Heather Wisner

 

‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.

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Hobbs Waters hasn’t conquered the world yet, but give him a minute.

Hobbs Waters is a pre-professional ballet student with Classical Ballet Academy in Sellwood. Photo by Rob Woodcox.

The 12-year-old Portland-based quadruple threat—he dances, plays trumpet and cello, creates fine art pieces, and runs his own arts business, called City Troll—took a breather just before the holidays at the book-lined Stacks Coffeehouse in North Portland. Wearing black-and-white checkered overalls, his feet splayed into a modified balletic third position, Waters shared his artistic ambitions and his plans for what will be a busy 2019.

This January, he’s heading to the Youth America Grand Prix and New York City Dance Alliance regional competitions in Seattle and Vancouver, respectively, followed by the International Association of Blacks in Dance conference in Dallas. The clock is ticking: along with rehearsing the solo variations and group pieces he’ll perform at those events, he’s selling his abstract paintings, pen-and-ink illustrations, and the T-shirts he silkscreens through City Troll to help fund his journey.

Waters sells his artwork to help fund his dance pursuits. Image courtesy of Hobbs Waters.

Waters, who chose his own first name based on his love of tigers (in particular, the title character of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strip), the arts aren’t so much a hobby as a way of life. He and mom AJ McCreary, herself a painter and photographer, have embraced Unschooling, a form of homeschooling that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means of education. And Waters, the only 12-year-old I’ve met with his own resume and artist statement, has been doing his homework: unlike many youngsters who focus on a single genre, he is conversant in multiple arts and arts entrepreneurship, naming the painter Basquiat as well as Cuban dancer Osiel Gouneo as inspirations.

Of his many pursuits, dance is dearest to Waters’ heart. He began studying five years ago; three years ago, he got more serious, enrolling in Classical Ballet Academy’s pre-professional program. Though he takes contemporary, modern, and hip-hop classes, his primary love is ballet as an outlet for what he describes as “self-expression and freedom”; he intends to pursue a ballet career. In student productions, he has danced Beauty and the Beast’s Beast, the Nutcracker’s Rat King, and, in this year’s CBA Nutcracker, a porcelain doll and a corps member in the Arabian divertissement. Last year, he entered the pressure-cooker competition arena, attending YAGP and NYCDA and auditioning for summer intensives through IABD.

Waters intends to pursue a professional ballet career. Photo courtesy of Hobbs Waters.

Founded 30 years ago, the IABD conference draws a diverse group of arts administrators, choreographers, dance companies, students, and teachers to a weekend of panels, performances, and auditions. Its mission is greater racial inclusivity in the dance industry; ballet, in particular, has been criticized for its homogeneity. “There are minority teachers from around the world,” McCreary says of the conference. “It’s an opportunity to meet dancers who are doing big things in the industry, and to meet people who are paving the way” for young black and brown dancers.

Waters acknowledges that he has experienced racist behavior in the ballet world, although he is reluctant to elaborate, saying only that “being around other students who look more like me” is an aspect of the conference he especially appreciates. The appreciation appears to be mutual: at last year’s conference auditions, 13 institutions accepted him into their summer programs. He chose an intensive at Connecticut’s Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory, although he also studied with Nashville Ballet and New Orleans School of Ballet.

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What a kick! Dance that moved us

2018 in Review, Part 4: Dance that turned our thinking inside out and took us places where we'd never been before

Sure, we love big jumps and fast turns, but that’s not what makes the best dancing. The best dancing is the kind that takes us places we’ve never been before, or turns our thinking inside out.

Some of Oregon ArtsWatch’s best dance writing this year did that, too. Collectively, the OAW dance team—the writers covering dance, that is; don’t book us for your holiday party just yet—has decades’ worth of writing, research, and performing experience, as well as the burning desire to produce insightful and inspired coverage of dance in all its forms.



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Lucky us: we had so much to do in 2018 that we can’t revisit it all here. Instead, we’re sampling some of the moments, big and small, that especially moved us this year:

 


Odissi Dance Conpany’s Artistic Director Aparupa Chatterjee with the ODC repertoire: Tanvi Prasad, Divya Srinivasa, Divya chowdhary, Swati yarlagadda, and Ramyani Roy. Photo: Sarathy Jayakumar

Embracing Odissi in the age of Trump

The 2016 U.S. presidential election continued to galvanize artistic action two years after the fact. “Since Donald Trump took office, I have been watching and admiring artists all around the world react to his words and policies and have been wondering how I should respond myself,” Jamuna Chiarini mused. “I think that my choice to step away from my Western dance practices and focus solely on Odissi is my response. The more degraded American culture gets, the less interested I am in being a part of it.”

Chiarini’s piece explored Odissi’s technical and cultural assets and illustrated why it particularly appeals to her in this degraded day and age: “Some dances in the Odissi repertoire aren’t even taught until a dancer reaches 40, because it’s believed that younger dancers don’t yet have the emotional depth and life experience to properly express what the dance is about. Odissi also doesn’t have strict rules on body shape and size as Western dance culture does. What is considered beautiful is much broader in Indian dance culture.”

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Fearless Flyer

Dancer Olivia Ancona’s path from Portland to ‘Suspiria’

Olivia Ancona has collected plenty of passport stamps in her journey from Portland stages to the silver screen. A student and performer with The Portland Ballet, Jefferson Dancers, and Northwest Dance Project in the mid-2000s, Ancona plays the dancer Marketa in Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the 1977 horror movie, which is set in a dance school and company run by (spoiler alert!) witches. Besides performing in the film, Ancona served as a dance coach for stars Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth.

We caught up with Ancona while she was settling into her new digs in Berlin, and got her take on her early career, her time performing internationally with companies including Batsheva and Tanztheater Wuppertal, the Suspiria experience, and the real horrors that professional dancers can face.

Oregon Arts Watch: Where are you now? What are you doing currently?

Olivia Ancona: I’m in Berlin where I’m based, although just came from Wuppertal, in the north of Germany, having spent the past month guest-dancing for Tanztheater Wuppertal | Pina Bausch.

I’m putting my suitcases down for a couple of months after several years of nomadic living and freelancing. I will teach a workshop in the city alongside my partner, Scott Jennings, a member of the Pina Bausch company, and in January will prepare to set the work of Israeli choreographer/L-E-V artistic director Sharon Eyal at Konzert Theater Bern, a contemporary company in Switzerland.

Describe your trajectory from Portland to present.

I returned to Portland in eighth grade after living abroad with my family in London; my experience with The London Children’s Ballet solidified my desire to be a part of new creations and to perform. Upon our return, I continued my classical training at The Portland Ballet for three years. However, pointe work became too painful and I was told I had pre-arthritis in my feet and should probably stop dancing. I had no plans to listen to doctors’ recommendations and sought out other platforms for movement and training, auditioning for the Jefferson Dancers. This pre-professional program gave me the opportunity to rehearse in a variety of styles and to perform numerous times a year.

I saw the Batsheva Dance Company for the first time in Portland through White Bird and I fell in love with the company. The dancers were like no others I’d seen before—individualistic and unique but with the skills of superheroes. Their agility and passion really spoke to me. I decide to pursue dancing with the company; I applied to the Juilliard School with an essay about Batsheva!  I was able to work with Batsheva’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin [at] Juilliard, and I attended summer courses with him in Tel Aviv.

At the end of my junior year, Ohad invited me to join the Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company which most dancers [join] before entering the main company. After two years, I left as a founding dancer of L-E-V with Israeli/Batsheva choreographer Sharon Eyal … [I did a] half-year tour in Europe for Belgian creator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and his troupe, Eastman.

Despite feeling artistically fulfilled with these freelance projects, I craved some stability, and after two years with L-E-V, took a soloist position at the Royal Swedish Ballet as one of the contemporary members. But before long, I returned to Batsheva’s main company, where I had the opportunity to create with Ohad Naharin and Roy Assaf.

Olivia Ancona in “Mr. Gaga,” the documentary about former Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

After almost three years working full time for institutions, I was hungry for freelance opportunities and a creative world beyond Israel. Although I had never worked with [choreographer] Damien Jalet prior to Suspiria, he had spent years collaborating with Sidi Larbi, and had seen me perform, which was my link to participating in the film. Beginning in the fall of ’16, hours after my last show with Batsheva, I caught a flight to Milan and was immersed in preparation, research, coaching Dakota, acting, and dancing in Suspiria for about four months. After this intense experience, I returned briefly to the States. I spent six months teaching Gaga workshops in the U.S. and Europe and returned to Juilliard as one of the choreographers in their summer intensive.

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Rejoice! finds community in ‘A Midsummer Night at the Savoy’

Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater melds Shakespeare and the Harlem Renaissance to show us a way forward

With the premiere of A Midsummer Night at the Savoy, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater has created something that feels both timely—touching on race and migration, two issues at the forefront of America’s collective consciousness—and timeless, in that it hopscotches across countries and eras.

Oluyinka Akinjiola, Decimus, Michael Galen, Bethany Harvey and Jamie Minkus in “A Midsummer Night at the Savoy”/Photo by Andy Batt

Don’t go expecting an African dance concert per se: despite what you might think from the name, Rejoice! is primarily a contemporary dance company. “Our goal is to broaden people’s idea of contemporary dance,” artistic director Oluyinka Akinjiola told me last week. “We reference African dance traditions but put them in a contemporary context. Contemporary dance doesn’t always mean Euro aesthetics.” That said, you will find a trajectory of African influence across the Caribbean, South America, and the U.S. in You. Me. World, a kind of prelude incorporating West African, capoeira, street- and club-dance styles. Pay attention, because they’ll all reappear in the main event.

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Dance review: Singing, strife and stray oranges

NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances will send you into summer with a song

They’re going Gaga at Lincoln Hall this weekend, and I don’t mean the Lady variety. NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances, which run nightly through Saturday and close the company’s season, feature work by Ohad Naharin ambassador Danielle Agami, a master teacher of Naharin’s Gaga movement language.

Agami’s 2013 piece This Time Tomorrow illustrates the benefits of Gaga study, which emphasizes heightened physical awareness and clarity of form. Although much of this ensemble piece is set to fuzzy electronica, the movement is clean and purposeful throughout, whether it’s slithering/rolling/crawling across the floor, silly walks, multiple fouette turns or full-body freakouts.

Samantha Campbell, Julia Radick, and Elijah Labay in Danielle Agami’s “This Time Tomorrow” in NW Dance Project’s Summer Performances/Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

It’s a wonderfully weird piece—choreographically varied, with sharp tempo and directional changes—and absurdist in feeling (kudos to the dancers for not wiping out on the oranges that come rolling out from the wings across the stage). It likely stretched the company kinesthetically and artistically, and it gives the rest of us something to mull over long after the show ends.

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Oregon Ballet Theatre: Come ‘Closer’

OBT’s season-ending program at BodyVox puts premieres in your lap

When they named it “Closer,” they weren’t kidding.

The Oregon Ballet Theatre show title is a play on words: “Closer,” now running through June 3, closes the 2017-2018 season. And as danced in the intimate confines of BodyVox’s studio, it offers a much better view of OBT’s dancers than you get at the Keller or Newmark.

“They’re actually people-sized,” rightly observed BodyVox dancer Daniel Kirk, who served on the opening-night crew. From this vantage point, you can see rib cages heaving and sweat flying, a reminder of the sheer effort involved in looking effortless.

And, too, the four world premieres on the program offer a closer look at the creative potential of ballet and its practitioners, something dancers already understand and viewers may be happily surprised to discover.

Following 2017’s Choreography XX Project, for which OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving commissioned new works from international female ballet choreographers (a vastly underrepresented group in the dance world), “Closer” drew new talent from closer to home. OBT company members were invited to submit a proposal and show five minutes of work to be considered for this program. OBT dancers Katherine Monogue, Makino Hayashi and Peter Franc, plus OBT rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, made the cut. Each collaborated on original music for their pieces with Portland resident Andre Allen Anjos (aka RAC), who also happens to be a Grammy-winning remix artist; you might know him from The Shins’ “Sleeping Lessons (RAC Mix).”

Xuan Cheng and Michael Linsmeier performing Makino Hayashi’s world premiere ‘What do you see…’, part of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Closer, May 24 – June 3, 2018 at the BodyVox Dance Center. Photo by Chris Peddecord

“Closer” is an evening in two parts; the premieres debut in the latter half. Because they’re all set to the same composer, they feel in some sense like a suite of dances, although they’re choreographically divergent. Kipp, whose Trance of Wondrous Thought is the most classically balletic of the four, traces the different stages of a dancer’s career through ballet’s hierarchy. Three couples, from apprentice Alexa Domenden to principal dancer Chauncey Parsons, sail through lyrical pas de deux, the women en pointe. It’s deliberately pretty: As Kipp noted in her onstage introduction, “Sometimes it can be very touching to see something pretty.”

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