Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Dance Review: ‘Origami Night’

Graham Cole’s newest production, featuring dramatic lighting design and a joyful solo performance by Elenaluisa Alvarez, struck an incongruent note with the introspective, feminist poetry which was its inspiration.

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Dancer Elenaluisa Alvarez moved with Graham Cole’s signature light and lofty footwork and clear balletic influence in "Origami Night." Photo by Blaine Covert.
Dancer Elenaluisa Alvarez moved with Graham Cole’s signature light and lofty footwork and clear balletic influence in “Origami Night.” Photo by Blaine Covert.

At Building 5 in Northwest Portland, local choreographer Graham Cole and his frequent collaborator, lighting and sound designer Christopher Annas-Lee, presented their latest work, Origami Night, to a small house in the round of just under 40 audience members. For two weeks in December, the 50-minute solo, starring BodyVox dancer Elenaluisa Alvarez on a platform stage centered in Building 5’s warehouse, sought to “trace a woman’s life from working class navy brat to radical feminist to mother, and explore aging, love, loneliness, and the revolutionary act of self-examination.” Origami Night featured, typical of Graham Cole’s performances, a combination of interactive lighting, engaging soundscape, and fast footwork, all set to the poetry of Pamela Annas, a Boston-based literary scholar. The poems were narrated by Luz Nicolas, a Washington DC-based actress, and are, according to Cole, the “driving force” behind the production.

The theater in the round offered an intimate perspective for the small audience at Graham Cole's "Origami Night." Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee.
The theater in the round offered an intimate perspective for the small audience at Graham Cole’s “Origami Night.” Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee.

We began in a sonic seascape before Nicolas’ voice permeated the still warehouse and Alavarez emerged. From there, a poem counted us in as the illuminated floor revealed several incomplete hexagons that spiraled outward from the center and shed light and tone for the entire performance. 

Alvarez left the stage only three times during the 50-minute performance, an endurance challenge for any dancer. Photo by Blaine Covert.
Alvarez left the stage only three times during the 50-minute performance, an endurance challenge for any dancer. Photo by Blaine Covert.

Alvarez moved with Cole’s signature light and lofty footwork and clear balletic influence, combined with numerous balances and a few more theatrical moments that focus on true jumps for joy or distinct facial expressions of mischief or sadness. She left the stage only three times throughout the performance, presenting an extensive endurance challenge for any dancer, which she handled with grace and elegance. There were repeated movement motifs, such as a balance in attitude, or an upright descent to the floor as a leg swept across to bend under and move the dancer forward, like a march on the knees. There were also distinct motifs in Alvarez’ expressions, who often turned to the audience with a knowing mischievous gaze, or looked with a quizzical brow at the floor as it was lit from within. We moved through the poems and the various scenes they set, such as a dance hall in “Saturday Sock Hop,” or a romantic encounter with “Dance at Bougivil” (referencing the Renoir painting of the same name).

Alvarez moved across the stage to the poem "Clotheslines," one of the works by Pamela Annas that was read aloud during "Origami Night." Photo by Virginia Belt.
Alvarez moved across the stage to the poem “Clotheslines,” one of the works by Pamela Annas that was read aloud during “Origami Night.” Photo by Virginia Belt.

Act Two was preceded by a button-up shirt descending from the ceiling during the poem “Clothesline,” embroidered with what can only be assumed to be Annas’ words, and designed by costumer Virginia Belt, materializing the poetry we have been listening to over the course of the performance. From there, we follow Alvarez on a similar journey as in Act One, before arriving at our finale, “A History of Hair.” This poem, a reflective anthology of Annas’ life through the perspective of her hair, revealed a new lighting look as Alvarez pulled a string of LEDs in the floor and connected them to a pulley, where they become a rope suspended from the ceiling. It was then used to illuminate the audience members seated around her, before she herself became entangled in the rope.

Christopher Annas-Lee's spectacular lighting design for "Origami Night" took full advantage of the unusual space. Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee.
Christopher Annas-Lee’s spectacular lighting design for “Origami Night” took full advantage of the unusual space. Photo by Christopher Annas-Lee.

I spoke with Graham Cole after the performance and asked him more about the origins for the work, specifically the title, Origami Night. Annas’ history as a navy brat led her to spend first grade and high school in Japan, but, in finding no other references throughout the performance to the specific poem Origami Night, as well as listening to Spanish actress Nicolas read Annas’ poetry, there was some ambiguity about where the inspiration for the title came from. Cole informed me that Origami Night was indeed taken from a poem written by Annas, but one that was ultimately left out of the final collection used for the performance.

Alvarez offered an elegant, but powerful solo performance in Graham Cole's "Origami Night." Photo by Blaine Covert.
Alvarez offered an elegant, but powerful solo performance in Graham Cole’s “Origami Night.” Photo by Blaine Covert.

Though Annas’ words provided the setting and context for the entirety of the performance, and she is listed as an equal collaborator, I found myself asking where she was in the work. At times, the movement, with its balletic execution by the thoroughly technical Alvarez, seemed to contrast with the words of the poems being spoken. Annas’ poetry is founded in her womanhood, often aligning “Gaia” in the role of the everyday mother in the grocery store, or detailing her experiences with her first period, or recounting her intimate and romantic encounters. In the trials and tribulations of being a woman that Annas speaks to, the grand and often overtly joyful movement of the performance seemed a confusing accompaniment. 

Alvarez cast a mischievous look at the audience. Photo by Virginia Belt.
Alvarez cast a mischievous look at the audience. Photo by Virginia Belt.

The lighting design, though engaging and thought-provoking, also seemed somewhat misaligned. At one point, Nicolas’ voice rang out with Annas’ words about a pastoral field “bathed in sunlight” and we found ourselves enveloped in darkness, the sound of glass shattering punctuating the verses. Ultimately, it was the final look that raised questions. A gorgeous image of LED ropes suspended from the rafters of the warehouse space, and the ever-engaging interaction between this newfound prop and our dancer, is show-stopping and compelling. But in the greater context of Annas reflecting on her life, through that “revolutionary act of self-examination,” why are we at this moment shifting the focus away from the woman at the center of it all? Are we being called to reflect on our own lives? Does this audience-stunning image call for that introspection or does it marvel? 

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Dancer Elenaluisa Alveraz in the center of Christopher Annas-Lee's dramatically lit set for "Origami Night." Photo by Blaine Covert.
Dancer Elenaluisa Alveraz in the center of Christopher Annas-Lee’s dramatically lit set for “Origami Night.” Photo by Blaine Covert.

There almost seemed to be another unspoken narrative coinciding with Pamela Annas’ story told by these various contrasts to her words – one that I was unable to fully grasp in my seeking to learn about Annas through this performance. I learned more of her in the  biography shared in the program, of her having lived a worldly life, and of her extensive work with working-class and women-centered literature as Professor Emerita of English and Associate Dean at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Over the course of the evening, I craved more of an understanding of this mature woman, of the stories she must have to tell, and found myself lost when her own words seemed less directive of what I was witnessing on stage. I felt more that I was chasing Annas rather than “tracing” her life, and whether that was intentional, I cannot say.

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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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