Washougal Art & Music Festival

Dance review: The world premiere of ‘Vespers,’ a collaboration between push/FOLD Dance Company and Portland Symphonic Choir

Choreographer Samuel Hobbs partners with PSC artistic director Dr. Alissa Deeter to create a powerful meditation of voice and movement drawn from ‘All-Night Vigil,’ Sergei Rachmaninoff’s choral masterpiece.

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push/FOLD dancers Willow Swanson and Maile Crowder, accompanied by the Portland Symphonic Choir, in "Vespers." Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
push/FOLD dancers Willow Swanson and Maile Crowder, accompanied by the Portland Symphonic Choir, in the world premiere of “Vespers.” Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

After a particularly harsh week of winter, audiences had settled quietly into their seats for Vespers, the highly anticipated collaboration between the contemporary dance company push/FOLD and the Portland Symphonic Choir. The world premiere, presented January 19-21 at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, featured push/FOLD’s five dancers together with a hundred PSC vocalists performing composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil,” an a cappella choral composition. Much like the “Vigil” itself, Vespers created its own liturgy for the 60-minute performance, inviting the audience into a meditative float of voice and movement. 

Dr. Alissa Deeter, PSC’s artistic director, was our priest guiding us through Hymns 1-13 of the “Vigil” and when she emerged onstage, a hush fell in the auditorium. She lifted her arms, the curtain rose: let there be light.

Alto Soloist Claire Robertson-Preis of the Portland Symphonic Choir with dancers Willow Swanson (inverted) and Maile Crowder (on side). Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
Alto Soloist Claire Robertson-Preis of the Portland Symphonic Choir with dancers Willow Swanson (inverted) and Maile Crowder (on side). Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

We heard the murmur of the choir before they were revealed, lit by their blue-tinged LED music stand lights. The dancers, draped over each other in austere black and white costuming designed by Samuel Hobbs, push/FOLD’s artistic director and the choreographer of Vespers, were poised center stage as the choir began their first hymn. There was no movement from the pile of bodies as we became accustomed to the vocal projection of the choir; then the next hymn began and dancers Maile Crowder and Willow Swanson melted from the huddled mass to begin their methodical duet. In white leotards, morphing from one position to the next, in and out of the floor and each other’s support, Crowder and Swanson exhibited their gentle strength in a duet composed of manipulation, gesture, and partnered inversions. 

The dancers of push/FOLD in the premiere of "Vespers," choreographed by Samuel Hobbs. Photo by Samuel Hobbs.
The dancers of push/FOLD in the premiere of “Vespers,” choreographed by Samuel Hobbs. Photo by Samuel Hobbs.

As the hymns progressed with little pause, so did the choreography. push/FOLD’s characteristic smooth flow permeated the evening and highlighted the athleticism each dancer possessed. Trios in austere, black dresses cascaded into gothic still lives of suspended legs, while a repeated image of an inverted group lift of dancer Maile Crowder evoked images of Christ and the cross. All the while, Deeter held the downstage right as an omniscient presence throughout the monastic pace of Vespers, and was only regarded directly once by Crowder, divine to divine. 

“Vespers” is also the name used to reference the evening hymns (no.1-6) of the “Vigil,” appropriate for the work’s eventide imagery. The movement was only seemingly intended to be evocative of these biblical scenes, just as Rachmaninoff’s work referenced biblical tradition without itself being a work of the Church. 

Tenor vocalist Brandon Michael of the Portland Symphonic Choir, Portland's oldest symphonic choral ensemble, in "Vespers." Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
Tenor vocalist Brandon Michael of the Portland Symphonic Choir, Portland’s oldest symphonic choral ensemble, in “Vespers.” Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

Religious imagery aside, the overall procession was designed to fill the Reser stage sonically and visually, and the vocalists untraditionally shifted position to divide the stage, sometimes in halves, sometimes in thirds, literally creating space to be shared with the push/FOLD dancers. 

Oregon ArtsWatch music writer Daryl Brown on the movement of the choir asks, “Could the auditory product have benefitted from a traditional stand in place? Perhaps. But that was not what this artistic endeavor was about. What it was, what this fusion succeeded in becoming, was a transformation of the traditional that could allow Rachmaninoff to invite a wider audience to his ‘All-Night Vigil,’ in two powerful languages. Singing and Dance.” [Read Brown’s preview of Vespers for more of her take on this collaboration.]

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push/FOLD dancers Maile Crowder (left), Briley Jozwiak (top), and Alana Stubbs (bottom), accompanied by the Portland Symphonic Choir in the premiere of "Vespers," choreographed by Samuel Hobbs. Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
push/FOLD dancers Maile Crowder (left), Briley Jozwiak (top), and Alana Stubbs (bottom), accompanied by the Portland Symphonic Choir in the premiere of “Vespers,” choreographed by Samuel Hobbs. Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

Though I don’t consider myself versed enough to speak on the vocal prowess of a shifting choir as opposed to a traditionally stationary one, I also took note on the ways in which still gesture seemed to evoke the introspection the “All-Night Vigil” is lauded for, and the moments when it personally felt better suited. On such a large stage, with such a vast visual as the choir, I found moments of simplicity and simple staging to be most affecting. An image of the vocalists condensing themselves to stage left, halving the space and isolating the dancers, created an oppositional gravity that was palpable to a biblical degree, a seemingly immovable sonic wave versus soft, cowered forms. Similarly, as the choir formed an upstage diagonal wall and a corridor is lit from upstage right, the arduous pilgrimage of the dancers as they pushed and pulled toward the source carried with it all of the gravitas that divine inspiration contextually carries.  

The finale of "Vespers," featuring the dancers of push/FOLD and the Portland Symphonic Choir. Photo: Samuel Hobbs.
The finale of “Vespers,” featuring the dancers of push/FOLD and the members of the Portland Symphonic Choir. Photo: Samuel Hobbs.

Compared to these images, moments spent trying to follow a dancer as they threaded through two columns of vocalists felt overwrought. This was the battle that Vespers faced, that indeed all multi-disciplinary works face when approaching collaboration. How do you share the performance space in all senses with a work of incredible heft? Especially in the frame of religiously inspired works, which themselves grapple with the burden of a divinity? 

Vespers made incredible choices in honoring each form, specifically choosing to start and end the production with the choir, but also using the vocalists in the mise-en-scène. So often, dance is seen as the dominant stimulus with its visual presence, but establishing the choir before the movement allowed the “Vigil” to command the space it needed as such a significant choral work. From there, with the sonic space already claimed, the movement directed its own presence, highlighted through the negative space left by shifts in the choral congregation’s formations.

In my meditation, certain movement choices like floaty bourrées seemed almost too lofty when I wanted to see weight. Ironically, movement that broke the smooth, slow chant for a faster pace almost seemed to disappear into the sea of bodies. If the stage of Vespers were a house of worship, I craved a heavy stone cathedral, with clouds of thick incense. 

Dr. Alissa Deeter, artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir, and Samuel Hobbs, artistic director and choreographer, push/FOLD Dance Company. Photo: Holly Shaw.
Dr. Alissa Deeter, left, artistic director of the Portland Symphonic Choir, and Samuel Hobbs, artistic director of push/FOLD Dance Company and choreographer of “Vespers”. Photo: Holly Shaw.

The search for balance in the collaboration made the work honest to the very personal search that inspired Rachmaninoff in 1915. All prayers are searches, and I was reminded of this in Vespers’ final images. Dr. Deeter moved her podium center stage, lit from directly above, and stepped in to find her light and her choir. Our dancers draped in white gowns circled repeatedly to bow before us, again and again, a chant of gesture. The bows were made humble by their repetition, by their echo amidst the sonorous harmonies of the vocalists. When we finally awake from this meditative scene, we arrive in our own kind of First Hour: all imperfect, but still seeking.

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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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