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Dance Review: ‘Sharing Dances’ split bill considers the cerebral and somatic

Choreographers Marissa Rae Niederhauser and Ashley A. Friend premiere pieces in which movement intuition and nuance guide the work.

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The premiere of Marissa Rae Niederhauser's "Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024" featured movement that filled the stage and showcased the choreographer/dancer's strength, stamina and control. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.
The premiere of Marissa Rae Niederhauser‘s “Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024” featured movement that filled the stage and showcased the choreographer/dancer’s strength, stamina and control. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

On Friday, April 26, Marissa Rae Niederhauser and Ashley A. Friend presented the first performance in a one-weekend showing of Sharing Dances at Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest. The opening night audience was full of friendly faces, including Austin, who participated in production assistance; Jeff Forbes, the lighting designer for the works; and the family members of the cast of dancers — most of whom made the drive from Port Townsend, Wash., to attend.

Choreographer, performer, and educator Ashley A. Friend, currently based in Port Townsend, returned to the Pacific Northwest after 15 years in New York. Previously, she had received her BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and MFA in Dance and Technology from Oregon State University. Friend’s Verses, featuring six dancers also from Port Townsend, kicked off the show. 

The evening opened with "Verses," by Ashley A. Friend, a simple, pleasant and egalitarian dance with post-modern flair. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.
The evening opened with “Verses,” by Ashley A. Friend, a simple, pleasant and egalitarian dance with post-modern flair. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

The dancers entered the room dressed in shades of bright red, burgundy and beige, and the piece began with one performer standing in the center. A soft group piece emerged as melodic instrumental music by Hania Rani and Gold Panda began. The performers, of varying ages and technical abilities, wore smiling expressions and made eye contact with each other, seeming to deeply enjoy their time on stage. They formed diagonal lines before engaging in quick elbow movements and slow extensions of the arms. Through pedestrian pathways, triplet steps and weaving transitions, Friend developed a sweet, simple and egalitarian dance with post-modern flair.

The premiere of Ashley A. Friend's "TRANSMISSIONS" featured seven dancers wearing costumes created for the work by the choreographer herself. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.
The premiere of Ashley A. Friend’s “TRANSMISSIONS” featured seven dancers wearing costumes created for the work by the choreographer herself. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

After Verses came the premiere of Friend’s TRANSMISSIONS, featuring dip-dyed indigo blue and light pink shirt and pants sets created by the choreographer herself. The cast included seven dancers, four of whom began on stage with exaggerated grimacing expressions while a downtempo electro beat became the soundscape. The work progressed through sweeping diagonals, body rolls and lying on the floor, and took care to utilize the even, bassy rhythm or sometimes to intentionally disregard it. The performers, whose changing facial expressions seemed activated by each other, danced in duets, trios and groups until the piece followed the music into a quick-paced creciendo.

Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024, by Marissa Rae Niederhauser, another fellow Cornish College of the Arts grad with a 41-year dance career, followed a brief intermission. Right away, the tone of the room shifted. Niederhauser walked into the space wearing shorts and a tank top, and wound a metronome as the lights began to change, setting it down on the floor. The work began with a series of scenes created by Niederhauser, who used blackouts to teleport them across the stage. As she began to navigate the space, her immense strength and bodily control was noticeable. Long balances, suspended turns and leg extensions were no problem for the dancer, choreographer, performance artist and installation creator, who appeared to fully understand the impact of dynamic within her work. She demonstrated thick and slow versus sharp and fast, while maintaining a subtlety in her execution that aided in telling the audience a deeper story.

Niederhauser cited macro and micro happenings, both world-wide and personal, as her exploratory catalysts for "Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024." Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.
Niederhauser cited macro and micro happenings, both world-wide and personal, as her exploratory catalysts for “Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024.” Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Partway through the work, Niederhauser picked up the metronome to start it while a voiceover track began to play. The audio, which mentioned “speaking about dance in a non-native tongue,” referred to the art form as a “pink-collar job,” one often based on the exploitation of the feminine, and female bodies. Noting that considerations of the “cerebral” as masculine and “somatic” as feminine are often referred to when in dialogue with others about dance, Niederhauser challenged the notion, declaring that artists must bend their will to create dance from a conceptual place rather than a somatic one. Why form the body of the work top-down in relation to a conceptual statement first and foremost?, the dance asks, Why not be a portal for the movement alone? Or, some may argue, even dare to create work in my own image?

Niederhause sat on a chair at stage left, put on a pair of split-sole ballet shoes and sipped a glass of water. She then ran and jumped with the metronome in her hands, impacting its rhythm — a great metaphor for the impact a single step or action can make. “I want to nurture my work,” says the track in Niederhauser’s voice, as she slides and writhes, locomoting horizontally across the center of the floor. Each time the lights dim again, she’s in a slightly different place — another witty nod to the glory of subtlety in dance.

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The single prop in Niederhauser's "Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024," was a metronome – a metaphor for the impact a single dance step or action can make. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.
The single prop in Niederhauser’s “Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024,” was a metronome – a metaphor for the impact a single dance step or action can make. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis.

Later, a pair of white sneakers appeared through the doorway, illuminated by a satisfying pool of light. Niederhauser sat behind the corner, only her feet and hands visible as she hurriedly slipped on the chunky sneakers and stood as loud electronic music blasted. Donning a new pants-and-sweater outfit, she drew the curtain away from the back wall as the stage lights turned red. Her arm began to motion repetitively before going to the floor on her knees. Through relative stillness, Niederhauser combatted the auditory chaos, still aware of the pulsing rhythm enveloping the theatre. In another change of pace later on, as the lights turned blue and a folk song played, Niederhauser turned, stood on her heels and extended her arms out, unafraid to dance — unafraid to take up space. She did not hide her exhaustion when the lights dimmed for the last time as she continued this traversing marathon in the dark.

An artist discussion followed the performance, in which Friend asked the audience members for their feedback and impression of the work. Friend, whose work one audience member fondly referred to as reminiscent of some animal mating rituals, said that she sees a square space as the perfect stage for her dances. She also discussed being “inspired by the inventiveness and growth process of choreography, utilizing physical movement phrasing to explore her internal psychology, as well as ideas of play and the face as an extension of body.

Niederhauser also drew from somatic practices for this particular piece, and explained that the dance could be seen as a “year-long diary” due to the intensive creation process involved. Niederhauser, who tried to stay with ideas and “fertilize” them rather than over-edit, cited macro and micro happenings, both world-wide and personal, as her exploratory catalysts for Untitled Solo Dance 2023/2024. The dance is an exciting new addition to her body of work, which consists of innovative and experimental past pieces like Record Rewind replay record…, which premiered at Performance Works Northwest in 2022.

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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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