DANCE

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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Union PDX: Making the case for dance

Samuel Hobbs created a dance festival to showcase dance and to confront the problems the art form faces in Portland

“Don’t make work or make it work,” said Samuel Hobbs during the talk-back session of the inaugural Union PDX new contemporary dance festival in Portland. He was referring to the two options a choreographer faces in Portland, a city where the dance scene is full of creativity, but low on funding, visibility, and connectedness as a community.

Hobbs and the push/FOLD company he serves as artistic director are working toward solutions for unifying dance artists in town, and their latest idea came to reality this weekend in the form of Union PDX. The festival packed performances, master classes, educational outreach for young dancers, audience talk-backs, and Portland Dance Community Awards all into four days’ time. 

When I sat down with Hobbs to chat about what sparked the idea for Union PDX, which ran September 26-29 in the Hampton Opera Center, he reiterated that it’s come from the struggles of being a working artist in a city where two or three big names in dance are thriving. Meanwhile, the rest of the local companies and independent choreographers are all battling for their slice of the funding pie.

Under such limited conditions for artists in the city, with most mid-level companies paying out-of-pocket for rehearsal space, dancers, venue rental, videography, photography, and you-name-it, it seems natural that a lack of unity in the community has arisen due to the stress of an unbalanced system. This all equates to a lack of visibility for the dance community, especially for those artists who can’t keep up with the pay-to-play nature of presenting work here in Portland. 

So what gets lost in the mess of it all? The art. So let’s spend the next few paragraphs talking about that.

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NW Dance Project: 3 for the show

The agile Portland company kicks off its 16th season with a trio of works by Ihsan Rustem, Luca Veggetti, and Patrick Delcroix

When Franco Nieto, all red-nosed and disheveled and comically herky-jerk, strolled in front of the stage curtain in the Newmark Theatre Thursday evening like a side-show barker or a tramp clown, the audience leaned forward on full alert. It leaned forward farther as he proceeded to behave like an especially rubbery baggy-pants comic in a vaudeville act. And when he casually slid beneath the curtain with the boneless ease of an eel and disappeared, leaving the stage empty, laughter began rippling across the auditorium. For the remainder of Ihsan Rustem’s jaunty comic hit Le Fil Rouge it pretty much didn’t stop. Nieto and his fellow NW Dance Project performers had the crowd right where they wanted it: surprised, amused, and eager for more.

Colleen Loverde and Anthony Pucci in the world premiere of Patrick Delcroix’s Invisible Spark. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Le Fil Rouge was the capper of NW Dance Project’s 16th-season-opening show Infall (it repeats Friday and Saturday nights), and a bit of a homecoming as well. Rustem, a Londoner whose first piece with the Portland company, State of Matter, was performed by the company dancers twice in London as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, has been NDP’s resident choreographer since 2015. The two other choreographers on the program – French dancemaker Patrick Delcroix and Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti – also have productive histories with the company.

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A new festival addresses dire conditions for dance

Union PDX - Festival:19 opens on Thursday with an agenda that goes beyond the onstage performances

“As Portland (dance) artists, we aren’t provided the opportunities that we really need,” Portland choreographer Samuel Hobbs says. “ We are all scrambling for the same scraps…we need visibility and accessibility.”

Hobbs was explaining both the dire condition of local dance artists and the reason he created Union PDX – Festival:19, a brand new contemporary dance festival. Union PDX debuts September 26-29 at the 180-seat Hampton Opera Center on the river in Southeast Portland, close to MAX with ample free parking also available.

The festival, curated and directed by Hobbs, will feature world premieres by Portland choreographers Amy Leona Havin—artistic director of The Holding Project, choreographer Carlyn Hudson, and Hobbs, who also directs his own company, push/FOLD Contemporary Dance Company

“Doing your own show is great, but maybe there’s a way that we can come together and lift each other up,” Hudson said when I met up with her, Hobbs, and Havin to hear about the festival and their work. 

Artistic director of push/FOLD dance company, Samuel Hobbs, rehearsing his new work, Ash, to be debuted at his new festival, Union PDX – Festival:19, from September 26-29 at the Hampton Opera Center. Pictured left to right are Holly Shaw, Briley Jozwiak, Ashley Morton, Samuel Hobbs, and Liane Burns.
Photo by Jingzi Photography.

Hobbs has commissioned both Havin and Hudson to create new work for the festival on his company’s four dancers—Holly Shaw, Briley Jozwiak, Liane Burns, and Ashley Morton. ”Right now funding is huge! Funding and platform. To be commissioned by established institutions and to receive funding are the two biggest things that would absolutely change the game for me at this point,” Havin said.

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