Bag & Baggage Danny and the Deep Blue Sea The Vault Theatre Hillsboro Oregon

Review: Bringing Dance to the Table: The Potluck of Union PDX’s Festival:22 

Fourth annual festival draws dance artists from around the world together for masterclasses, workshops, and to share their work.

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Megan Doheny, from Israel and Los Angeles, CA, performs “doings”. Photo: Jingzi Zhao.

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, you’re most likely doing one of the following: making tedious grocery lists, checking the pantry to calculate just how many cans can be cleared out in one meal, racking through old cookbooks to mastermind the perfect spread of holiday dishes, or simply making room in your belly – ready to indulge in a day of feasting. If your gatherings are anything like mine, they come with a carefully curated slew of mashes, roasts, and bakes… and a healthy dose of potluck surprises from relatives eager to contribute to the gluttony and glee. 

As I sit down to review Portland’s fall dance festival, Union PDX, it’s potluck on my mind. No, I’m not referring to the familiar smattering of mix-matched pans and plates filled with food from different households, but an amalgamation of choreographic works brought together to be shared at the same table. Each piece; reminiscent of the hands that kneaded it together and fragrant with the aromas from the places they were crafted. Produced by Portland dance company push/FOLD, Union PDX has returned for its fourth annual year, bringing choreographers and performers from around the world to engage in masterclasses, professional development workshops, and the main event: sharing work in a three-night run at the Hampton Opera Center. Featuring two world premieres and four Portland premieres, Festival:22 is a potluck of dance, whipped together just in time to usher us into the holiday season with our bellies full of fresh-made art. 

Makino Hayashi, from Portland, Oregon, performs “What Do You See?” Photo: Jingzi Zhao.

First up on the bill is What Do You See, choreographed by Kumamoto-native, Portland-transplant Makino Hayashi. Featuring herself and two additional Oregon Ballet Theater dancers, the work was a quick study in contemporary ballet with a light reflection on a mammoth of a topic: “empathy within the human perspective,” as the program notes described. What Do You See can be likened to a wispy oil painting with pastel-colored costumes that gracefully flowed around the dancers as they moved about. Staying true to its style, the contemporary ballet movement strayed from classical shapes, but remained in the same neighborhood. Clear moments of ballet technique, indulgent choreographed emotion, and a repetitive motif of hands pressing to one another’s faces – perhaps to recall the theme of empathy in humanity – were all frequented landmarks of the piece. In the potluck spread, Hayashi’s piece was the appetizer: an icebreaker conversation lightly blending styles and getting the audience ready for the next work. 

Stephanie Zaletel (SZALT), from Las Vegas, NV, performs “5 basic movements (vagus excerpt)”. Photo: Jingzi Zhao.

As the room quieted down, piece number two began with a palette cleanser: a ritualistic ringing of chimes in the darkness. Inspired by lectures and interviews of Jungian psychoanalyst and dream-tender Marion Woodman, 5 basic movements (vagus excerpts) is a poetic and non-linear dance work choreographed by US-based Stephanie Zaletel. In the post-show talk-back, Zaletel explained that this piece came from a big shift in her life. After making no work during the peak of the pandemic, she emerged from those two and half years to debut a piece that “felt good to my nervous system.” She added that this work “doesn’t feel like performing, because I’m being honest about where I’m at.” Digging a bit into the life and work of Woodman, I came across this interview with celebrated mystic Andrew Harvey, in which he remarks upon Woodman in a way that I felt perfectly captured the essence of Zaletel’s 5 basic movements. He says, “The deep journey [is] becoming the dancer, becoming the person who can hold the opposites, the person who can say yes to creation and yes to destruction.” This balancing of the poles was reflected through Zaletel’s work in its unrelenting willingness to sit in discomfort, dissolve into moments of peace, move through outbursts of shapes, convulsively chatter, and then revert into an untouched silence that left the audience members nervously searching the room for a place to let their gaze rest comfortably. 5 basic movements is a work you simply have to be in the room to witness. No words can capture the wandering, personal journey this nervous-system reset takes.

Sweta Ravisankar and Prajyula Pemmaraju perform “Chakras: The Wheel of Energy”, a commissioned world premiere solo for Festival:22. Photo: Jingzi Zhao.

Closing out Act One is the main course of the evening: a well-seasoned, rich, family recipe passed down from generation to generation. Each bite of Sweta Ravisankar’s Chakras: The Wheel of Energy is oozing with storytelling, vivid history, and palpable life force. A pillar of yogic philosophy, chakras refer to the seven main energy centers of the body. When in alignment, energy is flowing “freely in the body,” Ravisankar explained in the post-show chat. Danced as a duet with her student and now collaborator, Prajyula Pemmaraju, the piece begins with a series of verbal affirmations accompanied by yoga postures, mudras (hand gestures), and classic Bharatanatyam movement vocabulary. 

The piece evolved as slow-simmer, paced at just the right speed for the audience to dive in alongside the dancing pair as they filled the room with currents of rhythm and stage presence to match the movement’s energy. In the early days of Chakras’ conception, Ravisankar remembers calling her mother after a yoga practice to seek guidance on exploring the chakras. “She is my mother, and also my teacher,” she remarked. Chakras may be Ravisankar’s choreography, but the thoughtfulness and precision at play nod to the time-honored tradition of seeking guidance from your elders before creating your own mark. I couldn’t help but think of my phone call home to my mother earlier this week to ensure I had her cheesecake recipe just right before I prepared my own for Thursday’s feast. Though she mentioned in the talk-back that Chakras is still in a “stage of evolution” and that a longer form program is set to debut in 2023, there was no denying that what was presented at Union PDX was a labor of love and a vibrant homage to Indian culture. 

Julienne Doko, from Copenhagen, Denmark, performs “Mémoires Perdues”. Photo: Jingzi Zhao.

Bookending the intermission, the theme of learning from the past continued in Julienne Doko’s Mémoires Perdues. The performance is inspired by a central African proverb that reads, “When you want to weave a mat, lay the old one on the ground, so you will know where to put the new strand.” Originally danced years ago as a quartet and slowly slimming to a trio, duet, and finally now a solo work, Mémoires Perdues has always been marked by the element of spoken word and the blend of Afro-contemporary, Afro-Brazilian, Samba, modern dance, and traditional West African dance styles. The simple sound score speaks of remembrance of the past and invites the audience to reflect on the isms at play in the world today: racism, sexism, and chauvinism, to list a few. Doko lapped the space with a powerful focus that moved in tandem with words that echoed about history repeating itself. The work was rather short, which fit nicely into the festival format, but left a lot unsaid. As a viewer, I appreciated the space Doko’s work created. Rather than make a succinct statement on the topics at hand, Mémoires Perdues felt more like a fleeting journal entry; noting the existence of our curious existence in the world and then leaving the audience to mull over Doko’s offering to consider what it might mean to them personally.

“Moon”, an excerpt from Samuel Hobbs’ “Illum”, which will make its world premiere in February 2023 at the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton, OR. Photo: Jingzi Zhao.

Perhaps you’ve found yourself stealing away to a spare bedroom after the holiday feast to take a well-deserved, food coma induced nap. It’s here – in a daydream – that the next piece fits into the fold. The lights come up slowly, and cue the start of Moon, the latest work of Portland’s own push/FOLD dance company, choreographed by festival founder Samuel Hobbs. Perhaps it was the title, but as soon as Moon began, I immediately felt a sense of other-worldliness. With Hobbs downstage crouched on the floor, three dancers emerged from the shadows in the back in a slow, eerie procession forward. As usual for Hobbs, the work was set to a sound score developed by Hobbs themself. Moon’s track is sparse and metered. The movement that accompanies it is embryonic, dense, and internalized. I couldn’t help but notice that Moon was much more introverted than Hobbs’ past work. The downcast gazes and nebulous movement seemed to drive their bodies further and further into the ground. Said to be a “reflective look at ourselves as seen in others,” observing Moon can be likened to an intimate glimpse into an alternate reality: human and alien at the same time. Dressed in seemingly seasonal outfits, the cast donned earth toned slacks, overalls, and bulky knit sweaters. As their meditative movement continued to lull the piece to an end, I began to wonder if a more abstracted costume choice that veiled the body’s form would allow Moon to drift further away from this human realm. 

Megan Doheny, from Israel and Los Angeles, CA, performs “doings”. Photo: Jingzi Zhao.

Concluding the festival performance was one of the strongest works of the night, Megan Doheny’s doings. Created in collaboration with longtime partner Ilya Nikurov, Doheny’s solo performance is born of the pressure to find motivation amidst overstimulation and excess. Though noted in the program to be reflective of the “emotional journey within the creative process,” I found doings to be much more universally relatable in our current age of ever-evolving technology, social media, and upward-growth focused careers. The sounds score taunted Doheny’s performance the whole way through. 

“You’re never done!” “Do whatever it takes!” “It’s a special thing, to do something for yourself…” 

Doheny’s performance was captivating and mature; a strong study of the exhaustion that comes with the non-stop expectation to do more, create more, be more. The irony of the work was that it mocked itself. Standing in front of the audience was a well-trained dancer performing a well-rehearsed, well-choreographed piece in its completion… a final product, done and ready to be shared. Yet doings itself begged to differ. Doheny’s character in the work was that of a ragdoll; at bay to the concept at hand. Never done yet continually striving for that satisfaction. “Creating this piece was a huge challenge,” Doheny stated in the talk back. “Creating work on yourself for yourself is hard. The process became about that, and then the piece became about that,” she said. 

The struggles of creating work rang aloud in the post show chat, where Hobbs reiterated that Union PDX was devised as an antidote to the roadblocks in an artists’ path. The line of dancers and choreographers seemed to nod along with Hobbs in agreement. Hobbs’ vision for Union PDX is that of an open door and a table around which to share. It’s a place for dancers near and far to come together and offer their art to one another and to our community here in Portland. Watching the cast sit around, comfortable in their post-show clothes and in conversation about art, life, and creating work, I recall a familiar scene from my own familial gatherings with everyone sitting around the cleared table. The meal, passed; the labor of love, enjoyed; and all that’s left – at last – is a moment to agree: the work, the festivities, and the evening… is done. 

***

Elizabeth Whelan is a movement-based artist based in Portland. As a freelance dancer and choreographer, she has presented work through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Night Lights, Downright Productions’ Amorphous, Polaris Dance Theater’s Galaxy Festival, Performance Works Northwest and FLOOR Center for Dance. Beth has been awarded the White Bird Barney Commissioning Prize alongside Trevor Wilde and Shaun Keylock, and will be creating new work for the White Bird Uncaged Series of 2021. She currently dances with Tongue Dance Project, based in St. Johns. Prior to Portland, Beth completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance at George Mason University and freelanced in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. Her writing on dance is published in Philadelphia’s The Dance Journal and Oregon ArtsWatch. In her beloved free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music, and drinking a good cup of coffee with her cat. Visit bethwhelan.org and bethwhelandesign.com.

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