The New Expressive Works tenth residency cycle has just been completed, and according Suba Ganesan, the residency’s founder, “it’s the strongest example of my vision coming to life.”
The four choreographers come from all ends of the movement spectrum, but the danced images related to each other in more ways than one: discovering and celebrating identity, attention to intra- and interpersonal relationships within movement, and a genuine desire to create a safe space for artistic expression. Through the various approaches and stylistic influences, each choreographer incorporated these thematic elements in different and thought-provoking ways. This diversity allowed for the audience to witness the “rich, multicultural professional artistry that inhabits Portland,” explained Ganesan.
First up was Decimus Yarbrough’s YOU.ME.WORLD. Yarbrough’s roots in hip hop and martial arts pulsated through the work as prominently as the house beat that served as the spine of the dance. Stories of the African Diaspora wound their way through the choreography from start to finish, beginning with dancer and musician Michael Galen drumming a beat for Yarbrough and continuing with music by Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and human rights activist Fela Kuti. Yarbrough’s various footwork patterns stayed steady with the groove in YOU.ME.WORLD, which was an embodiment of the ageless quest for unity and community.
Earlier this week during a phone call, Yarbrough explained how dance, “especially urban dance, brings people together. Hip hop evolved from wanting to put an end to violence… to create a safe space. It moves away from the aspects of life that bring the community down.” And his work did just that. In fact, it brought the entire audience way up: It was hard to watch Yarbrough and his group of five dancers move together without letting a smile spread across your face. Their awareness and delight in one another’s presence signaled the many hours they’ve spent moving together, celebrating life through dance.
For Yarbrough and many bboys, house music provides the rhythm of their creativity. Yarbrough remembers when he was 14 and living in Virginia and got into his first club. “People were flying through the air. The house music warranted totally different movement [that was] much more free and less regimented,” he said, “This was an eye opener for me. It intrigued me to go further with what I could do. Deeper into the music. My movement gained textures.”
That movement involved switching formations and going in and out of unison, but not once did it stray from the groove, which Yarbrough calls the constant. The piece ended on the same uplifting chord it struck at the start, and the audience rose to their feet to share in the spirit of the performance.
Next, claire barrera presented her work subsistence. After setting up a stack of books in the center of the room, she ordered the audience to leave their seats and surround her before she climbed atop the pile of books. About 10 minutes in, while squatting down and peeking through the bystander’s legs, catching only a glimpse of barrera as she lay on the floor, I realized she might only want the audience to receive about 50 percent of her performance, while the rest slipped away behind another group of people. When I spoke with barrera prior to the show, she emphasized the “terror of being seen but the deep need to be witnessed by other people.” subsistence was the result of sifting through the anxieties that accompanied 2017, her occupation as a social worker, and the struggle to employ self care practice as a single mother on an artist’s budget.
By repetitively circling the space, barrera divided the crowd into an outer ring and an inner circle. Pacing backwards, she cycled through a few ambiguous gestures. Every once in a while, she’d pause and interact with an audience member, or simply drop to the ground and lie there for a bit before returning to her laps of the room. Reflecting on the political and social climate of the year, barrera says she felt overwhelmed, with a need to self-preserve while also having an active voice. In her research for subsistence, barrera delved into past revolutions— the Haitian slave rebellion, Spanish civil war, 1917 Russian revolution—and found that there was a pattern of “re-trying,” as she called it. “There’s a tension in the research,” barrera says, “between hopefulness in the future as well as daily anxiety…daily interruption of traumatic events.”
The final section, and perhaps the most abstract, directed the attention of the audience to the seats and back wall of the space, where barrera projected a stream of words that flowed from floor to ceiling, similar to the closing credits of a movie. The words were fragmented and sparse; think of the poetry of E.E. Cummings. Slipping past quickly, the text was as elusive as the rest of the performance, yet offered small windows into barrera’s perception.
Themes of exposing as opposed to veiling carried over from barrera’s work and into the next, choreographer Sarah Brahim’s dream of a common language, in which Brahim danced alongside elizabeth bressler in a pedestrian and gentle duet. Beginning underneath a veil hanging from the ceiling and draping across stage left, the pair played with movement in a childlike manner. Their innocence was merely a segue into the more complex notions that Brahim was addressing through the rest of the work. During our phone conversation prior to the show, Brahim told me she was focusing on the idea of revealing the layers that we wear as guarded people. “We all carry mental and physical fragility. I wanted to show this in a way that wouldn’t create injury to the body,” she said as we discussed the idea of moving away from dance that creates an abusive and competitive environment, both physically and mentally.
Most of the piece was soft and simple. The pair’s connection, whether it was physical or through eye contact, was constant and supportive. Even their final bow was a tender embrace… more thanking one another for the experience of dancing together than the audience for witnessing it.
The most satisfying part of dream of a common language was a counterbalancing section in which the duo positioned themselves in front of a limp veil that dangled from the ceiling and flowed asymmetrical onto the floor. As Brahim and bressler shared each other’s weight in ebbing postures, the tension in their connection nicely contrasted the lack of pull on the fabric behind them.
With a soft piano music by Ethiopian nun emahoy tsegué-maryam guèbrou filling the soundscape, I found my mind drifting as I watched them move; the gentle choreography floating through the space, clouds in the sky. “It’s stripped back enough that you can project yourself onto us,” Brahim explained, in reference to her hopes that audience members would be able to watch and simply experience their own feelings rather than worrying about understanding hers.
The final piece of the evening, Calamus, was choreographed by Shaun Keylock. As a queer artist, premiering his first public work in Portland on Pride Weekend, Keylock said the performance was “a personal milestone” for him. The piece began in a slow procession toward the back of the space by the full cast of five male dancers. They dropped a trail of petals in their path, hinting at the delicacy with which they would approach the rest of the piece.
A deep bass sung underneath their slow motions, part of the soundscore created by Evan Swope, a sound artist and drag queen based in Seattle. “I’m interested in collaboration, finding ways to explore my interests in fields beyond and in dialogue with dance,” said Keylock. The soundscape featured recordings of Walt Whitman, whose own sexuality was sheathed in layers of ambiguity throughout his poetry. Keylock was originally inspired by Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, when he “picked up a copy a few years ago; immediately drawn to his use of long and circular verses on difference and his unabashed eroticism towards masculinity and same-sex affection.”
Notes of this intimacy were rooted in the piece, and the tenderness between cast members read with intention and maturity. Watching their bodies commingle within the space, it seemed as if their dancing was in some way each dancer’s way of falling more deeply in love with their own identity: They watched their own gestures unfold around their kinesphere with such attention, giving space to the beauty of their own existence. A deep exploration of masculinity and identity defined the movement, and with each passing section, Keylock’s choreography offered a more vulnerable and real look into the complexities of queer identity. The dancers fearlessly plunged into the space with elements of total surrender. It was this paradoxical juxtaposition that allowed the audience to witness the scope of their experience in motion—sometimes as soft as a whisper and other times bold and dramatic.
Calamus culminated in a duet between company dancers Mar Undag and Daniel Do. The intimacy between the pair was unmistakable, and their touch meaningful and raw. Towards the end, Do broke out into a controlled run, and Mar followed him with his eyes, caught in the repetitions of his orbiting before he joined in and they circled their world together, a world they had invited the audience into without reservation.
Keylock quoted Whitman when I interviewed him earlier this week, and the line helps us understand Calamus and the task that all artists face when exposing their inner world: “Whitman himself says to the reader: ‘I give you fair warning before you attempt me further, I am not what you supposed, but far different.’”