Elizabeth Whelan

 

Ordinary Devotions, a new contemporary dance work by veteran Portland choreographer and performer Linda Austin, is meant to do two things: find glamour in everyday objects and honor the ordinaryand extraordinaryqualities of the aging body.

Now 65 years old, Austin has had time to consider both topics. She has been a working artist for more than 35 years; in 1999, she established the well-known Foster-Powell DIY arts space Performance Works NorthWest with her technical director and partner, Jeff Forbes, to host performances, offer residencies and workshops, and provide affordable rehearsal space for Portland artists. By the time I arrived there to talk with her about this new work, the everyday objects she spotlights in the piece had spilled out onto the performance space from her living area, which is separated from the venue by a door on the back wall. A white vinyl tarp, a twig, stones, a lamp, cassette tapes, multiple spools of thread, some shoes, and various knickknacks were carefully placed across the floor with a seemingly methodical, even devotional precision.

Linda Austin looks for the extraordinary in "Ordinary Devotions." Photo by Jeff Forbes.

Linda Austin looks for the extraordinary in “Ordinary Devotions.” Photo by Jeff Forbes.

“It was kind of organic,” mused Austin, recalling how she accumulated these particular objects. She’d started working with the spools of thread in the beginning, spurred by her desire to be slightly levitated off the earth. Throughout the work, Austin rearranges the spools to support her body as she lies on her back or walks across the floor. “I’ve always had this fascination with the extraordinary in the ordinary. I like doing something weird with a matter-of-factness,” she laughed. “I’m interested in the ‘thingness’ of the body versus the animated nature of things. Finding this commonality and endowing each [thing] with the qualities of the other intrigues me.”

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Tapping into memory

Portland Tap Company debuts with "The Man Who Forgot"

“Your stories go on, but who are you?” Kelsey Leonard mused as we discussed the history and future of tap dance in a coffee shop last week.

Leonard, who founded the Portland Tap Alliance in 2015 with Pamela Allen and Erin Lee, has herself played a role in the story of tap. The Alliance was designed to promote, preserve, and celebrate tap dance in the Pacific Northwest and globally; since its founding, it has produced an annual three-day festival bringing tappers from around the world to Portland. And now Leonard is serving as artistic director and co-choreographer of the Portland Tap Company, a group of seven tappers from Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C. The brand-new company will make its debut this weekend at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts with a premiere of The Man Who Forgot.

The Portland Tap Company debuts this weekend with “The Man Who Forgot.” Photo by Nicholas Teeuwen

It seemed fitting that Leonard and I were having our conversation in person. Most of tap history lives on through verbal communication in tap classes and festivals across the nation, Leonard explained, adding that it’s normal for tap instructors to emphasize the importance of tap’s influencers by calling on students to speak their names: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Jimmy Slyde, Chuck Green, Charles “Honi” Coles. The Man Who Forgot explores the power of memory by evoking those who laid the groundwork for tappers and artists alike today.

The title refers to a recording of short-fiction writer Neil Gaiman’s The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury, a 15-minute musing on memory, friendship, and the power of a name that Gaiman gave the Farenheit 451 author for his 91st birthday. The Portland Tap Company program includes excerpts from the recording, integrated into a score created by the Josh Rawlings Trio, in collaboration with Leonard and co-choreographer Jesse Sawyers. The Seattle-based trio, led by Grammy-nominated pianist Josh Rawlings. plays everything from jazz to blues to feel-good pop. Having a score created around the tappers is a luxury, Leonard noted, as is having the group play live at this weekend’s performance.

The Josh Rawlings Trio (left to right: Nate Omdal, Josh Rawlings, Adam Kessler) plays live for the Portland Tap Company’s debut show.

Leonard and I talked about how tap, much like jazz music, has historically been a form of communication in and of itself. Tap, she noted, has black roots dating back to the 1700s, when West African and Irish indentured servants’ cultures mixed in an uprising against plantation owners. The rhythms of Irish dance footwork and West African drumbeats cross-pollinated, and tap took root. Slaves working on plantations began communicating with one another using rhythmic foot patterns.  Nowadays, in jazz jams and tap classes, the back-and-forth musical and rhythmic exchange still hews to that same alternative form of communication. And as with jazz music, tap’s continuity depends on well-versed artists whose improvisation draws from the masters who created the art form. The Portland Tap Company created The Man Who Forgot with tap’s forebears in mind.

The company’s performers include Leonard and Sawyers themselves, along with Portland’s own Bethany Reisberg, MaKaeyla Pool, and Sarah Brahim, whose work you may have seen in New Expressive Work’s latest residency cycle. Pamela Allen, Funmi Soflola, and Sawyers are based in Seattle, Washington, and Julianna Oke is from Vancouver, B.C.

The Portland Tap Company will trip down memory lane this weekend, using two of America’s strongest cultural staples–tap dance and jazz music–to explore our capacity to remember the past and carry information forward. And, too, the company will capture the fleeting yet magnificent nature of being human.  

 

 

 

 

Contemporary dance befriends vaudeville in ‘Some Are Silver’

Lighthearted antics thread through new and vintage pieces by Carlyn Hudson

Carlyn Hudson wants you to have a good night, and her new show, running this Saturday at BodyVox Dance Center, is designed to help you do just that. The pieces in the Portland-based dancer-choreographer’s new program Some Are Silver seamlessly weave together contemporary dance, ballet, and vaudevillian comedy. And the program itself meshes new and old, offering the premieres of three works–The Royal Fireworks!, Façade in B Flat Minor, and I May Be Wrong–alongside six older works.

Hudson is a native New Yorker with a lifelong love for ballet. However after starting training late, at age 13, and witnessing the cutthroat competition of the ballet world, she realized that she wanted more creative control over her output.  My long obsession with ballet gave me the training I needed to articulate ideas using dance as my language,” said Hudson when I spoke with her prior to the show. Perhaps the hyper-perfectionism of ballet helped her find the voice she used to create Some Are Silver. Though it includes classical ballet technique, the program has a more forgiving view of failure: its lighthearted antics and vaudevillian sensibility provide a laugh for the audience and make the performers relatable and likeable.

Carlyn Hudson pairs new and old works in Some Are Silver. Photo courtesy Design by Goats.

To give the content some context, consider the period in which vaudeville flourished in the U.S. It was the turn of the last century: The Wright Brothers had just successfully taken flight, the first World Series was played, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining significant traction, Henry Ford started his motor company, and in theaters across the country, thousands flocked to vaudeville shows. Stringing together comedians, actors, ventriloquists, acrobats, and essentially anyone who could keep the audience’s attention with some slapstick humor, vaudeville provided an escape from a rapidly changing industrialized landscape. An evening of shows typically consisted of 10 to 15 unrelated acts whose sole purpose was to entertain.

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Dance review: The 10th New Expressive Works residents performance

New work by Decimus Yarbrough, claire barrera, Sarah Brahim and Shaun Keylock: "I am not what you supposed, but far different."

The New Expressive Works tenth residency cycle has just been completed, and according Suba Ganesan, the residency’s founder, “it’s the strongest example of my vision coming to life.”

The four choreographers come from all ends of the movement spectrum, but the danced images related to each other in more ways than one: discovering and celebrating identity, attention to intra- and interpersonal relationships within movement, and a genuine desire to create a safe space for artistic expression. Through the various approaches and stylistic influences, each choreographer incorporated these thematic elements in different and thought-provoking ways. This diversity allowed for the audience to witness the “rich, multicultural professional artistry that inhabits Portland,” explained Ganesan.

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Dance review: ‘Waters of the World’ is a liquid love story

Heidi Duckler pays homage to the liquid side of the Northwest in her new site-specific dance in the Fair-Haired Dumbbell building

The Fair-Haired Dumbbell building on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East Burnside is one of Portland’s newest and funkiest creative office spaces. The New York Times described its exterior as “florentine wallpaper” and the dumbbell-shape design features multiple sky bridges connecting its two six-story buildings. This is the location of site-specific choreographer Heidi Duckler’s latest work, Waters of the World, an homage to the Northwest, its abundance of water, and the fluid possibilities of movement.

Duckler is based in Los Angeles and Portland and leads two creative teams of movers, musicians, and artists. Since 1985, she’s crafted almost 300 performance installations between the two cities and around the world. Earlier last week, her company parked a school bus outside the BodyVox studio and danced within, under and around the bus while audience members watched from the sidewalk. There seems to be no location Duckler can’t turn into a space for dance.

Keil Moton and Conrad Kaczor dance in Heidi Duckler’s “Waters of the World” in the Fair-Haired Dumbbell building/Andra Georges

Three days after the bus performance, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre/Northwest was back at it, bringing life and art into the Fair-Haired Dumbbell. Upon arrival, audience members took the elevator up to the fifth floor where Duckler directed them to the performance space: an empty room, walls punched by variously-sized windows looking out upon the city in all directions.

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Dance Preview: BodyVox’s ‘Rain & Roses’ checks some boxes

BodyVox finishes up its 20th anniversary season with a dance concert set to the music of female songwriters

When BodyVox’s artistic directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland sat down to consider their 20th season, they knew they were going to go big. Six months later, they’ve accomplished a lot. World premiere of a brand new work? Check. Present evening-length work of two resident artists? Check. Take two shows on a five-city international tour? Check. Present dance film festival? Check. Pair up with Grammy-nominated wind quintet, Imani Winds for a show at Revolution Hall? Check.

And finally, premiere a brand new hybrid work featuring all-female music and set in a gritty Portland warehouse? They are about to tick that box, too.

It’s not too late to witness the Portland-based dance company as they check that last box and conclude a whirlwind of a season. Rain & Roses opens this weekend, May 10-12, and continues the following weekend, May 17-19, in the North Warehouse, 723 N. Tillamook Street.

Here are five reasons why you might want to check your own Rain & Roses box:

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Diversity dances: Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater

Oluyinka Akinjiola's troupe mixes a social justice message with choreography drawing on the joyous movement of the African diaspora

In what place in America could it be more necessary to express the black and brown perspective than right here in our organic-kale-kombucha-Subaru-loving, second-generation hippie town of Portland, also known as the city with the fifth highest percentage of white residents in America’s top 40 metropolitan areas?

When Oluyinka Akinjiola relocated back to Portland from Rochester, New York, the artistic director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater joined the 6.3% of Portland residents who identify as Black or African-American, according to the World Population Review. “At the time I did not see dance in Portland that reflected an experience I shared, or even people that looked like me on stage,” Akinjiola remarked in an email exchange. “My only option was to create a path for myself as a choreographer and performer.”

Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater performed this weekend at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center/Photo courtesy of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater

And create her own path she did. After securing two platforms (Subashini Ganesan’s New Expressive Works Residency Program and Linda Austin’s Alembic Co-Production series) in Portland to present her vision of creating space for people of color within the arts community,
she created Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater—one of the city’s very few predominantly black contemporary dance companies. Diversity in the company has always been a priority Akinjiola emphasizes through casting and choreography. To her, being in a creative environment with other people of color is vital to raising the awareness of the general population.

Over the weekend the company presented new works by Akinjiola, Michael Galen, and Jamie Minkus at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in a three-show run. The evening’s program, entitled UPRISE, featured work inspired by the despair that followed President Trump’s election, and, consequently the need for a collective uprising. The roots of UPRISE come from Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by American political activist and author Angela Davis, published in 2016. For Akinjiola, the book’s most important message was the need to bring diverse groups of people together: “That speaks to my soul being that my goal for Rejoice! is to remain a diverse company and represent the histories and perspectives of black and brown communities within the Americas.”

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