Portland-based choreographer Carlyn Hudson’s signature style, easily deciphered by its tongue-in-cheek humor and balletic undertones, has become readily recognizable throughout her burgeoning career as an independent dance maker. Her ensemble work, which has a decidedly quirky attitude, often hangs on the dancers’ abilities to express theatricality with an intrinsic sense of grace. In Something Else, consisting of five world-premiere pieces and a dance film presented at Echo Theater March 25-27, she adds seriousness to her usual repertoire of comedy—challenging her dancers in the process.
Carlyn Hudson and Kailee McMurran stood side by side, each with one leg extended in a semi-bow, wearing white period men’s costumes complete with jacket tails, stockings, and faux thick black mustaches. Hudson’s newest duet, The Brothers Viviola, was egged on by the sounds of Vivaldi as the dancers entered a rhythmic exchange brought on by lyrical swaying—leapfrogging in staccato bursts between moments of partnering and melodramatics as they portrayed fictional 18th-century Italian twin brothers “separated at birth and reunited to form the greatest stage act of all time.” Through nearly identical Charlie Chaplin-esque physicalities, it was clear that Hudson and McMurran’s longstanding relationship as SubRosa Dance Collective dancers and co-founders played a part in their effortless accordance.
After starting the night with a Baroque-like vibrancy, Hudson debuted Astro, a solo set on her high school student mentee, Dorothy Franklin. Performed underneath a blue-toned light, the winding piece demonstrated a blend of contemporary floorwork and traditional ballet form, leaving to the imagination an expressiveness typically seen in Hudson’s solo pieces. Franklin danced with admirable effort, and yet Astro delivered a descent in the constitution of the evening; things picked back up with Scherza.
In this clean and fluid ensemble piece set to Handel in a dim amber landscape, the performers executed curved pathways and sailed through transitions, assisted lifts, and retrograded footwork. Donning dark medieval bonnets a la Dante Alighieri, the performers created a pleasingly grounded array of quick choreographic patterns, unison, and canon, led by dancer Lindsay Dreyer’s sharp and dynamic movement qualities. A departure from Hudson’s comedic ventures, Scherza offered a combination of strength and sorrow seldom seen in her works, telling a full-circle story of hierarchical group division in contrast with moments of individual digression.
After intermission came the showing of Hudson’s 2020 dance film The Worst Critic, made in collaboration with McMurran and lighting designer Janessa Raabe, projected onto a large white sheet hung over the stage. Hudson later addressed the audience one-on-one in her solo piece The Kiss, set to music by Franz Shubert. From the poise of her fingers and intensity of her gaze to the distinction of her steps, Hudson was acutely present and aware of her audience. Her commitment to character was abundantly clear— confidently blowing choreographed kisses to the front row. Hudson showed an unmatched specificity in the execution of her own work, flowing from strong-man imagery and slapstick floor rolls into displays of technique. This piece, which brought to mind Fokine’s dying swan, presented a sense of melancholy without disturbing her softness.
Chariot, the evening’s final section, was set to a trio of Vivaldi, Mozart, and Tomaso Albinoni. A few seconds of music created a moment of suspense before the lights illuminated a group wearing layers of ruffled socks, powder-blue vests, pantaloons, beige and brown slacks, long-sleeved thermal shirts, and vintage collared blazers. The brightest piece of the evening, Chariots demanded exacting balances, hip extension, and shifts of weight. Anna Olmstead, the featured soloist, displayed her prominent arches in a series of tendus, attitude promenades, and grounded traveling steps, while dancer Amy Russell’s pleasant energy and epaulement further established the innocent undertones of the work, which is derived from the Disney classic Fantasia, in which centaurs, cupids, and Apollo—god of divine distance—ride his golden chariot into the sun. Appropriately so, Hudson closes Chariot with an oscillating tableaux, suggesting a sense of mythos and a lightness of being.
What has your journey with dance been this far, and what led you toward choreographing for the stage?
Hudson: It feels like I’ve been chasing dance since I started dancing at the age of 13. Even though my mom was a dancer, she never put us in dance classes because she knew the harsh realities of trying to make a career out of dance in America. However, I always felt a connection to dance and when I was 13 I thought I’d better get a move on if I was going to become a “world-famous ballerina.” Right out of the gate I took two-three ballet classes a night in an effort to catch up. I went to college for dance and later danced professionally, but it became clear to me that what I really wanted was to be artistically in charge. I wasn’t good at suffering through dancing in works that I just didn’t feel passionate about.
Tell me a little bit about the style of dance that you create. How has your ballet background influenced your choreographic works?
I find it hard to describe my style of dance. I think it’s clear to everyone who sees it that it has roots in ballet, but somehow “contemporary ballet” doesn’t quite seem to fit. There are some theatrical elements, some modern dance elements—the work is musical and has very little if any angst. My ballet background has enormously influenced the structure of my work and my pieces always have a resolution, even if that resolution is a narrative drop-off. There’s a beginning, middle, and end—I’m a bit of a traditionalist and I think that can be attributed to my background in ballet.
What continues to draw you toward balletic influence in your work and how do you meld that with contemporary aspects, as seen in past pieces like Hole?
Ballet is just so darn beautiful. I’m a sucker for pretty things, though I’m understanding as I get older that there are more interesting things to be than pretty; and that pretty looks prettier when juxtaposed with ugly or weird or silly. I think I made Hole, a solo for myself, at an age when I finally had the self-confidence to be “ugly” on stage.
Does this balletic quality in your work impact the way you cast your dancers?
Definitely. I always look for a certain degree of ballet proficiency; it’s necessary for my dancers to be able to speak that language. But it’s also important that they move well outside of the classical confines. I might cast a dancer who has less ballet training simply because I enjoy watching them move, and I might not cast a total bunhead if they freeze when asked to deliver movement outside of their comfort zone.
You were recently commissioned to set work on Connecticut Ballet while in process for this performance. Tell me more about your time there.
Yes! I spent two weeks there! It was a whirlwind! They had reached out to me just days before the pandemic hit, inviting me to contribute to a show they were curating about the importance of being heard … so throughout the last two years, I’d been working on this commission, not knowing if it would ever actually happen. In fact, I titled the piece A Piece That Might Never Happen About A Peace That Might Never Happen. But it did happen! They filmed it for their Digital Dance Series and will perform it live as part of the Connecticut Ballet Ballet Under The Stars outdoor summer series. It was a pleasure working with them. The dancers caught onto the character of the piece quickly and seemed to enjoy performing it. When the opportunity arose, it meant that I would have to leave Portland on pretty short notice and at a critical point in the process of creating Something Else, but everyone in my life was happy to pick up some slack so that I could go, and I’m so very grateful.
You tend to both choreograph and perform in your pieces. What has that experience been like for you?
Dancers are a scarce resource. It doesn’t make sense for me, an able-bodied and relatively young dancer, to sit on the sidelines. I already know the choreography and I do it exactly the way it should be done because I’m the one who created it. I also think I’ll feel regret if I don’t keep dancing for as long as I’m physically able. For Something Else, I’ve taken myself out of the group pieces due to the difficulties of directing from within. You can’t really see something you’re inside of. I’ve opted, instead, to dance a solo and a ridiculously fun duet with my long-time collaborator and good friend Kailee McMurran.
This work is called Something Else. What inspired the name, and what does it mean to you?
I’m a lover of literal and sometimes long-winded titles. My first self-produced show was titled Solos and Not Solos but Mostly Solos, which was later followed by A Piece That Might Never Happen About A Peace That Might Never Happen. It tickled me that “Carlyn Hudson presents something else” is, in itself, a complete sentence, but that the term “something else” can take on different meanings: “Wow! That show was really something else!” The relatively mundane next to the theatrically performative is so appealing to me.
You often utilize classical music from the likes of Vivaldi, Schubert, and Handel. What comes first, the music or the choreography? How did you choose the music for each section of Something Else?
The music always comes first. Sometimes I actively look for music but usually, I feel like the music finds me. Vivaldi’s music finds me all the time. In fact, I wish he would stop finding me so much because I should be trying to branch out a bit— but I’ll take the inspiration where I can get it!
During this production, you established a mentee program for young dancers. Tell me more about that process.
The mentorship just sort of worked out perfectly. I had been teaching for a long time and I felt like the dance studio world and the professional world were so separate from one another. There needed to be a bit more mixing of local dance students with local professional dance entities. Around the same time that I was casting this show, a long-time student, Dorothy Franklin, was entering her senior year in high school and needed a mentor for her senior project. She attended rehearsals every Sunday, acted as a rehearsal assistant, and took on a solo that I think she looks quite beautiful in.
According to the Data Dance Project, as of January this year, roughly 71 percent of the American ballet companies are directed by men. In 2019, over 80 percent of ballets were choreographed by men. What are your thoughts on this? How can more equity be created in ballet?
You’re going to get me heated! A situation like this outside of the dance world would be bad. But let’s also take into account that when it comes to ballet students, girls outnumber boys 20 to 1. How can it be, that even though men make up so little of the dance community, such a vast majority of pieces choreographed for major ballet companies are by men? They’re passing the torch of power from man to man, spanning the entire history of the art form … we’ve all seen it happen. Once, when I was dancing for a male artistic director, I expressed interest in choreographing for the company. My request was ignored, and later the opportunity to choreograph was handed to a male member of the company who communicated little interest in doing so. There needs to be some kind of transparency in how these power positions within the arts are granted and exchanged. The men in charge of dance find younger men, grooming them to take over their positions without consideration of any of the already highly qualified women right in front of them. Dance, particularly ballet, is absolutely a stronghold of the patriarchy. It is unfortunate that nothing will change until we make it change.
What are some of the challenges that come with being one of only a few independent ballet-based choreographers located in Portland?
So few artists are regularly and independently producing work in Portland that it’s hard to get any type of advice on how to go about doing it, and even fewer of them present ballet-based work. We’re all just out here making it up as we go along, learning from our mistakes, watching each other, and crawling in the dark (as the band Hoobastank so beautifully put it.) Many venues around the city also often have rental models that make it really financially and logistically hard to present work as an independent artist. My choice to present Something Else at Echo Theater was due to their co-production model, which truly attempts to ease the process of bringing independent artists’ works to the community.
What can Portland do to create a more supportive atmosphere for contemporary ballet?
Go to performances! Get to know your local choreographers and dance companies. Have a favorite. Have a least favorite. Form your own opinions on the work being created in your city. Follow the careers of the dance artists in your community without assuming they already have an audience or financial backing. Get out there and support the dancers that are innovating in your neighborhoods and let them know you appreciate their contributions to the culture. The role of contemporary ballet is the same as any other artistic medium. To create memorable, meaningful, and innovative work— to make something worthwhile that contributes to the furtherance of arts and culture in Portland. The performing arts are really struggling, but your presence in the theater on show night is so valuable—not just monetarily, but emotionally as well.
What a great interview. Congratulations to you
Hopefully I may see the piece you did in Connecticut this summer
I’ll keep a look out for it