Elizabeth Whelan

 

Union PDX: Making the case for dance

Samuel Hobbs created a dance festival to showcase dance and to confront the problems the art form faces in Portland

“Don’t make work or make it work,” said Samuel Hobbs during the talk-back session of the inaugural Union PDX new contemporary dance festival in Portland. He was referring to the two options a choreographer faces in Portland, a city where the dance scene is full of creativity, but low on funding, visibility, and connectedness as a community.

Hobbs and the push/FOLD company he serves as artistic director are working toward solutions for unifying dance artists in town, and their latest idea came to reality this weekend in the form of Union PDX. The festival packed performances, master classes, educational outreach for young dancers, audience talk-backs, and Portland Dance Community Awards all into four days’ time. 

When I sat down with Hobbs to chat about what sparked the idea for Union PDX, which ran September 26-29 in the Hampton Opera Center, he reiterated that it’s come from the struggles of being a working artist in a city where two or three big names in dance are thriving. Meanwhile, the rest of the local companies and independent choreographers are all battling for their slice of the funding pie.

Under such limited conditions for artists in the city, with most mid-level companies paying out-of-pocket for rehearsal space, dancers, venue rental, videography, photography, and you-name-it, it seems natural that a lack of unity in the community has arisen due to the stress of an unbalanced system. This all equates to a lack of visibility for the dance community, especially for those artists who can’t keep up with the pay-to-play nature of presenting work here in Portland. 

So what gets lost in the mess of it all? The art. So let’s spend the next few paragraphs talking about that.

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Dance preview: The essence of love in Indian dance

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran focus on the rasa of love in their bharatanatyam concert Sunday night

Across genres of Indian art, rasas—the juice or essence that classifies the aesthetic of the work—play a key role in transporting the audience to a realm of wonder parallel to the one we live in. Though the ancient form of Indian dance, bharatanatyam, may seem mysterious and other-worldly at first, the emotional content that serves the style is recognizable, even without the benefit of extensive cultural education.

When I asked visiting bharatanatyam dance couple Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran of Chennai, India, what their favorite rasa was, Viraja replied simply, “The king of the rasas: shringara (love). A love for what you do, a love for the art, and our love for each other.”

 Sunday, in a one-night only performance at Portland’s New Expressive Works, the duo will perform an hour’s worth of traditional Indian dance, followed by a special audience talk-back that will help answer questions that may arise.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran will perform Sunday night at New Expressive Works. Photo by Sibu Kutty

Bharatanatyam is a beautiful and rich dance form laced in tradition traced back in  Sanskrit texts from the 2nd century CE. “There’s a lot of misconceptions around bharatanatyam because it’s an ancient art form; a carrier of tradition, of ways of the past. There are many ways to demystify it,” says Subashini Ganesan, founder and director of N.E.W. 

Viraja and Shyamjith are a dynamic dance couple trained from the illustrious Kalakshetra Foundation, based in Chennai. Kalakshetra is an intensive university program founded in 1936 that has received international attention for its perfectionism and clean, geometric approach to the preservation of classical Indian dance. Reflecting on their  Kalakshetra training, Viraja noted that it’s rewarding now as professional dancers to be asked if they are from Kalakshetra, based on their performance qualities alone. That reputation seeps through Viraja and Shyamjith’s work as creators and performers, further validating the level of training that informs their movements.

Kalakshetra’s program emphasizes that there is more to learning the artform than just the movements, however. The idea that the dance progresses as the dancer’s life experience becomes more full and mature is equally important. While chatting with Ganesan, she also cited that principle, recalling her early teachers explaining that “you won’t perfect bharatanatyam until you’ve felt the emotions of it in your real life.” 

Shyamjith noted that the school “gave us an eye for beauty, and a system to follow when creating.” Later in our conversation, he explained that he likes to push the boundaries of the tradition as the choreographer of their performances. For him, that might mean using music with a more modern feel to it, which you’ll have a chance to hear in the final dance of the Portland program, which uses the melodies of composer Sri. Balamurali Krishna.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran/Photo by Paresh Gandhi

Sometimes, this type of innovation receives pushback from more traditional practitioners of the ancient form, while others welcome the new ideas. “We try to improve ourselves and change based on the feedback we get about out work,” says Shyamjith. 

Viraja and Shyamjith’s Portland program includes a blend of the rasas, the Indian term that refers to the feelings evoked in Indian artistic practice. The nine rasas are shringara (love), haasya (comedy), raudra (fury), karuna (compassion), bheebhatsya (aversion), bhayaanaka (terror), veera (herosim), adhbuta (wonder), and shanta (peace). Given that the dancing duo is also a couple in real life, I wondered how the rasa theory played out in their artistry, and how it relates to the idea that your understanding of the practice increases as your life experience broadens.

“The whole reason we are dancing together is because we believe in each other. As artists, we strive toward the same thing, to strike a chord. That is rasa,” said Viraja. Their work’s foundation is “to be honest, to be sincere, and to bring the best of our energies together. We try to live up to each other’s strengths.”

The experience of the performers’ intimate bond as partners should be enhanced in the cozy performance studio at N.E.W. Similar to western ballets, bharatanatyam is typically performed in large theatres with proscenium stages. The grandeur of the theatre reflects the breadth of the dance form as it narrates mythical legends and spiritual ideas of sacred Hindu texts. I asked them how they felt bringing their work to a smaller space than what they are used to. Audience members will be able to see each facial expression and have a close view of the intricate footwork that denotes the form.

“Personally, I feel cautious. You have to be very clear and not be distracted by the audience. But we are human,” says Shyamjith.

Viraja sees these potential distracting moments as just that, moments, and then you are still in your performance.  Shyamjith shared that some of the rasa expression comes more naturally to a woman, and that he’s sometimes hesitant to try them. But, in a similar way to how he pushes boundaries as a choreographer, Shyamjith uses this challenge as an opportunity to push himself and his ways of storytelling.

For the pair, the talk back will serve as an important exchange of understanding. Without it, “the stage becomes a divide between the audience and the art,” Viraja says.

 Viiraja and Shyamjit will perform Sunday, July 28, at 5 pm. Limited tickets are available through New Expressive Works.

Keylock company finds its footing

The contemporary dance company stages its first evening-length performance with work by founder Shaun Keylock and two others

Portland’s Shaun Keylock Company staged its first evening-length performance this past weekend at New Expressive Works, offering contemporary pieces that demonstrate the emerging company’s aesthetic and interests, as well as founder/artistic director Shaun Keylock’s curatorial practice, which combines technical rigor with historical references and a queer sensibility.

The bill featured two of Keylock’s pieces as well as work by Seattle’s Jordan
MacIntosh-Hougham and Portland’s Josie Moseley. The last time I saw Keylock’s work was June 2018, when he debuted Calamus for New Expressive Works’ 10th residency cycle. After that residency, Keylock continued to meditate on Calamus—a piece about what he calls “quiet queerness” that draws from Walt Whitman text and World War II-era oral historiesand created a second, more mature iteration of the work for this program.

Kristalyn Gill (from left), Shaun Keylock, Trevor Wilde, Jillian Hobbs, and Liane Burns wig out in Jordan MacIntosh-Hougham’s “Bad! Bad! Bad!” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

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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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