”
21: Third Angle New Music: Text Fatale. In pop songs, music and lyrics go together like bread and jam. With more serious composed music, the relationship often gets a bit spikier: not who’s on first, but what comes first? Third Angle’s Hearing Voices 4.0 put the spotlight on meshing poetry and music, with varying results, Jeff Winslow writes. But, hear this: “Even when ‘things didn’t work out,’ none of the relationships were boring. And while most of the works were completely new to me, it seemed the performers did all anyone could ask to put them across. We want domestic tranquility for ourselves, but its absence among others often entertains us more.” Word.
23: Eric Stotik: the horror surrounds us. The veteran Portland painter’s 45-foot-long series of connected panels reminds Grace Kook-Anderson of Goya’s grotesque and wrenching series Disasters of War. Like Goya’s, she writes, Stotik’s images “bear scenes of horror, suffering, and often pain. They are surreal, perhaps familiar from our darker dreams or more horrid realities. And the small scale demands a closer look, drawing us into the distressing images more intensely.”
23: Choral cornucopia: National Collegiate Choir fest hits town. In a choral-crazy town like Portland, nothing can be much more elevating than the descent of a cluster of top-notch choirs from out of town. The city hosted several of the nation’s best collegiate choirs along with the biennial meeting of the National Collegiate Choral Organization, and Bruce Browne was on hand to lend an ear and pass along how things sounded.
24: A firestorm about a “non-review.” “What do concert reviews review?” Tristan Bliss asked in his essay about a concert by 45th Parallel, taking it to task for being, by his measure, another program of old music wrapped up in the guise of something trendy. The comment thread erupted, and the “non-review” itself became the very controversial story.
25: Final sketch: laughing all the way. “The image of a woman bouncing a pajama-clad child in her arms brings with it suggestions of care, concern and comfort, perhaps even a sense of warm nostalgia for when we were young, too,” Marty Hughley writes about this show from the locally legendary sketch-comedy group The 3rd Floor. “But if the fleece-clad moppet actually is well over five feet tall and pushing 40, you know the world you’re observing has another agenda: to make you laugh.” It might have been a benediction, too: following the death of core company member Andy Buzan earlier in the year, 3rd Floor might be hanging it up.
29: Book of Merman: missionary position. Not Morman. Merman. As in Ethel. In this sly mashup of a musical at Triangle Productions, a couple of earnest young Mormon missionaries discover themselves on the doorstep of the brash Broadway belter, and all sorts of surprises ensue. “If Mel Brooks and Cole Porter had a musical baby, it would be The Book of Merman,” Christa Morletti McIntyre writes. The updated lyrics to Merman’s hits, she adds, “have the sort of offensive punch you’d get if Don Rickles were to update How To Win Friends and Influence People.”
2: Viva’s Holiday: making an opera, evoking a community. “Thank you for supporting the arts,” the stripper said. And, as Brett Campbell reports, an opera was born, created by a Portland composer about a legend of the Portland entertainment demimonde.
3: Kindra Crick’s mad pursuit. The Portland artist, granddaughter of Nobel prizewinner Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix of the DNA molecule, has straddled the worlds of science and art all her life. But nothing’s been quite like the ride she took with her double-helix sculpture What Mad Pursuit, which sold at Christie’s London in October, raising $26,000 for a British biomedical research institute named for her grandfather. Her art, she tells Bob Hicks, investigates the same sorts of things that fascinate theoretical scientists: an artist’s job is to “call attention to the possibility. To let your mind wander around in that space.”
8: Julie Green: Yielding to the capricious outcome. Grace Kook-Anderson discovers layers of meaning and sensory awareness in My New Blue Friends, Green’s striking, quietly inviting, deceptively minimal installation at Upfor Gallery.
8: Shaking the Tree and Dario Fo: double the fun. “Matthew Kerrigan tiptoes onto the stage wearing a silk Japanese robe, stocking cap, and red nose. He’s a lowbrow Arlecchino for our times,” Christa Morletti McIntyre writes about Kerrigan’s performances in a pair of plays by Fo, the great Italian theatrical provocateur. “Kerrigan is a shape-shifter through these performances, changing his face, voice, and posture from man to woman to deity to wild beast to common thief. He rolls in and out of character as easily as water flowing in a stream. His acting takes us out of our seats, our heads, our daily life, and into the land of fairytales.”
12: Orson Welles: magician, radical and ham. “Orson Welles was known as many different things during his 70 years on Earth: boy genius, drunken has-been, radio superstar, theatrical innovator, handsome leading man, grotesque character actor, and, of course, cinematic genius, to name but a few. In fact, it might be easier to name the things he was never known as: compromising, lazy, shy, or small—in any sense of the word.” Marc Mohan celebrates the great American polymath, born 100 years ago, and discusses the wealth of Welles movies – 17 of them – in a series at the Northwest Film Center.
15: Farewell, my lovely: ZooZoo‘s splendid final stand. Imago Theatre’s magical menagerie of polar bears, anteaters, penguins, hippos, and other theatrical critters are approaching the end of the road: they’re being retired, after years of entertaining children and adults alike, so Imago can move on to other things. Martha Ullman West sings their praises, and freely confesses she’ll miss them deeply: “’That’s hilarious,’ I heard the seven-year-old say, when the penguins … were engaged in their clueless game of musical chairs. My grandson has seen this bit twice before, and still finds it killingly funny.”
17: The Snow Queen cometh: Lauren Kessler’s Raising the Barre. Kessler wanted desperately to dance in The Nutcracker. She was not 9 years old. She was, in fact, a Eugene author, in decent shape but also in what’s called middle age. And yet, somehow she managed to hit the Nutcracker stage in Eugene Ballet’s annual production, and her resulting book, as Angie Jabine reports, delves into some delicious details about her unlikely journey: “Kessler learned that it is entirely possible to use the bathroom while wearing a leotard and tights without removing the whole ensemble. Writes Kessler, ‘As I do this—with great success, I might add—I have but one thought: I bet Dame Margot Fonteyn did this too.’”
18: The Mousai: the importance of now. Tristan Bliss praises the Portland ensemble and its “rare concert that doesn’t coerce nostalgia for a time gone by that none of us have known, but sounds with torrential excitement to be alive now.”
21: Yo Yo Ma in Portland: youth served. When the legendary cellist came to town to play a solo gig at the Schnitz, he ran into a group of young musicians from the Metroplitan Youth Symphony. And pretty soon he was sitting in with them. And pretty soon they were sitting on the Schnitz stage, while he played. Brett Campbell tells one of the best and most inspiring stories of the year.