June DanceWatch: Back on stage

Oregon Ballet Theatre leads the way as Portland dancers perform for live audiences for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Summer is back and so are the dancers. Live and in-person, as a matter of fact! Throughout June, you can find dancers in the courtyard at the Oregon Museum of Industry and Science (OMSI), on the lawn of a private residence in Lake Oswego, at Zidell Yards in Portland’s South Waterfront district, throughout Portland’s public parks, in the trees at Mary S. Young Park in West Linn, and at the experimental performance hub, Performance Works NW in Southeast Portland. Suddenly, dancers are everywhere!

Who knows what the future may bring, but at this moment, the veil has lifted, and life as we knew it—with dancers performing for live audiences—is returning. But don’t worry, all of the performance venues require masks and social distancing, so you will be safe. And just to warn you, you might be shocked at how much you missed the dancers, so bring the tissues. Things might get emotional. 

From left to right OBT dancers Xuan Cheng, Brian Simcoe, Christopher Kaiser, and Jessica Lind rehearsing Nicolo Fonte’s 𝘊𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘰𝘴. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

One of the companies gearing up to perform outside is Oregon Ballet Theatre. The state’s biggest dance company will be performing June 5-12 on the new Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage at OMSI. The outdoor stage is a shared vision between Portland Opera, the ballet, and the science museum to safely bring back live ballet and opera performances to Oregon audiences. 

Two world premieres, one by renowned Canadian-via-Brooklyn choreographer Jennifer Archibald and the other by Oregon Ballet Theatre resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, lead the way. Archibald’s work is titled SculptedClouds and talks about what we can and can’t control in this world. Fonte’s piece is called Choros, the Greek word for dance, and it embodies the idea of celebration. 

Last Friday, I got a chance to watch rehearsals at Oregon Ballet Theatre—in the flesh. I could not have asked for a more perfect way to break my own year-and-a-half-long fast from seeing a live performance. It felt like I was sitting in the middle of a powerful vortex—or a big hug. The energy and enthusiasm of the dancers were palpable. As the dancers leapt and spun, I imagined colorful pieces of confetti exploding out of cannons all around the room. They had returned to the studios just three weeks prior (and were fully vaccinated), and they were full of exuberance and vitality, ready to perform. It was magical. They were magical. 

While I was at the studios, I also had the opportunity to speak with Archibald and Fonte about their work and how they made it. 

Choreographer Jennifer Archibald rehearsing OBT dancers for her new work SculptedClouds. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Archibald is the founder and Artistic Director of the Arch Dance Company and Program Director of ArchCore40 Dance Intensives. She is a classically trained ballet dancer, a hip-hop dancer, an Ailey School alumni, and a Maggie Flanigan Acting Conservatory graduate, where she studied the Meisner Technique. Archibald is an educator and a prolific choreographer who has been commissioned by numerous ballet companies and whose work has been performed on stages around the world. She recently became the first female resident choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet.

OBT dancer Bailey Shaw rehearsing for the premiere of Jennifer Archibald’s SculptedClouds. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Archibald has also worked commercially for Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and MAC Cosmetics and as a movement specialist and choreographer with chart-listed musicians and actors, including Audrey Tautou in Amélie and various actors in The Da Vinci Code.

Her work incorporates traditional and non-traditional elements from hip hop, contemporary dance, classical ballet, street dance, and funk. Drawn to storytelling Archibald has always wanted to be a choreographer. 

When I asked Archibald about her choreographic process, she said, “I call what I do painting.” She doesn’t prepare choreography ahead of time but does take a significant amount of time to find the right music and inspiration for the piece. Visiting these points of inspiration before a rehearsal helps to put her in a trance-like, creative state. 

“I spent about 27 hours on music selection,” she said. “I take a lot of time making sure the music is emotionally full so that it becomes a full experience for the audience. I don’t tend to do super abstract work. You can see that it’s abstract within the movement, but, concept-wise, I try to keep it as humane as possible so the dancers can feel something and the audience can feel something. That’s super important to me.”

Archibald’s work for OBT takes inspiration from the ethereal beat-driven music of Dead Can Dance and the music of Roger Goula—a synthesis of classical and electronic music— and a quote from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:

“So to breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realize you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the Earth. Not to cut the tree, not to pollute the water, that is not enough.”

Meaning that talking about the environment as something separate from our bodies is the problem. Once we recognize that our bodies and the Earth are one and the same, we will be able to solve our problems. 

OBT dancers Brian Simcoe and Christopher Kaiser rehearsing for the premiere of Jennifer Archibald’s SculptedClouds. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

“I think there are things that happen in the world that we try to control,” Archibald said, and the one thing that we can’t control are the clouds above us. We haven’t quite touched them yet, even though we might have polluted them, which is a whole other conversation,” she continued. “There’s just something about that airiness and that freedom above us, this whole other level of spiritual being that we can’t touch. So we just have this whole other layer of life that’s happening above us that we kind of have to respect and not try to control. So when I say “sculpted clouds,” I’m not saying to sculpt the clouds. I’m saying we have to take note that we can’t control every aspect of our environment so that we can live a freer common life. “

From left to right OBT dancers Xuan Cheng, Brian Simcoe, Christopher Kaiser, and Jessica Lind rehearsing Nicolo Fonte’s 𝘊𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘰𝘴. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

For Fonte, his new work is purely about celebration. Celebrating the dancers and the audience and, of course, OBT’s big comeback to the stage. “Sometimes, you just have to dance,” he said. “Sometimes, you just have to dance” was the working title for the dance at the beginning of the rehearsal process and a bad one,he told me in so many words, laughing. 

The ballet will be performed by the entire company of 17 dancers accompanied by the music of Irish Algerian composer Tarik O’Regan, and Italian pianist, and composer Ludovico Einaudi. 

For Fonte, creating a ballet that the dancers would enjoy doing and the audience would love watching was important. “If I was the sole audience member,” he said, “I’d want to see you [the dancers] eating up space, I would want to see you flying through the air, I’d want to see lots of energy, and a little bit of drama.”

When it comes to the work, he is focusing more on the how of it all. How the movement is executed instead of imposing a structure or a narrative or a connection onto the dancers from the outside.

The process started simply: “I had a phrase. I said everybody should learn this phrase…It’s sort of like, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking, let’s start.’ And we started doing it, and we put some music on. You know, It was like that. The first three or four days, I just had everyone learn everything. A full day of everybody learning the same material. Then I started seeing: that’s a lovely quartet right there, just in my head, that’s a nice little trio, he’s popping out to me, and then little by little, it started taking shape. By the second week, it was much more broken down; these are the sections, which is what’s happening. That’s how it went.”

When I asked Fonte if anything about his artistic process had changed during the pandemic, he said, “I do think having nearly lost it all changes how you work on a daily basis. You don’t sweat the small stuff anymore; at least I don’t.”

OBT dancers Christopher Kaiser and Jessica Lind rehearsing for the premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s Choros. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

This is also an idea that he is trying to impart to the dancers when he sees them reverting to pre-pandemic levels of self-criticism. “We just survived a pandemic, and we’re back in the studio. Do you think I care at this moment how high your leg is? If you think I’m after some crazy ideal after what we’ve been through…that would be borderline inhumane,” he said. “What is important is that you reveal something about yourself and just invest, invest in that moment. It may very well be a while before you get to do that again. We don’t know yet.”

Fonte has also enjoyed slowing down. “I don’t know if it’s the pandemic, age, whatever, or all of the above: losing momentum isn’t such a bad thing. I’ve enjoyed the shift. It’s not such a crazy schedule right now. It’s so much more manageable. It’s so nice to focus on one thing at a time and not have to focus on ten different pieces and all those demands.”

“It’s been freeing in a lot of ways,” he said. “You know you forget about your last work. People say you’re only as good as your last work, and that’s a terrible way to live, and that’s sort of in the trash now.”

He is currently the Resident Choreographer for Ballet West, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in addition to Oregon Ballet Theatre. His dance career took him from Peridance in NYC to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and, ultimately, to Nacho Duato’s Compañía Nacional de Danza in Madrid. His choreography, which has been performed worldwide, has been widely recognized and has received numerous awards and accolades. 

Dance performances happening this month!

The Zig Zag dancers duking it out in their newest production, Letters to Strangers. Photo courtesy of Echo Theater Company.

Letters to Strangers
Presented by Echo Theater
Performed by the Zig Zags
June 4-6
The performance location is in Lake Oswego and will be included in the confirmation email you receive after purchasing your tickets.

Echo Theater’s student performance group, the Zig Zags, have created a thoughtful but playful new work that reflects on a world that they live in but did not create, while envisioning a better one for all. Dance, acrobatics, theater, and song are intermingled to create these reflections on the past, hopes for the future, and instructions for living in our collective present.

Oregon Ballet Theatre Live
Hosted by OMSI
Featuring world premieres by choreographers Nicolo Fonte and Jennifer Archibld
June 5-12
Schnitzer Care Summerstage, 1945 SE Water Ave

See above info.

Acting Out Festival 
Presented by Boom Arts
June 25-27
Zidell Yards and surprise pop up locations at parks throughout the city
Zidell Yards, 3121 SE Moody Ave

This three-day, free, outdoor dance and circus arts festival features an aerial dance work by Flyaway Productions that delves into the impact on women with incarcerated loved ones. It’s a very personal story for creator Jo Krieter who describes the work as “ my effort to make physical and performative the scars that prison breeds on families of the incarcerated, including my own.” Performances will be at 5 pm June 25-27 at the Zidell Yards. Due to limited capacity because of the pandemic advanced reservations are required.

 The Circus Project will perform Party of One, a new theatrical circus production inspired by how we find connection alone, and together-but-apart during a pandemic that includes aerial fabric, trapeze, dance, juggling, and more.

The festival also includes roaming pop-up clown performances at various Portland parks by California based Award-winning circus comedians Coventry and Kaluza and their dog. The trio will  showcase a variety of entertaining skills and thrills which features juggling, hula hooping, music and plenty of ridiculousness. 

Flamenco dancer Savannah Fuentes capturing the ocean in her dance by the sea. Photo courtesy of Performance Works NW.

Flores De Verano
Savannah Fuentes Flamenco with live music by Diego Amador, Jr.
6:30 and 8:30 pm June 28
Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave
A Performance Works NW Public Access Performance 

Join flamenco singer, percussionist, and “flamenco royalty,” Diego Amador Jr, guitarist Carlos de Jacoba, and flamenco dancer Savannah Fuentes for an intimate evening of music and history. In addition to playing traditional and contemporary Flamenco compositions, Amador will also talk extensively about Flamenco history and culture, translated from Spanish to English by Fuentes. 

Art in the Dark 2021: Jane 
A-WOL Dance Collective
Featuring original music by Chet Lyster
July 29- August 8
Mary S. Young State Park, 19900 Willamette Drive, West Linn

Every summer, you can find the dancers of A-WOL Dance, an acronym for Aerial Without Limits, suspended from trees under the stars in their annual Art in the Dark performance along the Willamette River in West Linn, at Mary S. Young Park. This dynamic and powerful troupe of dancers creates magic as they twist and twirl their way through the treetops creating an unpredictable performance that lives between the tangible and the ethereal. 

About the author

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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