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2021: A year of dance, up in the air

From dance on film at the start of the year to a flurry of Nutcrackers at the end, the ups and downs of Oregon's Covid-tinged dance year.

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Believe it or not, DanceWatch in 2021 listed 63 dance-related events, and I know we missed a few. The year began with the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works and ended with a whole lot of Nutcrackers. Oregon ArtsWatch dance writers were busy! It almost felt pre-pandemic. 

From January to May performances were still pretty much happening on screens, but we were getting better at it. Oregon’s most prominent players in the dance scene, among them Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and Linda Austin/Performance Works NW, continually experimented with bringing dance to audiences in new ways.

Dancer/aerialist Kapu Waiaʻu Dancel in her modern-day moʻolelo, “I’ll Tell You How To Love Me,” a film for the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. Photo: Romnick Dancel

In May, DanceWatch checked in with Oregon’s dance community to see how people were faring. For the most part, the dancers were still there. Still, everyone else was in a holding pattern, riding out Oregon’s fourth wave of Covid-19 and waiting for people to get their vaccinations. BodyVox co-artistic director Jamey Hampton felt like the company was “caught in a seesaw of Covid recovery/resurgence.” Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving likened his pandemic experience to riding in the tiny, out-of-control coal car in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. For NW Dance Project executive director Scott Lewis, applying for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant through the federal Small Business Administration was like “the performing arts version of The Hunger Games.”  

Sadly, in May, experimental dance pioneer Anna Halprin passed away at 100. She was “the source of many of the ideas in experimental dance of the last 60 years,” Wendy Perron wrote in her obituary for Dance Magazine. “Her teachings strongly influenced Judson Dance Theater, site-specific dance, somatic dance practice, and community rituals.,” Perron continued. “For her, dance was something to bring out of the theater and into our daily lives. She performed in streets, meadows, hotels, and abandoned airports. She believed that dance was for every body. She was a visionary thinker and healer, and her radiance shone through her plainspoken, yet sometimes comically honest, language.” 

Halprin’s husband, Lawrence Halprin, was a landscape architect and designer who designed the Portland Open Space Sequence from 1965-1971. A series of interconnected outdoor rooms became The Source Fountain, Pettygrove Park, Keller Fountain, and the adjacent pedestrian malls in Portland’s South Waterfront district. Shortly after it was dedicated in 1970, violent clashes between police and anti-war protestors took place in the area. It became a symbol of the Portland community and the power of public space. The Halprins inspired each other. She reimagined how people moved through space, and he reimagined spaces for people to move in.

On the CARE Summerstage outside OMSI in June, Oregon Ballet Theatre debuted two world premieres: renowned Canadian-via-Brooklyn choreographer Jennifer Archibald’s “SculptedClouds” and Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s “Choros.” From left above: OBT dancers Xuan Cheng, Brian Simcoe, Christopher Kaiser, and Jessica Lind rehearsing Fonte’s new work. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Once spring arrived and most people got vaccinated, the world began to open back up and in-person performances became possible again. We also had to show proof of vaccination to see them.

In June, dancers were dancing everywhere from the parking lot at the Oregon Museum of Industry and Science to private lawns in Lake Oswego, to Zidell Yards in Portland’s South Waterfront district, in Portland’s public parks, in the trees at Mary S. Young Park in West Linn, and at the Circus Project’s outdoor domes. 

Also, in June, in a surprise move, Oregon Ballet Theatre and Kevin Irving, its artistic director for the past eight years, parted ways. The decision was made on a Wednesday and announced in a press release on Friday afternoon. The release said Irving had resigned, and OBT board chair Allison Lane Lyneham confirmed that. But in a separate letter emailed that Friday to friends and supporters, Irving said the board asked for his resignation.

These conflicting stories created confusion and many questions – so much so that White Bird co-founders Walter Jaffe and Paul King and BodyVox co-founders Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland sent a letter to OBT Board Chair Lyneham and Executive Director Thomas Bruner in support of Irving. Then, surprisingly, Willamette Week revealed that two major foundations that support the ballet company – the Miller Foundation and the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation – had sent a joint letter of concern to the company. The foundations later met with the ballet company’s board and executive leaders to clear up any questions about the viability of OBT. You can catch up on the full story here and here.  

Portland choreographers Emily Jones and Hannah Krafcik leaning into it. The pair debuted a new work, “Apogee,” for Portland Institute for Contemporary Art‘s TBA festival in September/October. Photo courtesy of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

In October, Madison Cario, executive director of greater Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, announced they would be leaving effective Dec. 4 to become CEO of the Minnesota Street Project and the Minnesota Street Project Foundation in San Francisco. Cario came to RACC in 2019 and radically reshaped RACC, laying off many longtime staffers and hiring new ones. Cario has more than 20 years of professional experience as an artist, presenter, producer, and arts leader, and is a significant advocate for dance. Dance always seems to be the least understood and least respected of the arts: I was excited to have someone with a dance background in a leadership position in Portland politics to advocate for it. This loss of talent does not bode well for the growth and health of our dance scene, or say a lot about our city or state as a growing center of culture.

Then came hope. In November, White Bird, Oregon’s prominent national and international dance presenter, announced that it would be resuming live dance programming in February 2022. For its 24th season, White Bird is launching a new festival called We Are One, which will present dance companies of color. The inaugural season includes Alonzo King Lines Ballet from San Francisco, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Complexions Contemporary Ballet from New York, and Versa-Style Dance Company, a hip-hop company from Los Angeles. One difference is that Versa-Style Dance Company will perform at Beaverton’s new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, a brand new, 550-seat venue easily accessible by the MAX Light Rail, with plenty of affordable, easy-to-access parking. White Bird is planning a full dance season beginning in Fall 2022.

The Emmy award-winning “Hip Hop Nutcracker,” directed and choreographed by Jennnifer Weber, featuring hip hop legend Kurtis Blow. Photo courtesy of the Hip Hop Nutcracker.

I had the immense honor and pleasure to interview Kurtis Blow over Zoom in November. 

Blow is an American rapper, producer, singer, songwriter, actor, activist, and an ordained minister. He was scheduled to perform in the Emmy award-winning The Hip Hop Nutcracker at Keller Auditorium in a few weeks and I wanted to meet him. He was warm, cheerful, upbeat, and open to talking about anything: During our conversation, his faith was very much on his mind. I had just 15 minutes to ask him as many questions as I could, and this  is what we talked about.  

And now here we are at the end of 2021, a little bit older, and a little bit wiser. It seems apropos that I broke my foot last month landing from a jump in a ballet class. I had been ramping up the amount of dancing I was doing because I felt more in shape and energetic after not dancing for so long, and boom, down I went. It feels like the universe is saying, nope, not yet. Don’t get your hopes up just yet. So, considering this and that the newest Covid-19 variant, Omicron, is spreading rapidly, please join me in cautiously limping into 2022. As a friend said the other day, “I’m really looking forward to 2023.” Happy New Year!

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Also in “2021: The Year in Review”

Jamuna Chiarini is a dance artist, producer, curator, and writer, who produces DanceWatch Weekly for Oregon ArtsWatch. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., she studied dance at The School of The Hartford Ballet and Florida State University. She has also trained in Bharatanatyam and is currently studying Odissi. She has performed professionally throughout the United States as a dancer, singer, and actor for dance companies, operas, and in musical theatre productions. Choreography credits include ballets for operas and Kalamandir Dance Company. She received a Regional Arts & Culture Council project grant to create a 30-minute trio called “The Kitchen Sink,” which was performed in November 2017, and was invited to be part of Shawl-Anderson’s Dance Up Close/East Bay in Berkeley, Calif. Jamuna was a scholarship recipient to the Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, “Undoing Racism,” and was a two-year member of CORPUS, a mentoring program directed by Linda K. Johnson. As a producer, she is the co-founder of Co/Mission in Portland, Ore., with Suzanne Chi, a performance project that shifts the paradigm of who initiates the creation process of new choreography by bringing the artistic vision into the hands of the dance performer. She is also the founder of The Outlet Dance Project in Hamilton, N.J.

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4 Responses

  1. A year in review that doesn’t mention the sheer accomplishment of Oregon dance companies returning to the stage and producing shows and performances for the first time since the start of the pandemic? Yes, there’s hope with the return of White Bird in 2022, but let’s celebrate the many local dance companies that returned to the stage and produced work this fall: Oregon Ballet Theater, BodyVox, Eugene Ballet, NW Dance Project, Union PDX, Portland Dance Film Festival, Shaun Keylock, Gregg Bielemeier, The Portland Ballet, as well as the many schools, colleges, and universities in our region For the author to spend precious word count discussing the coming and goings of arts leaders, but not a single mention of those who bravely stepped forward to make art happen again live and on stage for us audiences this fall is a real shame. As an audience member and supporter of these organizations, I urge ArtsWatch to spend less word count discussing the water cooler drama and more time celebrating the world class dance that is being produced and performed by the artists and organizations in our region.

    1. That’s true that I didn’t mention specifically that very important point; I should have. I did say that in June, “dancers were dancing everywhere,” implying that performances were happening again. There was so much that I wanted to say, and this is what I whittled it down to. It wasn’t possible to mention everything that happened this past year and keep the word count readable. But I also considered how much was already written about each of those companies you mentioned. In the pieces I wrote about OBT and Keving Irving, I brought up other vital issues in the ballet/dance world that need to be addressed like racism, sexism, and the imbalance of power. I thought these were worth mentioning again. ArtsWatch definitely doesn’t spend more time “discussing water cooler drama” than dance.

      Here is a shortlist of what was written about those companies you mentioned this year.

      Oregon Ballet Theatre
      June DanceWatch: Back on stage https://www.orartswatch.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=99777&action=edit
      Review: At last, Oregon Ballet Theatre goes ‘Face to Face’ with its audience https://www.orartswatch.org/review-at-last-oregon-ballet-theatre-goes-face-to-face-with-its-audience/
      At last, OBT is back onstage https://www.orartswatch.org/at-last-obt-is-back-onstage/
      The Year of Living Cautiously https://www.orartswatch.org/the-year-of-living-cautiously/
      The Year of Living Cautiously, Pt. 2 https://www.orartswatch.org/the-year-of-living-cautiously-pt-2/

      BodyVox
      Dance review: Putting the Body in BodyVox https://www.orartswatch.org/dance-review-putting-the-body-in-bodyvox/
      Dance review: A BodyVox Halloween https://www.orartswatch.org/dance-review-a-bodyvox-halloween/

      Eugene Ballet
      Realizing the Impossible Dream: Eugene’s Midtown Arts Center https://www.orartswatch.org/realizing-the-impossible-dream-eugenes-midtown-arts-center/

      Union PDX/Sam Hobbs
      Dance review: A Union PDX festival to match the season https://www.orartswatch.org/dance-review-a-union-pdx-festival-to-match-the-season/
      Samuel Hobbs’ push/FOLD dance company prepares for a Mexico City festival https://www.orartswatch.org/samuel-hobbs-push-fold-dance-company-prepares-for-a-mexico-city-festival/

      Portland Dance Film Festival
      Review: Portland Dance Film Fest and the experimental nature of dance on film https://www.orartswatch.org/review-portland-dance-film-fest-and-the-experimental-nature-of-dance-on-film/

      Shaun Keylock/Gregg Bielemeier
      Dance preview: Keylock & Bielemeier in the ROMPing room https://www.orartswatch.org/dance-preview-keylock-bielemeier-in-the-romping-room/
      Dance review: Keylock’s ROMP into Bielemeier’s world https://www.orartswatch.org/dance-review-keylocks-romp-into-bielemeiers-world/
      Shaun Keylock Company: Dancing the past into the future https://www.orartswatch.org/shaun-keylock-company-dancing-the-past-into-the-future/

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