DANCE

The Year of Living Cautiously, Pt. 2

Dance on screen: It's not the same as sitting with an audience for a live performance in a theater, but when theaters are shut down, it's a balm

Before Covid, I watched dancing on screen for several reasons, none of them related to recreating the experience of watching live performance, or as a substitute for it.

One was for reference, or what the French call an aide memoire, something to jog my memory of a performance I’d seen in the flesh, three-dimensionally, on the stage or in the studio or on a specific site, before I wrote about it. An example of that is watching the six-minute video of Linda K. Johnson’s Polka Dot Square piece, a viewing that verified that one of the dancers performing last October on artist Bill Will’s socially distanced giant polka dots in Pioneer Courthouse Square had been wearing red. Yet it in no way reproduced the joy I had derived from seeing birds doing a flyover, or feeling the chill in the air, or being part of an equally elated audience at the actual event. 

My rotten handwriting has also driven me to look at performances I’ve already watched in the dark—I often can’t read it. God forbid I misidentify a dancer in a review, or invent choreography that wasn’t performed.  (I am guilty of doing both of those things, for which I am still apologizing.) When Oregon Ballet Theatre performed Bournonville’s Napoli, I used a DVD of a different production—which had been staged by the same people—to remind myself of specific choreography, and while that recorded performance was extremely good, seeing it on my television screen with only my cat as my audience companion flattened it considerably. 

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in the United States full-production premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli,” October 6-13, 2018, at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: James McGrew.

The second reason is connected to research, to see what dances and dancers looked like that I have had no opportunity to see live. A few that come to mind are Janet Reed as Swanhilda in Coppélia (I was only three);  Loie Fuller’s nature-inspired dances (performed well before I was born, though I have seen one reconstruction at the Maryhill Museum of Art, which also has film clips in her archive there); and James Canfield and Mark Goldweber in the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Petrouchka (which was not performed in Portland on tour). 

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DanceWatch: Pandemic downs and ups

Everyone's course through this year of isolation has been different—and sometimes it leads to growth

At the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns last March, it was exciting to have EVERYTHING go online. Dance classes, performances, lectures, and community conversations were suddenly available at the touch of a button. 

In the past, as a dance artist, I’d felt like I was never in the right place at the right time to get what I needed to succeed in my dance career. It felt like I was living in the wrong place, wasn’t studying with and being seen by the right teachers, and was missing out on auditions and opportunities. I felt like I was always out of step. FOMO (fear of missing out) was real for me. This was significantly exacerbated when I decided to have a baby, which took me right out of the game. But not anymore, thanks to Covid-19. (I feel yucky saying that.) Because suddenly everything I ever wanted was online. 

But, as you all know now, it’s hard to go at it alone in our tiny houses month after month. As you also know, trying to get time and space alone to be creative in a house with other people is REALLY HARD.

I tried connecting to what was available online. Still, it couldn’t keep my attention, and the sheer volume of choices became overwhelming. 

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The sound of dance across borders

"The Way Out," Portland violinist and composer Joe Kye’s latest single, brings dance, Zoom, and social justice together to address the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border

It all started last Spring in a Zoom meeting. Joe Kye, a Portland violinist and vocalist, listened with perked ears as high school student Diego Garita described his vision of creating a dance piece that would tell the story of the current crisis at the United States-Mexico border. 

“I knew immediately I wanted to work with him,” recalls Kye. 

Composer, violinist, and vocalist Joe Kye. Photo: Jason Sinn

The two were on the Zoom call as a part of a program run by New York City’s Young Dancemakers Company, an organization that pairs professional composers like Kye with high school students in New York to collaborate and produce original dance pieces. In the past, only composers based in New York participated, but with the pandemic Kye was able to join from across the country. 

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For houseless women, a fresh Momentum

Dance workshops rethink the dance world and aid houseless women, children and nonbinary people at the Rose Haven shelter

Women’s History Month is under way, and Portland’s dancers are finding new ways to celebrate the city’s female and nonbinary movers while simultaneously serving the most vulnerable women, children and nonbinary members of our community. The women organizing the third annual Momentum Workshops are giving a new meaning to the phrase “we rise by lifting others” in this town’s dance scene, and there’s still time to join in on the momentum yourself. 

Entering their fourth and final week, the Momentum Workshops–formerly known as Females of February–offer accessible online dance and movement classes as well as health/wellness seminars. Workshop organizer Isabel Holmes says the workshops were created as a way to say thank you to the incredible women who had helped her along on her journey, and as it wraps up the third annual year, it’s grown into something bigger. That’s where Rose Haven comes in. A day shelter and community center that serves women, children and gender nonconforming folks who are experiencing poverty, trauma and intersecting issues, Rose Haven is the recipient of all revenue generated from the Momentum Workshops, and has been since the first year in 2019. 

The Momentum Workshops (Image from their inaugural workshop in 2019), hosted at Steps PDX, drew 25-30 local dancers to each workshop. Now running in a virtual format, the workshops have expanded beyond the Portland dance community. 

I chatted with Liz Starke, Rose Haven’s development director, on what it’s been like to partner with Momentum. The most valuable aspect of their partnership, she told me, has been the workshops’ ability to raise awareness for what they do at the shelter: “They are literally using their bodies to tell the world our story, to help fight the stigma that comes with poverty. Watching the literal sweat that has gone into these workshops is so inspiring, and makes it easier to digest really tough and depressing subject matter.” 

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DanceWatch: March hare edition

We are still watching dance online, and that's so much better than the alternative

Welcome to March. It’s almost spring! That means warmer weather, light in the sky, and flowers blooming everywhere. We also have the Coronavirus vaccine to look forward to, which means that maybe we can all commingle in theatres and dance studios once again by next fall, which is excellent! So, many things to look forward to, but dance and dance-related discussions are all still online until then. 

This month offers a mixed bag of performance experiences from new performance experiments from Linda Austin and Allie Hankins to an annual performance share by four different dance groups at AWOL Dance Collective’s performance space to a new film from PDX Contemporary Ballet and conversations with Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director Kevin Irving on the future of classical ballet and its problems with racism and sexism. 

It’s a light month in terms of the number of dance performances, which is nice because I think we are all exhausted and could use some time offline. So go outside and dance, but don’t forget to watch and support the dance community online too. 

Last thought. Here is an excerpt of a poem I recently found by author Laura Kelly Fanucci:

“When this is over,
may we never again
take for granted
A handshake with a stranger
Full shelves at the store
Conversations with neighbors
A crowded theatre
Friday night out
The taste of communion
A routine checkup
The school rush each morning
Coffee with a friend…”

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Linfield University hits its streaming stride

Poetry, podcasts, theater, dance, and music are all available virtually from the McMinnville school

On any list of pre-COVID Things I Miss Most, visiting Linfield University in McMinnville ranks near the top, along with writing in coffee shops and seeing faces. The school’s panoply of cultural offerings — live theater and music, readings and lectures, and the art gallery — has been largely unavailable to the public since last March. The shift to streaming video, though well-intentioned, has been tentative and uneven. 

I haven’t caught everything Linfield has streamed into the world since COVID hit, but a free recital in February featuring the Oregon Symphony’s James Shields on clarinet and, more recently, the Zoomed appearance of acclaimed poet Ross Gay felt like the beginning of something, an optimistic hint of spring in the second half of winter.

Ross Gay, poet
Poet Ross Gay’s reading is available on Linfield’s YouTube channel.

Normally, author readings are held in the Nicholson Library, but Gay’s was live-streamed from (presumably) his living room over Linfield’s YouTube channel, and it will remain there, which is a good thing.

The prepared-for-the-press remarks by Joe Wilkins, who heads creative writing at Linfield, are as good an introduction to Gay as any: “Ross’ poems are fun, wise, and full of rhythm and sound, and reading one of his essays is like having a long talk with a good friend.” Having listened to the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award winner read excerpts from The Book of Delights and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude for 45 minutes, I’d echo those sentiments. True, streaming is not the ideal, but a publicist for Gay told me the 46-year-old poet has done nearly 30 of these things now online; he’s clearly found a rhythm.

“I’ve been pressing his book of essays, The Book of Delights, into the hands of just about everyone I know,” Wilkins said.  The book was written, Gay told the audience, as a writing prompt exercise: Write one essay a day, every day, in 30 minutes. “I learned how to write essays a lot better over the course of a year,” he said.

It’s a lively reading featuring some terrific stories and spirited commentary by the author. It’s a must-see for those who love poetry, or who want to.

THE SHOWS MUST AND WILL GO ON: Linfield Theatre’s “season like no other” heads into spring with a program of both streaming staged productions and, in a new development, podcasting. 

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The Year of Living Cautiously

Veteran dance critic Martha Ullman West looks back on a year of Covid isolation and moments of movement that vividly broke the spell

My year of living cautiously began the end of February last year, and while I had hoped it would conclude close to the same day this year, I think it’s more likely to stretch into a second year of the same.   

 In the past year I have seen two, count them, live dance performances, and one dance film in a theater, Alla  Kovgan’s stunning 3D documentary Cunningham. (I think all dance films should be shot in 3D, based on this one and Pina, Wim Wenders’ 2011  film about Pina Bausch, both shown at Portland’s Cinema 21.) 

 I have watched as many streamed performances as I could bear; written one obituary tribute;  read a dozen or so dance and dance-related books, some of which I was dipping into for a second and third time; and, in the name of shameless self-promotion, finished writing a book I started thinking about at the turn of the millennium.  Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet, the gods and Covid willing, will be published in May.  

Jacqueline Schumacher, in her teaching studio in downtown Portland’s Odd Fellows Building, ca. 1975. Photographer unknown.

Dance watchers will know that Reed was a native Oregonian, who was trained in Portland by Willam Christensen, as was her close friend Jacqueline Martin Schumacher. Schumacher, who died in September, 2019, would have been 100 on November 30, 2020, and a centenary celebration was under discussion when Covid hit; needless to say it did not take place. 

Both women were founding members of the San Francisco Opera Ballet (now the San Francisco Ballet) and danced, respectively, the roles of Odette and Odile in the first American evening-length production of Swan Lake.  Reed went on to a stellar career with Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.  Schumacher brought her star power back to her  home town, returning to Portland in 1942, when San Francisco Ballet went on hiatus right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

Here she established a ballet school with rigorous standards (ask any former pupil!) where she taught generations of Portland students, many of whom became professional dancers. Equally important, as the founder of the Portland Ballet, a successor to Christensen’s company and a precursor of Oregon Ballet Theatre, she was pivotal to the establishment of the city’s resident ballet company.

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