Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.
Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.
What drove Merrill, say the people who knew her best, was her love of the artistic process and the people she met because of it. “She never wanted to leave anybody out,” said colleague Judy Patton. “She would get the most people she could together and find a way to use their strengths.” Talk to the lucky many who worked with her and the figure who emerges is a much-loved teacher and collaborator, universally remembered as a witty and playful artist, a generous and inclusive soul, someone so intently focused on dance and dancers that the minutiae of everyday life—where she’d left her car keys, or for that matter, her car—receded into the background. There is plenty of affectionate laughter when people describe Merrill, followed by the quaver in their voices as they acknowledge that someone who always seemed to be there, supporting her community, is now gone. Tran, who spoke with her the week before she died, said she was thinking of other people’s feelings up until the very end. “This is not a goodbye call,” she told him. “I just want you to know that it’s been an honor to work with you and know you.”
Merrill, born Bonnie Jo Nelson in Salt Lake City in 1935, attended the University of Utah, where she studied ballet in the department founded by Willam Christensen, graduated cum laude with an English degree, and performed with Utah Theater Ballet, the precursor to Ballet West. In 1968, after some hopscotching across state lines, Merrill, her husband, Ralph, and their three children moved to Portland, where she balanced her home and work lives and focused on broadening her artistic horizons. “She told me she wanted to expand into modern because ballet was too restrictive,” said Catherine Evleshin, who taught advanced modern technique at PSU at that time. “She tackled it with a vengeance.” In a 2015 interview with Eric Nordstrom for his film Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present, Merrill recalled being fascinated by what she called “the intellectual properties of contemporary dance.”
From that fascination eventually sprang Portland’s first modern dance company, Portland Dance Theater, which Merrill, Evleshin, Jann Dryer, and Pat Wong cofounded in 1970. Patton joined in after the birth of her daughter; the company grew to include Charles Hubbard and Gregg Bielemeier, then a PSU art major who was taking dance for P.E. credits. (“They invited me in and ruined my life,” Bielemeier joked about this lasting change to his career trajectory, recalling that, in order to improve his technique, Merrill and Patton arranged a scholarship for him to study with Portland Ballet founder Jacqueline Schumacher, who put him in a class full of 10-year-old girls.)
Portland Dance Theater set up shop at Portland’s Hillside Center, a former Catlin Gabel School property, where they taught classes and formed a kind of democratic choreographic cooperative in which each member contributed. “Our theories about dance were created together; we learned from each other,” Patton says. “It was based on what everybody brought, based on their personalities. Bonnie brought traditional ballet, but also a sense of humor. Her choreography was often serious but also funny.” As a dancer, Bielemeier said, Merrill was precise, the person to look for onstage if you lost your place. As a choreographer, she was inventive, perhaps due in part to the group’s emphasis on improv. “You could have almost zero technique and she would figure out a way to put you in the work,” he said. “There are very few dancers of that generation who didn’t work with Bonnie.”
The company lasted for nearly a decade, funded in part with local and national grant money. It toured all over the West and, thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts grant, performed in the Civic Auditorium (now the Keller), most notably Ear-Heart, a collaboration with novelist Tom Robbins. In addition to shows at the Hillside, PDT performed in Portland public schools through Young Audiences and in city parks through Portland Parks and Recreation. Eventually Dryer peeled off from PDT to start her own company, Cirque, for which Merrill also created work. “Things splintered, which was kind of a good thing,” Evleshin said of the split. “Studios started popping up because people were interested in modern dance.”
Wong joined the Reed dance faculty; PSU had Evleshin, Patton, and Merrill, who had begun teaching there in the mid-’70s: Nancy Martino, who was the school’s dance department head at the time, was impressed enough by what she’d seen to make Merrill her first hire. “She never just did steps; she had depth and sensitivity,” Martino said. “As I got to know her, I saw she brought that same principle to her teaching and choreography. She was able to bring out what was special in each student, every person she interacted with.”
Merrill’s relationship with the school lasted nearly until the dance department’s demise in the early ’90s. She taught classes part time and helped develop curriculum and select artists for the school’s contemporary dance season, Martino said. Merrill also choreographed work for the student repertory company and The Company We Keep, an in-house troupe composed of faculty members and advanced modern dancers including Tran, Tere Mathern, and Sue Brantley.
As a teacher, Mathern said, Merrill taught class with “an improvisational sense … you moved across the space in any direction you wanted to, even though you were doing your standard dance exercises.” As a choreographer, Brantley said, “She had a light, fresh approach. She made you feel included right away. [Her choreography was] active and energetic, with humor and whimsy. She often had swirly costumes that were part of the movement, and lots of props.” Merrill was, in fact, known for her striking visual sense, whether she was marking off sections of a park with large foam structures for a PDT performance or releasing tumbleweeds that she’d gathered in the Gorge into the canyon-like space between the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and what is now know as Antoinette Hatfield Hall of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts for an Artquake show. (As a PSU repertory student in the ‘80s, I remember Merrill handing me an enormous #2 pencil prop and telling me and my partner to carry it onstage as though we were about to do battle with something ferocious.)
Merrill’s work was a study in contrasts. “She liked quirky situations, improv, task-based movement,” Patton said. “The other side was formal: classical, lyrical, very tied to the music.” As Bielemeier put it, “She was a classically trained dancer who moved into the modern world. She kept many of the classical lines, but she messed with them.” Her rehearsals could feel chaotic, with last-minute alterations to the movement. (“She would change the beginning to the ending, change the middle: it’s like a whole new piece!” Tran said.) But she always knew what she wanted, and there were certain qualities she insisted on, particularly musicality. “She didn’t compromise on that,” Mathern said. “She would know if you weren’t on the counts or you missed them.”
Merrill created intimate works for dancers—solos, duets, and trios, often by request, sometimes far outside of Portland, such as the work she set on Sara Padilla and Bonnie Nedrow in New York in the late ’80s. “She would get lost driving around the block, but she would drive down to the Bay Area to make a solo if you needed it,” said dancer/choreographer Josie Moseley; Merrill “was never didactic about how she wanted you to be. It evolved from being in the room together and getting to know each other.” Tran asked Merrill to create a solo for him, because, after the group work he had done with her, “I wanted Bonnie to myself.” She often paired dancers who had never worked together before, Brantley said: “It was really funny to jump into those duets. She enjoyed seeing different people together.” Merrill went above and beyond for choreographer Linda K. Johnson in the late ’90s, acting as artistic director when Johnson commissioned seven choreographers to create solo work for her. “She chose the order of the work, protected me when I was overextended by one choreographer,” Johnson said. “We spent a very intimate 10 months together.”
But Merrill was even better known for her group pieces. Among them is 1988’s Gather, Also Scattered, based on the impressions Merrill gleaned from a trip to China. The piece is variously known, depending on who’s remembering, as Gather/Scatter or Scatter/Gather; Merrill made the first version in the late ’80s with 10 men and one woman—Mathern—then flipped the title and script, setting it on 10 women and Imago Theatre co-founder Jerry Mouawad. Some of that cast reappeared in Off Location, a 1987 dance film that Merrill and Carolyn Altman created by setting dancers in difficult situations and capturing their reactions. Moseley recalls nearly freezing her feet off dancing in the Pacific Ocean in March; Patton had to scramble up a teetering stack of newspapers at a recycling center while she was dressed in a fancy frock and heels. “Of course I could never get to the top: I kept sliding back down,” Patton said. Off Location screened at the Portland Art Museum; at the time, Oregonian writer Barry Johnson (now ArtsWatch’s executive editor) predicted its comic flair would make it a cult classic.
Two years later, Merrill’s work drew appreciative audiences at another downtown space, the Civic. Her 1989 work Catch Time, which she created for Ballet Oregon, paired classical dancers with Tom Grant’s band playing live onstage “in five sections of alternately lively and lyrical movement,” Martha Ullman West reported in The Oregonian.
Merrill also created large group works for the now-defunct citywide art festival Artquake. We Gather, a 1994 tribute she paid to male collaborators who had died of AIDS, is remembered still for its emotional heft. “They came in twos and threes and fours, fifty dancers down the ramp. Like the Shades in La Bayadere,” Ullman West reported for Dance Magazine. “Most of them were women, modern dancers, dressed in loose white costumes, some carrying broomsticks, horizontally, between them. Suspended on the broomsticks were empty jackets.” Ten of the men who had performed an earlier version of the work had since died, including PDT’s Hubbard, ballet dancer and choreographer Dennis Spaight (who had directed Ballet Oregon and danced in Catch Time), and Joe Morales, who had intended to dance at Artquake, but was rapidly losing his vision. Moseley recalls driving to Canby with Merrill and Morales and performing the piece in costume “in a field of dahlias the size of dinner plates,” so that he could get one last close-up look at it. Merrill, Moseley said, “had the insight to have him see what he wasn’t going to be able to see. She would make miracles for people all the time.”
Another of those people was Linda K. Johnson. Merrill staged her 1996 concert On A Winter Sunday as a late January fundraiser to fix the splintering floor at Conduit, the downtown dance space that Johnson and choreographer Mary Oslund directed at the time. Although it snowed that weekend, Merrill refused to cancel the show—and people came out for it, Johnson said. “As far as compassionate, unusual movement goes,” Oslund said, “she was an overflowing genius.”
Above all, Merrill’s kindness endeared her to the dance community. She was known for taking good care of her dancers, being genuinely interested in who they were and what they could bring to a piece. Bielemeier and Tran remember Merrill bringing food to rehearsals. (“A lot of food,” Tran said. “It was like a whole potluck, but it was all hers, enough to feed a village.”) She also brought a diplomatic approach to the choreographic process. “She never would have said, ‘That’s horrible,’” Tran explained. “She would say, ‘Let’s try that again.’ She wouldn’t say, ‘You’re not doing it right,’ she would say, ‘This part isn’t working,’ and would change it. It was more about the dancers than her.” Johnson agreed. “She loved the way you did [her work]; she loved seeing you emerge.” Said Moseley, “She looked at the power each person could bring to the work and valued that over pretty much everything else. She would go after what was vulnerable and make it your strength through the process.”
Although she pared down her schedule in later years, Merrill stayed close to the dance community. In 2006, she asked Johnson to teach her Yvonne Rainer’s 1966 work Trio A, although “What that really meant was ‘I want to spend time with you in the studio,’” Johnson said. (Padilla, who learned it with her, said Merrill suggested performing it in tutus and cowboy boots.) And, too, Merrill continued to attend dance performances around town and lend her support, moral and otherwise, to the people she had brought together over the years. “You just never imagine Bonnie being gone,” Patton said. “I think her spirit will be hanging around Portland for years to come.”
Merrill is survived by Ralph, her husband of 60 years; children Kiri (Ihab), Anina (David), and Erik (Meg); grandchildren Lilly Bar, Sophie, and Max; and siblings Robert (Ruth) and Barbara. Information on services was pending at press time. A guest book where people can share their memories of Merrill is located here.