Washougal Art & Music Festival

Dance Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre’s ‘Made in Portland’

Featuring three world premieres by guest choreographers and a special performance by the Jefferson Dancers, this second iteration of 'Made in Portland' demonstrates OBT continues as, under Dani Rowe’s leadership, a creative force in the Portland dance community. 

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The OBT Dancers in Makino Hayashi's “The Message 2024,” part of "Made in Portland." Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
The OBT dancers in Makino Hayashi’s “The Message 2024,” part of “Made in Portland.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

The Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland seemed to buzz with curiosity Thursday night, as the audience anticipated Oregon Ballet Theatre’s second installment of Made in Portland, an end-of-season production featuring three world premieres by guest choreographers. The evening also served as the penultimate performance for the first year of new Artistic Director Dani Rowe’s seemingly reinvigorated vision for the company, one that seems to be asking OBT’s dancers to hone their versatility, while asking their audiences to dive in.

The Made in Portland premise is simple: guest choreographers are invited to create a work for the OBT company dancers, which is then performed as a mixed bill of each of their work. This year’s ticket saw works by Canadian artist and choreographer Rebecca Margolick, OBT’s own Makino Hayashi and South African born Andrea Schermoly. Also joining them on the opening evening was Steve Gonzales, artistic director of Portland’s Jefferson Dancers, who shared the OBT stage for a historic first time by opening the evening with their performance of Gonzales’ “Strength Within,” choreographed in 2016. 

The Jefferson Dancers joined OBT's "Made in Portland" for the first time, performing Steve Gonzales’ “Strength Within." Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
The Jefferson Dancers joined OBT’s “Made in Portland” for the first time, performing Steve Gonzales’ “Strength Within.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

“Strength Within,” a piece about finding our inner strength and highlighting perseverance through any obstacle, opened the evening with a presentation of the performance prowess of some of Portland’s brightest young movers. The Jefferson Dancers are the elite dance troupe representing the nationally recognized dance program at Jefferson High School, a Portland dance institution, and Oregon’s oldest-running dance company. Their dancers moved with vibrant dynamism on the Newmark stage, showing off impressive acrobatics and offering commanding stage presence. The ensemble was in-tune and in-step as their stamina shined, illustrating just what it means to be Made in Portland.

The Jefferson Dancers in Steve Gonzales’ “Strength Within." Photo by James McGrew.
The Jefferson Dancers in Steve Gonzales’ “Strength Within.” Photo by James McGrew.

After the bright ignition by Jefferson, and a brief welcome speech by Rowe, the curtain rose on Rebecca Margolick’s “unarmoured.” With a significant tone shift away from a fiery introduction, the work began as two duets offset by a magnetic solo by OBT principal dancer Jessica Lind. From the start, Margolick’s choreographic style was marked by an elastic dynamism. Lind’s stretches and sudden stops, dimly lit from overhead, created the illusion of a long exposure, as if each movement echoed from the second before. From there, our view was guided by lighting designer Michael Mazzola’s fading and warming specials, which moved from soloist to duet to duet and on through group exchanges before culminating in the ensemble’s finale. We as an audience were guided through Margolick’s exploration of interconnectedness: how to relinquish independence to vulnerability with those around us. Charlotte Nash and Nicholas Sakai were standouts in their duet with a tenacious bond, highlighting that exertive quality that made Margolick’s work compelling. 

Nicolas Sakai and Charlotte Nash in Rebecca Margolick’s “unarmoured.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
Nicolas Sakai and Charlotte Nash in Rebecca Margolick’s “unarmoured.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

My only complaint came when the work reached its pinnacle. For the final ensemble section, the meditative and hypnotizing low light transitioned suddenly and starkly to a fully illuminated stage. The dancers were on full display, but the illusory quality built by the previous sections was instantly lost, and so I felt my investment faded. The full physicality of the ensemble section seemed to flatten against the bare stage, and I craved the chaos of seeing the dancers’ exhaustion melt their movements with the same long-exposure effect as the start. 

The OBT company dancers in Rebecca Margolick’s “unarmoured.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
The OBT company dancers in Rebecca Margolick’s “unarmoured.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Overall the majority of the ensemble invested in Margolick’s rhythmic weightiness, though, at times, dancer Benjamin Simoens seemed to skate across the demands of the movement rather than sink in. Even still, it was a hypnotic investment in physicality that would only be built upon by the rest of the evening.

The next work was the third piece set on the company by former OBT artist, Makino Hayashi. “The Message 2024” was a sculptural work in all senses. A continuation of a work Hayashi created with the Artists Climate Collective in 2022, “The Message” journeys through the interconnections of humans and of nature. When the curtain rose, five dramatic oblong papered structures stood extending from stage to rafters, reminiscent of the tree trunks featured in the projection behind them. The dancers started in minimal figure baring unitards, either nude or architecturally laced by white strips, a yellow band below their left knee. The paper structures were lifted to reveal more and more of the ensemble, who then began to embark on Hayashi’s tour through the spaces created by our natural world and between the dancers themselves. 

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The OBT Dancers take the stage in Makino Hayashi's “The Message 2024.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
The OBT dancers take the stage in Makino Hayashi’s “The Message 2024.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

The movement was clearly technical, but intertwined element-mimetic quirks, with an acknowledgement of sculpting the space. Nature set the topic for each section of work combining projections, set piece, costume and movement. We graduated from grounded Earth to fluid Water, to the punch of Fire, before watching the dancers create and be carried off by a snow flurry, becoming a blizzard, then ultimately sparking into light itself. Weaving and bobbing around each other, the dance was with the surrounding air as much as the physical bodies onstage, giving the partnering its own artful molding. Each dancer was deeply committed to Hayashi’s vocabulary, with depth and stretch that encouraged constant engagement. Though a change to darker tunics coinciding with a reveal of a fiery trio felt a tad platitudinous, as did more literal images like OBT principal Brian Simcoe’s waving hand during a watery duet with principal Carly Wheaton, other moments were lovingly revealed to be directly referential to their naturalistic counterparts. The tiny steps taken during a light snow flurry, evolving into a large command of the stage, seemed a graceful ode to the transformation of a blizzard, and the masks adorned by dancers throughout the work playfully encouraged a unification of the ensemble that coincided with Hayashi’s intent: to speak on the future that we are “bringing forth together.”

Lauren Flower, front, and the OBT dancers in Makino Hayashi's “The Message 2024." Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
Lauren Flower, front, and the OBT dancers in Makino Hayashi’s “The Message 2024.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Made in Portland also marks the end of two of OBT’s company dancers. The final performances of Asia Bui, who has been a company dancer since 2022, are on Saturday, June 8. The Saturday matinee of Made in Portland, in which Bui danced in both “unarmoured” and in “The Message 2024,” was dedicated to her and the audience had the opportunity to write notes sharing memories of her performances and wishing her well. “The Message 2024” will also be dancer Michael Linsmeier’s last performance after 13 years with OBT.  To celebrate Linsmeier, the Sunday, June 9 performance of Made in Portland will feature him dancing in a bonus performance from his favorite ballet – an excerpt from Darrell Grand Moultrie’s arresting Fluidity Of Steel. 

Finally the evening closed with Andrea Schermoly’s “ASYLA.” Taking its inspiration from “the surreal underworld of crows” and titled with a reference to the plural of “asylum,” the work is a strident dive into an avian mob. Every bit of the work is spectacularly looming, with the dark and hefty feathered costumes of the corps, the wiry sculpture that hangs impressively over the stage and the diagonally splicing white curtain across the backdrop. Even the foreboding staircase hints at the trials that are yet to be relinquished. The score, Thomas Adès’ Asyla, is a dissonant composition whose techno-inspirations create relentlessly pounding cacophony. By the time soloist Hannah Davis was unveiled at the top of the stairs like a sacrifice, the sense of impending doom had permeated the theater. Davis was remarkable, moving with a still-emotive exactitude against the relentless mob of the crows that taunted and tortured her as she descended into the recesses of the madhouse Schermoly had crafted. Her duet with company member Isaac Lee forewarns of her doom, which is found at the work’s ordeal when the weight of the avian coats is shed and darkness of fabric consumes her. 

Hannah Davis and Isaac Lee in Andrea Schermoly’s “ASYLA.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.
Hannah Davis and Isaac Lee in Andrea Schermoly’s “ASYLA.” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Still absorbing the darkness, I did not want a classic resurrection. So, as the wiry sculpture that once cast shadow over Davis is lowered to become a tree and symbol of growth, and our sacrifice emerges from the heft of the feathers by a single hand outstretched, Schermoly’s artistic note about the strength in overcoming change felt admittedly expected. Still the work’s descent into violent madness was sold through and through by each member of the ensemble and closed Made in Portland with a single impression: more of this please.

Taking its inspiration from “the surreal underworld of crows," Andrea Schermoly’s “Asyla” featured soloist Hannah Davis and the OBT Dancers.
Taking its inspiration from “the surreal underworld of crows,” Andrea Schermoly’s “ASYLA” featured soloist Hannah Davis and the OBT company dancers.

Leaving with the knowledge of versatility and capacity of OBT’s dancers, and the ability to share space with other Portland institutions like the Jefferson Dancers, made me, greedily, want even more from Made in Portland. Can we dig in more to the work? Invest in the community more and all of its vast network of dance? Ask more of our artists and our artistic leadership? What kind of Portland would we find there? Undoubtedly, something fearsome and, hopefully, fiercely resilient.

Tickets are still available for the final two performances of Made in Portland, at 7:30pm tonight, June 8, and at 12:00pm on Sunday, June 9 at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway in downtown Portland. Ticket information can be found at the OBT website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lindsay Dreyer is a dance artist, writer, and administrator from Orange County, CA. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Dance from the University of Oregon, where she published her thesis, Concurrence: Dance and Music in the Twenty-First Century, regarding the choreomusical relationships seen in Post-Postmodern Dance. Dreyer has been a guest performer with Harmonic Laboratory and Company Movimiento, and performed in collaborations with Eugene Ballet. Since moving to Portland in 2020, she has performed works by numerous Portland-based choreographers including Graham Cole, Carlyn Hudson, Jessica Zoller, Adriana Audoma, and Laura Cannon. She also presented work for the Portland Jazz Composer Ensemble’s Improv Summit in 2022 with cellist Alexis Mahler, and is currently a company dancer with The Holding Project. Dreyer’s artistic practices are founded in a multi-media approach to collaboration.

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