A chance to revisit “The Shining” on the silver screen

Arts calendar: See Jack Nicholson's maniacal leer in all its grotesque glory, view an artist's take on the atomic bomb, hear an organ concert of hymns

Given the volume of commentary, criticism and amateur blogosphere speculation that has accumulated since 1980 about what happens in The Shining and what it all means, it’d be a mighty achievement to actually produce some new, original insight into Stanley Kubrick’s film, based on the horror novel by Stephen King.

What strikes me is the way it lives on in our imaginations and the fact that so many feel compelled to keep the discussion going. It’s not a fate one would have predicted after those first, lukewarm and even negative reviews in 1980. (“I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie,” lamented The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold.) But in 2018, is there anyone who wants to revisit (or even remembers) Terror Train or Motel Hell? No. But if you were to put The Shining in, say, the Elsinore Theatre in Salem, would that pique your interest?

Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” wears pretty much the same expression critics had in 1980 when Stanley Kubrick’s horror film was released. It has since produced an astonishing volume of commentary by viewers bent on unraveling the film’s visual riddles and enigmas. It will be screened Wednesday at the Elsinore Theatre in Salem.

It does mine, and not just because it’s a chance to see Kubrick’s amazing images on the big screen. Consider, too, that when The Shining shows at 7 p.m. Wednesday, it will be on a screen where it very likely first appeared. Multiplexes were a rare thing back then, and the majestic Elsinore was a theater where blockbusters opened.

The Shining is the perfect example of a film that improves with age and repeated viewings, though one is obliged to note one uncomfortable truth about its making: While Kubrick and the crew went out of their way to ensure that child actor Danny Lloyd was shielded from the story’s horrific aspects, he wasn’t so kind to Shelley Duvall. Watching the sequence where Jack Nicholson stalks her up a staircase, it’s impossible for the viewer familiar with Kubrick’s perfectionist drive not to wonder: Was this the 127th take, or had they topped 100 yet? Knowing all this today, it’s unsettling to realize that part of Duvall’s on-screen distress and exhaustion was, thanks to Kubrick, all too real.

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A new museum in Chinatown

"Descendent Threads": An evening at the Portland Chinatown Museum with artists Roberta May Wong, Ellen George, and Lynn Yarne

The Portland Chinatown Museum, a new cultural center in Old Town Chinatown not far from the Chinatown Gateway at West Burnside and Fourth Avenue, has been having what the restaurant industry calls a “soft opening.” Set to open its doors officially on December 15, when the nailing and hammering and painting and installing in its main gallery spaces will be completed, it’s been putting on shows and other events in its smaller but still spacious finished galleries just beyond its entry at 127 Northwest Third Avenue.

The museum’s permanent galleries will be devoted to the historical exhibition Beyond the Gates: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns, which originated in 2016 at the Oregon Historical Society, where it ran for three months, and is now being given new life. The smaller galleries that are already open are planned for work by contemporary artists and occasional performances, providing a vital link between the present and the past.

Opening night of “Descendent Threads,” October 4. Photo: May Chang

On a recent Thursday evening the galleries were bustling with visitors to Descendent Threads, an exhibition of work by three contemporary Asian American artists –– Roberta May Wong, Ellen George, and Lynn Yarne. The show opened on October 4 and continues through November 9. The draw on this particular evening was the announcement that George and Yarne would be on hand to mingle and talk about their work, and as it turned out, Wong was there, too, happy to chat with anyone who wanted to talk. Also milling around were artist Horatio Law, guest curator for this show, and Jacqueline Peterson-Lewis, executive director of the new museum, who created Beyond the Gate for the Oregon Historical Society along with the talented designer Carey Wong, associate curator Jennifer Fang, and the Portland Chinatown History Association.

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DramaWatch: Experiments in higher learning

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "How to Learn" schools the college experience; plus Halloween treats and other appetizing shows.

The theater artist Robert Quillen Camp has taught at Brown, Santa Barbara and Lewis & Clark College. He has what he calls a “practical” graduate degree (an MFA from Brown) as well as a PhD (UC Santa Barbara). And PhDs are the norm for his parents and grandparents. “I think of it as the family business,” he says of academia.

Presumably all this has helped prepare him to write and direct How to Learn, the upcoming production from the determinedly boundary-pushing Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE), for which Camp wrote the script to 2016’s Procedures for Saying No.

A multilayered examination of “the relationship between education, privilege, and knowledge,” as the PETE website puts it, How to Learn takes the form of a meandering lecture by a humanities professor as part of the announcement of a “student-centered student center.” It was inspired by a set of lectures on education that Friedrich Nietzsche delivered in 1872 and its strange mixture of academic critique and surreal self-reflection is underscored by Camp’s elaborately composed sound design.

Jacob Coleman stars in Robert Quillen Camp’s “How to Learn” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Owen Carey.

A recent late-afternoon rehearsal at the Sunnyside Community House, however, sounds like it’s taking place not at an ivy-encrusted university but a boisterous grade school — in the next room over, separated by little more than a large curtain, a couple dozen small children take part in what might be a beginning capoeira class.

Unflappable amid the cacophony of chanting and drumming, Camp and PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman proceed with their scene work, going over a part of the lecture in which Coleman’s un-named lecturer, the play’s sole character, recalls a bizarre and tragic incident from his undergraduate years. Amid a drug-altered visit to a night garden, some students encounter a  professor/mentor who launches into an impromptu lecture of his own:

“I can teach you something you don’t know.

Because you know, the university is like a failed state, a ruin, a nothing. It’s a ghost. You can’t learn anything there.

Originally the university was designed to teach men to serve god. Then later, the nation. But now, we don’t believe in God and we don’t believe in country. So now it’s just like, serve yourself. And if you are just working for yourself, if you are only serving your little tiny ego, you can’t learn anything. The only way to learn is obedience.”

As slippery as it is engaging, How to Learn is by turns a jeremiad, a self-justification, an explication, an evasion…In one section, the lecturer questions the institution’s ideals and methods, in the next he regales us with tales of his own misadventures as a student, and soon these streams begin to merge in surprising ways. The talk is sprinkled with off-hand references to Dewey and Foucault and the like, but the overall effect keeps drifting from the intellectual and toward the comic and phantasmagoric.

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Acclaimed Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin has returned to Portland for the West Coast debut of her award-winning minimalist new duet, Split. Considering how often White Bird has featured projects involving Guerin over the years, the work she brings to our city still continues to surprise. In some ways, Split is unlike anything Guerin has done, but it bears the intense clarity of gesture, deep directorial collaboration, and carefully considered structure that viewers who were fortunate enough to catch her previous projects should expect.

Guerin was last in Portland in 2017 as part of the stunning collaborative production Attractor. This knockout of a show was one of Guerin’s rare collaborations with her partner, Gideon Obarzanek, the founding director of dance company Chunky Move. In the spirit of both companies, they shared directorial and choreographic duties with two more collaborators: the dancers of Dancenorth Australia and Senyawa, an intense, experimental two-person band from Java. The show was loud and intense. An imposing column of cables hung from the ceiling, powering Senyawa’s instruments as if from some energy source in the sky. The dancers managed to match the tempo and tone oSenyawa’s vocal acrobatics, giving the impression that they were linked to the musicians by the same arcane electricity.

Prior to that show, in 2012, Lucy Guerin Inc. came to Portland with Weather, in which elaborate set design and prop work were integral to the choreography. Using simple materials such as plastic bags and strips of paper, Guerin and her collaborators created a miniature weather system onstage for her dancers to inhabit. More than gimmicks or set dressing, the objects came to life and integrated sublimely with the movement of the piece.

Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane grapple in Lucy Guerin’s “Split.” Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Using these shows as reference points for Split might seem to highlight the differences in tone, scope, and structure among Guerin’s various projects. However, if we look more deeply, we can see a few conceptual threads running through the fabric of her choreography. Each piece is grown rather than planned, created collaboratively with every member of the production—the dancers, the musicians, the lighting and stage designers. Each show manages to feel dense yet highly considered—every component serves its role and seems to be there for a reason. The complex and intense symmetry and synchronization seem to serve that purpose directly. What does and does not happen at the same time, or what does or does not have the same tone, are fundamental to each of these performances, from the smallest movements of the dancers to major structural decisions.

In their introduction to Split, which opens the 2018-19 Uncaged series, White Bird co-founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe mentioned that they rarely book duets, but felt that this was Guerin’s “masterwork.” What does that mean? The specifics of superlatives can blur into a vague sense of “really very good.” Mastery, however, is different from “exemplary” or “best.” It suggests a combination of total control and total freedom; masters know their work inside and out and can speak through it clearly and articulately. Mastery has nothing to prove and can cut through the dressing of a discipline to show us the nature of the work.

By that measure, “masterwork” seems like an appropriate description of Split. Plenty of shows seem fun or impressive enough to make us non-dancers wish we could perform the same feats. But this show made me want to be a dancer so I could better understand what the dancers were saying about dance itself. So much of dance defies written description—which is the main reason I haven’t yet tried to describe the actual movement in the piece. The show is made of a few simple components, but they add up to something complex.

The space Steiner and Lane share gradually shrinks in “Split.” Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

As viewers finds their seats, a hypnotic beat pulses quietly from the speakers. This soundtrack, composed by British artist Scanner, serves as a sort of auditory armature throughout the whole piece. Its minimal, repetitive structure is influenced by contemporary minimal music, but stops short of the complex polyrhythms and phasing that composers such as Steve Reich or Terry Riley are known for. It’s a rhythm that feels both intellectual and visceral, beating at the rate of an endurance runner’s heart.

As the show opens, dancers Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane stand on an empty stage, squared off by white tape outlining the perimeter. Steiner is completely naked, Lane wears a simple blue satin gown. The lighting is spare and directional—a broad spotlight that falls from the rafters, highlighting every edge and corner of Steiner’s body and every twist and fold in Lane’s gown.

The movement demonstrates Guerin’s minimalist bent. Starting in perfect sync, split by a distance of about five feet, the dancers work through individual positions combining everyday gestures with the simple movements that have been part of  modern dance vocabulary since choreographers including Trisha Brown began foregrounding components of human movement in the 1960s. Within the first few minutes, however, both dancers fling out their arms with the sort of speed we see in movies when editors drop a few frames to make action seem inhumanly fast. Later, some of the minimal lighting changes occur with the same snappiness, signaling significant transitions in the arc of the piece.

These intentionally startling moments split the otherwise steady rhythm supporting the movement throughout the whole show. Guerin’s decisions about how and when to break from a prevailing structure make her movement feel both tightly packed and carefully chosen. Split is so stripped down that every piece of it feels on view —it’s more sushi than soup—and we are invited to focus intensely on these pieces. Having Steiner perform entirely in the nude makes our scrutiny feel less analytical and more humane. When they dance in unison, Steiner feels like a living X-ray of Lane’s movement; when they move in opposition, Steiner serves as Lane’s counterpoint.

These tools of reduction, rupture and opposition are what move the show forward. Progress is marked by points where Steiner and Lane stop dancing, take a quick breather, and then split the working area of the stage in half with a roll of white tape. A quick burst of light from the side of the stage signals them to continue, and they re-engage in half the space they had before. These breaks come quicker and quicker, until the dancers barely have enough room to stand. They fight, they support each other, they cling to each other, and they drive each other out. Split is full of the things that make movement into dance, but it’s surprising for how few parts it needs to achieve that.

Split runs 8 p.m. Saturday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Find tickets here.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra & Nicole Buetti: keeping orchestra music alive

Orchestra opens season with original music composed by one of its members

“Good evening everyone!” Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Salvador Brotons told the full house at Skyview Concert Hall. “This evening: all American music. We usually play only the dead composers,” including this night’s classics by Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. But this time, he said, “we have another piece from another American—and is alive! And she is here!”

He passed the microphone to the orchestra’s contrabassonist Nicole Buetti, author of the September 30 concert’s opening Odyssey Overture. “It’s always scary as a composer to put your music in front of your peers,” Buetti said, turning to her fellow symphony players. Pointing to her seat, way back at the far end of the wind section by the upright basses, she said, “I’m fortunate to sit in the middle of the orchestra: the best seat in the house.”

The overture is dedicated to Buetti’s father, who instilled in her a love for science, Star Trek, and Star Wars. He championed the piece, calling its melody his favorite and asking when she would finally set it for orchestra. “Well, dad,” Buetti said, gesturing to the orchestra behind her, preparing to play her music, “twice in one weekend: pretty good!” She concluded by hinting at the overture’s hidden programmatic element. “Rather than tell you the story I had in my head—though it’s a good one!—I’d like to invite you to sit back and imagine your own story.”

Mayuko Kamio plays Barber with VSO and Brotons. Photo: Paul Quackenbush

This is not only my first time hearing Buetti’s music, it’s my first time hearing the VSO. The brooding, cinematic opening gives me a pretty good idea of what this orchestra would sound like playing the Firebird Suite. Concertmaster Eva Richey’s solo violin hovers over heavy low strings and dark winds, Elfman-y contrabassoon work from Buetti answered by Barbara Heilmair’s spooky bass clarinet. A bouncy trio in 5/8 starts up, passing from Buetti to the other bassoons and thence to ecstatic trumpets and trombones, then a nice little oboe solo from Alan Juza and the return of that gorgeous melody in the strings as the horns blend into the ever-building wall of sound. If Bartók had Gone West to write music for action movies, it might have sounded like this.

A big, dramatic finish out of Goldsmith or Horner brings it to a close, and a big grin breaks over Buetti’s face. I jot in my notes, “colorful, confident orchestration.” And, more significantly, “melody! hooray for melody!”

Japanese violinist Mayuko Kamio started up Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with a quiet, delicate opening, supported by rich horns (I dare say this section might be better than Oregon Symphony’s). The second movement, another lovely oboe solo answered by sweet cellos and a high clean violin section. Kamio’s line turns tragic, light and bittersweet, a vigorous vibrato, molto schmaltzando, as muted trumpets echo mysteriously in the distance. As the last movement’s virtuosic perpetuo moto got underway Kamio began to really pick up steam, full orchestra punctuating her hoedown grooving, Florian Conzetti bending way over his timpani to play a quick snare drum flourish, Brotons’s legs braced wide for the big ending, a hop and a sting and it was over.

After a quick consultation with Brotons, Kamio came back out for an encore, a dazzling set of variations on that famous theme of Paganini’s, her playing rough and weird (in a good way), fancy battuto strokes and left-hand pizzicato pull-offs that put me in mind of Eddie van Halen. A few “wow”s susserated around the audience.

Music from the Theater

Before the Bernstein set—symphonic suites from Candide and West Side Story—Brotons talked a bit about the composer, whose centennial celebration continues to enliven music halls around the country. “Bernstein was a complete musician, one of the greatest of the 20th century,” Brotons said. He gave a little background on the composer’s operetta Candide, saying there is “not much difference between operetta and musical: is light, but also intense and beautiful.” He concluded by relating the story behind “Make Our Garden Grow,” the justly popular song that closes both the operetta and Charlie Harmon’s orchestral suite. “I hope it will make you cry,” Brotons said, “and I hope you will make your garden grow.”

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“Fires” in a crowded theater

Anna Deavere Smith's incendiary "Fires in the Mirror" packs dozens of characters into a one-person show about ethnic strife in 1990s Brooklyn.

At one point, amid the mosaic of testimonials and commentaries that make up Anna Deavere Smith’s play Fires in the Mirror, Leonard Jeffries, a professor of African American studies at City University of New York, talks about his tangential involvement in Alex Haley’s novel turned TV miniseries Roots, one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the 1970s. “Isn’t Roots wonderful?!,” Jeffries recalls the actor Lorne Greene saying to him. “It’s everyone’s history!”

Jeffries doesn’t even have to voice his disgust with Greene’s statement. As a scholar with an Afrocentric worldview, he’s invested in the particulars of Roots as a story about Africans; to claim that experience as common property is both a whitewashing and a theft. And of course he’s right.

But then, Lorne Greene — despite being best known as a paragon of mainstream American whiteness on Bonanzawas the son of Russian Jews. A story of slavery and of a distressed diaspora is his history. And considering that the history of slavery is the indissoluble contaminant of the American democratic experiment, a ghost haunting the entire American experience, maybe Greene was right in the larger sense as well.

Fires in the Mirroronstage through Oct. 21 in a riveting production by Profile Theatre —  doesn’t make these pretzels of perspective explicit, but they’re there. Confirming expectations one moment, challenging prejudices the next, confounding certitude throughout, the play is an exercise in compulsory open-mindedness. Which might not be empathy, exactly, but it helps.

Seth Rue as physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, one of 26 characters he portrays in “Fires in the Mirror.” Photo: David Kinder

Smith’s subject isn’t slavery or persecution; rather it is the contrasts, contradictions and confluence of black and Jewish experience, as seen through the prism of the Crown Heights riot, which convulsed that Brooklyn neighborhood in 1991. A car in the motorcade of a Hasidic Jewish leader veered onto the sidewalk, killing a seven-year-old boy, the son of Guyanese immigrants. Confusion and rumors helped ignite long-simmering frustrations between blacks and Jews in the area. Three days of riots resulted, including the killing of a Jewish doctoral student visiting from Australia.

Smith interviewed dozens of area residents to create the verbatim monologues that make up Fires in the Mirror, a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama (losing to Angels in America). We hear from poets and professors, rappers and rabbis, teachers and teenagers, all portrayed by a single actor, in this case Seth Rue, performing with a remarkable blend of plasticity and heart.

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Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Zen funk

Swiss keyboardist brings ‘ritual groove music’ back to Portland

Nik Bärtsch’s spacious, mesmerizing “Zen-funk” resists pigeonholes. Generally labeled as jazz, it springs from a variety of sources: Thelonious Monk’s pithy rhythmic transformations; Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s smart, spare yet colorful orchestrations; Lennie Tristano’s cool phrasing and interlocking figures; Ran Blake and more, including other artists on his record label, ECM, best known for cool, spare, atmospheric sounds.

But in an interview with me before his first Portland appearance in 2011, Bärtsch also cited non-jazz, non-icy influences: drum-‘n’-bass master Photek; modernist composers Igor Stravinsky and Morton Feldman; bass lines indebted to soul godfather James Brown and Prince-style funk; drum parts straight out of New Orleans legends the Meters; repetitive, evolving figures à la minimalist pioneer Steve Reich; and various folk music styles, including Romanian and Japanese.

That emphasis on music that makes your body distinguishes his band Ronin from most other ECM artists, and helps explain its appeal beyond jazz audiences. Although PDX Jazz is bringing them back to Portland for the fourth time Saturday at a jazz club, Portland’s Jack London Revue,  Ronin performs regularly in dance and rock clubs.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. Photo: Jonas Holthaus.

“We have a great mix in our audience and in our [Zurich] club EXIL every week,” he told me. “Sometimes even teens come with their parents. Our concert is the only place where they go out together. Young audiences can feel if you are alive or already mummified by tradition. The tradition should nourish today’s music — but as a humus, not as a power-abusing museum with no connections to the street. The music should naturally develop out of our lives, not out of theory.”

Trained in both jazz and classical music, Bärtsch has evolved a gripping, groove-oriented sound that’s partly composed, partly improvised yet smoothly cohesive. “I like rhythms, instruments and groove balances — intelligent meditative music and strong ritual groove music,” Bärtsch told me then. 

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