Oregon Cultural Trust

Preview: ‘Break to Build’ at Zidell Yards

The site-specific performance combines dance, music, puppetry, and film in an exploration of the cyclical nature of life and ideas, as well as the evolving identity of the historic shipbuilding location.


ProLab dancers rocking on discarded ship boiler cover down at Zidell Yards in their new piece “Break to Build.” Photo courtesy of Laura Cannon.

From July 21 through July 30, the historic Zidell Yards at Portland’s South Waterfront will be transformed into a mobile, multimedia performance by two puppeteers, eight musicians, 15 dancers, several composers, and a media artist.

“Break to Build” is the brainchild of dancer and choreographer Laura Cannon and Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellow (2023) and new music composer Jennifer Wright. The title “Break to Build” refers to the natural cyclical evolution of life and ideas, the breaking down of boats to build barges, the primary industry at Zidell Yards for many years, and the evolving identity of the Zidell Yards physical location.

Inspired by rusty cranes and industrial relics, the performance will explore the history and archeology of Zidell Yards through the eyes of a dancer in an immersive mobile show that incorporates movement, sound, and visual art.

“Break to Build” is a feast for the senses, one with many surprises. It begins with two 6-foot sturgeon puppets at the water’s edge, where nature meets industry, and ends with a floor-to-ceiling projection by media artist Fernanda D’Agostino. The projection shows dancers swirling through the air across a screen as wide as the inside of the barge building, where men tore apart and built ships for seventy years. It is a fully immersive experience that will leave you seeing the world a little differently at the end.

A ProLab dancer performs in “Break to Build” at Zidell Yards. Photo courtesy of Laura Cannon.

Zidell Yards

Site-specific dancer and choreographer Cannon encountered the unique outdoor space in 2021 when she met up with DanceWire founder Emily Running, who has an office in the Moody Building on the Zidell Yards property. Having exhausted her backyard as a dance space during the pandemic, Cannon was immediately intrigued by the possibilities she saw at the former shipyard. Cannon is the founder of ProLab Dance, a project-based group whose members come from a variety of artistic backgrounds, but who are all curious explorers of outdoor spaces.

Located at the base of the Ross Island Bridge, Zidell Yards is a 33-acre property which previously served as the home to the Zidell family’s ship dismantling company, barge building operation, and tube forgings company. The family’s story represents the quintessential American experience which all began with Yeschie Zajdell, who later changed his name to Sam Zidell, immigrating to the United States from Smidyn, Russia, in 1915, and originally setting up shop in Roseburg selling secondhand machinery. In 1946, Sam’s son Emery purchased the Commercial Iron Works shipyard in Portland and turned it into a ship-breaking yard, where ships, primarily from World War II, were dismantled for steel to feed the housing boom at the time. When demand for recycled steel eased, Zidell began building barges from new steel. Between 1961 and 2017, when it discontinued its barge manufacturing, the company built 277 barges.

Since closing the business, the focus has been on the cleanup of 3,000 feet along the river near and under the Ross Island Bridge, including capping and removing dangerous contaminants, and re-sloping and replanting the banks. While the site sits empty as development plans with the City of Portland have stalled, it has been the location for a number of outdoor concerts and events, including the Waterfront Blues Festival and the Portland Pride Film Festival in 2021.


Oregon Cultural Trust

ProbLab dancers hanging out in their concrete forest down at Zidell Yards as part of Laura Cannon and Jennifer Wright’s new work “Break to Build.” Photo courtesy of Laura Cannon.

During a tour of Zidell Yards, Cannon described how “Break to Build” evolved over the last two years within the multi-textural, multi-level, and multi-layered indoor and outdoor environment of the industrial and natural “playground.”

“I started to think of this property like a map at the beginning of a fantasy novel…like in Lord of the Rings,” she said, further describing her image of an imaginative map illustrating Zidell Yard’s wonderland environment and its story. She also spoke warmly about Charlene Zidell, Emery’s daughter and Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Family Vision, who has vigorously championed and supported the project’s development and connected Cannon with community partners like WildFang, who is supplying the super chic, colorful, comfortable, and practical jumpsuits that the dancers will wear.

Cannon considers this project urgent as the environment is expected to change soon. Initially, this was a pandemic project, she explained, where she and the dancers could explore for hours, but now that life has returned to normal, they feel the need to conclude the project and share it with everyone. Zidell Yards have undergone multiple reimaginings on how to use the space since the construction of the last barge in 2017, but the final plan has yet to emerge. This moment may be the last opportunity the dance group has to use the space as it is.

ProLab dancers inside the barge building sharing weight with old ship chains as part of “Break to Build,” a new work by Laura Cannon and Jennifer Wright. Photo courtesy of Laura Cannon.

Along with a group of dancers, she explored the grounds and its objects for two years, discovering extraordinary ways to interact and dance with their findings. Following their exploration were composers Roman Norfleet and the Be Present Art Group and new music composer Jennifer Wright, who invented a large-scale instrument using industrial debris excavated from piles of old ship parts and barge-building materials. She also wrote a brand new aria titled “Luminous like Phosphorus,” that will debut in “Break to Build.”

Tickets begin at $45. For $150, you can meet the “Break to Build” collaborating artists and experience their immersive XR film “Origins,” filmed inside a deconstructed wind turbine under the Ross Island Bridge. Once you put on your VR headset, “Origins” will transport you to a place few humans have seen through a multi-sensory performance.

To see a preview of “Break to Build,” visit ProLabDance’s Instagram profile.

For more information about the “Break to Build” VIP Experience, go to ProLabDance.com.


Oregon Cultural Trust

Attending “Break to Build”

  • Visit ProLab Dance to buy tickets.
  • The performance runs July 21-23 and 28-30, beginning at 7:30 pm, at the former Zidell Shipyard, 3121 S. Moody Ave. in Portland.
  • There is plenty of onsite parking.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes and clothes appropriate for an outdoor event on uneven ground at a historic shipyard.
  • Don’t worry; there will also be plenty of seating.
  • Enjoy!

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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