‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.

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DanceWatch: A rich cultural stew

What's happening in Oregon dance now

Welcome to DanceWatch for March, the month that enters like a lion and retreats like a lamb, or so they say. While it’s still cold and dark outside, you can think of this month’s dance offerings like a warm winter stew: hearty, rich, varied, and soul-soothing. And don’t forget that spring is a mere 22 days away!

Let’s start this month’s column with Native American dance. Last fall, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art caught my attention with this statement in its Time-Based Art catalog: “The land now known as Portland rests on the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and many other Tribes who made their homes along the Columbia (Wimahl) and Willamette (Whilamut) rivers.”

I didn’t know this. Did you? I was struck. I rarely hear about the native tribes of Portland and the surrounding areas and I even more rarely see dance representing these cultures. I feel weird about this. I can’t go back to not knowing. In fact, this information made me want to learn more about Native American dance artists in Oregon and beyond, and recently, I did.

This past Sunday, I attended the Alembic artist performance at Performance Works NorthWest, where choreographer Olivia Camfield, a resident artists and a Muscogee Creek Tribal member from Texas Hill Country, choreographed and performed a powerful contemporary piece about indigenous people reclaiming their narratives. She welcomed everyone with this statement, a reminder to be respectful when we’re visiting someone else’s territory.

“Hensci (hello), estonko (how are you), Olivia Cvhocefkv Tos (my name is Olivia). I come from the Muscogee Creek nation of Oklahoma. Originally we come from the southeastern region of this continent. I would like to acknowledge that I am a visitor here today and in the spirit of reciprocity, I would like to bring medicine and movement prayer to this land and the people of it. These nations include the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tumwater, Watlala Bands of the Chinook, the Tualatin Kalapuya, and many other indigenous nations of the Columbia River valley region. I would like y’all to acknowledge whether you are a settler occupier of this stolen land, an indigenous visitor, or you are of this land and this is your ancestral territory. I would like to ask to come here and be in a good way and walk this land as a caretaker and a medicine giver. I would like y’all to do the same, be here in a way that is respectful and honorable to the people and spirits who have taken care of this land since time immemorial. Mvto (thank you).”

Camfield is also a member of Dancing Earth, a Bay Area company that focuses on indigenous dance. It’s represented by my friend and Portland resident Andre Bouchard, who’s a good source of information on Native American dance and culture. Born and raised on Montana’s Flathead Reservation, of Kootenai and Ojibwe descent, Bouchard is nationally recognized for his work in Native American contemporary performing arts. In 2001, he founded Walrus Performance Productions, a nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities to choreographers, playwrights, and multi-disciplinary performing artists in the Pacific Northwest.

Bouchard told me that there are 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., that they are not necessarily similar, and that their members prefer to be recognized by their tribe name of origin rather than by the general term Native Americans. He also said that because of changes in laws, policy, and funding, these artists are thriving and their work is enjoying a resurgence and being recognized nationally and internationally today. This August, Bouchard will be a keynote speaker at the Asia Pacific Dance Festival Conference at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, where he will present a paper on contemporary Native American dance.

Also last week, ahead of their company’s performance in Hillsboro (see below), I had a wonderfully engaging phone conversation with Painted Sky Northstar Dance Company executive producer Mary Hager and dance director Damon Keller. The company, established in Portland in 2005 and composed of 12 or so dancers, is an intertribal organization that honors Native American culture by building awareness through performance and education. The company has taught and performed nationally and internationally; its repertoire includes traditional dance forms as well as blended contemporary styles. Its goal is to break down stereotypes, myths, and urban legends about Native American people, and to build bridges and create friendships. I am looking forward to seeing this performance, meeting Hager and Keller in person, and seeing how these ideas translate onstage.

As I work to de-colonize my own dancer body (and this column) of Western ideology, I’m excited to learn more about Native American culture and dance, and will continue to share what I discover along the way.

Indigenous and international dance styles

Painted Sky Northstar Dance Company (pictured: Aiyanna Bennett) performs traditional and blended contemporary dance styles. Photo courtesy of Mary Hager.

Painted Sky Northstar Dance Company
2 pm March 9
Walters Cultural Arts Center, 527 East Main St., Hillsboro
See above.

Sankalpa Dance Ensemble members Sweta Ravisankar, Sridharini Sridharan, and Yashaswini Raghuram embody feminine power. Photo by Gidu Sriram.

Shakti
Sankalpa Dance Ensemble, Sweta Ravishankar, Sridharini Sridharan, and Yashaswini Raghuram
5:30 pm March 9
Hindu Education and Cultural Society of America, Portland Balaji Temple, 2092 NW Aloclek Dr., Suite 522, Hillsboro
Bharatanatyam dance company the Sankalpa Dance Ensemble presents Shakti, an evening of five dances created around the theme of feminine energy and power, The company is directed by, and features, dancers Sweta Ravishankar, Sridharini Sridharan, and Yashaswini Raghuram performing to live music.

The program opens with a dance dedicated to the goddess Parvati, wife of the Hindu god Shiva; she is the goddess of fertility, love, beauty, marriage, children, and devotion, and represents divine strength and power. The second dance is a varnam, the main dance in a typical Bharatanatyam concert, which emphasizes nritta (footwork) and abhinaya (expressions). This varnam praises the beautiful fish-eyed goddess Meenakshi. The third dance is dedicated to Devi, the Mother Goddess who speaks beautifully, walks majestically, and epitomizes music and the arts. She takes care of the afflicted, rids people of sin, and is a delight to all. The program also features a dance depicting pure love and compassion, a humble prayer to the mother as goddess. The finale is set to a collection of verses written by Tamil poet and Indian independence activist Mahakavi Subramania Bharati, also known as Bharathiyar, who was a vocal supporter of women’s rights in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bharathiyar envisioned feminine power transforming the earth into a better place and uplifting mankind.

Modern and contemporary: local

NW Dance Project celebrates 15 years of working with dancers (pictured here: Julia Radick) in “Trip the Light Fantastic.” Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Trip The Light Fantastic
NW Dance Project
February 28-March 1
Gala and performance March 2
Expensify, 401 SW 5th Ave.
Limited capacity
In this 15th anniversary event, NW Dance Project performs pieces by artistic director Sarah Slipper, resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem, and Oregon Ballet Theatre founding artistic director James Canfield in and around the 40,000-square-foot former First National Bank building, now the headquarters of tech company Expensify. The event celebrates the company’s artistic achievements: work with more than 1200 professional and pre-professional dancers (including four Princess Grace Award winners) and the performance of more than 280 original pieces by nationally and internationally known choreographers. The evening will include a dance-cooking skit between Portland actor Susannah Mars and company dancer Andrea Parson, music by Pink Martini pianist Hunter Noack, and a post-performance dance party in the basement vault, hosted by former NW Dance Project star Viktor Usov.

Sisters Willow and Marley Swanson pair contemporary dance and martial arts at A Taste of Dance: A Wine and Dance Pairing. Photo courtesy of Willow Swanson.

A Taste of Dance: A Wine and Dance Pairing Performance
Produced by Chapel Theatre
6 pm March 10
Chapel Theatre, 4107 SE Harrison St., Milwaukie
As part of Chapel Theatre’s Second Sundays Winter Performance Series, choreographers whose work spans flamenco to tap will describe their artistic processes and Wine:30 wine steward Lenny Bennett will pair wine with each of the dances on the program, explaining how they relate to, and enhance, one another. Featured choreographers include Stephanie Seaman, Willow Swanson, Jessica Zoller, and Elena Villa.

See why Anya Pearson’s “Made to Dance in Burning Buildings” earned her a $10,000 grant. Photo courtesy of Shaking The Tree Theatre.

Made to Dance in Burning Buildings
Written by Portland playwright Anya Pearson
Directed by Jamie Rea with choreography by Jeff George
February 15-March 16
Shaking The Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St.
Made to Dance in Burning Buildings is a fusion of poetry, theater, and violent-visceral contemporary dance that poses this question: How do we heal from trauma? The story, performed by a multi-ethnic cast of 10, follows a young black woman who is raped, develops PTSD, and metaphorically fractures into five different women as a result. It’s from these five points of view that the story is told. Based on a true story, and inspired Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, the work earned Pearson the inaugural $10,000 Voice is a Muscle Grant from the Corporeal Voices Foundation.

Linda Austin explores the life of the aging body in her solo “Ordinary Devotions.” Photo by Ian Douglas

Ordinary Devotions (premiere)
Linda Austin
March 14-23
Performance Works NorthWest, 4625 SE 67th Ave.
With her solo Ordinary Devotions, award-winning Performance Works NorthWest founder, director and choreographer Linda Austin has created what she is calling “a meditation-in-action on the ordinary/extraordinary life of the aging body and a tactile apprehension of the world to hand.”

The work—which explores beauty, humor, rebelliousness, and awkwardness—pairs task-like movement with the unorthodox use of objects including a vinyl tarp, a twig, stones, a lamp worn on the body, cassette tapes, and multiple spools of thread. The piece, Austin says, will “yield to poetically and emotionally charged movements, text, and images—evoking vulnerability and hints of mortality.” The piece will be framed by field recordings by Juniana Lanning and video by Kelly Rauer.

Austin has been making dance and performance works since 1983. She was active in the dance and performance communities in New York City during the 1980s, lived and worked in Mexico during the mid-1990s, and relocated to Portland, Oregon, in 1998, where she established PWNW and Linda Austin Dance. I interviewed her in 2015 when PWNW turned 15. You can read our conversation here.

Oluyinka Akinjiola, Decimus Yarbrough, Michael Galen, Bethany Harvey, and Jamie Minkus revisit “A Midsummer Night at the Savoy.” Photo by Andy Batt.

A Midsummer Night at the Savoy
Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater
March 16-17
Self Enhancement, Inc., 3920 N. Kirby Ave.
Set in Harlem’s historic Savoy Ballroom, but using Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the dramatic framework, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater weaves together four contemporary choreographers’ work (Oluyinka Akinjiola, Decimus Yarbrough, Michael Galen, and Jamie Minkus) into one piece that highlights the massive contributions African-American artists have made to the American cultural landscape. Actor Kevin Jones narrates as Langston Hughes.

Send in the clowns! Imago Theatre remounts “To Fly Again.” Photo courtesy of Imago Theatre.

To Fly Again
Imago, Jerry Mouawad
March 22-April 6
Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave.
As part of its Next Wave Festival this spring, Imago stages three original works: Leonard Cohen is Dead (March 1-16), Pebble (May 10-25), and, sandwiched between the two, Jerry Mouawad’s movement-heavy To Fly Again (March 22-April 6). ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks reviewed To Fly Again last year and says that “Mouawad’s own description, from the show’s press release, perhaps explains the simple mystery of the thing as well as it can be explained: ‘A zany group of clown musicians and a clan of clay-tossed dancers roam a barren land … The clowns’ thoughts arise and pass like clouds, the dating game appears out of nowhere in clashes of absurdity, while joy and pathos skim their nonsensical wordplay as the clowns search for a suitable place to make camp. Psychedelic and existential humor pervades; the clowns are constantly interrupted by a clan of dusty dancers who live in a world beyond speech. Tater, the most vulnerable of the clowns, yearns to fly again. Questions open up to further questioning, and talk of sadness is eclipsed by looking at the stars.’”

Queer burlesque performer and voguer Bouton Volonté shares new work at the N.E.W. residency show.  Photo by Ms. Lopez.

New Expressive Works Residency Performance
March 29-31
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St. (in the Wyse Bldg.)
The 11th New Expressive Works residency performance will showcase work by its newest resident choreographers, Bouton Volonté, Sarah-Luella Baker, Kayla Banks, and Hannah Krafcik with Emily Jones.

Volonté, a queer burlesque performer and voguer, will perform LABOR,, a love letter. In Without a Map, Baker, a multi-disciplinary artist, combines original music and movement with theatricality to create non-linear storylines where the personal and political intersect. Banks, a Colorado native who danced professionally with Impact Dance Company and trained with NW Dance Project, will present the contemporary dance work Mixology. Krafcik and Jones, who met three years ago and began combining their interests in writing, somatics, bodywork, and a variety of dance practices into a practice in Krafcik’s living room, present their work switch.

The residency program, which N.E.W. founder Subashini Ganeshan began in 2012, supports the making of dance in all genres. The program offers four choreographers per session 144 hours of free rehearsal space over six months; “fieldwork,” or peer-to-peer feedback sessions facilitated by dance artist Katherine Longstreth; and a fully produced, ticketed performance at the end.

Modern and contemporary: imported

Fierce and fabulous: Compagnie Hervé Koubi returns with “The Barbarian Nights or The First Dawns of the World.” Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Compagnie Hervé Koubi
Presented by White Bird
February 28-March 2
Newmark Theatre, 111 SW Broadway
French-Algerian choreographer Hervé Koubi and his company of 13 male street dancers from Algeria and Morocco present The Barbarian Nights or The First Dawns of the World. Set against the musical backdrop of Wagner, Mozart, French composer Gabriel Fauré, and traditional Algerian melodies, the dancers, dressed in Swarovski crystal masks and long dark skirts, use capoeira, martial arts, and urban and contemporary dance to explore the idea of otherness. The barbarians of the title come from the term that Greeks and Romans used to describe foreigners who did not speak their languages or understand their customs.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard draws from the poetry and paintings of Belgian artist Henri Michaux in “Henri Michaux: Mouvements.” Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard
Presented by White Bird
March 7-9
Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway
“My source has always been the body itself,” Montreal-based choreographer Marie Chouinard notes on her company’s website, “and especially the silence and the breath which make up the ‘invisible’ stuff of life. At the root of each new work there is always what I call the ‘mystery,’ an unknown wavelength that calls out to me in an almost obsessive manner. My work consists of capturing this primordial wavelength, of ‘tuning’ it in a sense, and of arranging it in space and time with a structure and form proper to it.”

Chouinard makes a fourth visit to Portland through White Bird with a two-part program. One part is Henri Michaux: Mouvements, a 35-minute one-act ballet that she choreographed between 2005 and 2011, inspired by the India ink drawings and poetry of Belgian artist Henri Michaux. The other part is 24 Preludes by Chopin, a work she created in 1999, inspired by Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28. She has fashioned, she says in her description, “ a composite dance consisting of solos, duos, trios, and group movements that marry gentleness with strength, and subtlety with rawness.” Portland State University music professor and pianist Susan Chan will play the preludes live.

Send in the clowns, part 2: Cirque du Soleil returns with “Corteo.” Image courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

Corteo
Cirque du Soleil
Written and directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca
March 14-17
Moda Center, 1 N. Center Ct. St.
In the mysterious space between heaven and earth, a clown imagines his own funeral taking place in a carnival-like atmosphere, guided by a benevolent group of angels. Steeped in Old World circus charm, Corteo (the Italian word for a joyous procession), combines theatricality, acrobatics, comedy, and wit. As the company describes it, “The story juxtaposes the large with the small, the ridiculous with the tragic, and the magic of perfection with the charm of imperfection. Corteo highlights the strength and fragility of the clown, as well as his wisdom and kindness, illustrating the humanity in all of us.”

Ballet: local and imported

PDX Contemporary Ballet dancers find symbolism in a white dress this season. Photo by Andy Batt.

Materialize
PDX Contemporary Ballet
March 1-3
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St.
PDX Contemporary Ballet’s artistic director Briley Neugebauer chose the image of a white dress as an overarching theme for the company’s 2018-2019 season. To Neugebauer, the dress, which appears onstage, symbolizes womanhood, tradition, potential, and the passage of time. In Materialize, the season’s second installment, company dancers Muriel Capdepon, Victoria Lauder (who also sewed the dress), Tessa Salomone, and Katherine Evans have created four new works based on their own interpretations of what the white dress symbolizes, from virgin bride to rampant consumerism.

Ballet Fantastique goes adventuring in “The Odyssey.” Photo courtesy of Ballet Fantastique.

The Odyssey
Ballet Fantastique, Donna Marisa and Hannah Bontrager
March 1-3
Hult Center, 1 Eugene Center, Eugene
Choreographers Donna Marisa and Hannah Bontrager retell Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey using the language of contemporary ballet. Featuring music from Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody and Audiomachine, and live looping from electric violinist Cullen Vance, the ballet chronicles a great warrior hero’s journey home and the trials and tribulations that journey entailed.

Eugene Ballet and the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance play well together in Interplay. Photo by Aran Denison.

Interplay
Eugene Ballet
March 8-10
Hult Center, Soreng Theater, 1 Eugene Center, Eugene
Interplay, the way two or more things have an effect on each other, is both the title and the subject of a new collaboration between Eugene Ballet and the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.

The program includes choreographic work from University of Oregon associate professor of dance Walter Kennedy, dance professor Steven J. Chatfield, associate professor of dance Shannon Mockli, and dance instructor Sarah Ebert. Eugene Ballet is represented be resident choreographer Suzanne Haag, associate artistic director Jennifer Martin (staging Marius Petipa), and artistic director Toni Pimble.

Eugene Ballet and UO dancers will share the stage in Kennedy’s Whorl, Ebert’s The Exchange and Haag and Mockli’s Between Your Eyes and You, which they created using music from Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs and spoken word read by actors Craig Phillips and Milagro Vargas. UO dancers will perform Chatfield’s Bach to Bach, while Eugene Ballet dancers will perform Petipa’s Don Quixote Grand Pas de Deux and a pas de deux from Common Ground, a sensual contemporary ballet Pimble choreographed for Atlanta Ballet in 1991.

Wake up! The Bolshoi Ballet brings “The Sleeping Beauty” to the big screen. Photo courtesy of Pathe Live.

The Sleeping Beauty
Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema
Presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
12:55 pm March 10
Check local theater listings for more information
The Bolshoi Ballet presents The Sleeping Beauty, filmed live Jan. 22, 2017, and screening at a movie theater near you. Choreographed in 2011 by Bolshoi Ballet ballet master and choreographer Yuri Grigorovich after Petipa, the ballet tells of the evil fairy Carabosse (played by Alexei Loparevich), who curses Princess Aurora (played by prima ballerina Olga Smirnova) to a 100-year sleep, from which she is awakened by a magical kiss. Performed to Tchaikovsky’s score, the ballet features dancing by memorable characters including fairies, Little Red Riding Hood, and Puss in Boots.

Upcoming Performances

April
April 5, Lecture Demonstration with Rosie Herrera and Company, Reed College
April 4-6, Parsons Dance, presented by White Bird
April 4-13, The Pearl Dive Project, BodyVox
April 5-13, Prism, A Mixd Dance Company Production
April 7, The Golden Age, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
April 9-10, Savion Glover, presented by White Bird
April 11-14, Director’s Choice, Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 12-14, Shen Yun, Presented by the Oregon Falun Dafa Association
April 12-27, A Little Less Human: A Ghost Story, Trip The Dark
April 13, Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, Butoh College 2019
April 13-14, The Firebird, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
April 20, Kudo Taketeru, Butoh College 2019
April 24, Philadanco, presented by White Bird
April 25-27, Encores, NW Dance Project
April 26-May 4, Pathways, works by Kelly Koltiska and Amelia Unsicker

May
May 9-11, Contact Dance Film Festival, BodyVox and NW Film Center
May 10-12, Shaun Keylock Company
May 10-12, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, Cleopatra (world premiere), Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
May 17-19, Undone, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 19, Carmen Suite / Petrushka, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema-Live from Moscow, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
May 26, Derek Hough: Live! The Tour, Eugene

June
June 7-15, The Americans, Oregon Ballet Theatre
June 7-9, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 13-15, Summer Performances, NW Dance Project

MusicWatch Weekly: global musical tour

Sounds from Africa, Japan, Ireland and more join jazz and classical music on Oregon stages

If America, or at least its government, seems a little crazy these days, and you can’t afford to skip the country, the week offers several opportunities for virtual world travel through music.

• PDX Jazz Festival’s irresistible double feature The Soul of Africa – Habib Koite + Bassekou Kouyate features two of the planet’s finest musicians from the musical hotbed of Mali. Kouyate has helped revive the centuries-old ngoni lute, the enchanting little plucked precursor to the banjo —adding strings, new approaches to picking, plucking, and note-bending, and incorporating influences from blues, rock, bluegrass, and jazz, perhaps partial compensation for his native Mali basically giving the West the blues (in a good way). He’s played with everyone from fellow griot Toumani Diabate to Taj Mahal to Bonnie Raitt, Bono, Bela Fleck, and Youssou N’Dour.

Habib Koite and Bassekou Kouyate team up at PDX Jazz Festival.

One of Mali’s most renowned musicians and one of the world’s great guitarists, Koite’s bubbling acoustic guitar-driven melodies and socially conscious lyrics won fans among Western pop stars like Raitt and in the 1980s and ‘90s made him one of Africa’s biggest crossover successes in the West. He’s continued to evolve, changing bands, styles and even instruments. But what hasn’t changed is Koite’s focus on contemporary issues (he sings in four languages, including English, about war, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, but also happier subjects like soccer), melodic hooks, and gentle, pulsating groove.
Wednesday, Revolution Hall, Portland.

•  Lúnasa get us warmed up early for St. Paddy’s Day. The all-star Irish quintet  has reached the highest level of the Celtic music world, selling a quarter million records of vibrant Celtic instrumental folk music over the past two decades, and they keep the tradition current by adding original compositions and non traditional instrumentation (bass and guitar) to the classic mix of flute, whistles, uilleann pipes, and fiddle.

Wednesday, The Shedd, Eugene and Thursday, Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland

Ladysmith Black Mambazo performs in Eugene .

• The famous voices of South Africa’s multiple Grammy-winning choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing Zulu music from across their four-decade career, probably including cuts from their two latest Grammy nominated discs and their renowned collaborations with Paul Simon. Beyond their beautifully blended voices, the group’s shows are graced by their choreographed dance steps, colorful costumes, and enthusiasm for bridging the divide between artists and audiences. Read Bruce Browne’s ArtsWatch story about their last Oregon tour.
Tuesday, Aladdin Theater, Portland, and next Wednesday, The Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall, Eugene.

Oregon Koto-Kai’s annual concert is Sunday at Portland State University.

• Led by one of the state’s global music treasures, Mitsuki Dazai, Oregon Koto-Kai annually showcases the performances of other masters of the koto, that most ravishing Japanese zither. This year’s So-Shun Koto Concert theme, “雪⽉月⾵風花”(Setsu Getsu Fu Ka or Snow, Moon, Wind, Flower perfectly describes this Oregon winter and also means the beauty of nature, which is the theme of most of the traditional compositions on the program. The show also features shamisen (three string lute) and ikebana flower arranging.
2 pm Sunday, Lincoln Recital Hall (Room 75), PSU, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland.

JAZZ

PDX Jazz Festival concludes this week with another brilliant batch of improvisational masters. Read my ArtsWatch previews of Darrell Grant’s double bill with Terence Blanchard (whose E-Collective brings the funk, blues and R&B on their sizzling new album) and Portland Jazz Composers’ Thursday and Sunday From Maxville to Vanport shows.

• Stephan Crump busted out of his sideman role in Vijay Iyer’s acclaimed trio with his own, very different trio: his own acoustic bass, acoustic guitar and electric guitars (Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox). Rosetta Trio’s 2005 debut earned ecstatic reviews, and although Crump has gone on to lead other bands, he keeps returning to Rosetta, including their brand new album Outliers. It’s easy to hear why: the unusual but versatile instrumentation allows intricate interplay, unweighted by drums or piano. At times floaty, at times funky, it’s a string band for the 21st century.
Friday. Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave. Portland.

• Don’t wait for the inevitable posthumous tribute when you can still hear the real thing. Legendary bassist Stanley Clarke returns to the festival, this time bringing one of the music’s rising stars, LA keyboardist Cameron Graves (who has his own PDX Jazz Festival showcase), plus drummer Shariq Tucker. Best known for his contributions to ‘70s fusion pioneers Return to Forever, Clarke has ranged all over the field in various other projects, including funk, post-bop and more. His latest album includes everything from beatboxing to Bach. With youngsters Graves and Tucker aboard, expect even more contemporary sounds along with jazz-rock classics.
Friday, The Shedd, Eugene, and Sunday, Revolution Hall, Portland.

Bass boss Stanley Clarke plays Eugene and Portland.

The festival also continues its tribute trail with a quartet of contemporary saxophonists in the band Wide Angles, plus brass and strings celebrating the great Michael Brecker Saturday, a Grover Washington Jr. tribute led by Portland’s Eldon “T” Jones Friday, Toots Thielemans and Hank Mobley tributes Sunday, a couple of Blue Note label celebrations and much more, including some of our finest Oregon jazz artists. Check the whole wonderful lineup.

Continues…

‘From Maxville to Vanport’: redressing erasure through music

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble project revives the stories of Oregon towns where African Americans created community in an otherwise unfriendly state

The story of African Americans in Oregon has too often been a tale of erasure. From the frequently unacknowledged racist origins of the state’s long legal exclusion of black immigration, to obliteration of neighborhoods and displacement of communities of color, to stifling of voices of protest, stories of African American Oregonians that don’t fit the dominant culture’s whitewashed utopian image have been suppressed, ignored, or forgotten.

As more Oregonians — and Americans in general — belatedly recognize the stubborn persistence of our legacy of racial injustice, calls for change grow louder. Yet it’s hard to move forward without knowing where you’ve been. And Oregon’s African American history contains stories of inspiration as well as intolerance. “Things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” wrote Zadie Smith, “and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us.”

PJCE performing with Kalimah Abioto’s short film ‘Water’ in ‘From Maxville to Vanport.’ Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From Maxville to Vanport resists Oregon’s racist erasure through music, stories and film. Premiered last spring and returning Thursday to Corvallis and Sunday to Portland, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s production tells the story of two now-vanished Oregon communities with significant African American populations whose legacy still resounds today.

It’s the culmination of an extended collaborative process involving a team of Oregon artists and historical organizations that began with producer Douglas Detrick, executive director of PJCE, and Portland singer Marilyn Keller, a Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame member who became what Detrick called “the face and voice of this project.”

“Having performed old time blues and jazz from the ancestors,” as lead singer in Black Swan Classic Jazz Band, Keller insisted that “it had to be a project that spoke directly to my African American heritage.”

Vanished Towns

Built in 1923, Maxville, a railroad logging town near Wallowa that operated until the early 1930s, included 50 or so African Americans and their families. Vanport, hastily created in 1942 to house workers who came to Portland to build warships, numbered at its peak 40,000 inhabitants, making it Oregon’s second largest city, according to the Vanport Mosaic project. (Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch feature about the flood and the project.) The city was wiped out in the notorious 1948 Memorial Day flood, drowning or displacing thousands of African American residents.

PJCE performing with video of the Vanport flood.  Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

“Both were places of refuge and opportunity to Oregonians of color, immigrants, African Americans especially, all coming to a state where they were not very welcome otherwise,” Detrick said. “We wanted to explore creatively why these places played outsize roles in the state’s African American history.”

Continues…

Come from Away: the true tale

As the Broadway hit comes to town, the inside story of the town that took care of 6,500 passengers stranded by the terrorist attacks of 9/11

[Editors’ note: On the morning of September 11, 2001, Kevin Tuerff, founder/CEO of Austin’s EnviroMedia marketing company, was returning from a vacation in France with his boyfriend. As their transatlantic flight approached New York City, the plane suddenly turned north. Half an hour later it landed in Newfoundland, a large Canadian island in the North Atlantic ocean. For the next 11 hours, Tuerff, his boyfriend (called Evan here), and 248 other passengers remained aboard the plane – one of 38 forced to land at the Newfoundland airport – as they learned the horrifying news of the terrorist attack on New York. As night fell, they were finally allowed to disembark. They were stranded in the small town of Gander.

What happened next would change Tuerff’s life forever — including becoming one of the subjects of the hit musical Come from Away, which opens Tuesday and continues through Sunday, March 3, at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. Portland/New York producers Corey and Jessica Brunish are among the producers of the Broadway production.

There’s another Portland connection. “Portland was introduced to this story in 2009, two years before I met the writers of the musical,” Tuerff remembers. “That’s when EnviroMedia had an office in the White Stag building and we brought our Pay it Forward 9/11 effort to the Pacific Northwest.” He visited the city often over the next few years. Now living in New York City, Tuerff is a public speaker, CEO of the marketing and public relations firm Kevin Tuerff Consulting, LLC, and author of the new book Channel of Peace: Stranded in Gander on 9/11 about his life-changing Gander experience. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3, Where Am I and Who Are These Nice People.]

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By KEVIN TUERFF

After finally stepping off the plane, walking down the stairway onto the tarmac, I felt a great sense of relief. It was around 9 p.m. It was dark and the air temperature felt cool, considering I was wearing shorts. I turned my camera on, capturing the airport’s Gander sign. I spoke into the microphone, “We’re free, we’re free! After I-don’t-know-how-many hours on that awful plane, we’re free. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going.”

I turned the camera to Evan. He said, “We’re in Gander, and all I know is they better have CNN here.”

Inside the airport, security was very serious and tight, and there were just two Canadian immigration and customs authorities available to check passports. The airport staff would work nonstop around the clock for days to deplane the 6,500 stranded passengers. We were among the first. After the immigration screening, we entered the main terminal, which was barely bigger than a high school auditorium. And that’s when the first wave of unconditional love hit us: the terminal was filled with volunteers greeting us as we registered. It was like we had walked into a party! There were dozens of volunteers present. Some were wearing their Salvation Army or Red Cross uniforms and sat at ten-foot-long tables. Their job was to make sure every stranded passenger was documented and taken care of. Most of them were older adults, perhaps looking a bit Irish, like me. There were dozens of volunteers at tables set up with food that had everything from home-baked cookies and squares to buckets of KFC fried chicken.

First National Tour of “Come from Away.” The Broadway touring company opens in Portland at Keller Auditorium on Tuesday, Feb. 26, in Portland Opera’s Broadway Across America series. Photo: Matthew Murphy/2018

The Air France flight crew had distributed all the food they had, so we weren’t hungry. Thinking we might be headed to a tent camp, Evan and I grabbed lots of food and drinks, unsure of when we might be fortunate enough to have these items again. We were told to immediately head outside to a waiting school bus that would take us to our shelter.

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Darrell Grant: jazz master and more

PDX Jazz Festival concert honors renowned Portland jazz pianist / composer who's improvised a creative life in music, teaching and activism

It’s a little ironic that composer and pianist Darrell Grant is receiving the 2019 Portland Jazz Master at this year’s PDX Jazz Festival. For while the jazz he’s played since arriving in 1996 certainly merits the city’s highest jazz honor, Grant has devoted much of his life here to breaking out of the narrow mold of “jazz musician.” Improvising a multifaceted career as teacher, mentor, activist, composer — and yes, jazz artist — Grant may be Portland’s most significant man of music.

“Darrell is a supremely gifted communicator across all media platforms, a gifted composer, educator and improviser, and an accomplished tennis player,” says PDX Jazz’s artistic director, Don Lucoff. “He embodies all that our Jazz Master lineage represents, a relentless searcher and action-oriented role model for our community to absorb and celebrate.”

Darrell Grant. Photo: Thomas Teal Midres.

Grant’s festival concert Thursday (a double bill with the great trumpeter/composer/bandleader/2019 Grammy Award winner Terence Blanchard) allows him to complete a circle by revisiting the music that put him on the jazz map a quarter-century ago.

Black Art

Growing up in Denver in the 1960s and ‘70s, Grant started classical piano lessons at age 7. Even then, he pushed against prescribed constraints, noodling improvised melodies while his elementary school band’s other pianist played the specified chords. Jazz soon called. “I think it was the freedom of it,” he remembers. Enchanted by classic jazz pianists from Nat Cole to Herbie Hancock, he joined a teenage all-star jazz band, won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, at age 17, then earned a master’s degree at University of Miami.

He headed to New York City and quickly rose in the city’s revitalized, competitive jazz scene, landing plum sideman gigs with famed singer Betty Carter and legendary drummer Tony Williams‘ quintet. In 1989, he recorded his major-label debut with the jazz-fusion group Current Events, which embraced funk, world music and other non-jazz influences.

Then came his big breakthrough: Black Art. Named one of 1994’s top 10 jazz albums by The New York Times, it helped propel the Darrell Grant Quartet (which included fellow future stars drummer Brian Blade, bassist Christian McBride, and trumpeter Wallace Roney) and to jazz stardom while its leader was still in his early 30s. He’d eventually perform with several generations of jazz giants — Roy Haynes, Branford Marsalis, David Sanborn, Jack DeHohnette, Terence Blanchard, Art Farmer, and many more.

But as he’d done with those classical tunes as a child, Grant couldn’t stay on the prescribed path. When an unsolicited job offer to succeed the storied jazz pianist Andrew Hill on Portland State University’s music faculty unexpectedly arrived in 1996, Grant seized it.

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Minh Tran’s journey to rebirth

In his first new piece in eight years, the choreographer/dancer creates a luminous evocation of a soul's passage to the next life

When does the personal become the universal? That is one of several questions raised by Minh Tran’s Anicca (Impermanence), the Vietnamese-born choreographer’s first new piece in eight years, which premiered on Thursday night in Reed College’s Massee Performance Lab.

Two years in the making, Anicca is in fact deeply personal: It is Tran’s superbly crafted response to the loss of his parents, particularly his mother, its organizing principle the time (49 days) that practitioners of Theravada Buddhism believe it takes for the soul to journey from death to rebirth. “These souls are called wandering ghosts,” Tran said in an interview for Reed Magazine. “They’re living in a world we call the bardo, a (neverland) that doesn’t belong to any place at all. During this time, these souls need a lot of attention and prayers [so] they will be shepherded by the bodhisatta or the Goddess of Mercy until they reach the gate … so they can be reincarnated for the next life.”

Company members circle Carla Mann, who represents the “death soul” of Minh Tran’s mother in “Anicca: Impermanence.” Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

In the course of the 49-minute piece (give or take) the seven dancers in Anicca perform the same number of sections, each of them representing a different stage of the soul’s journey, as well as that of those who grieve and finally find some form of acceptance.

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