DANCE

How Portland’s big dance organizations responded to Black Lives Matter

Portland's very white dance companies attracted blowback from the dance community and agreed to change

For the past several weeks, conversations and arguments around race and the arts have arisen nationally and locally. In the Portland dance community, they’ve been driven by the dancers themselves, many of whom  have concluded that the city’s big companies—Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox and NW Dance Project, along with its major dance presenter, White Bird—could do a lot more than they’ve done in addressing systemic racism in both the art form and their own organizations. And they’ve taken to Instagram and Facebook to express their opinions. 

“It takes someone in a position of power to advocate for someone who is disenfranchised,” said DarVejon Jones, a Black choreographer, teacher, and dancer in Portland. Jones explained what he and many Black Americans have experienced: that you can’t speak up because you fear the systems of power in place around you. “That’s what white supremacy says, it makes you feel like you have no agency to talk about your own life. When you do, you feel like a squeaky wheel,” he said recently in an interview with me. 

Nonetheless, he and many other local dancers have been speaking up. And having been prodded, the dance companies have responded, often defensively and often without the clarity that might satisfy their dancers, the dance community and even their boards of directors.

ArtsWatch asked the leadership of the Big Four some questions about how they are reacting to Black Lives Matter and its implications. Each company is different: different history, different financial arrangements, different artistic focus. But for the first time in some cases, they are hearing criticism from the dance community itself and they are all looking intensely at the same problem. Here’s what we found.

Continues…

‘A world of uncertainty’

Voices from the front: Arts philanthropist Ronni Lacroute says COVID-19 is forcing arts groups to think in new ways. Her role? “I just calm people down a lot.”

If you’ve attended plays or concerts in Portland or visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with any regularity over the past decade, chances are good you owe at least one afternoon or evening of cultural enrichment to philanthropist Ronni Lacroute.

Lacroute lives in Yamhill County, where in 1991 she co-founded a vineyard and world-class winery on property that had been a cattle farm. As co-owner with her former husband of WillaKenzie Estate, she immersed herself in the wine business for a quarter century, until the winery was sold in 2016.

Lacroute, whose father was in the foreign service, had traveled extensively abroad in her youth. She studied romance languages and literature and has degrees from Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and both the licence ès lettres and the maîtrise ès lettres in North American literature from the Paris-Sorbonne University. She was a college professor and taught French language and culture in high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


Along the way, she became a patron of the arts and for years has given widely to a variety of Oregon arts organizations. She’s a generous donor to arts programs at Linfield College in McMinnville, where she’s a member of the Board of Trustees. (From the Department of Full Disclosure: She’s also a donor to Oregon ArtsWatch, and earlier this year I appeared in a play at Gallery Theater in McMinnville that she sponsored.)

Ronni Lacroute says arts organizations hardest hit by the coronavirus shutdown are those locked into a venue, like a symphony hall or a theater that doesn’t allow flexible spacing. Smaller, project-based companies are better able to look at alternatives. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer
Ronni Lacroute says smaller and project-based arts organizations that have flexibility in terms of venue are coming up with creative alternative ways of connecting with audiences. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer

She now is involved full time in individual philanthropy, holding nonstop meetings with the nonprofit community. She’s particularly interested in artistic projects and groups that promote important conversations across social, economic, and political divides and that effect social change.

Because Lacroute is so connected with the region’s artistic life, we thought it would be enlightening to find out what she’s hearing in the wake of COVID-19. A lot, it turns out. And she was more than happy to share. The following interview was conducted via Facetime and has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me what it was like for you, when this really hit, as far as your meetings and contacts.

Lacroute: Well really, the only thing in my life that’s changed is no live meetings. I used to have people here every single day for meetings. The structure of my work life was to meet live and spend a couple of hours brainstorming ideas. It’s really hard to do that when you just have a phone call. You don’t do that for two hours. We exchange ideas, but how much can you put into an email or a 10-minute phone conversation? I’m missing the depth of exploration that we had before, where people were expecting that we’re going to hang out until we have some plans.

How did those conversations change once everyone really understood what was happening?

Continues…

The Show Must Go On(line)!

Portland’s dance community responds to the COVID-19 health crisis as dance spaces close, classes shift online, shows are postponed, and many companies face major financial setbacks.

“Dance like no one’s watching.” 

This dance world cliche danced almost mockingly into my thoughts this morning when I sat down to reflect on the state of Portland’s dance community amid COVID-19. In today’s socially distanced, quarantined world, the phrase (originally meant to encourage self-expression and confidence) takes on a whole new meaning. Dance like there’s no one watching, because … well, unless your bedroom window lines up with your neighbor’s like mine does, it’s likely that no one is. 

In the past two weeks, the landscape of just about everything has changed. For Portland’s dance community, there’s been a communal quieting: cancellation of in-person classes, temporary pauses on rehearsals, and the postponement  or cancellations of shows and fundraisers. While a few studios have posted projected re-open dates, Gov. Kate Brown’s recent “Stay Home, Stay Healthy,” order shakes the fragile structure that the dance community steps upon now. 

I’ve been chatting (from the comfort of my home via my computer and phone…. practice your social distancing, folks!) with a few studio owners, freelance dancers, teachers, and company directors to see what the COVID-19 shutdown looks like for their artmaking. In a nutshell, this virus is testing the dance community’s strength and flexibility . Studios are experiencing huge loss of income due to class and rental cancellations, companies are cancelling tours, performances, and rehearsals, teachers are shifting to online classes without guaranteed pay or retention of students, and the overall energy of our community is down. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel though, which includes a local artist relief fund, the nation-wide stimulus package, and of course, the profound resilience of art-makers, movers and shakers. 


Just weeks ago, Steps PDX was bustling with students ranging from toddlers to professional and recreational adult dancers. This week, the studio is empty, having reverted to live-streamed, online classes only.

Continues…

White Bird on the brink

The venerable Portland dance presenter faces a major deficit due to concert cancellations during the pandemic

Have you noticed that it’s the arts we are all turning to right now to survive? 

While we wait out our “sheltering at home” and attempt to dodge the covid-19 virus long enough to keep our hospital beds and intensive care units from overfilling, it’s the free dance performances, free music concerts, free books, free museums exhibits, free art classes—all online—that are making this horrible situation bearable. 

But the question is, will these same arts organizations be there when life gets back to normal, whenever that is? 

Unfortunately, from where I stand right now, it doesn’t look good.

On Tuesday afternoon White Bird, Portland’s biggest dance-only presenter and one of the few dance-only presenters left in the United States, announced that if the organization can’t make up a $350,000 shortfall by June 30, it will have to consider the painful possibility of shutting down for good. The shortfall is the result of show cancellations due to the pandemic. You can read their full announcement here

In addition, White Bird will also see a 20 percent increase in rent from Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, which comprises the Schnitzer, Winningstad, Keller, Newmark, and Brunish halls: White Bird is a frequent renter of the Schnitzer and Newmark halls. The venues are owned by the City of Portland and managed by the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission for Metro.

The situation is dire, White Bird co-founder Walter Jaffe said to me this morning when we spoke on the phone, but it’s dire for all arts organizations, he stressed. 

White Bird is a nonprofit organization that brings a variety of well-known and emerging, national and international dance companies and choreographers to Portland. It was launched in 1997 by Walter Jaffe and Paul King and was named for their beloved cockatoo, Barney, who is now 32.

Paul King, Walter Jaffe and Barney, of White Bird. Photo by Jennifer Alyse.

Continues…

Kathy Coleman, beyond disability

The disability-arts champion's unexpected death shocks the community. But the organization she built vows to keep building.

When Kathy Coleman had cancer many years ago, the treatments changed her body. She wanted to understand those changes, and as someone who loved to dance, she thought dance might help.  “I really wanted to explore my body,” she said in a 2014 interview with Cheryl Green.  “And I really wanted to connect with it in a way and learn about it differently.” She began taking dance classes, then joined a dance company, where one of her teachers — herself not standard dancer-size — had the unusual notion that “you didn’t all have to look the same way. [That] was really powerful to me.” 

That mind-opening experience helped inspire Coleman to found Portland’s Disability Art & Culture Project, which over the past 15 years has shown artists and audiences alike that art doesn’t have to be limited to narrow traditional notions of what is beautiful, or who can create it. It’s spawned a groundbreaking dance company, a festival dedicated to art created by people with disabilities, a leadership training project, and more. And under her leadership, DACP showed how the arts can uniquely contribute to social change.

Kathy Coleman, far right, and dancers.

Coleman, who died unexpectedly last month in Portland, left a lasting impression on Oregon artists and audiences — that rare figure who not only creates an enduring new institution, but also an enduring new perception, by expanding artists’ and audiences’ idea of what art can be. 

“She was just a force, an irreplaceable piece of Portland arts,” says Wobbly Dance co-founder Erik Ferguson.

Continues…

Striking a reckoning with death

Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman's paired solo shows "Delicate Fish/BARDO" take a tender look at grief, pain, and death

To die is a process whose edges are feathered in all directions

To grieve is to feel love that has nowhere to go. 

These words followed me around in the weeks leading to the show, first arriving in the press release that landed so casually in my inbox while I was paying my electric bill and answering mundane emails. A  few days later, it arrived in caption-form… mixed into the chaos of my instagram feed and blaring with depth amidst everyone’s social worlds. Finally, it reappeared on the simple one-page program I was handed at Shaking the Tree Theatre when I arrived to see Delicate Fish/ BARDO. Created as a split bill between local choreographers Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman, the performance was just as haunting as those words that wafted in and out of my mind leading up to opening night. 

The poetic nature of Delicate Fish/BARDO , which repeats at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 5-7, pulled me in the first time I saw its marketing. The tender words chosen to describe the works, the curiosity of the title, and the simplicity of its presentation as it emerged into the public eye brought wonder to its existence. The program takes an intimate look at grief, pain, and one of the most challenging aspects of life: death. With such a clear thematic pathway of the show, the collaboration was surprisingly more organic than you’d expect.  “The way that our two pieces communicate or compliment was purely by synchronicity,” says Evans. “Both of us, in very different ways, had been interfacing with the energies that surround and infuse death, grief, and healing.”  I’ll share more of our interview below, but first, let me get you up to speed on what opening weekend had in store. 

Jess Evans. Photo: Chris Larson

Continues…

DanceWatch: Dear March, come in!

Oregon's dance month marches in like a lion, and a tango, and some ballet, and some butoh, and some funk, and bootleggers, and more

Dear March – Come in –
How glad I am –
I hoped for you before –
Put down your Hat –
You must have walked –
How out of Breath you are –
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –
Did you leave Nature well –
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell –


This is the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s Dear March – Come in –, a poem that describes the month of March like an old friend who has finally arrived, long awaited, but will soon leave because April is knocking at the door. Spring has arrived! The poem seems to express that time is fleeting, patience is a virtue, and we should enjoy things and life while they last. Our Portland winter hasn’t been as challenging as some, but it’s definitely been dark, and I am so glad to see the light again and feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

To me there is such an obvious connection between nature and dance. The body is nature. We are born of the earth, sustained by it, and return to it when we die.  Like nature, dance is also fleeting and lives in the moment. Dance and dancers, like seasons, grow and change, bloom, age, are affected by their environments, and flourishes when they are loved. 

March’s dance offerings are an interesting combination of the political and personal, the historical and imagined, and nature and connectivity, with a bit of comedy and religion sprinkled in. Enjoy!


DANCES AND DANCE EVENTS IN MARCH


Week 1: March 1-8

Marta Savigliano, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion
Presented by the Reed College Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies Colloquium Series and moderated by Reed College Dance Professor Victoria Fortuna
Noon March 4 
Reed College, Vollum College Center, Room: 120, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., Portland

Offering both an insider and outsider point of view, Marta Savigliano – an Argentine political theorist and dance professor at the University of California at Riverside –, discusses her book Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (1995); a text on tango’s national and global politics that received the Congress of Research on Dance Award for Outstanding Book 1993-1996.
The event is free, and all are welcome. Lunch will be served, so please RSVP to cwilcox@reed.edu so that the right amount of food can be provided. 

Continues…