Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

Dance review: Linda Austin’s ‘3 miles of possible (mile 3)’ closes her series with performances of all three ‘miles’

In this long-form performance, the Performance Works NW artistic director explores what is possible in a world of fluctuating personal, material, political, and artistic contingencies, as she wanders through a variety of movement scores, choreographies, tasks, guest artists, texts, songs, and sound compositions.

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Linda Austin in "3 miles of possible (mile 3)," the third in her series of ‘discrete performance rituals’ called "3 miles of possible." Photo by Douglas Derrick.
Linda Austin in “3 miles of possible (mile 3),” the third in her series of ‘discrete performance rituals’ called “3 miles of possible.” Photo by Douglas Derrick.

On Saturday, September 23 at 8 p.m., Linda Austin stands in the middle of Performance Works Northwest as audience members enter, one by one, passing ropes, papers, and bells on the floor as they find their seats. Ducking under blue, Morse Code dotted and dashed tape that lines the perimeter of the room, some sit in risers; others sit on the floor or in pairs of chairs set against each wall. There are no more than 20 available places from which to view the show, but the program suggests we were free to leave, return, and change seats as we wish. Austin greets us as we walk by, chatted with some, and eventually explains to the group that the drawings adhered to the walls are maps of miles 1 and 2, performed previously that weekend between September 14 through 17, and again September 21 through 24.

Part of a series of ‘discrete performance rituals’ called 3 miles of possible, Linda Austin’s three-part creation began with the premiere of the first mile in November 2021, followed by the second mile in October 2022. All three miles were performed in a row on Sunday, September 17, and again on Sunday, September 24 this year, with lighting by accomplished designer Jeff Forbes, dramaturgical assistance from Portland artist Allie Hankins, and ASL interpretation by JmeJames Antonick.

In addition to the performance series, Austin developed a book of full-color photographs, drawings, text, source quotations, research, and QR codes to scan for even more insight into the process and work itself. Designed by Noelle Stiles, the book reads as both a time capsule and a manifesto, helping to stabilize a series that is otherwise ephemeral in nature.

On the evening I saw the performance, Mile 3 begins where Mile 2 leaves off, as Linda heads toward the north side of the stage to address a thick, coiled rope resting on the floor. “It would be good to have entertainment and ceremonies, not to distract us, but to remind us of everything all at once,” she begins to recite from Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia, moving the rope toward the other side of the room before exploding into movement. Austin’s hands track effortlessly through the air, punctuated with strong tosses of the arm. She walks with force, yet her demeanor remains peaceful. After traversing the space, Austin returns to the rope and repeats another recitation. She then addresses the rope a third time.

Linda Austin in "3 miles of possible (mile 3)," the third in her series of ‘discrete performance rituals’ called "3 miles of possible." Photo by Hannah Krafcik.
Linda Austin in “3 miles of possible (mile 3),” the third in her series of ‘discrete performance rituals’ called “3 miles of possible.” Photo by Hannah Krafcik.

Later, Austin stops to point out objects around the space, demonstrating their names through non-verbal vocalizations — injecting a humor so delicate and delightful that the audience hums in agreement. In another moment, as Austin climbs atop a ladder she asks, “When you hear the word utopia, doesn’t it just make you want to puke?” More laughter ensues. She narrates what she’s doing as she does it, offering an aura of humor through subtlety and self-awareness, while maintaining the mood and never breaking a smile.

In Linda Austin’s work, repetition is always at play, and the return audience member can almost count on the comforting notion that it will likely be present. Time and time again, it is not only with repetitive motions, but through her careful choice of words that she considers — and alters — time. What could be interpreted as the ridiculous — hanging the heaving black curtains on a ladder rung as a skirt or dragging herself across the floor while muttering “Under what condition is this my slightly deranged, decaying body?” — are made heartfelt, impeccable, and impactful through the intent of the performer. Everything is executed with earnestness and a refreshing tongue-in-cheek sincerity that is rooted in truth and a lifetime of personal research on expansion, upheaval, anticipation, confinement, precarity, utopic striving, spacial pathways, and possibility.

A piece of bark lay suspended about a foot off the ground by invisible threads, casting a shadow on the floor. When Austin goes to it, she removes it from its spotlight and dangles it before her. What ensues was a duet of suspense, balance, and negotiation; enacting the precariousness of crumbling bluffs as the wood swings up and down while Austin spun. Having already visited and ‘broken’ the ‘horizon’ (torn down the blue tape dotted with the word “horizon” repeated in Morse code), this quality of duet feels an apt environmental callback, and I am reminded that every action Austin performs has a meaning — just as every option she omits is by careful choice.

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Linda’s choreography displays stunning control, as well as a purposeful lack thereof, and showcases expert understanding and utilization of weight and gravity. Austin is a shapeshifter, and when she moves across the ground using only her knees and spine, she becomes a vast landscape; tectonic plates shifting beneath pastures of olive green (the color of her coveralls for this series). She stands and becomes a barrage of boulders tumbling down a staircase… seaweed, a wind turbine, the sting of a cruel word used in an otherwise kind sentence, a breath of fresh air. She examines the macro and micro with ease, propelling the audience on a slingshot journey to space, through time, and back again.

Linda Austin in "3 miles of possible (mile 3)," the third in her series of ‘discrete performance rituals’ called "3 miles of possible." Photo by Jeff Forbes.
Linda Austin in “3 miles of possible (mile 3),” the third in her series of ‘discrete performance rituals’ called “3 miles of possible.” Photo by Jeff Forbes.

Nearly three-fourths of the way through the show, Austin paints “Mile 2.34” on a paper fixed to the stage left wall with a small brush dipped in a jar of water. She rests a large stone on a keyboard on the floor, using its mass to add to the soundscore by Juniana Lanning. “Here’s another question…” she prepares us.

“Do you like to see things as they are, and as they aren’t?” she sings as she runs back and forth, picking up rumpled pages that were previously scattered. She repeats the phrase, puts on her shoes, and darts out the front door. We can still hear her outside, and wonder whether to follow. She then re-enters, shuts the door, removes her shoes, and gently places the stack of pages on the suspended bark.

Here, Austin is convincing and captivating, not because she becomes a character, but due to her unwavering embodiment of task, intent, meaning, and herself; and because of her comfortability with establishing a world in which she doesn’t only break the fourth wall — there isn’t one to begin with. Musician Stephanie Lavon Trotter’s participation exemplifies this as she joins from the audience with a live sound score, setting up a keyboard and repeating the poetry recitations heard at the top of the show. As Austin explores an empty chair adorned with golden symbols (a callback to the first two miles), Trotter speaks in time with Austin’s steps. The soundtrack becomes increasingly jarring and cacophonous and Austin’s movements get thrashier, faster, and less controlled. As the sound quiets, Austin pulls down ropes she had hung from the ceiling, piles them up, and picks up a blue piece of the ‘horizon’ tape. The two hop and step-touch in unison while reading an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost from the tape piece.

Austin paints a third mile marker, “Mile 2.78”, on a section of paper hung on the south wall. She locates all the small gold bells in the room (an object that always transports me back to her 2016 (Un)Made Part 2: the last bell rings for you), leaves through the office door, and returns through the kitchen with the bells atop a rolling cart — in addition to an amp and a red electric guitar. She plays the guitar flat by placing the bells on top, making music via reverberation as the cart moves. When she is complete with this, she gets back up on the ladder, grabs a microphone from the ceiling, and introduces a song that she “wrote with well-known poet Emily Dickinson.” She plays the song in a pleasant and grungy tone, that coupled with the words becomes reminiscent of Patti Smith.

A while later, as the lights dim, Austin swirls around the room, closes the kitchen door, and flips the switch to turn off  the lights before shuffle-ball-heel tapping toward the center of the room in the dark. She turns on the headlamp she dons, fixes the amp to a rope, and swings it as it emits white noise. When she’s ready, and the audience has been given their space to absorb the soundscape, she sits down on the floor to draw a squiggled depiction of Mile 3. “This is Mile 3,” she says, as the ghosts of the first two miles are felt poignantly in the theatre. The only downfall of Mile 3’s completion is that I am left yearning for Mile 4.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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