Welcome to the mid-to-late pandemic temperature check of Oregon’s dance community. For the most part, the dancers are still here, but everyone else is in a holding pattern, riding out Oregon’s 4th wave of Covid-19 and waiting for people to get their vaccinations.
Last week I reached out to several Oregon dance companies and presenters via phone and email to see how they were doing. I asked them what returning to “normal” might look like, how it might happen, how they were preparing, and how it’s changing their programming. But before I dive into those conversations, here are three dance performances happening in May!
Performances this month
Pearl Dive Project
Currently streaming: Episode One: Lois Greenfield, Photosynthesis
May 6th Episode Two: Poison Waters, Too
May 27th Episode Three: Ludovico Einaudi, title TBA
June 17th Episode Four: Yiyun Li, River like a sea
July 5th Episode Five: Matt Groening, title TBA
All episodes are available to stream on-demand on Vimeo.
TalkAbout on StreamingVox, a virtual conversation between BodyVox co-founders and rock musician Jeremy Wilson.
Born out of the desire to see what kind of choreography non-dancers and other creatives could create, BodyVox artistic directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland created The Pearl Dive Project. Each year they invite a who’s who of renowned artists to create new work for the company. This year’s newly christened choreographers are dance photographer Lois Greenfield, drag performer Poison Waters, Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, writer Yiyun Li, and cartoonist Matt Groening.
Performance Works NW Happy Hour
Featuring: Wendy Hambidge, Jorge Samuel Faria, Rachel Kessler, and Matt Fielder
5 pm May 20
You must register by 3 pm the day of the show to get the Zoom link
ASL interpretation by Jme James Antonick
In this month’s happy hour, Performance Works NW will feature the work of Wendy Hambidge, a Portland dance artist, somatic therapist, and Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner and Teacher, and Brazilian dance artist Jorge Samuel. During a residency in Curitiba, Brazil, the two met up and formed a partnership inspired by their commonalities, differences, and how they engage with their ancestral histories. This collaborative work-in-progress looks back and looks forward and embraces the now. They will present a ten-minute improvisation that they filmed back in 2020 called, Stand Up, Show Up, Own Up.
Also painter Rachel Kessler and Matt Fielder (performer, sculptor, writer, stop-motion animator, fool, and musician) will present a collaboratively made film called,a short remarkable video.
The evening also includes a cocktail demo of the Palm Springs Paloma, a toast, a performance, lively discussion, PWNW-themed Bingo, and prizes, of course!
In this ten-minute dance film, choreographed and performed by NW Dance Project dancer Andrea Parson, images of Alice and the White Rabbit from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are woven together with dance, spoken word, masks, and film to answer a question that propels Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole: Who am I?
In the ups and downs of the pandemic, this week has been a “down” as much of the state went back under heavy restriction protocols. The exasperation of the leaders of various dance companies, big and small, came through loud and clear, even via email.
“We are caught in a seesaw of Covid recovery/resurgence,” said BodyVox artistic director Jamey Hampton. “Just when we open BodyVox back up for classes, new restrictions come down. It’s been nuts.”
“We feel fortunate that our dancers were amenable to finding a way to keep working. We never laid them off,” Hampton said. “Instead, we made works specifically for the camera that will outlive all of us…in digital form. These works are archeological representations of how a team of artists chose to cope with the most severe creative challenges of our lifetimes to date.”
“I would be remiss if I didn’t express the critical importance our supporters have played in our ability to remain creative over the past year,” he said. “We have had virtually zero income from ticket sales. Those who bought season tickets before the pandemic grabbed hold of our necks almost universally chose to donate the balance of their investment. Numerous others have recognized our efforts to remain connected and vital, and have donated funds, streamed our online shows, come to our socially distanced video gallery installation, even attended our drive-ins…I am humbled and inspired by the outpouring of support we have received. Not to mention two critically important PPP loans from the US government.”
Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving likened his pandemic experience to racing, out of control, down the rickety train track in the tiny coal car from the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Even though it was a challenging year, Irving is proud that no one in the company got Covid-19, and in several weeks the whole company will be vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic, the company received lots of support from audiences who donated almost all of last season’s tickets back to the company. The company and school have maintained a robust digital presence with classes, talks, and performances and have plans for live performances of some kind in the near future. What comes next for the company will be announced in June. Stay tuned!
For NW Dance Project executive director Scott Lewis, applying for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was like the “the performing arts version The Hunger Games, as a clever friend of his described it. We “are hopeful that (a) we didn’t mess up and that (b) we receive some funding,” he told me.
“We are exploring multiple options for a full-fledged company performance with new works in the fall (2021). Not being afraid of “dancing out of the box,” outdoors is a strong possibility. We are also looking at smaller and/or alternative venues and different ‘scales and structures’ with respect to performances since (we believe) it will likely be too early to plan on hundreds of people sitting elbow-to-elbow for 90 minutes in a big room for some time to come.”
Primarily focused on their education programs, NW Dance Project continues doing hybrid classes with limited in-person capacity, masks, and social distancing as the Oregon Health Authority guidelines allow, which has been a yoyo kind of experience, Lewis said. “The state/country’s most recent turn is discouraging. The day we can yank the cameras and TVs out of the studio will be a happy one.”
Eugene Ballet, directed by Toni Pimble, also has plans for live performances with full-length Cinderella and Nutcracker scheduled for the fall 2021-22 season. The season will also include a program called Uncommon Women that will feature guest women choreographers and a new work by resident choreographer Suzanne Haag in collaboration with percussionist Pius Cheung.
One of the most exciting developments for the company during the pandemic has been moving into a brand new, 30,000-square-foot home, custom built just for them in the new Midtown Arts Center in Eugene. Their enviable space, which takes up three floors of the center, features seven studio spaces, two of which are the size of the stages at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. The ceilings are between 11 and 20 feet high, allowing dancers to leap with ease without worrying about hitting the ceiling. There is plenty of storage room on site for pointe shoes, costumes, and scenery. Other amenities include offices for the artistic staff and lounging areas for the dancers, a library, and a wall of mirrors, with small wall-mounted tables and benches for dancers to do their hair and get ready for ballet. The studios have also been outfitted with large, flat screens, speakers, and microphones to continue teaching virtual classes or rehearsals with out-of-town choreographers.
Another great aspect of the building is that it also houses Chamber Music Amici, Eugene Concert Choir, Eugene Opera, Lane Arts Council, Orchestra NEXT, and Pacific International Choral Festivals. Having all those non-profit groups together in one building will reduce costs for everyone by sharing maintenance and operating costs. At the same time, their co-habitation will promote collaboration on projects.
Robert Guitron, artistic director of Polaris Dance Theatre, hopes this idea of a group of artists sharing space to cut down on costs and create community, collaboration, and less competition between them, is what will come out of the pandemic. There have been many social changes within the dance community, so hopefully, some of those will stick, and the dance environment can be a healthier one, he said. But for right now, Guiton, like other dance school directors, is working hard to keep student enrollment up, virtually and in person, to pay the rent.
For Linda Austin, artistic director of Performance Works NW, everything still feels up in the air. But luckily for her, her overhead is low, and she has gotten a lot of help through foundations, CARES, PPP, and individual supporters. Financially they are “OK for now,” she said. “It’s very hard to know when/if our earned income, mostly from studio rentals for rehearsal and performance and ticket sales, will return to what it used to be”
Austin is hoping to host a series of live performances over four weekends in July to wrap up the current Alembic artist residency. Each artist will have a weekend of their own and how that happens, whether it’s by livestream, or inside with a small masked group, or outside with a larger masked group, is completely up to the artists and where we are at in the pandemic.
There are tentative June performances scheduled by outside renters, and Austin herself will possibly show a solo work-in-progress called 3 Miles of Possible. “It’s durational—when complete, it might last several hours,” she said. “It’s meant to be dropped in on, as in a gallery setting. So I am hoping to have completed one mile of the three-mile trajectory and test it out in our space for a few days, with a small audience coming and going as they like. Not sure how we’ll handle the flow of people yet or what the maximum will be. We will also stream it.” Austin is also hoping that a project she has been working on with dance artist Allie Hankins will come to fruition as a live performance in 2022 as well.
“Live streaming as an additional way of involving/reaching audiences may become something we always do, actually,” she said. “This is one of the changes that we have made this year that will likely stick. And though we’ve always had a sliding scale, I would love to be able to keep the scale we’ve been using during the pandemic: $0-$30. We’ll see.”
Austin isn’t sure yet about inviting a new group of Alembic choreographers for next season, suggesting she may reconsider the shape of the program. “Instead, though, for next year we might offer a few space grants—either by invitation, application, or random drawing.”
For PDX Contemporary Ballet artistic director Briley Neugebauer, “returning to “normal” still feels somewhat distant. “While there have been vaccine rollouts, going back to extreme risk has raised a lot of questions. When will the numbers drop again? Will they go back up? What about the variants and what does all this mean for returning to in-person rehearsals, classes and live performances?”, she expressed. “Will we ever really return back to normal? In many ways, this year feels very similar to last in terms of not knowing what will be possible and, most importantly, what is safe to do.”
“The hope is to return to performing live in the Fall, said Neugebauer. “However, we understand that this might not be realistic,” she continued. “So instead, we will plan for everything (as much as we can). I know planning for everything is not easy, but it seems like the smartest thing to do. We will have plans A-Z at our disposal. Our hope will be to perform live, but if we can’t we will continue making dance films like we have done this year. We actually had such a wonderful time making them this year that we hope to continue making them! Maybe if possible, combining both film and live performance in one season!”
TriptheDark Dance Company and Chapel Theatre artistic director Corinn deTorres, has been laying low since November when she and her husband welcomed a new baby. The time off has been great for her to get used to being a family of four without the regular stressors of everyday life, she said.
TriptheDark Dance Company created a performance subscription series and has produced one video per month since September. A different choreographer choreographed each month in a different movement style. “They’ve been dancing in the theatre, masked, since September and will conclude the season with one last video in May,” she said. “You can still sign up for the TriptheDark season and receive all nine videos at once!”
“Now that it’s spring, we’re looking forward to some outdoor events and making plans for our (hopefully indoor) 2021-22 season starting this fall. We spent many, many hours preparing to apply for the Shuttered Venues federal grant only to realize we weren’t eligible, so we’re just sort of holding on, embracing the quiet, until we can welcome you all inside the theatre once again.”
For Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre artistic director Oluyinka Akinjiola, the company’s work continues to center on Black Lives and issues of racial justice. The company has continued, she said, “to stay present, find new ways to cope, stay connected and heal.”
In February, the company created At the Dinner Table, a dance film that examines how we set the table for a better future and for a better us. “We are done asking for a seat at the table; we are building our own,” the film’s description read. “We acknowledge the ancestors that helped pave the way, the lives lost which sparked movements, and the mess that meets us at the door. Using an Afrofuturistic perspective, we want to know how you will show up, what you will give, and if we will ever sit down together.”
Now the company is working on a new dance film called Who We Carry, about the emotional, physical and mental labor that each of us bears daily, generationally, and communally as we process grief. The company is trying to finish filming before June 6, the due date for Akinjiola’s new baby.
When I talked with White Bird co-founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe, they didn’t feel like there was much to say, but there was. For King, Covid was just one of the many problems affecting downtown Portland where the theaters are that White Bird rents for performances. The other is houselessness, “which is not really being addressed enough, and the vandalism and destruction,” King said. There has also been a “cultural shift to going to places like Beaverton Town Center or Washington Square Mall where the parking is free, there’s security, the restaurants are open, and the shops are open,” he continued. “There isn’t any tension or worry about being in those places.”
In March 2022 the new Patricia Reiser Arts Center in Beaverton will open that houses a 550 seat theatre and conveniently has a stop on the Max line. “Portland has lost its mojo for sure,” he said. “And people are finding other ways to serve their needs.”
White Bird has dates reserved in the theatres for 2021-2022, but is in competition with larger commercial productions who sometimes have priority and can bump them from the schedule. In talking to artists worldwide, King knows that given some notice, they could be ready to perform, so releasing the dates just doesn’t work for them just in case that’s actually possible. “If somehow it does open up, we can rev up and just do a partial season or a non-subscription season, or who knows…,” he said.
For White Bird, their future feels uncertain. “We’re really not sure what the future looks like for us. If we were to continue a programming aspect of White Bird would it be what it was before, would it morph, would it become a festival, or artist of color only? We don’t know. We just do not know if we will be able to continue,” King continued. “I heard a phrase today on NPR that in Germany they are calling these companies and non-profit organizations that don’t have revenue and are receiving money from the government to stay afloat zombie organizations or companies. We’re kind of in that mode right now. We’re still in force majeure. We can’t make our own decisions, we can’t plan, we never thought it would be this long, and we don’t know how much longer we can hold up.”