Watching Portland choreographer Amy Leona Havin’s new work precious cargo (days of old) a couple of weeks ago was like being inside a dance film. The beautifully crafted amalgamation of dance, film, music, and inanimate objects, performed in the round at Shaking the Tree Theater on May 26-29, took us on a nostalgic journey into Havin’s early life growing up on the Pacific coastline in California.
Havin is a Portland-based, Israeli-born director, choreographer, performance artist, filmmaker, and artistic director of The Holding Project; and a regular contributor to ArtsWatch writing about books, poetry, dance, and other things. She is also my friend, and I’ve followed her creative projects in Portland from the beginning. She’s done six evening-length dance productions, including precious cargo, and nine dance films, often reflecting her internal struggle with cultural identity and generational trauma as the descendent of Holocaust survivors.
In precious cargo, dancers Heather Hindes, Carly Nicole Ostergaard, Elle Sevi, and Whitney Wilhardt, performed encircled by a chain of seated audience members, divided into four sections by stacks of small retro TVs and tall bushy houseplants. The lighting was dark on the outer edges of the circle, focusing our attention on the center, which was illuminated with orange and brown hues reminiscent of faded time-worn ’70s photographs.
The dance opened with crooner and movie star Bing Crosby singing Where The Turf Meets The Surf, a song he cowrote to promote the swanky Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Racetrack that he owned near the beach in San Diego, California, where Havin grew up.
There is a smile on every face
And a winner in each race
Where the turf meets the surf
At Del Mar.
The trumpeting fanfare at the beginning of the song was like the opening of many black and white movies, giving the sense that this dance would unfold like one as well.
The rest of the soundtrack spanned decades, playing simultaneously alongside a montage of film clips on the multiple TVs. Clips of the rolling ocean, beaches, rocks, surfers, skaters, vintage road trip footage, people partying at Woodstock, MTV spring break, and man-made structures from San Diego to Seattle in various states of demolition and decay, to name a few. Most of which I couldn’t really see from where I was sitting. I had to ask Havin what the images were after the show. I realized, though, that, like collective memories, in which we all remember a single event from a slightly different angle, this performance played out similarly from 47 vantage points in the circle. So it’s fine that I didn’t see every single moment of the show, because what I missed, someone else did see.
The dancing was vigorous and emotionally charged, and came from an inner place of energetic directives based on the Gaga technique, developed by former Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin, and one that Havin is versed in. Instead of placing fixed shapes onto the body from the outside, the method activates the body and its sensations through imagery, creating a multisensory, physically demanding experience. Interspersed throughout the dancing were moments of surprising synchronicity, still-life tableaux, quieter reflective moments, and a fair amount of partnering.
Objects used in the performance included a collection of flat gray rocks, a vintage camcorder, and a beach blanket. The rocks were laid out one by one in a straight line, allowing one dancer to walk across them guided by another as if they were walking precariously through a tide pool. The camcorder was attached to a long black cord plugged into the wall, and the dancers picked it up at various points to film one another up close in scenes that played in real time on the TVs. The imagery captured was reminiscent of the early amateurish quality of home videos shot in the 1980s and ’90s.
The blanket, secured by potted plants on four corners, became a scene for a glamorous, arched-back sunbather on the beach.
For me the most significant sound bite, which played twice — once at the beginning of the dance and once at the end — was from the movie Shangri-La Suite, 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 one scene, the female character, Karen, remembers a pivotal conversation she had with her family in the kitchen of their home when she was in fifth grade. “Today in school,” she says, “Mr. Bartlet 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?”
An emotionally crushing commentary on the dance and life itself.
Precious cargo (days of old) played out like bits and pieces of faded memories. It seamlessly shifted among aural, visual, and visceral memories, each playing equal parts. How we remember and how we share those memories was central to the work.
Havin made this work in four months with just four dancers — a much quicker turnaround, and with a smaller cast, than her previous work. Both, I think, worked in her favor. The dance, the pinnacle of her creative career, was full of colorful details and nostalgic moments, creating plenty of emotional entry points for all audience members. I’m sorry to say, but, if you missed it, you missed out!