DANCE

Dance review: Reggie Wilson’s got the POWER

White Bird brought Reggie Wilson to town and he brought a lesson about black Shakers

The world premiere of POWER in July of 2019 was an evening-length work, yet Reggie Wilson was generous enough with his energy to give a post-show interview after the second performance. When asked how he envisioned the world that the piece so fully occupies, he replied, “I tend not to envision—or project.” Instead, he said, he works with “found stuff” and with his many like-minded collaborators. He feeds their shared curiosity with deep research.

Dancers in Reggie Wilson's Fist and Heel Dance Troupe
Dancers in Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel Dance Troupe perform a duet to Solon Bushi by the Staples Singers. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Wilson developed POWER in part during a residency at the Berkshire-based Hancock Shaker Village. He had been led there by his research into the history and experience of Rebecca Cox Jackson, a black woman who became a prominent figure in Shaker history. “I had heard about black Quakers because of their involvement with the Underground Railroad and abolition, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there might be black Shakers,” Wilson said, voicing a realization shared by many in the audience on Thursday night at the Portland premiere of POWER.

At Hancock, Wilson discovered how much more there was to the Shaker tradition than “just furniture and celibacy.” Dance and movement held a special place in Shaker religion and society as a direct way to liberate the soul and invite temporary possession by spirits.

Wilson knew that Rebecca Jackson, also known as Mother Rebecca, had her own singing and prayer group whose members were mainly black women. In his talk after the premiere, Wilson mused, “wouldn’t they carry over some of that … physicality and practice that they already had in their African, Afro-baptist, Afro-methodist kind of worship? If Shakers are moving, and moving into Spirit, and Africanist traditions are shaking and moving into spirit…so…Yeah!” At that point he spread his hands and gave the audience a look.

The dance takes that feeling and runs with it. Wilson sees the deep-running conduits connecting seemingly different cultures through the universal experience of groups of people coming together to dance, worship, and build a community. And of course, collaborating with math advisor Jesse Wolfeson to incorporate African fractal geometry into the work makes sense. Indigo batik-printed fabric, in the hands of Japanese biochemist-turned-costume-designer Naoko Nagata does in fact blend well with traditional Shaker dress. In fact, it all comes together so solidly on stage, one has to wonder why more avowedly-postmodern dance companies haven’t paid attention to this kind of collective, untrained group folk dance that has supported communities in nearly every country throughout history.

In the kaleidoscope of inspiration and references in the show, two items — a fabric and a song —  exemplify the intersection of traditions, crafts, identities, and materials that comprise POWER

The show opens with Wilson intoning a Shaker hymn and cradling a bolt of cloth dyed indigo with batik patterning. The fabric originally came from a collaboration, Call and Response, with textile artist Arianne King Comer, and is still stiff with wax from the batik process. Wilson first brought it back to the company simply because they needed more material for the beautiful, historically-inspired costuming that takes such a prominent role in POWER. However, a closer look revealed complexities in the fabric that mirror those explored in the show.

Originally from Asia and deeply rooted in the textile traditions of that region, indigo became a cash crop in the Southern Colonies, up there with tobacco and cotton. The Batik patterns call to mind vibrant African patterned fabric, but that history is complicated too. When Dutch colonists imported Asian batik techniques and patterns to their African colonies, they crowded existing resistance-dye traditions out of the market, casting a shadow of cultural influence that still lingers today. And in the hands of Nagata and her fellow costume designer Enver Chakartash, they became a gorgeous complement to the old-fashioned lines of demure Shaker dress. Full skirts with multiple layers of flounces and swags, mini-capes called “berthas”, head wraps, and overalls alike sported patterned indigo in the place of the famous Shaker Blue, and it worked.

Costume designer Nagota found herself at the intersection of another formal choice that, while not obviously related to the historical material in question, makes perfect sense in the world conjured in the show. A beautiful duet between two of the male dancers is performed to the Staple Singer’s 1970 version of Solon Bushi, a traditional Japanese sea shanty. Wilson remembers that version, while Nagota remembers it as a ubiquitous folk song. Wilson first played the Staples version during a rehearsal almost as a prank on Nagota. Unsure if it was “really Japanese,” Wilson figured that if he put it on and it got Nagota’s attention, there might be something to talk about. And, in fact, a Delta gospel group, deeply involved in the labor movement of the 1960s, singing a work song about fishing, with a driving rhythm, made sense. Looking deeper into it, the song and its history fit quite snugly with the Shaker idea of sacred labor, of labor being a way to connect with spirits.

Wilson says it got him “thinking about different workers, across the planet, they just have to keep going, keep going…sometimes they find a meditative way to do it, sometimes it’s survival.” The song became a way for him to get “a bigger reach” to the Shakers’ ideas, beyond the common conception that they are restricted to a “very New England, very white” world. 

Wilson is labeled as a postmodern choreographer, which is true in the technical sense. Among the many popular misconceptions that accompany that term, perhaps the most interruptive is the idea that anyone working under postmodernism is doing so willfully, in an attempt to forge a new school of arbitrary pastiche, like the Impressionists fought for their place on the gallery walls. It is more of a situation now than a movement, and it is important to know how that situation affects what we are looking at. What Wilson is looking for in POWER wouldn’t be better served by an attempt at historical recreation, yet he’s not finding it by being willfully postmodernist. Rather, in the postmodern situation, he is searching, omnivorously and omnidirectionally, for a way to be true to the spirit of a lived history that can’t be explicitly known, and the deep ideas that informed that experience. 

The movement, costuming, and music in the show have far more energy, variety and color when compared to traditional Shaker dance. But the point isn’t to create some sort of of bumped-up Shaker remix, rather to show how all the disparate elements brought together here are rooted in something more shared. By working to create something that holds together so well despite its fusion of diverse traditions and aesthetics, Wilson has revealed those deeper currents. 

The faithfulness to his “reconstruction” is to those deeper inspirations and ambitions of the material, and to what his dancers bring to the show from their many, individual backgrounds. That’s what the show is true to, to the extent that the dancers do not look like professional dancers at times, but like people moving their bodies for an ecstatic, spiritual purpose, supporting a tight-knit community. 

Dancers in Reggie Wilson's Fist and Heel Dance Troupe
Fist and Heel Performance Group members in custom Shaker-inspired costumes. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Specific, symbolic elements from Shaker dance do appear in the show—shaking out the hands, raising them to hearts and the heavens. Modern dance techniques intersect with the almost trance-like wheeling and repetition of spiritual group dances. At times it is hard to decide whether the foundation comes from the Shakers or from the other areas of Wilson’s broad interest, such as African ring-shout dances.

Perhaps the most striking quality to the movement in POWER was its realism. While the dancers in Fist and Heel clearly have all the skills one would expect of a professional troupe of their caliber, their choreography seemed to intentionally forgo polish in the service of presence. For lack of better words, they just seemed to be dancing the way their bodies wanted to move—like the people who created these dances would move.

As the Shakers’ black members are an overlooked and important part of their history, so is the role of spiritual movement in why we, as an audience, watch dancers. They do something very human—get together, clap, move together in a group. This ritual has served a purpose, which sometimes seems lost in modern society. POWER makes it easier to see that purpose and the humble beauty that drives it.

Dance preview: BodyVox’s Death and Delight scramble

After a leading dancer took a blow to the noggin, BodyVox called on its dancers' super powers to learn new roles

Last weekend, BodyVox dancer Andrés Peraza, took a blow to the head towards the end of a performance of BodyVox’s spooktacular Halloween show, BloodyVox, in Hood River. Peraza suffered a concussion. The why and the how it all happened is not entirely clear, but it’s always a risk taking shows on the road: as Elizabeth Miller, BodyVox’s Audience Engagement director told me,  you never know what the stages will look like on the road and how much space you will have to dance in.

“We had to restructure a lot of the pieces…and unfortunately someone’s knee or foot extended beyond the new spacing,” she said.

Sadly, this means that Andrés will not be able to perform in Death and Delight, BodyVox’s double Shakespeare bill of Romeo and Juliet (set to Sergei Prokofiev’s dramatic Romeo and Juliet Suite) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (danced to Felix Mendelssohn’s theatrically descriptive score). The show opens Thursday and runs for three weeks, November 7-23, at BodyVox. But don’t worry, according to BodyVox artistic director Jamey Hampton, the entire cast has rallied together and the show is looking wonderful. 

Peraza, who is a native Oregonian and a graduate of the Arts and Communication Magnet Academy (ACMA) in Beaverton, was set to dance the part of Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin in Romeo and Juliet, and Bottom, the donkey-headed comic relief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’ll  rejoin the production for its last two weeks. 

The role of Benvolio, typically a male part, will now be danced by junior company member Jenelle Gaerlan. Bottom will be danced by guest dancer Jake Gordon, and company dancer Brent Lubbert, originally cast as Bottom, will be jumping into the role of Helena, one of the lovers and female protagonists in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s dancer superhero time as all three of these dancers have to learn new choreography for two, 45-minute acts in just three days. Actually the whole cast has to readjust. New company members Theresa Hanson and guest artist DarVejon Jones will also be joining the production.

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DanceWatch: a big yes to November

As a new season settles in, Oregon's dance calendar overflows with opportunities

“No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! – November!” This line begins the chapter on November in my favorite childhood book, A Time to Keep, the Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays, and is also the last line of a poem by poet and humorist Thomas Hood (1799 -1845) called NO!

The story line of  A Time to Keep is prompted by a little girl asking her mother, “What was it like when mommy was me?” Tudor lovingly illustrates each month of the year and that family’s holidays and traditions for each of them.

Tudor (1915-2008) was an American author and illustrator whose stories and beautifully detailed illustrations created whimsical, magical worlds for children of all ages to enter. 

I particularly liked November in A Time to Keep, because it describes a family coming together from all around and celebrating the holiday with food and impromptu performances as entertainment. I like to imagine that this is what we are doing here in Portland in the winter, gathering together in warm, cozy spaces, eating, drinking, and watching dance.

And this November has no shortage of dance: twenty performances, from a few Halloween carryovers to important anniversary celebration performances, circus performances with a social justice bent, Shakespeare, ballet, and much more. Scroll down to see it all! 

Dance Performances in November

Week 1: November 1-3

Members of the cast of Redwood by Playwright Brittany K. Allen that runs November 1-17 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.
Photo by Russell J. Young/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Redwood (World Premiere)
Playwright Brittany K. Allen 
Directed by Chip Miller
Choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie
November 1-17
Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave.

A young Black woman’s relationship with her white boyfriend is upended when her uncle’s exploration of their family’s lineage reveals that her ancestors were enslaved by her boyfriend’s ancestors. Guided by a hip-hop dance class chorus, choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie (choreographer of Instinctual Confidence and Fluidity Of Steel for Oregon Ballet Theater), this American family learns to live and love in a present that’s overpopulated with ghosts.

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Sasha Waltz’s KÖRPER: Bodies meet wall, artfully

White Bird's first foray into contemporary German choreography runs into a wall—and the bodies that run into it

Dancers took the stage at the Portland premiere of Sasha Waltz’s KÖRPER before the audience had finished taking their seats. While all the lights in the Newmark Theatre were still on, the industrial sounds of Hans-Peter Kuhn’s multi-channel soundtrack blurted from speakers around the theater. Two dancers approached the the massive wall that bisected the stage diagonally (think Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc), and at the same time individual body parts—a foot here, some fingers there—emerged from two small holes in the weatherbeaten, blue-grey surface of the enormous monolith.

This was not going to be an ordinary show.

Designed by Thomas Schenk and Heike Schuppelius, both of whom studied architecture, the wall is unlike any set seen before in a White Bird performance. The first German company ever presented by White Bird, the presence of Waltz and her amazing wall in Portland owes much to the assistance of the organizations collaborating in the Year of German American Friendship 2018/19. With all that in mind—and considering that the dancers alone represent more than a dozen countries—the show crackles with a sense of a great converging of effort and ideas into a singular experience, marked by a monumental wall.

Sasha Waltz and Guests brought a strong dose of experimental German dance to White Bird this weekend./Photo courtesy of White Bird

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Wit, speed, a blast from the past

Oregon Ballet Theatre lights the fireworks with Forsythe, Balanchine, and the dazzling return of Dennis Spaight's 1990 "Scheherazade"

From the sharp angles of William Forsythe’s  In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated to the lavish curves of Dennis Spaight’s Scheherazade, Oregon Ballet Theatre celebrated the company’s 30th anniversary on Saturday night  with technical fireworks, wit, drama, and the speed, energy, and adaptability that are the hallmarks of American dancers.   

George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, which contains much of the source material for Forsythe’s once-radical ballet, was the equally elevated middle piece on this highly charged sampler of works exemplifying three of the creative forces that made ballet American. The third force is Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the ways in which choreographers such as Spaight and OBT’s current resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte (e.g. his Petrouchka),  reacted to that tradition.

It’s brilliant programming, and OBT Artistic Director Kevin Irving is to be commended for it. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry, starting with the curtain-raising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This was Irving’s calling card, as a German critic once put it, referring to another artistic director’s vision for a different ballet company.  In this instance, Forsythe’s 1987 ballet, replete with revved-up classical shapes and steps mixed with insouciant, natural walking and standing, represents perfectly Irving’s vision of a contemporary ballet company supported at the box office by evening-length story ballets.   

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Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

IT NEVER OCCURRED TO ME when I saw the company premiere of Forsythe’s work two years ago that Middle’s  relentless, high-tension propulsion of dancers across the stage, with only the walking and standing  giving dancers and audience a chance to breathe,  provides the same opportunities for bravura turns as the second act of, gulp, The Nutcracker, which will return for its annual run at OBT in December, or The Sleeping Beauty, to be seen in February.  The difference, of course, is musical: Thom Willems’s score for In the Middle ain’t pretty and it tells no stories. But as several critics have pointed out, the pounding rhythms demand as much precision from the dancers as the arias in Violin Concerto or the melodies in Scheherazade

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‘Pole Disclosure’: Acrobatics meets #MeToo

The contemporary circus duo Kate Law and Amaya Alvarado join physical skill to moving disclosures

When I arrived at A-Wol Dance Collective’s warehouse space on Saturday night to see Pole Disclosure, the line to get in stretched down the block and around the corner. That’s a sight I am not used to seeing here in Portland. By the time I got to the door, the show— a brand-new work by contemporary circus duo Kate Law and Amaya Alvarado, accompanied live by cellist Yoko Silk—was sold out and they were turning people away. Lucky for me I already had a ticket. From what I learned later on, all three shows of the run were sold out! 

Inside, the welcoming reception area was festooned with twinkling lights and catered food and drink were available. The performance area was deeper into the space,  a wide-open area with a vaulted ceiling, black walls, a chair and a music stand set up to the far left. A single pole connected floor to ceiling in the middle of the room. The space was sparse, undecorated, and it exposed the vulnerable inner workings of the show.

Law and Alvarado hanging out on the Chinese pole. Photo by Beautiful Aberration.

Pole Disclosure, began with Law and Alvarado, dressed in Evel Knievel-inspired denim jumpsuits, standing across from each other with the pole in the middle. They were smiling. In between climbing up the pole, supporting each other in various death-defying, off-center feats of balance, hanging off of each other in mid-air, and sliding down the pole towards the floor at breakneck speeds and stopping just inches from catastrophe, they spoke happily and warmly about their working partnership. They reflected on its successes and its inner workings, all the while visually demonstrating and supporting the words with their movements and poses.

Law supporting Alvarado on the cyr wheel. Photo by Beautiful Aberration.

Then the story veered. Law revealed that she hadn’t always been a good partner and that nine years ago she was in another fantastic partnership that she “ruined” by getting pregnant. “She got to go to Cirque du Soleil,” Law mourned about her partner, “and all I got was a fucking baby.” The audience laughed. An uncomfortable truth. 

Then the story turned again, more severely this time, when Alvarado spoke of her own personal story of sexual assault. It turns out that this was Alvarado’s #MeToo reveal moment—as she had never told any of her friends —about the assault.

The guilt that Alvarado felt for not seeing and acting on the red flags in her relationship, is with her all the time and was represented by her duet with the cyr wheel, a heavy metal acrobatic apparatus that trapped and created an energy of chaos around her. It became a giant object hanging off of her shoulder with its obvious weight pressing against Alvarado’s small frame. 

Throughout the rest of the evening, in between flying through the air and playing teeter-totter on a suspended shell-shaped apparatus, Law and Alvarado continued to unravel their thoughts and feelings around birth, the unrelenting pressures of motherhood, gender roles, society’s pressure to stay quiet in the face of a sexual assault, guilt, how the concept of “having it all” is actually a lie, identity, “aging out” of a performance career, and the lack of free childcare. This wasn’t all dark I assure you. There were plenty of jokes and lots of laughter. 

All the while, the cello, played by the incredibly talented Silk, completely and seamlessly supported and followed the action and emotion of the performance, like a film score. If the moment was funny, the music reflected it. If the movement was big and sweeping, so was the music. The music’s presence was so masterfully harmonized with the performance that I wasn’t always aware of it, though I always felt it.  

In the middle of the Pole Disclosure, Silk moved her chair to the center of the stage where Alvarado joined her on the ukulele and sang the song Elastic Heart, by Sia. Law accompanied them in the air on elastic ropes, perfectly expressing the mood and the lyrics of the song with her movements.

The last stanza of the song goes like this:

“Well I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart
But your blade it might be too sharp
I’m like a rubber band until you pull too hard
But I may snap when I move close
But you won’t see me fall apart
‘Cause I’ve got an elastic heart”

At the very end of the show, Alvarado told us that taped under each chair was a pen and note card. “It would mean so much to us if you would just write down anything that you want us to know,” she said, “or anything that you want the people around you to know. There’s no wrong answers here, you can even fold it up into a little paper airplane if you want.” 

Law and Alvarado gathered up all of our crumpled note cards, stuffed them in their shirts, climbed to the top of the pole, read a few, and tossed the rest down making it rain notecards. The note cards were made available for us to read after the performance. 

Alvarado hanging precariously off of Law’s neck on the Chinese pole in the final scene of Pole Disclosure. Photo by Beautiful Aberration.

Alvarado and Law have 20 years of circus arts experience between them. They have attended some of the most prestigious circus schools in the country, studied with many famous teachers, and have performed around the world. Their expertise was evident in this fantastic and very relatable show. It was exciting and inspiring to witness their feats of physical strength and flexibility, and to watch them effortlessly maneuver their way through and around all of the different apparatuses. Pole Disclosure was satisfying, and moving, and stayed with me long after the show, like a good book. 

In the end, the show seemed to say, “not only do women have to constantly fight for equality, and for their dreams, but they also have to do it while climbing up poles, swinging through hoops, hanging upside down by their feet, and supporting themselves, friends, and family, in dangerous, precarious ways.” Metaphorically speaking, of course—sort of. 

October DanceWatch: The moves get spooky

The month in dance will haunt the senses as the choreography calls on the spirits

Happy Halloween my little ghosts and ghouls, welcome to the spooky October issue of DanceWatch. The veil between the worlds has thinned and dance is lurking everywhere, so beware…

This month, aerial company Night Flight takes over Lincoln Hall with creepy creatures flying about, and Ballet Fantastique sinks deep into the soul of Poe with the world premier of their new ballet, Nevermore: Stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

Oregon Ballet Theater celebrates its 30th season with three significant ballets that span three decades in OBT Roar(s), and White Bird begins its 22nd season with illusionist dance company Momix, German choreographer Sasha Waltz and Guest, and facile young tap dancer Caleb Teicher and Company from New York. 

Portland Dance Film Fest, directed by Kailee McMurran in partnership with NW Film Center, takes over the Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium for three days, presenting dance films from around the world. 

New to the DanceWatch list is a performance that melds visual arts and burlesque by Lacy Productions, a world premiere circus production by Amaya Alvarado and Kate Law called Pole Disclosure, a 7-to-Smoke open styles dance battle, an Odissi performance by the renowned Odissi dancer Collena Shakti and her students, and a night of improv with Linda Austin and the Holy Goats. 

There is of course much, much, more to see on the list so look if you dare…


Week 1: October 1-6

The Value of the Black Ballet Star: Politics of Desire in the Economy of Institutional Diversity
Lester Tomé
6 pm October 3
Reed College, Performing Arts Building, Massee Performance Lab (PAB 128), 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd

In his lecture, dance scholar Lester Tomé will interrogate the ballet world’s move towards diversity onstage while simultaneously ignoring its colonialist and racist history and culture offstage.

Tomé teaches dance history and anthropology, as well as cultural studies, social theory and research methods in dance. He is an associate professor in dance and an affiliate of the Latin American and Latino/a Studies Program at Smith College and a faculty member in the Five College Dance Department. Tomé is the author of articles in Cuban Studies, and you can find his writing in Dance Magazine, Dance Research Journal, Dance Chronicle, The Routledge Companion to Dance Studies, The Cambridge Companion to Ballet, and The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet, to name just a few.

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