Dance Weekly: Local dancers acquire frequent flyer miles

Portland dancers spread nationally, and Oluyinka Akinjiola talks about Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre

Portland dancers have been very busy already this year, making news both in town and in our far-flung colonies in New York and San Francisco. OK, so maybe we’re being a little Portland-centric here.

Dance artist Keyon Gaskin, a solo performer and one-fourth of the Portland performance collective Physical Education (P.E.), just finished a performance of his solo “it’s not a thing” at the American Realness Festival, a festival of contemporary performance that happens every January on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. Gaskin performed the same solo here during PICA’s TBA Festival in September.

Physical education

Half of P.E. performing at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland. Photo by Garrick Imatani.

New York Times critic Siobhan Burke was moved by Gaskin’s performance: “One of Mr. Gaskin’s contentions sticks with me: that he is ‘performing for mostly white audiences,’ which describes the Realness audience. The festival addresses this, too, with a talk next weekend led by the scholar Thomas F. DeFrantz, who proposes that ‘the discourse of race in contemporary performance falls apart when whites try to understand black performance.’ Everyone should go.” (I interviewed Artistic Director Oluyinka Akinjiola of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre about some of the same issues, and you can see her contribution to the discussion below.)

Days later Gaskin joined the other members of P.E.—Lucy Yim, Allie Hankins and Taka Yamamoto—in San Francisco at the Fresh Festival to perform a group work in progress. And the group was recently interviewed by Anastasia Tuazon for the online magazine Temporary Art Review.

P.E. isn’t the only traveling ensemble. Northwest Dance Project will be performing “Yidam” by Ihsan Rustem at The Joyce theatre in New York this weekend as part of the American Dance Platform. They will be performing in the same program as Spectrum Dance Theatre from Seattle, directed by choreographer Donald Byrd.

Back home, Polaris Dance Theatre has finished construction of its new studio space at 1820 NW 18th Ave. just in time to host Groovin Greenhouse—a dance component of the Fertile Ground Festival, which starts January 21.

If you aren’t familiar with the Fertile Ground Festival now in its 8th year, you can listen to Dmae Roberts, the host of Stage and Studio on KBOO radio, as she gives us the scoop on the festival.

And Oregon Ballet Theatre launched a new competition this week called Choreography XX. The company is looking for original choreography by North American female choreographers, and the chosen women will be given the opportunity to create a new ballet on the company in the summer of 2017. The imbalance of male to female choreography for ballet companies is vast, and it will be interesting to see if this project has an effect.

"And Just Like That..." choreography by: Éowyn Emerald. Photo by David Krebs

“And Just Like That…”choreographed by: Éowyn Emerald. Photo by David Krebs

Éowyn Emerald & Dancers
Co-presented by Third Rail Repertory Theatre
January 14-16
Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th St
The contemporary dance company, directed by long-time Portland dancer and choreographer Éowyn Emerald, will present six dances originally performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014. The performance will feature dancers Jonathan Krebs, Éowyn Emerald, Josh Murry, and Holly Shaw.

Ancestry in Motion
Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater
January 15-17
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut
Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater is a dance and music ensemble directed by Oluyinka Akinjiola that looks at tradition through a contemporary lens. Connecting the past to the present-from African roots to modern day Jazz and House to current political issues of police brutality through new choreography by Michael Galen, Dar Vejon Jones, Jamie Minkus, Oluyinka Akinjiola, features guest artist Okaidja Afroso and Rudy Slizewski.

Forever Tango
with guest artists Anna Trebunskaya and Dmitry Chaplin
7:30 pm January 15
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway Ave
A choreographic collaboration between six dancing couple and director Luis Bravo that celebrates the passionate dance form of Argentine Tango. The couples will perform alongside a 1930’s style vocalist and an eight-piece orchestra, featuring the bandoneón—a type of concertina that is central to the sounds of Tango. Forever Tango originally debuted on Broadway and has been running since 1997.

Courtesy of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre.

Courtesy of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre.

This week via email I interviewed Artistic Director Oluyinka Akinjiola of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre, prior to the company’s show this weekend. She talked about life, the company and working as a dance artist in Portland.

Where are you from originally?
I am originally from Albany, NY.

When did you move to Portland and why?
The first time I moved to Portland was in 2008. My husband was here already with his band TapWater from San Diego. I had just finished my bachelor’s degree and was offered an internship with the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO) in North Portland. CIO is a social justice non-profit organizing for immigrant and refugee advocacy. CIO gave me the impetus to pursue social justice themes in dance.

How do you feel about being one of the few African American female choreographers in Portland?
Being one of few African American female choreographers is my experience in Portland and in many other places. As long as there is access and opportunity there will be more choreographers that look and dance like me. The challenge is greater for me in that I am trained in Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, Guinean, Contemporary and Modern dance. While my choreography draws on all of these forms, my work is plainly labeled as “African,” just another way of saying “other.” Today there is still a higher value given to a Western European or Ballet aesthetic. In a recent conversation with other black choreographers in Portland, we discussed a common critique of our work being called “too presentational.” But that is part of the Africanist aesthetic and integral to connecting to ancestry and community. As long as the work of my colleagues and I are measured by Western European values and aesthetics, justice remains unserved.

Another challenge I face is that dance communities in Portland are not connected. Portland has rich Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, Hip Hop, West African, ballet and modern dance communities. But these communities do not intersect and barely support each other. My work cannot fit in any of these categories—it encompasses them all. It’s all of these communities and dance forms that make me the dancer that I am and has made my experience as a dancer much richer. The challenge is to break the barriers between all of these communities and support each other with the same value. The quality is present, but the bridges just need to be made.

How would you like you and your work to be described or “labeled”?
I think if my work had to be labeled, I really like the idea of contemporary folklore. Contemporary allows the freedom of breaking away from traditional forms and blending dance techniques. Folklore for me refers to the connectedness to people, stories, history and ancestry.

You talked previously about the disconnect in our larger dance community. How do you imagine bridging the gaps?
One way that we are bridging these gaps with Rejoice! is through our collective diversity as dancers. Jamie toured with MarchFourth Marching Band; we both danced with Donna Oefinger’s Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music and dance company, Axé Didé; Michael performs with Popgogi and is invested in the house, street, and Brazilian dance community; DarVejon teaches at BodyVox and performs with Tere Mathern; I performed in the Beaverton Ten Tiny Dance festival, with BCC: Brown Hall and worked with Conduit. We are all invested in different dance communities in Portland, and we bring these different communities together at our shows and workshops.

The more dancers and creators interact with each other and broaden their range, the more community bridges we can make. Modern dancers should study Capoiera, or Afro-Cuban dancers should study ballet. The more mixing we do, the greater we can understand and support each other.

How was your semester teaching in New York? What did you glean from that experience that you are bringing back with you to Portland?
Teaching in a large dance department like SUNY the College at Brockport’s continues to be a great experience. I love teaching and the students are amazing, but teaching classes are just part of the job. Brockport has a strong emphasis on choreography, performing and concert productions. Like the schedule of professional dancers and choreographers, Brockport students and faculty are choreographing and rehearsing beyond a normal work day. As faculty we take on so many other roles in the department: we structure the curriculum of the dance program, support the students as both artists and scholars, mentor choreographers, advise research projects, perform with students in the community, and so much more. I am also the Artistic Director and choreographer for the Sankofa African Drum and Dance Ensemble, a touring student ensemble for the college. What I am gaining from this experience is how to be a stronger educator, mentor, and director. This experience is also making me to be a better leader for Rejoice!

Will you be teaching out of town on a regular basis? Are you able to make a living here in Portland with what it has to offer dance wise? What does that look like?
I hope I am not away from Portland for too much longer. I was offered another year as a Visiting Assistant Professor, but I am also maintaining my jobs in Portland in directing Rejoice and teaching as an artist-in-residence through the Right Brain Initiative. While my jobs in Portland are great supplements for my income, it is challenging to be solely an independent dance artist in Portland. Often dance artists have limited contracts, maybe including insurance, most often not. But so many dancers are surviving contract to contract or have income that is based on the amount of students that show up to classes.

Now that I have the experience of teaching full time at the College at Brockport, I see the value and eminent need of having dance departments available to dancers and educators. Right now a cycle is not being replenished. Great dancers are here, but they have to leave Portland to further their educations and careers. I had to leave Portland twice, first to pursue my MFA and now for full-time employment. We need these outlets for dancers to stay in Portland, so that they can further their education and artistry. The more we have these opportunities, the more they will grow.

How did Rejoice! form and when?
After I finished my MFA in 2014, I drove from Rochester, New York, back to Portland. On my drive Maya Angelou passed away and there were many interviews from her loved ones on the radio. So I became overwhelmed with a vision for my next choreography, to honor Maya Angelou. I pursued different avenues to bring this vision to life, but when I was selected for the New Expressive Works Residency at Studio 2 @ Zoomptopia, I knew I could make the work happen.

To choreograph the work I needed some powerful women, and there were two immediate women that came to mind, Jamie Minkus and Marisa Ferro, and two that serendipitously came into my life, Uriah Boyd and Sara Mohkami. The piece is now known as Phenomenally.

Phenomenally made us realize the work needed to continue. After my residency at Studio 2, I was selected by Linda Austin for the Alembic Co-production series. For this production I knew I wanted to bring phenomenal men into our company. With the addition of DarVejon Jones, Micahel Galen and Lin Lucas, the company felt complete and really good. Once we were all together we officially formed Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater. Our first full company show was ICONS at Performance Works Northwest.

Is Rejoice! a multi-voice company or is it your vision?
I would have to say yes to both. We have many voices that allow our vision to be realized. I believe in an artistic community and environment that is collaborative. Everyone in Rejoice! has amazing and diverse strengths, and we complement each other so incredibly well. As a choreographer I prefer to create collaboratively with the dancers. When everyone is invested in the creative process with me, a higher purpose is served. A sense of ownership is shared allowing everyone to invest and engage with the work more. I think the traditional power structure of choreographer vs. dancer is shifting, and a new culture of collaboration within a dance company is becoming the norm.

How did you work with your collaborators while you were gone in planning/rehearsing/choreographing for this upcoming concert?
After ICONS in June, I had a clear idea for who should set work next on Rejoice! I wanted to maximize on the technical range and abilities of the company by having DarVejon, Michael and Jamie create the newest works for Rejoice. The three are trained in distinct techniques and have clear choreographic voices DJ richly embodies Katherine Dunham and Afro-Haitian technique, Michael is extremely well versed in House, other street dance and vernacular forms. Jamie, like myself, is richly trained in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian dance technique.

Everyone in Rejoice was incredibly supportive of me going to Brockport and took on new roles to keep the company going, including organizing the rehearsal schedule, local performances, marketing, even grant writing. I feel really honored to have such a great group to rely on and trust in.

What are the plans for Rejoice! in the future?
Creating Rejoice! was like finding a diamond mine. We still have so much more to offer in the technical abilities we embody, from rhythm tap to Silvestre technique. I also have a large repertory from New York that I am continuing to set on Rejoice. A creative project we are currently drawn to is focused on the epidemic of mass incarceration and the communities that are systematically targeted. Between ICONS and Ancestry in Motion we have a large body of works to tour to new places.

Would you mind telling me something special about each company member that is not listed in their bio?
Well, first I have to mention that Marisa Ferro will not be on stage with us during Ancestry in Motion because her due date is one week after the show. So we will have a new addition to our family very soon. Jamie Minkus is an amazing creative partner for me and has taken on so much leadership while I’m away. Sara Mohki brings in a humble strength from her background of West African and folkloric dance into contemporary. DarVejon is a bright light and a beautiful spirit that is undeniable especially when you see him dance. Uriah has this peaceful yet incredibly captivating grace that knows no bounds. Michael’s physical and creative range transcends generational and technical barriers. Lin Lucas will be performing in a new capacity in Ancestry in Motion; his ability to embody and convey emotions is unparalleled. Chelsea Maricle is the newest addition to Rejoice!

Coming up later this month

Fertile Ground Festival of New Works will begin January 21, featuring 11 days of new work in theatre, music, and dance. This year’s festival will feature choreography by SubRosa Dance Collective, Portland Bellydance Guild, A-WOL Dance Collective, Polaris Dance Theatre, NW Dance Fusion, Echo Theatre Company Circus Arts and r: ad, a new dance company directed by Alexander Dones.

CelloPointe, a father daughter chamber music and dance ensemble from Manhattan, will perform at part of Chamber Music Northwest Festival’s winter program on January 27th.

La Compagnie Herve Koubi will be presented by White Bird Jan 28-30

“Being Moved-All that I know is nothing” choreographed by Butoh performer Meshi Chavez opens January 30-31.

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