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Dance review: The Holding Project’s ‘precious cargo (always the point)’

Part Two of choreographer Amy Leona Havin's "Precious Cargo" adds more dance to its poignant look at shifting landscapes, memory, and the urgency of life.

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Carly Ostergaard (left), Elle Sevi (center), Heather Hindes (lifted). Photo by Kale Chesney.
Carly Ostergaard (left), Elle Sevi (center), Heather Hindes (lifted). Photo by Kale Chesney.

Enveloped by dim lighting, potted trees, a row of chairs, and eight TVs hugged by clusters of small boulders, like little cozy firepits, the five dancers of The Holding Project — Lindsay Dreyer, Heather Hindes, Carly Nicole Ostergaard, Elle Sevi, and Whitney Wilhardt, led by dance artist Amy Leona Havin — used film, sound, props, and movement to create vignettes of a nostalgic journey along the Pacific coastline in Havin’s new work.

precious cargo (always the point) was performed on three sold-out nights from December 8-10 at Shaking the Tree Theater in Southeast Portland. The poignant performance explored the urgency of life, shifting landscapes, each individual’s unique experience with time and space, and so much more.

Born in Israel, raised in San Diego, California, and now based in Portland, Havin is a director, choreographer, performance artist, filmmaker, and a regular contributor to ArtsWatch, writing about books, poetry, dance, and other things. She has created seven full-length dance productions, including precious cargo, and nine dance films that often explore her internal struggle with cultural identity and generational trauma as the descendant of Holocaust survivors.

precious cargo (always the point) was advertised as the second part of a work that debuted in May 2022, titled precious cargo (days of old). I reviewed the first part, which you can read about here. However, instead of starting the second part from where the first part ended, precious cargo (always the point) included the older material with a new ending and adjustments to the original material.

If I had not seen the first version, I would not have considered the second part to be Part Two. It was a reworking of the first work, which was dynamic and full of interesting, thought-provoking detail but lacked a lot of “dancing” and felt more like theater or performance art. The second version had much more dancing in it. If it was a Part Two, I might have shown only what I made from where I left off last year. But just the same, how can you show the second half without the first half to audiences who might have yet to see the first half? Then again, who cares? I digress. 

Upon entering the theater, we found that precious cargo (always the point) had already begun. We heard musical hits from various decades playing in the background as we sat. Beautiful sepia-toned scenes of California nature, from ocean waves to bees and butterflies, played on a loop on all eight televisions.

To add to the nostalgic atmosphere, videos of surfers played while frames featuring surfing tips, such as “You might like to try this on the family ironing board,” appeared on the screen. A Hostess brand commercial also played, showing a perfectly put-together 1950s housewife greeting her children off the school bus with Hostess pastries. The commercial’s tagline was “Freshness never tasted so good.” In the midst of all the orienting musical and visual nostalgia, five dancers lounged lazily together on the floor in various positions, watching TV.

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Whitney Wilhardt (left), Amy Leona Havin, Heather Hindes (back), Elle Sevi (front), Carly Ostergaard (back), Lindsay Dreyer (right). Photo by Kale Chesney.
Whitney Wilhardt (left), Amy Leona Havin, Heather Hindes (back), Elle Sevi (front), Carly Ostergaard (back), Lindsay Dreyer (right). Photo by Kale Chesney.

Against the TV image of an exploding bright orange sunset, “Hotel California” by The Eagles played, and then a scene from the movie Shangri-La Suite (which repeated at the end of the performance), a 2016 American crime drama directed by Eddie O’Keefe. The film takes place in 1974 and is about a young man and his girlfriend who break out of a mental hospital to fulfill his dream of killing Elvis Presley.

​​In the sound clip, the female character, Karen, remembers a pivotal conversation with her family in the kitchen of their home when she was in fifth grade. “Today in school,” she says, “Mr. Bartlett told us that the sun was going to burn out, but that first it would turn into a giant supernova and swallow the Earth … I just don’t get it. If Earth is going to die and the sun too and all the good songs and TV shows and memories and records of us even being alive, all get eaten up by the supernova . . . what’s the point of it all?”

Between visually arresting scenes like a day at the beach or a girl carefully tiptoeing across a row of gray stones as if crossing a creek was heartfelt, fearless, authentic dancing unique to each dancer. The dancing usually came suddenly, without warning, puncturing the dark moody atmosphere. It burst with big emotions in a multitude of solos, trios, duets, and quartets, including a powerful and beautifully wild solo in a black dress that alluded to Havin’s Jewish ethnicity and that I wished had been longer; and a playful western-themed duet in which the dancer donned rubber horse heads. 

Whitney Wilhardt in a western costume with a horse-head mask. Photo by Kale Chesney.
Whitney Wilhardt. Photo by Kale Chesney.

The dancers’ hair was loose throughout the work, covering their faces while they danced and masking their emotions. Only once, in a surprising moment, did I capture a whole face and sense the full emotion.

Leaving the facial expressions out of choreography is a thing I’ve never understood in contemporary dance. I understand that modern and contemporary dance was an experiment created as an antithesis to the overly emotional, often self-indulgent classical ballet of the time, but why continue the trend? What is the point of it? We are emotionally expressive beings, and hiding our emotions seems archaic, especially as women.

I also noticed that the dancers rarely looked at one another while dancing together. This is another strange affectation I’ve noticed in contemporary dance that doesn’t make sense to me. We are not alone in this world; we have to relate to one another to thrive. Are these just weird dance habits, or could Havin be trying to express individualism and loneliness through the choreography? I don’t know. 

Many details hidden and overt throughout the work could mean any number of things. I’m frustrated with myself that I’m always looking for meaning in choreography when I prefer abstract visual art and don’t need any meaning present there. As in life, this work is fluid and moves through meaning and abstraction seamlessly, attempting and doing it well to describe the remembered details and emotions of a life lived in many places that change daily for many reasons. 

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Whitney Wilhardt (left), Lindsay Dreyer (right). Photo by Kale Chesney.
Whitney Wilhardt (left), Lindsay Dreyer (right). Photo by Kale Chesney.

In the petite, beautifully crafted program, Havin begins two pages of her own writing (which could have been an outline for the work) with author Joan Didion’s quote, “There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.”

At the end of the the first page, Havin says, “it wasn’t until Megan moved to California until the gates gave way to the roads of glory smeared with sunscreen and tiny broken sand crab shells and shards of ocean plastic; ambrosia coffee of god in a paper cup in the place where I grew up, that I remembered I can say it how it is, how I know it to be, like this: like packages slowly floating out to sea-like beads of precious cargo.”

At the end of the second page, she says, “And the sand on your heels that you thought you had brushed off long ago trails with you, still, like piranhas circling in the water; like little beads of priceless, precious cargo. (maybe this is the point; maybe this was always the point.)

It takes an artist to help you see the world in new ways.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Jamuna Chiarini is a dance artist, producer, curator, and writer, who produces DanceWatch Weekly for Oregon ArtsWatch. Originally from Berkeley, Calif., she studied dance at The School of The Hartford Ballet and Florida State University. She has also trained in Bharatanatyam and is currently studying Odissi. She has performed professionally throughout the United States as a dancer, singer, and actor for dance companies, operas, and in musical theatre productions. Choreography credits include ballets for operas and Kalamandir Dance Company. She received a Regional Arts & Culture Council project grant to create a 30-minute trio called “The Kitchen Sink,” which was performed in November 2017, and was invited to be part of Shawl-Anderson’s Dance Up Close/East Bay in Berkeley, Calif. Jamuna was a scholarship recipient to the Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, “Undoing Racism,” and was a two-year member of CORPUS, a mentoring program directed by Linda K. Johnson. As a producer, she is the co-founder of Co/Mission in Portland, Ore., with Suzanne Chi, a performance project that shifts the paradigm of who initiates the creation process of new choreography by bringing the artistic vision into the hands of the dance performer. She is also the founder of The Outlet Dance Project in Hamilton, N.J.

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