It was a muggy, 66-degree day, inconsistent with the typical bone-chilling Novembers of Portland, when I made my way up the studio ramp and entered Performance Works Northwest for Linda Austin’s October 17-November 2 run of 3 miles of possible (the first mile), the first third of a long durational piece. The space was warm, and air purifiers whirred gently as the small masked audience took to their seats.
As I removed my coat and silenced my phone, my eye was drawn to the pairs of black folding chairs lining the edges of the stage — alternative seating for those adventurous (or courageous) viewers wanting to shift their perspective of the in-the-round performance throughout the evening. “Feel free to change your viewpoint as desired,” I remembered Jeff Forbes, lighting designer, artistic collaborator, and Austin’s long-time partner, saying as we entered.
Across the room sat choreographer and performer Allie Hankins, another of Austin’s close artistic collaborators, wearing a button-down shirt and sneakers, hands folded neatly in her lap. I wondered whether Hankins was there to merely spectate or partake in the performance. My eyes shifted to the center of the room, where a small piece of paper wrapped around a rock hung suspended from the ceiling by a string. Austin, donning olive green coveralls, approached the string, removed the paper, and started to walk the spiraled pattern of a thick rope lying coiled at her feet. The performance had begun.
Performance Works Northwest, whose mission is to advance the arts through encouraging artistic experimentation, was founded by Artistic Director Austin and Technical Director Forbes in 1999. Originally from Oregon, Austin returned home to Portland after a fruitful 20-year career as a movement artist and creator in New York before establishing PWNW as the local hub of dance and community that it is today.
“If this … then, this?” repeated Austin with a gesture, “… or if this … then, this?” She continued the piece, and after some time, balanced the rock on her head while traversing the rope spiral; paper in hand. “Is this a snake? An archive? A path? A scar?” she read, asking the same about galaxy, tangent, tunnel, link, poem, echo, opening, and smile with a look of both bewilderment and utmost conviction. Like an iceberg passing glacially across the North Atlantic, it was clear that there would be nothing superficially fast or flashy about this earnest and meditative display.
Billed as an exploration reliant on our shared “world of fluctuating personal, material, political, and artistic contingencies”, the first mile of Austin’s three-chapter performance presented an investigative display of dance, poetics, performance art, and playful audience participation.
Later, to an electronic soundscape, Austin walked quickly around the space, pausing to break into bouts of Forsythe-esque choreography; arms spoking from her center, grounded undercurves of shifting weight, trailing shapes resembling the pretzel-like symbols drawn on chairs and milepost signs around the room. Her perception of depth appeared eerily precise as she made choreographic modifications for the feet and the handbags of onlookers, calmly testing the bounds of her own sense of space. Powered from a source of evident determination, she showed no sign of energetic collapse as her arms repeatedly relaxed to her sides before she crumpled completely to the floor.
Throughout the evening, Austin played with rhythm and syncopation, utilizing walking patterns in which she flapped her arms like wings, later singing Hello, I Love You by The Doors in a capella, performed through triplet phrasing in three repeating choreographed sections. Small handheld bells, each stationed at a different corner of the room, became the piece’s through-line as she picked up each one to initiate its unique tone. The bells, seemingly also a through-line in Austin’s body of work, called me back to her Shaking The Tree Theatre premiere of The Last Bell Rings for You nearly five years ago to the date. A collaboration among Austin and 18 community participants ranging from non-dancers to professional performers, the work used a bell sound score made increasingly familiar by 3 miles of possible.
Austin broke into a spiraled run before slowing to a long, balanced floor traversal to the sounds of audio crackles, water droplets, and the faint call of seabirds (a field recording of last winter’s ice storm melting, says the artist). This brings her to mile .67, a temporary square-shaped white paper marker taped to the wall and drawn in water. She was acutely aware of her horizon line and she bent and straightened to dip her brush. The soundscape ended as the water marks dried, becoming imperceptible once more. “All the birds are leaving; how do they know it’s time to go?” Austin sang.
After a trip to mile .75, on the other side of the room, we were treated to a change in tone as Hankins popped up to join Austin in a vibrant grapevine dance break to ABBA’s Dancing Queen. My speculation was confirmed: Hankins and Austin line danced, hopped, clapped, and smiled, acknowledging both the viewer and each other. And just as my joyful perplexity reached its height, Hankins sat back down and the music quietened.
“I wrote this book in a circular home on a hill, overlooking the city…” continued Austin, quoting Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses the Bridge, “…this is important because it shows where people exist.” She held one end of the rope in her hand again and exited to the theater office, returning moments later through the kitchen. She has successfully looped the long rope through the building’s interior, turning the stage into a sort of clasp for the lasso she had created. As she pulled the rope back into the space, a Rorschach test of shifting figures became visible across the floor, pooling into appearance like liquid poured onto the marley. Her cat, Delaney, felt welcomed through the open door and walked into the theater, just in time for Austin to take a sip of water and address the audience directly. We were invited to engage in a participatory task while attempting the “impossible feat of ignoring the cat.” It was suggested that we ask ourselves the following: under what conditions am I… a yellow wheel, or a siren, or wrinkled, and so on.
More Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than Catch Me If You Can, 3 miles of possible (the first mile) is a kaleidoscopic exercise in championing the present moment; schooling its audience in the inevitable overlaps among life, performance, and our often overtaxed bias against the passage of time. With performances like this one, it is clear that Linda Austin plays the long game. Time and time again, her peculiar choices fall into perfect harmony with the concept of connectedness as she transcends typical definitions of dance performance through daring and psychologically affecting undertakings. Though not overly emotional, the impassioned and personal nature of her work rings clear. With her head on the wall, Austin ponders unanswerable questions of identity and existence that we all, at some point, ask ourselves. “Under what conditions is the following true?” she muses, “Under what conditions is this neither true nor untrue?”
As we returned to our seats from the conga line of careful steps across the stage floor, Linda wrapped up the rope and faced the risers. “Thank you; that’s one mile,” she smiled. “There will be more … likely longer.”