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Dance Review: ProLab’s ‘when we were Ocean’

Melding dance, videography, music, poetry, and even virtual reality, ProLab Dance world-builds with ocean.

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ProLab Dance performs "When We Were Ocean," interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.
ProLab Dance performs “when we were Ocean,” interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.

Entertaining dance does not necessitate flashy choreography or production value. Nor does it require sensual titillation or intellectual stimulation. For me, to be entertained by dance is simply to have my attention tickled and stretched dynamically in different directions, to be kept on my toes or find myself in rapt focus on what is unfolding, be it grand or minimal. In when we were Ocean — which took place in the Planetarium at OMSI on February 12, 15, and 18 — ProLab Dance proves its capacity to present an entertaining dance experience across these spectrums for intergenerational audiences. I write “dance experience” with hesitance, because this work leverages collaboration across a robust range of practices, including videography, music (live and recorded), poetry, and even virtual reality. Through dynamic use of space and medium, ProLab built a curious world to be experienced from many vantages. 

I entered OMSI on Thursday, February 15, and found my place at the end of a long cue of patrons waiting to be let into the space. In line, I was given a token with a number on it and informed that this would be my number in a drawing for an exclusive “VR experience” during the performance. Upon entering the Planetarium, I found a seat in the circular arena facing the performance floor and looked up at the domed ceiling, a screen where video of water cycled. Ambient music reminiscent of the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós, which complimented the swirling water, was created by ProLab’s Director Laura Cannon in collaboration with musicians Chopper and Lynn Piper. Cannon’s voice welcomed audiences into the space and read a land acknowledgement. I came to identify Cannon as someone who would fill the interstitial cracks of the “Suites” (or sections) of this work and emerge in a lead role, comparable to Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

ProLab Dance performs "When We Were Ocean," interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.
ProLab Dance performs “when we were Ocean,” interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.

when we were Ocean began with a burst of energy and music as cast members danced suddenly through the space wearing ProLab sweatshirts, only to disappear as quickly as they had appeared for this prologue. 

During “The Barge Building Suite,” the first section of this performance, a group of four dancers in different brightly colored jumpsuits — Adrian Davy, Anna Hooper, Ophélia Martin-Weber, and Willow Swanson — entered bearing a giant wooden spool. They performed daring and intricately mechanized lifts with this rotating spool, vocalizing “hup-hup!” at strenuous moments as if enacting industrial labor with pizzazz. Video above, created by Hungry Mantis, showed ProLab’s previous site-specific dance research at the Zidell Shipyard on Portland’s South Waterfront, turning my thoughts to the fraught nature of colonizing industry and class struggle. The suite drew to an end with a wistful solo sung live by Bevin Victoria, which heightened this pallor of ambivalence. 

“Dear Darkening Ground – an ode to a pile of rusty metal beneath the Ross Island Bridge” proved to be the most surprisingly charming section of the performance. Cannon appeared on the planetarium screens in a kaleidoscopic video by Hungry Mantis. She slid around on a skateboard along the industrial edge of the Willamette River, wearing a punk jean jacket and a funny flower headpiece. Over the speakers, she could also be heard reading a poem called “Dear Darkening Ground” by Ranier Maria Rilke, which gave thanks to the Earth and gestured to an impending natural disaster, perhaps the “Big One.” Here, ProLab began dipping into a more alchemical and esoteric sensibility. “I just need a little more time,” recited Cannon, “because I am going to love the things as no one has thought to love them.”

Within OMSI's Kendall Auditorium, ProLab Dance performs "When We Were Ocean," interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.
ProLab Dance performs “when we were Ocean,” interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.

The third and final chapter of this work, “The Singularity Suite,” opened with a ceremonious drawing for the “VR experience.” Swanson, carried on high by two dancers in beige flowing costumes, drew two numbered balls out of a large bowl held up to her by Cannon. Once identified, audience members with corresponding numbered tokens were whisked away to be settled into their “Origin Pods,” two decoratively padded wheelchairs across the space from one another. These audience members put on VR headsets and allowed themselves to be pushed into and out of the performance space by cast members, who gave them occasional soft squeezes through the padding of the Pods. Watching this made my skin tingle. All the while, video by Nanda D’Agostino played on the planetarium ceiling, sensuous dancing merged with 3D mycelium fibers.

ProLab Dance performs "When We Were Ocean," interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.
ProLab Dance performs “when we were Ocean,” interweaving layers of dance, music, and video to tell stories of longing and belonging in the modern world. Photo: Rowdy Webb.

As the show drew to a close, Swanson and Hooper took the stage to dance a risky classical duet, partnering each other bravely. The ceiling filled with a circular image of moving bodies in a willowy pile as Cannon read a poem by Marie Howe entitled “Singularity (after Stephen Hawking)” over the speakers, pining for pre-evolutionary existence. In the final moments of the show, Cannon perched high atop four dancers. She wore metal spikes on her back, stretching toward the watery ceiling as musician Jennifer Wright played a moody string number. The dancers bore Cannon’s on their shoulders for an uncomfortably long period in a choreographic moment that I interpreted as the emergence of individualism and hierarchy in the evolution of life — a tenuous and thorny milestone signified by the prickly costume Cannon wore as she reached up from the bottom of the ocean toward the earth and sky.

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As the piece ended, Cannon dismounted from her perch to thank all artists involved, pointing out that they had entered into the creation of this work with “a lot of unknowns.” In spite of this, and maybe even because of it, ProLab produced an entertaining chapter book of performance art suited to the attention spans of audience members both young and old — who offered hearty applause. I emerged with appreciation for the sheer power of this predominantly femme labor force of live performers, their virtuosity, ingenuity and sensitivity to their extremely proximal audience. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Hannah Krafcik (they/them) is a Portland-based interdisciplinary neuroqueer artist and writer whose work emerges from ongoing reflections on social patterning and censorship, (over)stimulation, perseveration, and intuition. Their practices span dance, writing, new media, and sound design. Hannah continues to be influenced by their collaboration with artistic partner Emily Jones.
Photo credit: Jo Silver
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