All Classical Radio James Depreist

Dance review: Inaugural ‘Women Choreographers of the Pacific Northwest’

A heady program of dances and dance films created by women is a vibrant and successful beginning for what should become an annual event.

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Classical Bharatanatyam dancer and WCPNW 2024 choreographer Sweta  Ravinsankar’s new work, "Imagining Pain; The Menster Saga," had its premiere at the showcase. Photo courtesy of Sweta Ravisankar.
Classical Bharatanatyam dancer and WCPNW 2024 choreographer Sweta Ravinsankar’s new work, “Imagining Pain; The Menster Saga,” had its premiere at the showcase. Photo courtesy of Sweta Ravisankar.

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The following is a guest review by Samuel Hobbs, artistic director of push/FOLD | Union PDX.

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I had the great pleasure of attending the inaugural Women Choreographers of the Pacific Northwest (WCPNW) showcase, which ran for four nights, on May 18. It was a resounding celebration of female creative voices, featuring five distinct choreographic pieces interspersed with four screendance films, each resonating with variations on the themes of connection and relationship of the self within society. It resulted in an ambitious two-hour production.

Despite my initial trepidation about the length and number of pieces in the program, the seamless curation by co-directors Kailee McMurran and Carlyn Hudson provided an evening that was truly refreshing. It highlighted the talent of McMurran and Hudson as producers, directors, and curators. The only desire that I felt was left unfulfilled by the evening was the brevity of the post-show artist talk and the lack of an audience Q&A; a sentiment shared by a few other audience members. Overall, the evening and production were a huge success.

After the audience took their seats, the lights dimmed and the evening immediately began without a curtain speech, which was left for intermission. For an inaugural showcase production, this felt like an odd choice, especially considering the hefty purpose of the showcase as described in prior articles by Beth Whelan and Jamuna Chiarini. Without the curtain speech, I felt a bit ungrounded with the large promise and scope of the program looming over me. However, this quickly left my mind as Carlyn Hudson’s world premiere, Maker, opened the show.

Maker

Performed by Hudson and four other Portland dancers, Maker began with a dark-clad Hudson, standing center-center, reminiscent of her work Hole, a solo that she performed in 2017. Timing perfectly with the opening baroque music, Hudson quickly took off, performing a short solo across the stage. As Maker continued, four white-clad dancers joined Hudson, all embodying her signature blend of unrivaled “comedic noir” aesthetic and ballet technique, playing out Hudson’s self-reflection as a female creative, as outlined in the program.

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Hudson has a knack of speaking to intricate concepts with heavily inspired musical choreography interwoven with nuance, seamlessly blending seemingly disparate music genres and musicians into striking work. Each section of Maker alternated between classical music and well-known contemporaneous songs, and the dancers moving with meticulous precision, captivating throughout. Maker, at times, was the very expression of a tinkerer of mechanized toys — Hudson kneeling at the front of the stage, conducting her clockwork creations. Each dancer was powerful in her own right, and Anna-Ruth Ellis was also a standout performer. Ellis drew the eye to her precision and well-crafted arms and the angled movement that she effortlessly performed: leaping, spinning, and manipulating her companions on the stage.

Dancers Grace Armstrong and Anna Ellis in rehearsal for WCPNW co-founder and 2024 choreographer Carlyn Hudson’s new work, "Maker." Photo: courtesy of Carlyn Hudson.
Dancers Grace Armstrong and Anna Ellis in rehearsal for WCPNW co-founder and 2024 choreographer Carlyn Hudson’s new work, “Maker.” Photo courtesy of Carlyn Hudson.

Though I desired to see more power and consumption of the space by the dancers, the choreography, and the piece’s whimsical physicality, the physical capacity of the performers, was apparent. I am not certain whether the intimate size of the venue (New Expressive Works on Southeast Belmont Street in Portland) aided in my desire to see larger movement, or whether Hudson’s goal was to miniaturize Maker and bring the audience through a magnifying glass onto a tinkerer’s workbench. But the execution of the choreography, and the lifts within it, though perfectly timed, felt a bit too constrained. I wished to watch this work on a larger stage, if only to challenge the dancers and Hudson to take the whimsy to the extreme. I felt there was more room for the beautiful nuances Hudson placed in Maker to flourish.

It is always a joy to see Hudson’s work. She is like a master baker creating the perfect croissant. With each bite, as audiences, we get to uncover the numerous intellectual and physical layers she masterfully folds together. Maker does not disappoint, and I hope to see it again.

I Will Remember What I Forgot

I Will Remember What I Forgot, which quickly followed Maker, is the first screendance film of the evening, directed and choreographed by Heidi Duckler, a California and Oregon-based creative. It was a pleasant and well-crafted film, irrespective of the content of its inspiration—an inquiry into internal suffering alone.

Some beautiful motifs and vistas are within this film, coupling longer still shots with interesting fast edited cuts helping to portray a schism, a nod to the program’s description. However, I felt that performer Raymond Ejiofor, who is a beautiful mover, was flattened by the use of the camera, and by the placements of the vistas and environment between each subsequent shot. In retrospect, the clinical aspect and dryness of the film did aid towards the goal of the description. But, as a viewer, I was left wanting more.

With a few interesting motifs throughout, I felt that I was more interested in the locations in which the film was shot than in the actual concept and movement. However, I also feel that my sentiment was colored by the programmatic choice of intermixing screendance with live performance, and me not yet being ready to watch TV at this juncture. I recognize that I am more habituated as an audience member to see live performances during a live performance. Regardless, the film served as an excellent palate cleanser between Hudon’s opening Maker and the following Motor by Amy Leona Havin. It very well shows that its placement in the evening was a great programmatic decision.

Motor

With the lights lifting slightly for the tech crew to hang a set piece for Havin’s Motor, the audience was provided no opportunity to read the program. This is just as well, since Havin is known for providing blank space in lieu of a program description.

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Motor is a tribute to Havin’s signature style of contemporary movement, heavily influenced by the somatic movement practice called Gaga, created by Ohad Naharin. Motor is an homage to Havin’s command of crafting the ambient.

Choreographer Amy Leona Havin presented a new work, "motor." Photo: Adam Cedar Nafziger.
Choreographer Amy Leona Havin presented a new work, “motor.” Photo: Adam Cedar Nafziger.

As Amy described her work this evening as “the dark one,” Motor opens very dimly lit, eschewing a moodiness her work is known for. Pleasantly, Motor unfolded over a series of sections highlighting Havin’s ability to balance motif with excitement and serenity, and introspection with action. The trio of movers were an absolute joy to watch: Carly Ostergaard is an obvious standout within the work. Having worked with Havin for several years, Ostergaard has a complete grasp of the tenacious sinew with which Havin crafts her work.

Though I did not understand some of the motifs that Havin played with in Motor (especially as it pertained to a moment where the dancers carried a stick across the stage, passing it from one shoulder to another), each section of Motor moved the audience along several unknown places in Havin’s life. During the artist talk, Havin expressed that the source of her work stems from her personal experiences, which felt on point. At times, Motor tacitly felt like a reflection of her ties to California. This is a connection I make from some of the movement concepts and the conversations she and I have had in the past regarding her ties to family in the Golden State and her frequent trips to visit.

I did feel that Motor ended just in time. It was one of the longest works of the evening, and I felt it had a couple of faux endings—another signature of Havin’s creations. With the program providing no description of her work, the performance ultimately leaves the audiences with nothing to ground themselves with, or to possibly take away.

It was a fleeting moment that we experienced for 20 minutes. To me, it felt like that was the point; and to which Havin succeeds most admirably. It mostly left me with sensations to feel, and nothing to understand. As Havin stated during the post-show artist talk, ”I make work in real time, with the dancers, working with sensations.” Watching Motor felt as if we were a part of her choreographic process. That, I think, is the brilliance of this work.

i am woman

With the ending of Motor leaving the audiences shifting in their seats, the projection screen for the next screendance slowly lowered for i am woman, WCPNW co-director Kailee McMurran’s latest screendance. McMurran is a multidisciplinary artist and producer and director for both WCPNW and the Portland Dance Film Festival.

i am woman rides the line that women are balancing the world alone and struggling with so much within life, and that at any moment the whole world could fall apart among work, self-improvement, tending to pets, the house, laundry, more work, looking refined and put-together, maintaining a social life, cooking, getting enough sleep, etc. McMurran’s command over story through abstraction in the medium of film is phenomenal, encapsulating it well.

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As with Havin and Motor, McMurran provided no program notes about her work. It, too, is just as well, as it was also an experience. The piece is performed by McMurran, and we immediately fall in love with her character’s quirky nature. It begins with what we quickly understand is the repetitive cycle of her daily life—waking up, morning routine, makeup, grooming, preparatory power poses in front of the mirror, work, chores … and repeat. We grab hold of the structured nature of this person’s life, and subsequently witness it unravel rather humorously, until it takes an extreme turn.

McMurran, known for decades as having hair that flows to her lower back and beyond, shears off half of her locks in an unrepeatable take. It is a moment that left audiences gasping — an upended motif of grooming for perfection that plays out as she carefully trims her bangs in each cyclical iteration prior. It ends in subtle panic as she consoles herself: “It’s ok. I’m ok. It’s all good.” It resonated heavily with the primarily female crowd, who gasped, inherently understanding the significance of separating something from one’s own body in an almost ritualistic sacrificial fit against the perpetuation of perfection. The mother sitting next to me in the audience laughingly stated, “I did that this morning. I get it.”

As the film continued to cascade into collected madness, with stacked-up work papers, diminishing power poses within the mirror, and chewing gum to mask aromatic breath turned vehicle for playful spinning, i am woman played though cycles and thoughts and tireless repetitive days masked by routine. Then it ended, as suddenly as each day began, with a re-collected person beginning their day and executing their routine: waking up, makeup, grooming, preparatory power poses in front of the mirror, work, chores … and repeat.

Filmed, edited, and performed by McMurran alone, with sound design by her husband, Duke Stebbins, i am woman was, by far, a highlight of the evening and one of the top screendance films I have seen. My only critique is of a headier technical preference, which may also have been confounded by a projection screen: a desire for denser color and that somewhat digitally elusive “filmic” look. Regardless, simply put, i am woman is incredible.

The screen remained, and the audience was then met with the lights coming up for a 10-minute intermission.

Intermission

As the second half of the evening began, our showcase co-directors, McMurran and Hudson, greeted us with a brief introduction, followed by stark statistical facts about the dismal representation of female choreographers in major commissions across the United States. This information, prominently displayed on the WCPNW’s website, underscored the gravity of the issue. However, given the length of the production and the fact that we were already an hour into the evening, the recitation—lacking further elucidation or expansion—contributed to a lull that was only slightly alleviated by the short 10-minute intermission.

As an audience member, I yearned for McMurran and Hudson to delve deeper into the true impact of this production and what it meant to them personally. Having known both for decades and speaking with them about the pervasive impact of sexism and the “glass ceiling” over the years, I believe the moment would have benefited from more tangible elements to anchor the audience.

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McMurran and Hudson have commanding presences. With this incredible platform that they had built, I wanted a battle cry speech, if you will — something that matched the caliber of the works and performances we were privileged to witness. As it was, the realities of the information were somewhat downplayed, and left the audience with a more intellectual understanding.

Imagining Pain: The Menster Saga

Sweta Ravisankar’s latest work, The Menster Saga, opened the second half of the evening with profound significance for me, not only as a presenter of her work at our own Union PDX festival in 2021 but also as a medical professional in pelvic health, and as a colleague and friend.

The Menster Saga was one of the more literal works of the evening, deeply rooted in the traditional technique of Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form of India. This work depicts a woman managing the realities of menstruation: the pain, complications, social stigmas, blame, shame, and the pervasive gaslighting that dismisses all menstrual pain as normal, natural, or imaginary. Ravisankar’s piece poignantly highlights the frequent dismissal of women’s health concerns, framing them as admissions of weakness.

Performed as a solo by Ravisankar and complemented by a narrative component delivered by Ari Aquilla-Saund on the left side of the stage, Ravisankar’s performance was striking, clear, comprehensive, and accessible. The performance followed repetitive cycles, with projections of numbered days playing on the back wall, mirroring the days and weeks of the menstrual cycle. Her perfect percussive stomps, rhythmic vocal incantations, and precise mudras—codified hand gestures used in Bharatanatyam storytelling—synchronized with Aquilla-Saund’s narration of confusion and struggle and the endless attempts to find a medical resolution to crippling pain.

The Menster Saga harmoniously integrated all production elements—the title, lighting, movement, and narration—enhancing the overall performance and its meaning. This approach aligns with Bharatanatyam’s all encompassing classical tradition, but which seldom performs to contemporary themes. I loved how the title elevated the performance to that of an epic poem that we might find portrayed in traditional Bharatanatyam performances—the different lessons and stories of the gods. Truly, the cyclical nature and depiction of The Menster Saga was heroic.

Ravisankar’s work uniquely utilized the lighting at New Expressive Works, casting shadows as she circled the stage. Her relentless circling created a kaleidoscopic effect with the shadow-play, suspending the audience in a mesmerizing temporal loop. This visual element was a wonderful example of practical theatrical effects, reminiscent of advanced computer-generated graphics in feature films (thinking of Dr. Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe bending reality). During the depiction of trying various pharmaceutical medications for undiagnosed pain, Ravisankar’s usually crisp, rhythmic vocals became warbled, further enhancing the narrative.

The piece concludes with the diagnosis of endometriosis — a condition where endometrial tissues migrate outside the uterus, causing adhesions that respond to hormonal changes and are often accompanied by significant dysfunction and pain. As portrayed and narrated, the diagnosis was a vindication and a relief to Ravisankar, as this was her personal story.

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Confluence

As with the other transitions, no time was lost between works as Suzanne Haag’s screendance Confluence began to play. It was a simple work, really, and an enjoyable beverage of classical ballet (Haag is resident choreographer of Eugene Ballet) mixed in beautiful landscapes of rocky terrain, leafless trees, and open fields of grass. The visages were beautiful, with the additional limbs of the dancers at one point providing new branches to the husk of a tree, the color palette and visual feel of the film aiding in this perception.

Overall, the dancers and movement depict wonderfully the singular concept of flowing and merging together—a confluence. From the notes in the program, Confluence is a love letter to the city of Eugene, Oregon, home to the artists.

What do you see …

Makino Hayashi, choreographer and former Oregon Ball Theatre dancer, rehearses her work "What Do You See ..." (2018). Photo: courtesy of Makino Hayashi.
Makino Hayashi, choreographer and former Oregon Ball Theatre dancer, rehearses her work “What do you see …” (2018). Photo courtesy of Makino Hayashi.

Up next was Makino Hayashi’s What do you see …, a work I have seen in three versions so far: once during its premiere with Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2018, again at the Union PDX — Festival of Contemporary Dance in 2022, and now at the WCPNW in 2024. Recast this year, with two male-bodied dancers, Michael Linsemeier and Cameron Pelton, and a single female-bodied dancer, Hannah Davis, What do you see… is a very pleasant piece about the different perceptions each of us have.

Similar to Sweta’s piece prior, What do you see… makes great use of the back wall to cast Davis’s shadow as she manipulates a flexible dress, evoking modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s Lamentation from 1930. This image was both humble and welcoming, drawing the audience’s focus to the performer’s inner world—almost dreamlike. A duet ensued between Davis and Linsemeier, while Pelton lay on the ground at the front of the stage. Taking on a role normally performed by Hayashi, Pelton’s minimal movement contrasted with the predominantly duet-focused performance. In this iteration, the presence of a third dancer felt less essential as a choreographic choice. Previous versions featured two female and one male dancer, significantly altering the onstage dynamics—an aspect Hayashi was exploring with this new cast.

Rooted in classical ballet, the performers—all from Oregon Ballet Theatre—were powerful, precise, and well-rehearsed. Despite the new casting, I found myself yearning for more visual contrast in this performance, having seen moodier, more dramatically lit versions of What do you see … before. The bright, evenly lit room with the color of the costumes seemed to diminish the work’s impact, flattening the performers, similar to my perception of Heidi Duckler’s film earlier. I also felt that the smaller stage venue left me wanting more. The usually explosive performances from these dancers that I’ve come to enjoy over the years felt boxed in for the first time.

In witnessing her work in this production, I think Hayashi succeeded in providing the audience with a very different vantage point. As with Havin’s piece earlier in the program, Hayashi chose to forgo a program description, a decision she emphasized during the artist talk, wanting people to draw their own conclusions. For me, watching this work in this show was a reflective moment as I compared it to my prior experiences. I suppose that was the contrast I was seeking, guided well by Hayashi.

I am looking forward to seeing Hayashi’s work in the upcoming Made in Portland program by Oregon Ballet Theater this June.

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Signal

Heather Hindes’ screendance Signal, with cinematography by Conrad Kaczor, was the final screendance of the evening ,and was a polished and engaging film. The work challenged self-limitations and emphasized community support through highly physical movement in the barren stretches of mud flats in southern Oregon. Although its thematic intentions as outlined in the program were subtly conveyed, the film’s visual and choreographic quality made it a compelling part of the evening. The visually unbalanced, desaturated look beautifully pressed the viewer into the earth, with the bright red overalls of the dancers slowly getting more dusty as they rolled, kicked, and jumped throughout.

Hindes’ film highlights the importance of breaking free from isolation. Its exploration of self-imposed barriers and the necessity of communal connection added depth to the evening’s thematic exploration of resilience and support. Though I don’t know that I understood these concepts from the description within the film itself, the last line in the program description, “to keep burning,” stands out as the film ends with a stoic Hindes walking off into the distance as the closing credits began to roll.

Me Over You

The cast of 2024 WCPNW choreographer Eva Stone’s new work "Me Over You." Photo: courtesy of Eva Stone.
The cast of choreographer Eva Stone’s new work “Me Over You.” Photo courtesy of Eva Stone.

Washington state’s Eva Stone closed this epic evening of performances with her piece Me Over You. Performed by four virtuosic dancers from Olympic Ballet — Trinity Isidore, Sophie Powell, Shayne Solomon and Alison Walters — it was the perfect ending to this evening.

The comedic whimsy and darker-themed content of Me Over You bookended the production with Carlyn’s opening piece Maker. Both Hudson and Stone chortled as they recognized their kindred spirits during the artist talk, noting the similarities in their works’ palette, costumes, humor, and technical style. In individual conversations, Hudson and Stone expressed separately being major fans of the others’ work.

Me Over You premiered in 2008, and Stone reflected during the artist talk about her curiosity about how well it had aged. She originally debated creating something new rather than restaging an older work. However, because of the inspiration behind WCPNW, Stone felt this was the perfect work to bring. From what I witnessed, Me Over You has aged remarkably well. I try to read programs after a performance so that I can experience someone’s work unfettered. Without the note within the program of when Me Over You was created, I would not have known.

Me Over You is Stone’s contemporary and “feminist response to the classical ballet Pas de Quatre,” created by Jules Perrot in 1845. The original Pas de Quatre brought together four of the world’s most famous ballerinas of the time: Fanny Cerrito, Lucille Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, and Marie Taglioni. Offstage, their overwhelming egos led to infamous infighting and rivalry that threatened the creation and premiere of Perrot’s work. It is said that each argued about who would perform last (a traditionally coveted spot within classical ballet). Perrot, having had enough, played into the vanity of the divas, finally telling them it will be done according to age, humorously resulting in silence from the dancers.

Stone’s contemporary take on Quarte’s history was palpable and extremely well-executed. Stone explained after the show that Me Over You portrays four female archetypes: the bullied and shamed, the OCD and germaphobic, the rockstar/nymphomaniac, and the self-absorbed (loosely inspired by journalist Katie Couric’s tendency to relate to another’s situation by talking about herself).

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Me Over You was one of the more classically technical of all of the live ballet works of the evening, and was a refreshing experience. I’ve often found classical ballet choreography to be clinical, lacking nuance, and steeped in jumps, tricks, and simplistic motifs that are more literal than artful. The power of Stone’s choreography and the dancers was none of that, and exuded physical art and line. It was drastically apparent the skill and command these four younger dancers have in what I hope are long careers.

Though there were more literal movements and obvious humor, each of the archetypes, performed to the extremes, were top-notch. Even the more “cringeworthy” moments that I initially questioned whether they had aged well — hypersexualized tail-wagging and butt-slapping movements of one of the dancers, the usage of “finger guns” to dispatch the competition by another — caused me to reexamine our society’s current struggles around guns, sex, emotion, and narcissism. Because of the fullness of the execution, and the clear performance by the quartet, it was obvious parody, highlighting deeper context and providing a reflective experience.

Conclusion

By the end of the show, I was jazzed. It was a wonderful two hours. The evening was brought to a close by our co-directors inviting the audience to stay for the artist talk. About half of the attendees chose to remain (a great turnout). Unfortunately, it seemed the directors felt pressed for time, as the discussion only briefly touched upon the artists’ processes—a topic that several audience members wished were explored more deeply. However, before we all left, Hudson took the opportunity to outline the resource needs for artists, while McMurran briefly expressed her desire for the WCPNW to grow internationally. In speaking afterward with audience member Richard Clucas of Portland State University, who is a major supporter of the arts and dance in Portland, he expressed his curiosity about the showcase’s future and was glad it was addressed.

As an audience member and a creator myself, I actively seek out artist talks, sometimes attending them separately from performances. There is always something new to learn, especially from our peers. As a producer, these talks provide excellent opportunities to highlight concerns important to artists that the public may not realize, such as the immense cost of producing a show in terms of people-power and resources—another nod to both Hudson and McMurran for what they have achieved. I was thrilled that the one night I could attend this production included this post-show discussion. In her closing remarks at the artist talk, Havin stated, “There is nothing like this production within our region.” She is absolutely correct.

While Portland hosts other festivals that address different needs, no other focuses on uplifting female voices singularly. As success and the stability of an artistic career are very much either an invitation-only path, or one of a lone wolf, irrespective of gender, addressing the equity of visibility for women is one of the major reasons this WCPNW showcase is an indelible venture.

I hope the WCPNW production becomes an annual affair that continues to grow. It was an ambitious undertaking to produce, and it is one of the most important productions in our city that every company should support if they are serious about equity in the arts. We often talk about the “glass ceiling,” but we also need to recognize that for some, that glass ceiling is also a glass floor. We should all be stomping like hell to break it. The WCPNW provides an excellent opportunity to do just that.

Overall, the WCPNW was more than a performance: It was a vibrant celebration of the strength, creativity, and resilience of artists. Each piece, with its unique voice and vision, contributed to a rich and diverse tapestry of dance in many forms.

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