How Portland’s big dance organizations responded to Black Lives Matter

Portland's very white dance companies attracted blowback from the dance community and agreed to change

For the past several weeks, conversations and arguments around race and the arts have arisen nationally and locally. In the Portland dance community, they’ve been driven by the dancers themselves, many of whom  have concluded that the city’s big companies—Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox and NW Dance Project, along with its major dance presenter, White Bird—could do a lot more than they’ve done in addressing systemic racism in both the art form and their own organizations. And they’ve taken to Instagram and Facebook to express their opinions. 

“It takes someone in a position of power to advocate for someone who is disenfranchised,” said DarVejon Jones, a Black choreographer, teacher, and dancer in Portland. Jones explained what he and many Black Americans have experienced: that you can’t speak up because you fear the systems of power in place around you. “That’s what white supremacy says, it makes you feel like you have no agency to talk about your own life. When you do, you feel like a squeaky wheel,” he said recently in an interview with me. 

Nonetheless, he and many other local dancers have been speaking up. And having been prodded, the dance companies have responded, often defensively and often without the clarity that might satisfy their dancers, the dance community and even their boards of directors.

ArtsWatch asked the leadership of the Big Four some questions about how they are reacting to Black Lives Matter and its implications. Each company is different: different history, different financial arrangements, different artistic focus. But for the first time in some cases, they are hearing criticism from the dance community itself and they are all looking intensely at the same problem. Here’s what we found.

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Fraying Around the Edges

Fighting the hockogrokles: Amid the storms of pandemic and racial reckoning, Friderike Heuer's photo montages sail into the new reality

“When […] I first dabbled in this Art, the old Distemper call’d Melancholy, was exchang’d for the Vapours, and afterwards for the Hypp, and at last took up to the now current Appellation of the Spleen, which it still retains, tho’ a learned Doctor of the West, in a little Tract he hath written, divides the Spleen and Vapours, not only into the Hypp, the Hyppos, and the Hyppocons; but subdivides these Divisions into the Markambles, the Moon-palls, the Strong-Fives, and the Hockogrokles.”

–Physician Nicholas Robinson, 1732

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FREE ME OF THE HOCKOGROKLES. … Isn’t that what we all wish when the sadness hits again, no matter how justified the emotion is in response to external events?

I came across these inventive nomenclatures for depression when reading up on a 17th and 18th century English woman poet, Anne Finch, who took the topic of melancholy, solidly in male hands at the time, and ran with it. Wrong word. She didn’t run with it. She inspected it, talked to it, turned it inside out, related it to science, and, in the end, seemingly threw up her hands in resignation and surrender.

I had dug out her poem on melancholy, among other reasons, to reaffirm the notion that artists across history resort to creative action when grappling with hard times. Clearly, I was wishing for company in my own attempts to integrate current events, and the feelings they incite, into my artistic practice, with the latest results shown in today’s photomontages.

“Ardelia to Melancholy”

At last, my old inveterate foe,
No opposition shalt thou know.
Since I by struggling, can obtain
Nothing, but encrease of pain,
I will att last, no more do soe,
Tho’ I confesse, I have apply’d
Sweet mirth, and musick, and have try’d
A thousand other arts beside,
To drive thee from my darken’d breast,
Thou, who hast banish’d all my rest. 
But, though sometimes, a short repreive they gave,
Unable they, and far too weak, to save;
All arts to quell, did but augment thy force,
As rivers check’d, break with a wilder course.

Freindship, I to my heart have laid,
Freindship, th’ applauded sov’rain aid,
And thought that charm so strong wou’d prove,
As to compell thee, to remove; 
And to myself, I boasting said,
Now I a conqu’rer sure shall be,
The end of all my conflicts, see,
And noble tryumph, wait on me;
My dusky, sullen foe, will sure
N’er this united charge endure.
But leaning on this reed, ev’n whilst I spoke
It peirc’d my hand, and into peices broke.
Still, some new object, or new int’rest came
And loos’d the bonds, and quite disolv’d the claim. 

These failing, I invok’d a Muse,
And Poetry wou’d often use,
To guard me from thy Tyrant pow’r;
And to oppose thee ev’ry hour
New troops of fancy’s, did I chuse.
Alas! in vain, for all agree
To yeild me Captive up to thee,
And heav’n, alone, can sett me free. 
Thou, through my life, wilt with me goe,
And make ye passage, sad, and slow.  
All, that cou’d ere thy ill gott rule, invade,
Their uselesse arms, before thy feet have laid;
The Fort is thine, now ruin’d, all within,
Whilst by decays without, thy Conquest too, is seen.

 – From: Anne Finch, The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. Ed. Myra Reynolds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903. 15-16.

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Friderike Heuer, from her current series of photo montages “Setting Sail.” Each image is 20 x15 inches, printed with archival ink jet print on German Etching Paper, and the images shade from lighter to darker as the series grows.

FINCH HAD HER SHARE OF DIFFICULTIES in her lifetime, including a predisposition for depression, perhaps even bipolar disease. She was exposed to political storms that threw her and her husband from comfortable positions in monarchic circles into an unsecured existence when they distanced themselves from the ascendance of William and Mary after the revolution of 1688 deposed King James.

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Listening Room: Rubinstein & Friends

On virtual tour with the legendary pianist, composer Villa-Lobos, artist Portinari, and a tantalizing side adventure on the way to Mt. Hood

In the 1920s, pianist Artur Rubinstein left Europe for a concert tour of the United States. One of his two West Coast engagements was to perform with orchestra in Portland. Rubinstein had agreed with the conductor that he would play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4. Two weeks before the concert, Rubinstein received a telegram which read, “The committee would be grateful if you would agree to play the Rubinstein D minor concerto instead of the Beethoven.”  Artur Rubinstein had no family relationship to the composer of that concerto (Anton Rubinstein). Annoyed, the pianist sent back a telegram that read, “I would rather you called me Artur von Beethoven for the occasion.”

Despite the mild controversy, the concert took place as planned. Rubinstein relates the following anecdote in the second volume of his memoir, My Many Years: After the concert, a local businessman and his wife invited Rubinstein for dinner. Rubinstein invited the woman for lunch the next day, before he would catch an evening train to travel east. The woman accepted, and offered to drive him to their mountain house afterwards, noting the fabulous views. The steep climb followed a road with tall piles of snow on the sides. Oregonians would assume it was the road to Mt. Hood that today is part of U.S. 26.

In time the conversation became evocative, and Rubinstein leaned over and gave the woman a kiss. The distraction led to the car swerving and falling onto its side in a snow bank. They emerged from the car with difficulty to assess their predicament. The woman insisted that Rubinstein run down the hill on the snow-covered road to a gas station with a service garage to get help. (The service station perhaps was in Sandy). It was a three-hour ordeal, but the car was put back on the road, and they drove back into Portland in time for Rubinstein to catch his train, and the woman to make it home with reputation intact.

Rubinstein at the keyboard as a young man, ca. 1906. U.S. Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

Rubinstein – born in 1887 in Lodz, Poland, when it was part of the Russian Empire, and settled in Paris by 1904 – generally is ranked among the greatest pianists of all time, and Portland was only one of many stops in his globe-trotting years. He noted at the beginning of My Many Years that the upheavals of World War I played a significant role in establishing his career. He was invited to San Sebastian, Spain, for an engagement to replace a French pianist who had enlisted in the war, and was still in Spain when sovereign borders in Europe closed due to the hostilities. That provided him the opportunity of many engagements when other pianists in Europe could not travel across national borders.

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Young writers, burning bright

The Fire Writers conference helps Yamhill County teenagers tap into their potential while fighting the stigma associated with being a smart kid

A literary scene is a knotty thing to define and locate. Unlike live theater, music, or visual art, it has no brick-and-mortar base. It is everywhere and nowhere, from the “local author” shelf at a bookstore to events such as creative writing festivals to the occasional open mic night to the world that exists in the electronic ether: Instagram posts, tweets, Facebook, even text messaging.

Yamhill County has had for a while two tangible measures of the region’s literary life: the Terroir Creative Writing Festival, which was scheduled for its 11th annual renewal in April until COVID-19 shut it down, and the 27-year-old Paper Gardens literary journal. Published every spring by the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County, the journal features prose and verse by locals of all ages. Oregon authors including William Stafford, Kim Stafford, Primus St. John, Robin Cody, and many others have served as judges.

A third, writer-centric tent-pole event has sprung up. On a mild, overcast Monday morning last winter, more than 100 high school students from around Yamhill County sauntered into the ballroom at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg for the Fire Writers Conference. The brainchild of retired McMinnville educator Deborah Weiner, the 2-year-old gathering is as ambitious, polished, and well attended as the Terroir festival.  The goal of the daylong conference is to “ignite the fire” in teenagers who show an aptitude and interest in writing. Validating that interest, organizers say, makes students, who pay nothing to attend the event, feel they are part of a writers’ community and can instill confidence in kids who might feel marginalized for being academic achievers.

The opening session of Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference at the Chehalem Community Center in Newberg. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates
Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference in Newberg’s Chehalem Community Center in January, before masks and social distancing were the norm. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates

“There is still a stigma for being a smart kid, a kid who reads, who cares about grades,” said Julie Stubblefield, one of several language-arts teachers at Amity High School, which sent nearly 30 students to the January conference. Teaching writing to teens poses several additional challenges, she said.

“One thing is that this is not a reading culture right now,” she said. “The current culture in high school is dominated by smartphones, YouTube, social media, Netflix, and video games. The practice of imagination, self-reflection, and the slow work of resourcefulness is not a part of their everyday lives. So when it comes time to get quiet and listen for the inner voice, the creative voice, the imagination, it can take a lot of patient exercise and reorientation to wake it up and get in touch with it.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


This year’s conference drew 123 students from eight schools — five public, three private, and a couple of homeschooled students. Attendance is largely by invitation. Teachers have an eye for which kids have taken to writing, who might benefit from what ultimately amounts to an educational field trip. One other brand of stigmatization — or possibly something else — emerges in talking with organizers, who asked that two students not be photographed; their parents didn’t know they were attending.

Writer and organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris, who is also instrumental in organizing Terroir, opened the event with a casual attempt at perhaps removing some of the stigma and illusions students might connect with writing and writers.

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… And the show goes on

With joy and poignance, the PAMTA musical-theater awards show went virtual on Thursday night. The winners, and the moments to remember.

“You can have all the bells and whistles or you can have none of them and you can still move an audience. You can still reach an audience and make them laugh and cry. It’s what the actors are saying and doing that really makes theater theater.”

Those are the words of Corey Brunish—and they perfectly capture the thirteenth edition of the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards,known as the PAMTAs. While the show, which Brunish founded and produces, drew more than 300 people to the Winningstad Theatre in 2019, this year’s audience had to experience the ceremony via YouTube. And it didn’t feel unplugged.

Triangle Productions’ “That’s No Lady,” based on the life of legendary drag queen Darcelle XV, was a multiple award-winner at the PAMTAs.

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Pajama music & tumbling statues

ArtsWatch Weekly: Cozying in at home with the pleasures of Chamber Music Northwest online; as statues fall, a bold new mural rises

I WENT TO THE OPENING NIGHT OF CHAMBER MUSIC NORTHWEST‘S SUMMER SEASON on Monday – in my pajamas, at my desk, on my computer screen. CMNW’s always had a relaxed dress code, for the audience, anyway, but this was taking things to extremes. Then again, we’re all taking things to extremes these days, reinventing wheels we thought had been spinning extremely well, thank you very much, except that then the rules changed, and here we are in Pandemic Land, playing a makeshift game and hoping for the best.

As makeshifts go, this one was quite good: three excellent performances by three fine quartets, with good sound quality and some brief chats interspersed with the music. It wasn’t the same as sitting in the concert hall, yet an undeniable excitement came across the electrical surge of what we used to call the Information Superhighway – a sense of triumph that, against daunting odds, this thing was working. While many other performing groups were shut down and worrying about their futures, for CMNW the show was going on. As of noon Tuesday, with 12 hours still to go before the opening concert was taken down, close to 2,200 people from Oregon and around the world had tuned in to see and hear.

Chamber Music Northwest and I have been on friendly terms for more than forty of its fifty years. We go back to the early days, when the violinist Sergiu Luca was still running the show, and concerts were in a large non-air-conditioned indoor commons on the Reed College campus, where on a high-humidity summer evening much of the audience sat cross-legged on the floor and the musicians might be accompanied by a fluttering undertone of flapping programs fanning up a breeze. A cozy conviviality ruled, and a sometimes fragile separation between performers and audience. Sweltering room or not, right there was where we wanted to be, listening to great music performed by people who knew how to perform it well. It was our Paradise of the moment. 
 

Clarinetist and retiring artistic director David Shifrin and Guarneri Quartet cellist Peter Wiley in Monday’s season-opening stream of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. CMNW photo

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I feared this installment of our occasional news roundups should really be called Music Rests instead of the usual Music Notes. Like others recently, it’s peppered with postponements and cancellations — but scroll down a bit and you’ll also find some happier tidings, as musicians and music organizations creatively adapt to this year’s somber new reality.

Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Jennie Baker

As you peruse the gloomy news below to the sound of sad trombones, you might wonder: what can I do to help Oregon music survive this crisis? Well, you might tell your lawmakers to support allocation of Coronavirus Relief Funds to help venues survive this extended closure. Portland’s invaluable Old Church Concert Hall, whose existence is threatened along with many others, has a template letter to your State Representatives, who are considering voting on such measures very soon, that explains the importance of independent music venues to the state’s economy. You can find your own rep here. Reps from the Old Church testified before a legislative work group this month, but lawmakers need to hear from all Oregonians who cherish arts in smaller independent venues.

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