Elizabeth Whelan

 

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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push/FOLD: The many faces of Adam

The world premiere of Samuel Hobbs's "Early" investigates the human condition, masked and unmasked

As the audience entered the dimly lit AWOL Warehouse for push/FOLD’s world premiere of Samuel Hobbs’s Early, our first exposure was Hobbs himself, standing completely nude and still in the space. He remained in his stillness until the audience’s bustle of picking a space in the round had ceased.

With a downcast gaze and slightly torqued stance, Hobb’s posture recalled modern day Auguste Rodin’s Adam, a reinterpretation of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel. By pointing his fingers to the earth and collapsing in his upper body, Rodin’s Adam contrasts Michelangelo’s God-fearing, enlightened Adam, whose arm stretches towards a classically portrayed God-figure in the sky.

push/FOLD’s “Early” begins with a solo by Samuel Hobbs/Photo by Jingzi Zhao

During Early, Hobbs, who is push/FOLD’s artistic director, gives birth to multiple sides of himself, similar to the multiple interpretations of Adam throughout history. Hobbs has told me about a brief absence from dance when we had talked earlier in the week, and I asked him if Early was about a rebirth of himself. “’Early’ as a rebirth for myself?” he responded. “I think answering that might provide too much of a tangible thing to associate with a piece I’d like people to experience unadulterated.”

And so it went, the wonderful challenge of experiencing contemporary dance unadulterated.

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Dance review: Katie Scherman at BodyVox

Katie Scherman's retrospective at BodyVox includes the world premiere "To Have It All," which continues her investigation of the lives of contemporary women

The title of Katie Scherman’s new dance, the last piece in her retrospective concert at BodyVox this weekend, is To Have It All, and reading through Scherman’s bio, your first thought might be, hey, she does have it all! Multiple degrees, an ongoing list of repertoire work and companies she’s danced with, guest artist residencies, her 2009 Princess Grace Award, the multiple commissions that have taken her around the world—performing, teaching, and creating.

The first work takes us back to 2014, with a duet titled Assez, created while she was at the University of Oregon. For those of you who haven’t brushed up on your high school French lessons or checked in on your Duolingo app recently, the word simply means “enough.” Performed by Scherman and San Francisco-based artist Alyssa Puleo, Assez was enough and more. After a few minutes of movement ruminations, Scherman was the first to speak, saying, “I remember when you told me I was beautiful.”

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Dance review: skinner/kirk take the old with the new

Dancers and dances age, but they don't stay in one place

One new work, two old works, five men, and ten years between then and now, old work and new.

That’s the formula for skinner|kirk Dance Ensemble’s concert at BodyVox (through February 10). The pairing of old and new work isn’t its only consideration of the passing of time: The concert also explores the passage of time for its creators. The company was co-founded in 1998 by Daniel Kirk and Eric Skinner, and both have had extensive careers in performance (notably with Oregon Ballet Theatre and Milwaukee Ballet). They were both founding dancers of BodyVox, where Kirk continues to dance, and they started skinner/kirk to present their own work. Reflection on that lived experience is at the heart of this concert.

The first piece, 54/27 (the ages of the dancers involved) paired Skinner with a much younger dancer, Chase Hamilton. The work begins in unassuming simplicity. A modest spotlight outlines the emptiness of the space. Moving calmly, the men take their time easing into movement, starting with simple walking. These walking patterns lay the groundwork for the evening’s one new work, allowing the audience to acclimate to the dancers’ bodies and demeanor, without the fluff of performance and gaudy dance moves to distract from their humanity. After a few minutes, they invite more motion into their bodies, sustaining by the powerful presence the two had already established.

Chase Hamilton, left, and Eric Skinner in the world premiere of Skinner’s “54/27” for the skinner/kirk Dance Ensemble at BodyVox/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert


Intensity grew, in part due to composers Verdi and Charpentier’s baroque crescendos, that undergirded the grounded movement. The choreography and execution maintained a calm that kept the work centered and relatable. Skinner and Hamilton demonstrated that their physical movements need not override their emotional presence throughout the work by allowing the two to exist in a complementary fashion. At times, the delicacy with which Skinner attended to his movements recalled the many years of training he has spent becoming innately attuned to his body as a seasoned dancer. Simultaneously, Hamilton’s spritely energy and eagerness of focus highlighted his youth and tenacity. For a work that focuses on the juxtaposition of age, the duet was one of equals. Counterbalancing one another, they sewed movements together in a way that made 54/27 a work fully dependent on trust and respect.

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