Elizabeth Whelan

 

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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The Show Must Go On(line)!

Portland’s dance community responds to the COVID-19 health crisis as dance spaces close, classes shift online, shows are postponed, and many companies face major financial setbacks.

“Dance like no one’s watching.” 

This dance world cliche danced almost mockingly into my thoughts this morning when I sat down to reflect on the state of Portland’s dance community amid COVID-19. In today’s socially distanced, quarantined world, the phrase (originally meant to encourage self-expression and confidence) takes on a whole new meaning. Dance like there’s no one watching, because … well, unless your bedroom window lines up with your neighbor’s like mine does, it’s likely that no one is. 

In the past two weeks, the landscape of just about everything has changed. For Portland’s dance community, there’s been a communal quieting: cancellation of in-person classes, temporary pauses on rehearsals, and the postponement  or cancellations of shows and fundraisers. While a few studios have posted projected re-open dates, Gov. Kate Brown’s recent “Stay Home, Stay Healthy,” order shakes the fragile structure that the dance community steps upon now. 

I’ve been chatting (from the comfort of my home via my computer and phone…. practice your social distancing, folks!) with a few studio owners, freelance dancers, teachers, and company directors to see what the COVID-19 shutdown looks like for their artmaking. In a nutshell, this virus is testing the dance community’s strength and flexibility . Studios are experiencing huge loss of income due to class and rental cancellations, companies are cancelling tours, performances, and rehearsals, teachers are shifting to online classes without guaranteed pay or retention of students, and the overall energy of our community is down. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel though, which includes a local artist relief fund, the nation-wide stimulus package, and of course, the profound resilience of art-makers, movers and shakers. 


Just weeks ago, Steps PDX was bustling with students ranging from toddlers to professional and recreational adult dancers. This week, the studio is empty, having reverted to live-streamed, online classes only.

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Striking a reckoning with death

Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman's paired solo shows "Delicate Fish/BARDO" take a tender look at grief, pain, and death

To die is a process whose edges are feathered in all directions

To grieve is to feel love that has nowhere to go. 

These words followed me around in the weeks leading to the show, first arriving in the press release that landed so casually in my inbox while I was paying my electric bill and answering mundane emails. A  few days later, it arrived in caption-form… mixed into the chaos of my instagram feed and blaring with depth amidst everyone’s social worlds. Finally, it reappeared on the simple one-page program I was handed at Shaking the Tree Theatre when I arrived to see Delicate Fish/ BARDO. Created as a split bill between local choreographers Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman, the performance was just as haunting as those words that wafted in and out of my mind leading up to opening night. 

The poetic nature of Delicate Fish/BARDO , which repeats at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 5-7, pulled me in the first time I saw its marketing. The tender words chosen to describe the works, the curiosity of the title, and the simplicity of its presentation as it emerged into the public eye brought wonder to its existence. The program takes an intimate look at grief, pain, and one of the most challenging aspects of life: death. With such a clear thematic pathway of the show, the collaboration was surprisingly more organic than you’d expect.  “The way that our two pieces communicate or compliment was purely by synchronicity,” says Evans. “Both of us, in very different ways, had been interfacing with the energies that surround and infuse death, grief, and healing.”  I’ll share more of our interview below, but first, let me get you up to speed on what opening weekend had in store. 

Jess Evans. Photo: Chris Larson

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Darvejon Jones Dance Ensemble: Light and shadow

Darvejon Jones dances love and joy, but he understands the darker shadows, too, in his company's first concert

Ashley Roland, the co-artistic director of BodyVox, did the introductions for the first concert by Body Vox’s  resident artist and his new company, Darvejon Jones Dance Ensemble. “He emits extreme joy,” Roland said, almost as if Jones was a force of nature.

Roland’s observation held true as the company and Jones moved through the  program. But though joy rang out loudly in the virtuosity and pizzazz of the choreography and the dancers, there was shadow, too. Jones, whose work shared the eight-dance program with company dancers/artistic associate choreographers Brent Luebbert, Jillian St. Germain, and Sara Parker, transmits his account of the darker rumblings of American culture clearly as well.

Javan MnGrezzo and Paige Moreland in Darvejon Jones’ Allegiance/Annika Abel Photography

Think of this first concert as a sampler platter, perhaps: a little sweetness, then a helping of something more complicated. That’s how both Acts of the show played out. The sweet came first, then the longer commentaries of Parker’s The Reckoning and Jones’ Allegiance acted as closers, adding depth and social context to the evening.

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Dance preview: Everything and nothing

Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram integrate classical Indian dance forms and a modern dance sensibility in "Listening to Silence"

It’s Sunday night and I’m at New Expressive Works, watching a few minutes of tech rehearsal for the upcoming Listening to Silence, a dance performance co-created by NEW founder and executive director Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram, the assistant director of Odissi Dance Company. Before heading over to interview the pair, I was sitting on my porch listening to the rain as it beat down, mulling over the idea of listening to silence and reading through the ancient Rig Vedic poem 10.129 (Nasadiya).

The poem speaks of the creation of everything, the paradoxical and complex nature of it all, and alludes back to the idea of nothingness or a great void. Knowing that the Nasadiya had been an important point of inspiration for the work, I concluded that listening to silence must be similar to the experience of that great nothingness.

Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram have collaborated on a new dance, Listening to Silence/Image courtesy of New Expressive Works

When I asked Raghuram what the process of creating Listening to Silence has done to her perception of silence, she responded succinctly. “Before this project, I thought silence meant no noise, no movement,” she said. “Now, I find silence in everything and anything.”

So how can the experience of nothingness be found in everything and anything? Ganesan and Raghuram are using their new work as a space to tackle these larger than life concepts. Traditional classical Bharatanatyam training and a keen sense for pushing boundaries intermingle as they present their findings in a 50-minute performance set for a three-show run this weekend, January 31-February 2, at New Expressive Works in Southeast Portland. 

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Listening to Silence is the result of years of Ganesan’s research. Ancient texts like the Rig Veda, writings about silence by poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Jiddu Krishnamurti, and more recently, her conversations in rehearsal with Raghuram all play into the final product.

To get a feel for the kind of imagery the work pulls from, here’s an excerpt from Rilke’s poem I have many brothers in the South, translated by Robert Bly, which served as an inspiration: 

Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself
my God is dark, and in a webbing made
of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.
I know that my trunk rose from this warmth, but that’s all,
because my branches hardly move at all
near the ground, and just wave a little in the wind.

This project is the first time Ganesan and Raghuram have worked together. Last year, I got to know Raghuram when I interviewed her for my article on Portland dance-transplants. Yashaswini performs extensively in India and the U.S. She has performed in several international festivals—the International Odissi Festival, All Women’s Art Festival, Marghazhi Season at RR Sabha, and Tamara Arts Festival, among others. She is a principal dancer and the Assistant Director of Odissi Dance Company, the only actively touring Odissi company in the United States.

Ganesan, herself a South Asian immigrant, now serves as Portland’s very own Creative Laureate. She is a contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer and Artistic Director of Natya Leela Academy, where she choreographs and performs potent and universally relevant movement expressions in Bharatanatyam. Her Southeast Portland art space, New Expressive Works, fosters cross-cultural dialogue and exchange. Although Ganesan’s past projects have pushed traditional bharatanatyam boundaries, her collaboration with Raghuram in Listening to Silence stands as her first work with a professionally trained classical Bharatanatyam dancer. The pair’s knowledge and years of immersion within the rich philosophy, history and spirit of Hindu culture allow for a deep dive into the concepts of silence, nothingness, and paying attention. 

As we discussed such topics our conversation about the work came to drop-off points, but Ganesan and Raghuram aim to guide the audience through their work. They hope  that audiences will leave with greater understanding of concepts that are not only deeply rooted in Hindu tradition and philosophy but also permeate the lives of all of humanity—universal concepts seen through a Hindu lens.

To achieve such a lofty goal, the creation of Listening to Silence required the duo step outside of a traditional bharatanatyam performance structure. “We spent a lot of time finding the common ground between a contemporary approach and classical bharatanatyam,” noted Ganesan.

For comparison, Raghuram explained that when a traditional bharatanatyam dance is performed, the form of the performance is set in a way similar to that of a ballet class, where each exercise has a specific placing in the flow of the hour-and-a-half dance. Avid Indian dance fans arriving late to a Bharatanatyam performance would know the exact sections they’d missed and which ones were up next, solely based on the section being performed—regardless of their familiarity with the work or the choreographer. 

Listening to Silence frees itself from this structure, although this contemporary approach to a traditional style does not parallel Western dance at all. While modern dance originated as a rebellion against ballet, “the traditional way of learning gets us here,” Ganesan explained. “We are not breaking from tradition. There is so much to learn from the ethos, or the rasas.”

The rasas are the juice, or essence, that classifies the aesthetics of the work across genres of Indian art. For more detail on that concept, check out a piece of mine from last year, when I covered a show by a visiting Bharatanatyam couple with a focus on one of the rasas: love.

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While Ganesan has been working outside of the traditional lines of the style for quite some time now, Listening to Silence marks Raghuram’s first step to a different aporach to creating Indian dance. When I asked her how that experience had been for her, she said that her main worry was that veering from the set structure of Bharatanatyam would create misunderstanding in the audience. Raghuram noted that her experience of contemporary modern dance was so unconventional that understanding it became difficult. The cloak of experimentalism covered its lack of ability to communicate meaning. It’s an art, she said, to guide the audience through your work while still giving space for their imagination and interpretation.

That’s what Listening to Silence attempts to do. Ganesan was clear that their work is “not research, and not an experiment. We are making art to make meaning,” she said. 

Listening to Silence uses a plethora of mixed-media to pull the ideas together. Among them is a sound-score by Roland Toledo, whose work focuses on the natural environment and explores the potential of data to create a fabric of immersive audio. The work also includes recordings from NASA, as well as video projection and intricate lighting design.

“We are not cultural ambassadors of an age-old practice that is dying,” Ganesan says. “We are here. We exist. We are making work.” I was reminded of a 2019 conversation with Raghuram, when we discussed the challenges of cultural separation as an Indian artist in the West, and she told me about the “extra responsibility of Indian artists here to increase sensitivity [and awareness],” surrounding such ancient and sacred forms.

After sitting with the Ganesan and Raghuram for just an hour, I began to notice just how universal the topics we traversed were. Though nuanced and rooted in Indian traditions, what Ganesan and Raghuram are talking about is inherently human, and thus, relatable to everyone. The paradoxical journey of the work is like the verses of the Nasadiya, contradicting itself only to resolve in peaceful clarity. Like nothingness containing everything, or the idea of listening to silence. 

Dance review: NW Dance Project’s stocking stuffers

NW Dance Project’s holiday show, conceived by its dancers and resident choreographer, felt a lot like a sampler plate of grandma's cookies

Before I jump into reviewing NW Dance Project’s holiday showWinter Wonders, which opened and closed over the weekend at Lincoln Performance Hall—I’m going to tell you about my Christmas stocking. Why? Because as I left Lincoln Hall Thursday night, that stocking and all of the little gifts that end up stuffed into it on Christmas morning was all I could think of as the dancers took their final bow. 

My Christmas stocking was no ordinary stocking, not the generic, mass-produced numbers you can get at almost any retailer this time of year. My father cross-stitched my stocking by hand from threads of the most wintry hues, attaching sequins as he went and embellishing it with penguins ice skating in their snowy wonderland. When he was done, it hung in a line of five brilliantly unique stockings, all handmade. Every Christmas morning, I’d wait to pull out the random assortment of goodies hidden inside. And of course, I hoped for an orange at the bottom, to acknowledge that I’d been good that year. 

But let’s get back to the show—this favorite memory does relate, promise! 

Kody Jauron and Katherine Disenhof in Andrea Parson’s “Oh Deer!” in NW Dance Project’s “Winter Wonders”/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

NW Dance Project opened its holiday show, Winter Wonders, with some big questions. Company dancer Kevin Pajarillaga mimed along to a voice that rang throughout the hall, and the program got right into the nitty-gritty of an artist’s work—the questions that, in one form or another, artists of all sorts tend to ask themselves.

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Dance review: A journey home for Israeli choreographer Amy Leona Havin

The Holding Project's new dance at Shaking the Tree Theatre considered how we choose to make things holy

After seeing three dances by Amy Leona Havin in the past few months, I’ve started comparing her to a weaver at a loom. The various threads and colors of her choreography interact and overlap, creating recurring patterns at times and clear juxtapositions at others. Together, they pull together the edges of her dance blanket, connecting her vision to movement and offering a look into the inner workings of her mind.

Havin’s latest work, mekudeshet, is an evening-length dance set on her company, The Holding Project. It follows the recent Milk, which premiered in the Union PDX festival, and Holy Lola, a dance film that premiered at Portland Dance Film Festival. Last weekend, as mekudeshet threaded itself together, it looped in movements and aesthetic choices that recalled Milk and Holy Lola, and it felt like a homecoming. 

For Havin, the idea of coming home seems central to her quest as an artist and as a human. The roots of mekudeshet originate in her own family’s history—their Jewish faith, their Isreali homeland, and their resilience and struggle through the trauma of the Holocaust, during which all four of Havin’s grandparents survived the devastation of the concentration camps. The work serves as both a time capsule and a sign for how Havin’s future might weave together the worlds of Judaism and feminism.

The Holding Project performs Amy Leona Havin’s mekudeshet/Photo by Megan Hauk

“I feel in a way I have been split with my destiny,” said Havin, describing her dual identity as both a Jewish Israeli and an American. Interlacing her Israeli origins into her work seems to be Havin’s way of grappling with these things, having lived permanently in the US since her teenage years.  

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