Dance review: ‘Waters of the World’ is a liquid love story

Heidi Duckler pays homage to the liquid side of the Northwest in her new site-specific dance in the Fair-Haired Dumbbell building

The Fair-Haired Dumbbell building on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East Burnside is one of Portland’s newest and funkiest creative office spaces. The New York Times described its exterior as “florentine wallpaper” and the dumbbell-shape design features multiple sky bridges connecting its two six-story buildings. This is the location of site-specific choreographer Heidi Duckler’s latest work, Waters of the World, an homage to the Northwest, its abundance of water, and the fluid possibilities of movement.

Duckler is based in Los Angeles and Portland and leads two creative teams of movers, musicians, and artists. Since 1985, she’s crafted almost 300 performance installations between the two cities and around the world. Earlier last week, her company parked a school bus outside the BodyVox studio and danced within, under and around the bus while audience members watched from the sidewalk. There seems to be no location Duckler can’t turn into a space for dance.

Keil Moton and Conrad Kaczor dance in Heidi Duckler’s “Waters of the World” in the Fair-Haired Dumbbell building/Andra Georges

Three days after the bus performance, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre/Northwest was back at it, bringing life and art into the Fair-Haired Dumbbell. Upon arrival, audience members took the elevator up to the fifth floor where Duckler directed them to the performance space: an empty room, walls punched by variously-sized windows looking out upon the city in all directions.

Continues…

State of the poet laureate

A conversation with Kim Stafford, Oregon's new laureate, who carries on a family tradition of spreading the word and its power to all corners

Broadway Books, the lively literary-oriented bookstore in Northeast Portland, recently hosted a celebration for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s ninth, and newly appointed, poet laureate, who succeeds Elizabeth Woody for a two-year term. We met for a bite close to the venue beforehand, joined by his longtime friend and fellow poet and teacher, Tim Gillespie. The conversation clocked in at under two hours and meandered with gusto and ease. We spoke on subjects ranging from his views on teaching, to the perils of writing programs, to the wonder of Verslandia, Literary Arts’ citywide youth poetry slam, and even to the late Irish mystic and poet, John O’Donohue (Kim brings him to mind in so many important ways), but it was truly Stafford’s way of seeing–and his friend’s way of seeing him–that left echoes for days and also sent me home celebrating Governor Kate Brown’s auspicious appointment.

Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford at Eagle Creek.

Chatting with Kim Stafford is a bit like stepping out of time. There’s something both ageless and perennial about him. He possesses a sort of egalitarian everyperson quality and inspires the feeling that he has always existed somewhere, that you could run into him anywhere, from a muddy river bank to a fancy lecture hall — that he’s spent a hundred lifetimes cultivating just the skills that make a great poet. His roots are deeply Midwestern, with a father (the poet William Stafford, who also served as Oregon’s poet laureate) from Hutchinson, Kansas, and a mother whose family hails from Beatrice, Nebraska — both quaint, conservative towns. But his parents met and fell in love in California, perhaps recognizing “each other’s homesick Midwest ways,” Kim wrote in his riveting book, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.

Kim has lived in Oregon for most of his adult life despite early years that found the family trailing behind his “gypsy scholar father.” By Kim’s eighth year of life, he had moved eight times. His father was “always looking for a different job. California, Iowa, Indiana, Alaska, from the Midwest to the West Coast. We did that several times,” the younger Stafford said. Even though there’s a hint of the way-back Midwest to him (a practicality, maybe, or a certain restraint and graciousness I always associate with some folks from my own birth region of Missouri) Kim belongs to Oregon as surely as rain belongs to the valley, a fact he seems proud of, and one that seems fitting for our new poet laureate. He relishes the diversity of our great state. “Having coast, mountains, Eastern Oregon, enables us to have different powers of thought than other, more homogenized environments,” he said. He also sees the benefit of connecting all of our disparate parts: “I am hoping that poetry can make the cultures of communities more diverse, the emotionally informed communities deepen, and make communities more curious about themselves and each other.” 

Continues…

Fast wheels, modernist dreams

The sleek cars and motorcycles in the Portland Art Museum's "Shape of Speed" reflect the swift rise of Modernist design in the 1930s and '40s

The striking black-and-silver 1934 BMW motorbike in the Portland Art Museum lobby sits in front of a digital reader board that intermittently displays an image of one of Monet’s Water Lillies – an apt reminder of the The Shape of Speed’s leitmotif: vehicles can be art.

Certain vehicles. Not Toyota Camrys or Dodge minivans or even split-window ‘Vettes; but these 17 cars and two motorcycles most definitely. The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942 is the latest exhibition in the Portland Art Museum’s design series, guest curated by Ken Gross, former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The show is open now and runs through September 16.

Beauty meets beauty: Monet water lilies and 1934 BMW. Photo: John Foyston

Gross previously curated the Museum’s 2011 exhibition The Allure of the Automobile, which celebrated automobiles as kinetic art. This never-before seen collection celebrates Modernism as expressed by the streamline dreams of the 1930s, when the ever more slippery shapes of airplanes influenced everything from architecture to steam locomotives, radios and automobiles; even Raymond Loewy’s gorgeous – and it could be said – essentially pointless chrome teardrop of a pencil sharpener. (Not that I wouldn’t feel like Tommy Tomorrow himself if I had one on my desk…)

Continues…

Backstage at the Big Stage

New York City Journal: From ballet to theater to taxis to an open book of biographers, ArtsWatch's Martha Ullman West takes the city's pulse

NEW YORK – All New York’s a stage, and there is nothing “merely” about its citizens as players. I witnessed the following players make their exits and entrances in a packed visit to my hometown last month, in no particular order:

  • Taxi drivers muttering imprecations against the President for snarling up traffic with a brief visit to midtown Manhattan;
  • Writers and academics performing at a biography conference;
  • An anthropologist and an innovative (very) executive coach holding a public dialogue about using improvisation to cope with change;
  • Actors of varying ages in a production of Dan Cody’s Yacht at the Manhattan Theatre Club;
  • American Ballet Theatre’s dancers giving their all to fine choreography and not-so-fine in an all-Stravinsky program at the Metropolitan Opera House;
  • And New York City Ballet’s dancers, fleet of foot, airborne, and miming like mad in Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia.

I arrived in the city close to midnight on Friday, May 18, and at 8:30 the following morning, bleary-eyed and not exactly bushy-tailed, scampered into a building I will always think of as Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street (it is now the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). I had paid big bucks to attend the second day of the Biographers International Organization’s ninth annual conference on the writing of, and – it almost goes without saying in these Mammonite times — the marketing of biography. I was headed to four sessions, the first on Writing Multiple Lives, the second on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures, the third on Biography and the Arts, the fourth on What to Leave Out. Each panel bore some relevance, I hoped, to the dual biography I’ve been working on for more years than I wish to admit to, Dancing American Character: Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Flowering of American Ballet.

Iceberg Slim, a.k.a. Robert Beck, subject of two biographies by Justin Gifford. Photo: Phase4 Films, for the documentary “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” produced by Ice-T.

And yes, there were performers on each panel, the most interesting of whom was Justin Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was on the one on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures. A lanky figure in full hipster costume, jeans, stubble, and long hair, he was bare-headed for the conference yet unabashedly wearing two hats: writer of a trade book and author of a scholarly one, both about the same subject, Iceberg Slim, who wrote and was the publisher of black pulp fiction. The self-styled Marxist (an ideology not perceptible from the language he used in his presentation) summed up succinctly and well the difference between writing for the academy and the marketplace: for the first you are argumentative, the second narrative. Nobody throughout the conference mentioned the word readable, at least in my presence.

Continues…

Dance review: Singing, strife and stray oranges

NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances will send you into summer with a song

They’re going Gaga at Lincoln Hall this weekend, and I don’t mean the Lady variety. NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances, which run nightly through Saturday and close the company’s season, feature work by Ohad Naharin ambassador Danielle Agami, a master teacher of Naharin’s Gaga movement language.

Agami’s 2013 piece This Time Tomorrow illustrates the benefits of Gaga study, which emphasizes heightened physical awareness and clarity of form. Although much of this ensemble piece is set to fuzzy electronica, the movement is clean and purposeful throughout, whether it’s slithering/rolling/crawling across the floor, silly walks, multiple fouette turns or full-body freakouts.

Samantha Campbell, Julia Radick, and Elijah Labay in Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow” in NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

It’s a wonderfully weird piece—choreographically varied, with sharp tempo and directional changes—and absurdist in feeling (kudos to the dancers for not wiping out on the oranges that come rolling out from the wings across the stage). It likely stretched the company kinesthetically and artistically, and it gives the rest of us something to mull over long after the show ends.

Continues…

Long story short: ‘Hedwig’ rocks

20 years in, Triangle's lean and direct production starring Dale Johannes brings a landmark musical back to life

Long story short: Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been around for 20 years, has been staged four times in Portland by Triangle Productions, and its once edgy ideas about gender fluidity, social acceptance and self-actualization now seem pretty unremarkable.

All of this is all to the good. So is the fact that the show remains tart and sweet, funny, touching, energetic and a hell of a good time.

Created by librettist John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask (Triangle’s playbill lists both book and lyrics as by Mitchell, but other sources, including the show’s official Broadway website, credit the lyrics to Trask), Hedwig is a rock musical that actually rocks, and this version stars a performer — Dale Johannes — who brings the right balance of punch and polish to the vocals.

Dale Johannes as Hedwig. Triangle Productions photo

Johannes struts his stuff here — or, well, maybe it should be struts her stuff, in this case — as Hedwig Robinson, a commercially underachieving rock singer with a snippy attitude, a sharply delineated backstory and a potent blend of resentment and yearning. Hedwig once was Hansel Schmidt, a boy growing up in East Germany, but in order to pass over to the West has undergone an unsuccessful operation, summed up in the most forceful and memorable chorus here: “Six inches forward and five inches back: I got an angry inch!” So, not quite trans. If this were written today, no doubt there’d be some nongendered, or at least nonbinary, pronouns going on, but in this show’s linguistic frame, Hedwig is a she.

Continues…

The highlights in Portland movie theaters right now range from a touching portrait of a beloved TV icon to a soul-searing portrait of family dealing with grief, insanity and terror. How’s that for range?

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: It’s safe to say that Fred Rogers would not be pleased with the state of the world today. It’s also safe to say that anyone who spent any time at all as a child watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and who feels anything but sadness at our society’s current dearth of decency and empathy simply wasn’t paying attention.

These sorts of poignant observations come easily to mind watching this straightforward, inevitably affecting portrait of the Pennsylvanian Presbyterian who became a cardigan-clad paragon of calm kindness for American kids of at least a couple generations. The fact that Morgan Neville’s movie is opening in Portland the same week that the federal government defends a program that cruelly separates immigrant children from their parents is just icing on the irony cake.

Any review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” will inevitably result in a nostalgic appreciation of Rogers himself, but, to Spurlock’s credit, the movie doesn’t wallow in gooey platitudes. It doesn’t need to. Taking a clear-eyed perspective toward Rogers’ off-camera self reveals that he was anything but an idealist or an escapist. He saw that there was a glaring lack on the television landscape of programming that could improve the minds and lives of young viewers, and then he fought like Hell to correct the situation.

I’m not sure how compelling the movie would be for someone going in cold, unfamiliar with Mister Rogers, untriggered by the sight of Daniel Striped Tiger and Lady Aberlin, untouched by his legacy. But I do know that for anyone who misses the humanity and moral clarity he embodied, this is probably the most bittersweet cinematic experience of the year.

(“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is currently playing at Cinema 21.)

Jewish Film Festival: The Northwest Film Center’s annual program highlighting films that explore the Jewish experience moves into its second week. For film history buffs, the most fascinating item on the docket is “The Ancient Law,” a 1923 German silent film about a rabbi’s son who leaves his shtetl to explore the world and become an actor. He winds up in Vienna, starring in “Hamlet” and catching the eye of the Archduchess. Eventually, though, he’s forced to decide between tradition and assimilation.

Long thought lost, the movie was partially restored in the 1980s. Then a German censor’s card containing a detailed outline of the film was discovered, allowing for this full, stunningly accomplished version to exist. (One of the few benefits of censorship is that censors have to write down everything they object to.) As a portrait of Jewish life in 19th-century Europe, reflected through a Weimar lens, “The Ancient Law” is a fascinating piece of cinematic and cultural history—and its archetypal narrative still packs a punch, too.

Other notable screenings include “An Act of Defiance,” a historical drama about the Afrikaner lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela at his 1963 trial in apartheid-era South Africa; “Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” a documentary portrait of the Rat Pack member whose incongruous qualities included converting to Judaism and speaking out in favor of Richard Nixon; and “Scaffolding,” in which a young man is torn between taking his place in his father’s construction business and pursuing his appreciation of literature. Some stories never get old.

(“The Ancient Law” screens on Saturday, June 16, at the Northwest Film Center. The 26th Portland Jewish Film Festival runs through June 26. For a full schedule, visit www.nwfilm.org.)

“Hereditary”: I finally caught up with the latest iteration in the quasi-artsy, indie-fueled horror film trend of recent years (see, previously, “It Follows,” “The Witch,” etc.). As with most decently scary movies, it’s best experienced with as little advance knowledge as possible. Toni Collette plays Ellen, an artist who creates elaborate miniature dioramas. She lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and their two kids, thirteen-year-old Charlie and her older pothead brother Arnie, in a suitably grand and isolated house in a forest. Ellen’s character’s mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, has just died. Creepy stuff starts happening, most of it centered on Charlie, a morbid, odd-looking girl with a masklike face and deep, dead eyes. (She’s played by Molly Shapiro, making her film debut after winning a Tony for playing “Matilda” on Broadway. Molly doesn’t look nearly as disturbing in real life, you’ll be relieved to know.) So far, so good—dysfunctional family grief meets supernaturally-tinged scares. But first-time writer-director Ari Aster ratchets things up in both intensity and surreality, leading to a final half-hour that’s being justly acclaimed as one of the most riveting—if divisive—third acts in recent memory. If that vague promise whets your whistle, be sure to check this one out.

(“Hereditary” is currently playing at the Hollywood Theatre and the Regal Fox Tower.)