Dance review: A Union PDX festival to match the season

push/FOLD's festival drew national and international contemporary-dance ideas from Brooklyn to New Jersey to Portland to L.A. to the Dominican Republic and Taiwan.

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It’s fall here in Portland, which means the trees are putting on their annual, wondrous show of colors before the city turns to a watery well. Autumn also brings with it the third annual Union PDX, a dance festival hosted by Portland company push/FOLD and performed Nov. 4-7. Curated in 2020 by a panel of local dance professionals through a worldwide open-application process, Festival:21 presented local, regional, and national artists to share their work at the Hampton Opera Center.

Included on the bill were Evelyn Tejeda, an experimental urban contemporary dancer and choreographer recently emigrated from the Dominican Republic; Tom Tsai, an L.A.-based Taiwanese dancer and choreographer primarily influenced by Breakin’ and Lewitzky modern dance technique; Samuel Hobbs, director and choreographer for presenting company push/FOLD; Rebecca Margolik, NYC-based contemporary dancer and choreographer; and Oluyinka Akinjiola, director, dancer and choreographer for Portland’s Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater. 

Composed of four solos and a final group piece, the night was true to its festival framework. The works performed were a patchwork quilt with a throughline that was more abstract than linear. Though conversation in the post-show talk collected the pieces together under the umbrella concept of finding identity through movement, I found the pieces to be vastly different from one another. 

Evelyn Tejada in “Impossible to Explain.” Photo: Jonathan Hsu 

First up was Tejada’s Impossible to Explain, a title at war with the notes in the program, which rang out with the need to be understood, seen and related to. “Do you understand me?” Tejada asks in her piece. “Am I clear?” The framework of the dance is a blend of breaking and acro-contemporary floorwork, but the most poignant aspect of Impossible to Explain is Tejada’s facial expression and realistically executed tics. As Tejada slipped her way around a circular mat placed in the middle of the floor, her choreography was paced with repetitive twitching that was so believable and yet so seamlessly intertwined into the choreography that I started to wonder if some of the work may be improvised. Tejada’s finesse in and out of this seemingly involuntary movement and back into extremely intricate floorwork was impressive and well-rehearsed.

In the post-show talk, Tejada confirmed that the piece was inspired by Tourette syndrome, and that her movement research had been mainly focused on the juxtaposition of extremely fast tic-like movement into slow control. As the somewhat tortured work came to an end, Tejada’s tics progressed with audible vocalizations, each consecutively more labored as time passed.  Impossible to Explain weds the most uncontrolled of human movement expression to the precision of professional dance in a way that makes the two seem more alike than different. 

Tom Tsai in “A Fantasy of Going Home.” Photo: Kuang Jingka

Next, Tsai took the stage with his 2017 self-choreographed solo A Fantasy of Going Home. Deeply moving and evocative of Taiwan’s ongoing struggle for full independence, the piece is scored with a slew of news clips that collect the historical narrative of Taiwan’s marginalization over the past few decades and set the tone for the repetitively bombarding effects of injustice, censorship, and erasure of a country and its people. For Tsai, a descendant of the victims and survivors of Taiwan’s martial law era, the work is personal. Part of the performance was a narration of his experience in 2018 with a dance festival in Singapore, during which the festival decided his soundscore was too politically charged and denied his use of the news soundbites that made direct reference to the struggle of the Taiwanese people. Ultimately, Tsai swapped out the track for a “more sanitized” version and described the aftermath of participating in his own censorship for the sake of exposure and visibility as inauthentic and a process that “in the end, there was little to be proud of.” 

Flash forward three years, and Tsai is here in Portland, performing the work with its initial integrity and sharing his story. A Fantasy of Going Home is choreographed with patience, using the entire duration to slowly unearth the life and emotions that exist beneath the news clips. In an era where turning on the radio means tuning into the latest monstrosities of the world, we’re desensitized to the actual lives of those who the headlines effect. Tsai’s work brings the humanity of the Taiwanese people within feet of the audience members, instead of an ocean away. His raw and encompassing movement opens a window into the marginalized communities he is a part of. In the talkback, Tsai mentioned that the piece began as an eight-minute solo. Now, A Fantasy of Going Home has expanded to twenty minutes as Tsai adds recent news clips and continues to tell the story of his homeland and the dream to return. 

Samuel Hobbs, choreographer of “Ghost Pipe” and director of push/FOLD. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Before breaking for intermission, the first act closed with Hobbs’ new work Ghost Pipe. Choreographed on and danced by founding push/FOLD company member Holly Shaw, Ghost Pipe is inspired by the Monotropa uniflora, a sacred medicinal plant also known as “Ghost Pipe.” The piece commenced with Hobbs shuffling in circles around the space, dropping white petals (reminiscent of the colorless petals of the Ghost Pipe plant) in their path while Shaw held hauntingly still in an inverted posture. The ceremonious beginning set precedent for the duration of the piece. Once Shaw released her posture and began to move, the repetitions of the choreography mimicked Hobbs’ initial loops and took up a hypnotic tempo. 

This new work fits nicely in place with Hobbs’ previous work, featuring their signature whirling, technical style that feels bound by the dancer’s center of gravity yet requires an advanced understanding of the body’s natural  movement pathways. As always, Shaw executes Hobbs’ work with strength, humility and precision. Before the light even illuminates the space, you can feel Shaw’s energy: an alertness and attentiveness to her body and breath. She is the kind of performer who exists fully within her movement, and Ghost Pipe was no exception to this characteristic. Overall, the work feels like a fleeting experience: there and then gone, much like the existence of the Ghost Pipe plant, which is known to flower above ground for just one week before dying, turning black, and dissolving back into the earth. 

Rebecca Margolick in “Bunker.” Photo: Maxx Berkowitz

If there’s one thing Festival:21 wasn’t short on, it’s talent. After intermission, the evening kept the bar high and energy higher. Picking up with Margolick’s self-choreographed Bunker, the program dropped back into personal and cultural reflection. Influenced by archival research Margolick conducted on women who resided at the 92nd Y Residence and The Clara de Hirsch home for Working Girls in the period from 1899 to 1950, Bunker is a response to the journals of employees at these facilities that housed immigrant, lower class, and predominantly Jewish women. In an interview with M1Contact Contemporary Dance Festival, Margolick explains that she felt connected to the stories of these women, having herself immigrated to America as a young Jewish woman when she was 18. She was struck that these journals detailed how independent the women in The Clara de Hirsch home were, and how they often didn’t go on to marry right away, instead supporting themselves and living with friends or on their own. 

Using the memories of these women, Margolick created Bunker to capture the history of their lives through her own lens. The result is a tactile performance in which you feel both pain and resilience seeping out through Margolick’s artistry. Choreographically, the work employs contemporary dance as the vessel to travel from expressive gestural movements into more methodical, pedestrian postures and prances. Similar to A Fantasy of Going Home, Bunker overlays personal experience upon history. Its depth is both dependent on and elevated by its nods to a time passed. Pieces like Bunker and A Fantasy of Going Home put into question the linear nature of time by bringing history into live theater; as Margolik notes in the program, the work “reflects the parallels, struggles and shared history through generations.”  

Oluyinka Akinjiola, founder, choreographer, and performer in Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater. Photo: Cameron Ousley  

Finally, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater took the stage to end the program on an upbeat note. The group performed Who We Carry, which was created during the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reclaim power and transform grief and loss through the ancestral roots of the Ring Shout traditions of the Gullah Geechee, Yoruba Orishas in the African Diaspora and the lands of the Pacific Northwest. Led by founder, dancer and choreographer Akinjiola in collaboration with the dancers, Who We Carry enlivens Ring Shout traditions through the Afrofuturistic vision. Drawing upon an article entitled Creating New Worlds with Black Art by the poet Aja Monet, Akinjiola pulled prompts from the text to share with the dancers as a place to begin for movement exploration. 

The piece begins with the group circling up, clapping and stepping in the rhythm with one another. From this initial moment of communion, the energy of the dancers remained in sync for the rest of the performance, even when they sectioned off into solo and group work. During the post-show talk, company dancers Malik Delgado and Decimus Yarbrough commented on the deep ancestral roots of their dance. “Growing up, dance came from my community. It’s my identity. When I’m doing these movements, I’m thinking about the people that came before me. Being a part of street culture is how I get in tune with my ancestors,” Delgado said. He explained that even the breathwork is a part of the lineage passed down through dance. Yardbrough explained the posture further: “Grounded, chest low to the ground, knees bent, connected to the earth. That’s ancestral. That’s not technique. When we circle up, that’s not just a BBoy Cypher. That goes thousands of years back.” 

Entwined with the choreography were more everyday scenes, such as hanging up the laundry on a line brought in during their entrance. The care enacted in the groups’ encounters as they moved from solo dancing into quieter moments at the clothesline demonstrated the rooting in community that Yarbrough and Delgado referenced. The more literal interpretation of the title Who We Carry suggests the becoming of one: with those you care for in this life and those whose spirits you carry on. In Who We Carry, Rejoice reminds us that the living and the dancing are one and the same.

In all, the festival performance was a success. They say the third time’s the charm, but for this third annual iteration of Union PDX, the third time felt like just the beginning, As push/FOLD and the festival collaborators continue to make a name for themselves, Union PDX is beginning to fit into the annual autumnal patchwork of the city, much like the expected and well-anticipated turning of the leaves.

About the author

Elizabeth Whelan is a movement-based artist based in Portland. As a freelance dancer and choreographer, she has presented work through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Night Lights, Downright Productions’ Amorphous, Polaris Dance Theater’s Galaxy Festival, Performance Works Northwest and FLOOR Center for Dance. Beth has been awarded the White Bird Barney Commissioning Prize alongside Trevor Wilde and Shaun Keylock, and will be creating new work for the White Bird Uncaged Series of 2021. She currently dances with Tongue Dance Project, based in St. Johns. Prior to Portland, Beth completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance at George Mason University and freelanced in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. Her writing on dance is published in Philadelphia’s The Dance Journal and Oregon ArtsWatch. In her beloved free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music, and drinking a good cup of coffee with her cat. Visit bethwhelan.org and bethwhelandesign.com.

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