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2023 in Review: Jamuna Chiarini’s year in dance

From a magnificent dancerly takeover of Zidell Yards to a push/FOLD contemporary festival to her own solo Odissi show, our DanceWatch columnist steps deftly through a busy year.

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 ProLab Dance, Artistic Director Laura Cannon's "Break to Build" at Zidell Yards, Portland, in July. Performers: (clockwise from top left) Katie Betts, Flo Buddenbaum, Anna Rose Deardorff, London Mahina, Elizabeth Bressler, Anna Hooper, Ophelia Martin-Weber, Willow Swanson, Laura Cannon, Quinn Gumbiner. Photo: Rowdy Webb
 ProLab Dance, Artistic Director Laura Cannon’s “Break to Build” at Zidell Yards, Portland, in July. Performers: (clockwise from top left) Katie Betts, Flo Buddenbaum, Anna Rose Deardorff, London Mahina, Elizabeth Bressler, Anna Hooper, Ophelia Martin-Weber, Willow Swanson, Laura Cannon, Quinn Gumbiner. Photo: Rowdy Webb

This year DanceWatch has listed 128 performances, and ArtsWatch writers have published 46 articles covering all types of dance and dance-related events in Oregon. Highlights include Oregon Ballet Theatre hiring Danielle Rowe, its first female artistic director in the company’s 35-year history; NW Dance Project celebrating 20 years as a company; and choreographer and 2023 Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellow Laura Cannon’s massive takeover of Zidell Yards in her new magnificent work “Break to Build” that she made in collaboration with new-music composer Jennifer Wright, media artist Fernanda D’Agostino, and a large cast of talented Portland dancers.


2023: A Year in Review


Inspired by rusty cranes and industrial relics, the “Break to Build” performance took over Zidell Yards and explored the site’s history and archeology through the eyes of a dancer in an immersive mobile show that incorporated movement, sound, and visual art. If you missed it, you’re in luck, because Cannon will be remounting the show in July 2024.

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Lately I have been contemplating and exploring the emotions I experience after watching a dance performance, and the state it leaves me in. I wonder if others feel the same way I do, and what they take away from a performance. Are the claims that the arts are transformative for the masses true? I know they are for me, but if they are for other people as well, why aren’t more people interested in watching dance? I still find myself in uncomfortable conversations trying to explain the value of a life in dance.

Recently I met up with someone I knew growing up, who I thought was enlightened because we both came from the Shangri-la, which is Berkeley, California, but I was wrong. She continuously laughed at me as I told her about my life in the arts, astounded that I would go in that direction considering there was no money in it. Are dancers these days just performing for each other and a few lucky others? What is the point? Are artists fighting an uphill battle?

In early November, I saw Ephrat Asherie presented at Lincoln Hall as part of White Bird’s Uncaged Series. Asherie is an award-winning New York City b-girl, dancer, and choreographer who combines movement rooted in African American and Latinx street and club dances, breaking, hip hop, house, and vogue. Her company performed ODEON, an original work featuring six dancers — four women, two men — to music by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth that blended romantic 20th-century sounds with samba and other popular Afro-Brazilian rhythms. 

Manon Bal and Matthew West in Ephrat and Ehud Asherie's ODEON. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Dancers Manon Bal and Matthew West in Ephrat and Ehud Asherie’s “ODEON.” Photo: Christopher Duggan

It was a fiercely energetic performance in which the dancers danced with each other in various relationships; and the musicians, who played live on the side, sometimes joined the dancers onstage, creating a casual party club-like atmosphere. Much of it reminded me of the dancing you might have seen in old black-and-white movies with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but with current dancing styles. It was refreshing, light, airy, joyful, effervescent, and playful. The dancers were remarkable in their physicality and ability to continuously dance for so long and look so joyous.

The piece de resistance for me was when dancer Omari Wiles donned arm-length, sparkly black gloves and spectacularly danced with his arms and attitude, crossing them and flipping them around wildly. I appreciated the “simplicity” of this dance, considering the push in dance choreography to make movement bigger, more extreme, and more complicated. 

I was so energized by the performance that when I got home I improvised, practiced my samba (one of the core movements in the choreography), and attempted to copy some of the steps and energy I saw on stage. I often do this after performances. Doesn’t everyone? It’s a moment to check in with my body to ensure it can still move how I want it to.

I’m heading into my 50th year and still dancing professionally. It’s sometimes a daunting experience, because I don’t see as many older women professional dancers in the American contemporary dance scene as I do younger ones, and pushing back against the idea that I’ve somehow lost something as I’ve gotten older is confusing until I remember that it’s all a bunch of bull made up by the patriarchy.

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I’m not any less beautiful or less desirable to watch as a dancer because I’m 49. I am stronger than ever, because I know how to care for my body. I no longer starve myself as I did in my ballet school days. I eat a healthy vegan diet, lift weights, and do various dance styles and exercises to dance longer and stronger. For the record, I don’t wake up with aches and pains as most people my age say they do. It’s all about keepin’ my body movin’, and the sheer strength and endurance of Ephrat Asherie’s dancers were remarkable and inspiring and left me floating. 

“Radioactive Practice” by Abby Z and the New Utility courtesy of White Bird.  Photo: Ben McKeown
“Radioactive Practice” by Abby Z and the New Utility courtesy of White Bird. Photo: Ben McKeown

In mid-November, I sat on the stage of Lincoln Performance Hall for the performance of “Radioactive Practice” by choreographer Abby Z and the New Utility. We could be with the dancers on stage or watch from the theater’s traditional audience point of view. I’m a big fan of the immersive experience. 

In her artist statement on her website, Abby Z says, “I make contemporary dance works that pay homage to the effort of living, tactics of survival, and the aesthetics produced as a result of utilizing the physical aspects and psyche-emotional experience of my rigorous training background in African and Afro-diasporic forms, as well as playing sports and performing requisite acts of manual labor.”

The hour-or-so-long dance by six dancers was one wild ride that I didn’t fully understand until I heard Abby speak after the performance. While watching the incredible actions of the dancers I had difficulty figuring out what I was seeing, and bumped up repeatedly against my dance biases. But don’t let that diminish the incredible dancing that the company performed. 

When Abby spoke to us after the performance, I understood that she was trying to express another culture’s energy and way of moving. She told us that she was married to a Senegalese man and that much of her dance background is in street dance, African dance styles, and martial arts. The dance was like a distillation of energy of movement from another culture.

In her artist statement, she continues, “As a white woman who has trained predominantly in contemporary African and African Diasporic forms, my goal is to create works that speak with dimension to multiple demographics simultaneously, as well as to broaden audiences that attend dance performances after experiencing firsthand the cultural divisions that exist along racial, cultural, and class lines in experimental concert dance.” This bit resonated with me 100 percent, as I practice a different culture’s dance, Odissi, a classical dance form from Odisha, India. 

Abby Z left me with a lot of mental stuff to chew on, which was as satisfying as going home and dancing. I am a thinker, and the experience energized me, making me feel more confident in my own unconventional artistic explorations.

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I completely understood the idea of trying to express the energy of another culture. I have been learning the classical Indian dance style of Odissi for six years and regularly combat my inclinations to make things easier for myself by making some moves look like ballet or approaching it like modern dance. But it is neither, and the same rules don’t apply. I’m interested in learning about another culture’s dance, not imposing the dance styles I already know onto a different style.

Yours truly, Jamuna Chiarini, performing the dance "Mangalacharan" in my first solo Odissi concert, titled "Arpan-An Offering." Photo: Yi Yin
Yours truly, Jamuna Chiarini, performing the dance “Mangalacharan” in my first solo Odissi concert, titled “Arpan-An Offering.” Photo: Yi Yin

In March I performed my first solo Odissi show, “Arpan-An Offering,” a style of classical Indian dance from Odisha, India. It was the culmination of six years of learning from my teacher, Yashaswini Raghuram, here in Oregon, and it was no easy feat! 

My journey to this point has been long and winding. Although I come from a Scotch-Irish ethnic background, I grew up in Berkeley, California, during the 1970s in the Hare Krishna movement, where I was immersed in Indian culture from the beginning. I was given a spiritually significant name, I am a vegetarian, and I follow the tenets of the religion. As a devotee of Lord Krishna, a form of Vishnu, I try to make everything in my life spiritual and god-centered in some way, including dance. Dance in India is the communicator of religious philosophy and the teller of all mythological tales. 

The first dance style I ever learned was Bharatanatyam, when I was in elementary school, but I could not continue due to the cost. Over the years I learned American dance styles, but my heart remained in Indian dance, so I kept dabbling in Indian dance styles whenever I could find them. At some point, I had tried enough of them to know that I preferred Odissi, but it’s less well-known than Bharatanatyam, so it took me a long time to find the right teacher, which is where I am now. This has been a lifelong journey that I wish I could have started earlier in my life, but instead, I’m learning it in the latter part. Learning a dance style from another culture from a reputable source is not cultural appropriation. All who are interested are welcome. 

In an article for ArtsWatch, dance artist and contributor Amy Leona Havin wrote about my concert. We have written about each other’s work over the years. Writing about a friend’s work in journalism is rare, but crossing the “line” was necessary to document the event. Amy loved the show, and it was her first time witnessing classical Indian dance, so she spoke highly of it in her article. It was also the first time many of my non-Indian Western dance friends had seen me perform Odissi, making it a memorable experience for everyone involved. I am grateful to everyone who attended. 

In mid-November, I attended the Union PDX Festival of Contemporary Dance at the Portland Opera, produced by push/FOLD dance company and directed by Samuel Hobbs.

Pictured are push/FOLD dancers Ashley Morton and Willow Swanson performing in "Ozymandias," a new work by Samuel Hobbs grappling with the erosion of self. Photo: Samuel Hobbs
Pictured are push/FOLD dancers Ashley Morton and Willow Swanson performing in “Ozymandias,” a new work by Samuel Hobbs grappling with the erosion of self. Photo: Samuel Hobbs

The festival celebrated its fifth anniversary with packed houses and a full schedule of performances, workshops, and artist talks spanning four days. Portland choreographers Franco Nieto, Sridharini Sridharan, and Hobbs showed work, as well as Los Angeles choreographers Megan Doheny and Illya Nikurov and choreographers Evelyn Tejeda from the Dominican Republic and Lia Claudia Latini and Giovanni Leonarduzzi from Italy. The dance styles represented covered a broad spectrum, from street dance to Bharanatayam. 

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From what I could see, the overall theme of the evening was relationships – with each other, in marriage, with power, nature, our bodies, and God. In three separate dances, a deadweight dancer was dragged across the stage by the foot. One dance straddled time and cultures. One desperately and uncomfortably wrestled with a shirt, and another became a moving, shifting, interlocking puzzle of two sexless, faceless bodies. Another dance darkly conveyed the imbalance of power, and another sadly but somehow beautifully played out the demise of the last in its species. There was discomfort and frustration all around. How did this concert leave me emotionally? It left me grumpy. I do wish the programming had left us on a high note. I can only handle so much darkness, of which there is a lot these days. 

Union PDX Festival of Contemporary Dance performer/choreographers Lia Claudia Latini and Giovanni Leonarduzzi performing in their work "Simposio." Photo: Jingzi Zhao
Union PDX Festival of Contemporary Dance performer/choreographers Lia Claudia Latini and Giovanni Leonarduzzi performing in their work “Simposio.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

But the quality of the work and the dancing was exceptional, and I saw dancers move in new and wonderful ways that I’d never seen before — and up close, at that, which was a treat. It adds a whole other layer to the experience. The festival is starting to feel on the level of White Bird’s offerings, but on a smaller scale. Seeing an entirely new vein of the worldwide dance conversation was refreshing. There is so much more dance happening out there than we are presented with here in Portland. 

It makes me somewhat envious that choreographers from other countries can travel and perform in this show. It’s difficult for Portland choreographers to do the same. Hobbs informed us that the show received 129 applications globally. Although I sometimes feel that the show should feature only Portland choreographers or those from our region, because we have so few opportunities to be presented, I am still grateful to witness dancers and ideas from other places worldwide and to experience the diversity of regional dance flavors. This exchange of ideas is invaluable. 

Union PDX Festival of Contemporary Dance choreographer Sridharini Sridharan performing in her new work "A Clarion Call." Photo: Jingzi Zhao
Union PDX Festival of Contemporary Dance choreographer Sridharini Sridharan performing in her new work “A Clarion Call.” Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Well, that’s a wrap! I’ve talked about only a small portion of the 2023 Portland dance offerings, so if you are interested in everything else that happened in dance in Oregon this year, click here. Enjoy!

***

A few years ago, ArtsWatch editors Barry Johnson, Bob Hicks, and I wrote a Dancer’s Version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. As 2023 comes to a close, I’ll leave you with this.

‘Twas the month of December and all through the state, 

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Not a dancer was sleeping. They hardly could wait!

Dance shoes of all kinds were readied with care,

In hopes that big audiences soon would be there.

Choreographers were restless and pacing all night,

With visions of slip-ups creating a fright.

While ArtsWatch’s writers got set to review,

The dancers lined up and awaited their cue.

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With music beginning and growing intense,

The curtain rose softly, without a pretense. 

The dancers all flew from the wings with a flash,

They tore up the stage and gave it a thrash!

The dancers’ excitement gave rise to new hope, 

That in this new year, we may cheerfully cope.

With so much to see, we can say without fear,

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Happy winter to all, and a Happy New Year!

MORE “2023: A YEAR IN REVIEW” STORIES

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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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