A Portland pandemic dance survey

Local dance companies and choreographers are adapting to the new normal

During the past couple of months I have been checking in regularly with some of the folks that make up Oregon’s dance community to see how things are going. The good news is that Oregon’s dancers are still dancing. You definitely can’t keep a dancer from dancing under any circumstances. It’s who they are and it’s what they do. Plus, dancers are already used to working under harsh conditions and with minimal resources anyway. The bad news is that their situation doesn’t look like it’s getting better any time soon.

The multitalented Katherine Disenhof soaring through the air.
Photo by Jason Hill.

Almost immediately following the lockdown, the international dance community jumped online and began connecting with each other and audiences through dance classes, performances, and discussions via Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Here in Portland, Katherine Disenhof a dancer with NW Dance Project, who has since left the company and moved back home to the Bay Area, created Dancing Alone Together, an online hub where dancers could go to find online dance classes and events during this time of “social distancing.” 

As of today, you can pretty much find every independent dance teacher and dance studio online, teaching daily classes, of all kinds, including Oregon dance studios and companies. 

For choreographer and studio director Shaun Keylock, the fate of his new dance studio space at Albina and Killingsworth in North Portland was saved due to successful fundraisers he held back in May and June. Today the studio is bravely moving forward, offering in person dance classes for six people at a time, with social distancing and with masks of course, and his company is continuing with its preparations for a previously planned fall performance.

Portland’s Creative Laureate and New Expressive Works artistic director Subashini Ganesan hit the ground running creating the PDX Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund for artists in need which raised and distributed $170,000 in donated funds to 405 independent/freelance artists in the tri-county region. “I am in a trusting space,” she said. “I am not entering into the fear of keeping or losing the studios. I am working to do everything that I possibly can to keep bringing [money] in to sustain N.E.W. studios because I do believe that our space is super relevant (especially in mission and cultural representation) as we move into the next phase of our community and society.” 

A video still of Linda Austin and Allie Hankins in a Zoom Happy Hour performing an excerpt from their new work, /ə ˈsɪŋgəl pɪŋk klɑʊd/. To see the actual video on Vimeo
click here.

As far as finances go, Performance Works NW, co-directed by founders Linda Austin and Jeff Forbes, is doing OK, considering. Funds lost due to cancelled studio rentals and fundraisers have been recovered by a forgivable PPP loan, support from the Oregon Arts and Culture Recovery Fund, and individual donations. “This has left us in a good position through the fall, but we don’t know what long term is going to look like,” Austin said. “It still seems hard to plan.” 

In a mindful approach that provides financial support to artists of color in the community, while centering dance and experimental performance, PWNW has created a Happy Hour on Zoom that features a variety of artists, includes a cocktail demo, a toast, PWNW-themed Bingo, and prizes, of course! It runs twice monthly, and the next Happy Hour is August 5, featuring resident artist maximiliano.

Sadly though, some Oregon dance studios didn’t make it. Oregon Ballet Theatre had to close its West Linn studio, Portland butoh artist and ecstatic dance facilitator Meshi Chavez and his dance partner Winky Wheeler were forced to close their Water Ave. studio Momentum: Conscious Movement, and FLOOR Center for Dance run by Tongue Dance Project closed its two-year-old studio in North Portland. The Aspire Project, which provides dance classes to low income families in St. Johns and in the public schools, had planned to close permanently in June because of lease issues, and was forced to close sooner. 

“The past three months have been filled with overwhelming emotion ranging from anger and disappointment to grief and relief.” said Adrianna Audoma, a dancer with Tongue Dance Project in an email conversation. “Two months into the lockdown, the decision was made to permanently close the doors of FLOOR Center for Dance,” she said. “Without government financial assistance or enough donations generated from online classes to cover monthly expenses, it felt less like a choice and more like a one way street leading to a dead end…We poured our blood, sweat, tears, and souls into FLOOR and for it to be snatched from us felt unjustified,” she said.

For Independent artists and smaller dance companies, the experience has been mixed.

“Through the continued arc of the pandemic, Rejoice! took a pause following our Been Ready production in February,” said Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre Artistic director Oluyinka Akinjiola. Normally the company does two full production runs of a new work each year, but because of the pandemic, the evolutionary life of Been Ready has been cut short. Instead, the company taught a series of workshops online and decided to focus on making dance for the camera. 

“Then the murder of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd hit. Deaths like these affect us Black people on a much deeper and more personal level,” Akinjiola said. “For me it has shown up in a severe loss of safety. I am hyper-conscious of who I am surrounded by and where I go. If people are not on a path of dismantling white supremacy at a personal and local level, I generally don’t want to be in those spaces…Our productions have always centered Black Lives and issues of racial justice, but now feels a bit different. I am proceeding cautiously and hoping the community around us, namely White communities, are ready to do the deep personal work to support Black lives.”

For the longest time, Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte resisted embracing the term “new normal,” but soon realized that he didn’t have a choice. As a choreographer whose work was scheduled to be performed by several companies this season, including Oregon Ballet Theatre, it’s been a jarring experience not knowing what’s coming next. “I’m trying to give myself the time and space to experience and grieve the feelings of loss,” he said. But in the meantime, Fonte and the OBT dancers haven’t stopped doing what they love most and have created a short dance film together while working virtually and socially distanced.

WARRIOR-EL by dance and visual artist Bobby Fouther.

For Bobby Fouther, also affectionately known as Mr. B and a lifelong Portland creative in the fields of dance, fashion design, and visual art, the lockdown has been abundant/creative. The question that Fouther has posed to himself is how can we still make work together even if we can’t be together. In addition to creating new works of visual art every day, Fouther has put together a pick-up dance company called BigFoot Dance. The company, made up of dancers from Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the United States, is creating choreography through video and Zoom, with direction from Fouther. Fouther is interested in creating a piece “that will help people heal, and raise issues that help people heal. “I think a lot of us are trapping ourselves in the woe of it all. So the rest of us have to do something to create a not-woe moment. Not woe is me,” he said, laughing.

For Amy Leona Havin, the artistic director of The Holding Project, rehearsals for the company have come to a screeching halt. “I attempted to keep Zoom rehearsals regular for the sake of the dancers; I wanted to keep our sense of community and camaraderie,” Havin said when we spoke. “Though it worked for a little while, the choreographic aspect of Zoom rehearsals is not only impractical for the way The Holding Project operates, but also uninspiring for me…It wasn’t until the George Floyd protests that I decided to cancel Zoom rehearsals indefinitely.” She said that it didn’t feel right spending our evenings chatting and doing Gaga. Instead, “I have spent each night out on the streets protesting, rather than rehearsing,”

James Healey, a dance teacher at Pacific University and choreographer and coach for the Canby High School Dance Team, feels lucky in many ways. Healey was able to continue receiving paychecks from his teaching jobs, because one paid him through the summer anyway even though he wasn’t teaching, and the second job went online enabling him to keep his job giving him flexibility in how he taught. “I decided not to do live classes on Zoom, since I didn’t have a great space and wasn’t sure what the students were able to do, so I created movement tasks and meditation assignments with written responses. It worked out well.” As things have started to open up, Healey has decided to risk Lyft driving during the last few weeks. “People wear masks, and I only give 8-10 rides a day,” he said. “ It’s enough to scrape by.”

For Samuel Hobbs, the artistic director of push/Fold dance company and Portland’s newest dance festival, Union PDX, finances are stretched thin. Having shuttered his bodywork practice at the end of March, Hobbs is trying to pay his home mortgage and his business rent with unemployment from a part-time job and savings from last year’s tax return. He’s cutting costs even more by reducing his meals to two a day and is receiving food stamps. Hobbs applied for several artist relief grants but was unsuccessful. Earlier this year Hobbs received a RACC grant to produce Union PDX, but because of Covid-19, he and RACC are now in discussions on how to proceed with the festival in a viable way. 

Odissi Dance Company directed by Aparupa Chatterjee. Photo by Debojyoti Dhar.

For classical Odissi and Bharatanatyam dancer Yashaswini Raghuram, the shutdown period has been incredibly busy and fruitful. While maintaining a full time job as an engineer at Intel and working from home, Raghuram has also been teaching her regular dance classes via Zoom and has performed several times online. Raghuram is also the assistant director of, and dancer with Odissi Dance Company, a dance company directed by Aparupa Chatterjee with dancers based all around the United States. 

Already familiar with dancing in the virtual world, as that is how the group normally rehearses together, the company had to reimagine a planned, one-day performance in Austin, Texas, where the company is based, into a six-week virtual festival, which ultimately helped the company build a long term online presence through a subscription series on vimeo. Instead of just reaching the number of people in the auditorium for that one proposed performance, their reach has become limitless. 

Maria Tucker, a Portland-based jazz dancer, teacher, and choreographer, was in Florida rehearsing for a cruise line dance production when the pandemic hit and was forced to come home. “I am thankful to have a supportive partner who is still working and a corporate client that is assuring me of work after the shutdown,” she said, “but I feel as  though I am on shaky ground and any second that safety net will give way. I am in constant fear that I will contract this virus and pass it on to my partner who has asthma.”

For Tucker, the internet has been a mixed blessing. Because of the hateful rhetoric and misinformation that is being spread about the virus online, she feels the need to stay off social media to save her sanity. But because the internet is her only connection to the outside world she instead is enjoying virtual happy hours and check-in’s with family and friends. Tucker has also resisted the new norm of teaching dance online. “I know that this is all we have right now, but it takes away everything I love about dance,” she said. “To be in a studio and feel the energy from the dancers and personalize corrections…that is where I live! How do we do that trying to see students on a tiny screen?”

Irish dancer Victoria Rose White, taking flight.
Photo courtesy of Victoria Rose White.

For professional Irish dancer Victoria Rose White, who directs Oregon Irish Dance Academy with her sister Christina White, having to leave the national tour of Michael Londra and The Celtic Fire, was heartbreaking. “It was a dream job come true and was an incredibly hard one to get,” she said. 

When Oregon went into lockdown in mid-March the sisters were forced to close up their studio and teach online. One of the biggest repercussions was not being able to perform in the “St. Patrick’s Day Season.” “You can imagine this is a very busy part of the year for Irish dancers,” White said. “Our students do multiple performances and parades at this time and it’s one of our highlights of the year, but it all got canceled one show at a time.” 

For Portland’s larger dance organizations it’s been all about juggling multiple scenarios and being ready to implement any one of them at any moment. 

“We began by focusing on how we can remain connected to and in service of our community…audience, students, etc.,” BodyVox artistic director Jamey Hampton told me. The company upgraded its video and internet equipment and launched “StreamingVox” in early April to deliver high-quality streams of past shows. It’s hosted several patron events on Zoom, a film festival night, a season release party, and a couple of Artslandia Happy Hours. “Bottom line, we are planning to be here in the fall with a season, and are preparing various scenarios to produce and deliver a wonderful season,” he said enthusiastically. 

NW Dance Project had to lay off dancers and studio staff, cancel the Spring gala and two concerts, and close their creative center. Still, it was important for artistic director Sarah Slipper and executive director Scott Lewis to be able to pay for their dancers health insurance through their furlough. 

“I do feel this is going to change our organization forever in a positive way,” Brandy Gutheryan, co-artistic director of A-WOL Dance Collective, said. “We have opened up this whole new door to virtual training and dancing as well as livestream performances and workshops.” The company made it through the first month of the shutdown with generous financial support from the community and has continued running its school with a small admin crew of six employees. 

Ansa Capizzi and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair in OBT’s Scheherazade. Choreography by Dennis Spaight. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Eileen Ehlert, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s costume shop supervisor, was called to action when she heard that Portland’s theatrical stage employees union was organizing “stitchers” to make face masks for organizations like OHSU and Providence hospitals, Janus Youth Programs, the Oregon Veterans Home, bus drivers, grocery workers, home healthcare agencies, and families at home who must isolate from each other. Ehlert realized that in addition to materials that were already present in the costume shop, OBT also had many skilled stitchers and sewing enthusiasts within its own community. The OBT stitchers got to work and have since donated 298 masks.

OBT has also been busy creating online content for ballet audiences—performance clips, behind-the-scenes videos, dancer-made films and tik tok videos, dance classes for kids and adults, and a tutorial video with instructions and a supply list on how to make your own ballet barre at home. All of which you can find at OBT@Home

Even though there have been positive developments at OBT, the company still hasn’t been immune to the effects of Covid-19 and has experienced many internal shifts since March. Executive Director Michael Greer has left OBT to becoming president and CEO of Artsfund in Seattle, principal ballerina Ansa Capizzi had planned on retiring at the end of the season but is now quietly retiring alone, and dancers Adam Hartley, soloist Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair, and company artists Alexa Domenden, Marc Lapierre, and Theodore Watler, have moved on as well.

We are all on a difficult journey and how this story ends no one knows for sure. Though, after hearing each individual artist’s journey so far, what stands out to me most, is how supportive the larger Oregon community has been of its artists, and how supportive the artists are of their community. I think we’re going to be OK.

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Nice article. I will keep coming back to re-read.

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