Elizabeth Whelan

Elizabeth Whelan is a movement-based artist based in Portland. As a freelance dancer and choreographer, she has presented work through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Night Lights, Downright Productions’ Amorphous, Polaris Dance Theater’s Galaxy Festival, Performance Works Northwest and FLOOR Center for Dance. Beth has been awarded the White Bird Barney Commissioning Prize alongside Trevor Wilde and Shaun Keylock, and will be creating new work for the White Bird Uncaged Series of 2021. She currently dances with Tongue Dance Project, based in St. Johns. Prior to Portland, Beth completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance at George Mason University and freelanced in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. Her writing on dance is published in Philadelphia’s The Dance Journal and Oregon Arts Watch. In her beloved free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music, and drinking a good cup of coffee with her cat. Visit bethwhelan.org and bethwhelandesign.com.

 

Samuel Hobbs’ push/FOLD dance company prepares for a Mexico City festival

After months of hibernation, push/FOLD bounds into action with a restaging of an recent work

It’s been a quiet year for most Portland dance companies. With performance venues shut down and studio rental capacity for dancers often capped around 5 or 6 people, the conditions for gathering—let alone thriving creatively—have been far from ideal.

For local choreographer Samuel Hobbs and their company push/FOLD, the aftereffects of the past 16 months are very much real. Hobbs named the challenges for the company of six: “Time constraints caused by earlier shutdowns, dancers coming out of hibernation, and all of us trying to rediscover what dance means while doing it with even fewer resources.” Despite the obstacles, push/FOLD is emerging from the whirlwind performance ready and on the verge of a huge leap. The 5-year-old company makes its international debut at two renowned festivals this July and August. 

Before heading to Mexico City to share Early, push/FOLD is scheduled to perform the work locally at Old Moody Stages at Zidell Yards on July 30-31 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available here. After their international debut, the company returns to Portland to prepare for their third annual Union PDXFestival of Contemporary Dance at the Hampton Opera Center this November 4-7. 

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For houseless women, a fresh Momentum

Dance workshops rethink the dance world and aid houseless women, children and nonbinary people at the Rose Haven shelter

Women’s History Month is under way, and Portland’s dancers are finding new ways to celebrate the city’s female and nonbinary movers while simultaneously serving the most vulnerable women, children and nonbinary members of our community. The women organizing the third annual Momentum Workshops are giving a new meaning to the phrase “we rise by lifting others” in this town’s dance scene, and there’s still time to join in on the momentum yourself. 

Entering their fourth and final week, the Momentum Workshops–formerly known as Females of February–offer accessible online dance and movement classes as well as health/wellness seminars. Workshop organizer Isabel Holmes says the workshops were created as a way to say thank you to the incredible women who had helped her along on her journey, and as it wraps up the third annual year, it’s grown into something bigger. That’s where Rose Haven comes in. A day shelter and community center that serves women, children and gender nonconforming folks who are experiencing poverty, trauma and intersecting issues, Rose Haven is the recipient of all revenue generated from the Momentum Workshops, and has been since the first year in 2019. 

The Momentum Workshops (Image from their inaugural workshop in 2019), hosted at Steps PDX, drew 25-30 local dancers to each workshop. Now running in a virtual format, the workshops have expanded beyond the Portland dance community. 

I chatted with Liz Starke, Rose Haven’s development director, on what it’s been like to partner with Momentum. The most valuable aspect of their partnership, she told me, has been the workshops’ ability to raise awareness for what they do at the shelter: “They are literally using their bodies to tell the world our story, to help fight the stigma that comes with poverty. Watching the literal sweat that has gone into these workshops is so inspiring, and makes it easier to digest really tough and depressing subject matter.” 

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Shaun Keylock Company: Dancing the past into the future

The Shaun Keylock Company navigates Covid-19 shutdowns in its new space while looking to Portland’s modern dance elders for direction.

The Shaun Keylock Company paves the way for the future by honoring the past with a revival of a suite of solos and duets that choreographer Gregg Bielemeier created between 1993 and 2002. 

Let’s flash back to just over a year ago, to let’s say…simpler times. It’s January 1, 2020, and most of us are riding that superficial, yet undeniably contagious new year high. We’re setting lofty goals and suiting up in the new exercise apparel we scored over the holidays and heading to the gym…or better yet, the dance studio. Keep contagious in mind.

For Portland-based choreographer Shaun Keylock, that January 1 wasn’t just another start to a new cycle around the sun: It was the day he opened the doors of his brand-new contemporary dance space, Shaun Keylock Studio, in the Albina neighborhood of North Portland. At the new studio, Keylock and company would be able to create and rehearse new dances, teach class, and produce community events for other community artists. 

We all know what happened next, because it happened to all of us. By the middle of March, we were all bunkered in our houses, downloading Zoom, debating whether gloves were necessary for a quick run to the grocery store, and clutching our toilet paper rolls with an intimacy that was (here it comes) UNPRECEDENTED.

The classes and rehearsals that had begun at the studio paused, and Keylock, along with all of the other studios around town, was forced to rethink what it meant to be a small business owner with a financial plan  based entirely upon humans gathering together in an enclosed space. Well, it’s been almost a full year now since Covid shook the framework of our lives, and we’ve all figured out how to navigate (for better or worse, more or less) through this rollercoaster of a time.

But what really happens when you’ve just opened a dance studio just as Covid-19 tramples through the world and you’ve got a company of nine eager dancers depending on rehearsals and performances for both income and mental stability? I’d been able to witness the studio’s growth throughout 2020, as I had been teaching a weekly contemporary class at the studio before the classes shut down, but I wanted to get the full picture from Shaun about what it’s been like behind the scenes as a new studio owner and director of SKC. I sat down to a Zoom chat with Keylock about what 2020 has meant for the studio and to learn about the company’s exciting new project: an intergenerational collaboration with local LGBTQ+ elders and master choreographers for a performance series reviving historic dance works for new audiences.

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Pandemic Ed: Dancing remotely and well

Dancers will dance, together in the studio or, these days, together on Zoom

As dance studios start to look towards re-opening—clad in masks and doused in hand sanitizer—ArtsWatch takes a moment to look at what’s been happening at home for the past four months. That involved dancers and instructors re-arranging their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms to create makeshift dance spaces at home. And specifically for dance teachers, it also has meant adapting a new technology for an old form: dance classes on Zoom.

While the rest of us may have been using the video chatting app for tedious work meetings (with your camera off to shield your coworkers from the fact that you’ve been in pajamas since March), dancers (perhaps also in pajamas) have found a different use for the software: joining meetings a few times a week to wiggle and move around in their homes making that 8-count work from their alternative spaces. 

I entered the reporting for this story skeptical of dance via Zoom. I was certain that in interviewing kids, teachers, and adult students about their thoughts on Zoom class for this article, I’d be putting a nail in the coffin of online dance. After taking a few classes via Zoom myself, I’d hit about every piece of furniture in my room, knocked over a cactus plant, and reckoned with the fact that I could only hear every 6th beat of the music—not to mention half of the instructor’s words. To put it in a nutshell, I wasn’t satisfied. Thinking everyone felt the same, I was expecting this article to end up being an ode to the beloved practice of dancing together in studios and how much the community is struggling without it.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Well, I was wrong. Thanks to a dose of creativity, there’s been a lot of progress made in training via Zoom. Those coffin nails are back in their boxes and the dancers are moving about the world just fine.

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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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