In the past year we’ve seen dance artists across Portland emerging from their isolation. Some arrive at the smattering of dance classes still running. Some appear as loyal audience members at local performances. Others surface with a fully realized choreographic vision, ready to pull the curtain up on works that have been forming amid the chaos of the past two years.
The scattering of approaches by individual artists reflects Portland’s dance scene as a whole, which in pandemic times has felt like a discombobulated hodgepodge. A few companies weathered the storm and came out with enough funding to run shows in 2021. Some studios remained opened against odds. The doors of others shut for good. And miraculously, a couple of freelance choreographers are self-producing work. Portland-born Graham Cole, back in his home city after years in Raleigh, N.C., and New York City, is one of them.
Cole relocated from New York back to Portland in January 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to hit the United States and starting to change the landscape of our city, rocking the foundations of our arts scene with it. Despite the challenges of familiarizing himself with a new arts scene, Cole managed to find his way in the world of Portland dance: frequenting classes, securing his role as executive director at White Bird, and connecting with two local dancers to begin a six-month rehearsal process that would flesh out ideas he’d been ruminating since 2018 in New York. Now, he’s ready to debut his first work here in Portland. Running Wednesday, January 26 through Sunday, January 30, Cole’s SOLO TRIPS will be performed at A-WOL Dance Collective.
SOLO TRIPS premieres three original, theatrical dance works – Comfort Tone, Exhaustion, and Air Bodies – all created by Cole in collaboration with performers Lindsay Dreyer and Jordan Kriston. The new work reflects on two complementary ways of existing: solitude and togetherness. On his website, he describes SOLO TRIPS as an encapsulation of the “imperfect, strange, human responses to solitude, and the joy of coming together again.”
Coming together again, Cole mentioned, has been much easier in Portland than in New York, where access to space – even as an employee at Gibney Dance – was challenging. Rehearsing for SOLO TRIPS at FLOCK, BodyVox, NW Dance Project, and Steps PDX has been easily accessible. The hard parts are more universally relatable experiences: the in and out of quarantine, Covid exposures, and navigating the safety of meeting amid surges. For a few weeks, Cole even tried out remote Zoom rehearsals, which was a new experience for him as a choreographer. “We’ve had several surges since then as well,” Cole said over the phone. “When people come to the show, I think people will see just how incredibly physically demanding the choreography is. To rehearse it for large swaths of time masked has been such a challenge both physically and mentally for the dancers.”
While it’s no secret that the past two years have been tough times for creating work, there’ve been some bright moments for dancers in Portland as well. After Cole connected with Dreyer in class at SKC Studio, the two began a simple rehearsal process, fleshing out concepts that Cole envisioned as a duet. A few months later, push/FOLD re-staged Samuel Hobbs’s work Early at the Old Moody Stage on the Southwest waterfront and Cole was struck by its solo performance by Jordan Kriston. “My work has a strong theatrical element,” Cole remarked, “and I knew she was the right fit for SOLO WORKS from both her background at Pilobolus and her performance in Early.”
In a conversation with ArtsWatch, Cole touched on many things:
How would you describe your style? How has your training played a role in that?
I’m from Portland originally; I was born here. I started taking Irish step dance classes at the An Daire Academy in SE at six years old before transitioning into Ballet at Oregon Ballet Theater at 9 or 10. Even though the Irish step dancing isn’t something I continued, it’s always impacted my natural tendencies in improvisation and choreography. I love fast, hoppy footwork and rhythmic movement. I love to integrate jumping in my movement. I really enjoy working with Jordan and Lindsay because they have such strong technical foundations.
My time at North Carolina School of the Arts was very formative for me. I had the ability to perform Shein Wei’s Rite of Spring. I was interested in his Natural Body Development Technique and his philosophy.
(Note: Shein Wei’s Natural Body Development technique takes a holistic approach to dance, integrating breath-work with proprioception, or kinesthesia, plus visual focus, weight, and gravity.)
Rite of Spring utilized a lot of rotation work: a combination of a circular, painterly approach [to movement]. There’s a section towards the middle of the piece where it’s all about tracing the edge of your rotation circles with your shoulder and hips. That’s something I was really interested in.
I moved to New York not long after graduation, and when I graduated from school my focus was entirely technical. In New York, I was lucky enough to work with Anabella Lenzu. Anabella had an approach to movement that, at first, was really challenging and frustrating to me. In retrospect, it’s rubbed off on me a lot. She called her concept the “inner chicken.” You’re essentially following a constant monologue in your mind while in motion. That was really eye-opening for me to experience and try to recreate that within my own choreography.
The text in SOLO TRIPS’ first piece, Comfort Tone, is antagonistic to the character that Lindsay is portraying. You could call it a cock-fight of inner chickens. I’m not proud to say, but it’s a monologue composed of thoughts that come to my own mind. They aren’t great thoughts, but they are there and they are real.
What does “imperfect, strange, human responses to solitude, and the joy of coming together again” mean to you? Is this thought process a product of the pandemic?
In a lot of ways, this is not a response to the pandemic. But, there’s no way to make a work that doesn’t relate to Covid right now because it has infused everything.
The original concept of two solos came to me back in 2018 after going through a major back surgery. I came out of that experience feeling adrift while I was living in New York. In 2019, I co-produced a show called PROUD/weak, for which I created two works: good_grief_gil and Crestfalling. Looking back, it was the pain talking and the loss of identity. Recovering from that surgery alone in my room while the city cycled around me, that was the first time I’d truly experienced solitude. There were some coping mechanisms I developed that were very strange, and they didn’t make me feel less alone. That’s what the “imperfect and strange” part refers to.
“The joy of coming together” is a reflection on my overarching experience in connecting with artists to create work. Just having conversations about solitude with others and adjusting to that has been refreshing.
For SOLO TRIPS, you’re collaborating with a few musicians: Portland locals Ryan Wolfe and Pink Martini. How did you meet them and what drew you to including their work in the show?
Ryan Wolfe is a Portland native who lives in New York currently. He was an accompanist at City Center for the Cunningham Trust classes while I was a registrar for the Cunningham Trust. We started to collaborate in the studio with improvisation in New York. When I moved back, we just stayed in touch. In rehearsals, I’ll have a period where I work on different movement ideas and see what “has legs,” so to speak, and then run with it. Looking back at old footage from improvisations in New York, I realized what he was creating as I was dancing was really working with my movement. The music for Air Bodies is an original creation by Ryan.
The idea to use a song by Pink Martini came while at work. As part of the transition at White Bird to move into new office space, I’ve been cleaning out the offices there. When I was clearing out one of the desks I found a music box that played the Pink Martini song “Sympathique.” I ended up cycling through that music box a couple of times a day as I was working and felt that the song could really work as part of the score for SOLO TRIPS.
You came back to Portland just before the pandemic hit. What is your vision for your life as an artist when the pandemic no longer holds such a grasp on our daily happenings?
Short term, I am really looking forward to Covid transitioning away and getting back into taking classes here in Portland and seeing performances. Even just from a few performances, I was able to get connected to the community here in the past year. Even though I was born here, I realize that I am a newcomer here! I have a lot to learn from the people in this community and the only way to do that is coming back in person.
Long term has the caveat that you don’t know anything about what will happen two years down the line. It’s always been my dream to not just create work but to produce it in a way that’s enjoyable for me and ethical for the performers. As a performer myself, I’ve seen so many performers be taken advantage of and I’m trying to do my best to move away from that in my new projects here.
When I was growing up in Portland, my dad [Gary Cole] was on a similar path to what I’m on right now but in theater. He was one of the co-founders of CoHo productions. CoHo started as a series of pop-up productions around town that were innovative for the time. They offered unique compensation packages for the performers based on the show’s revenue. The financial realities for dance are different from theater in Portland, but nonetheless, his intention of making life better for performers has really rubbed off on me.
What has your attention right now as both an artist and human?
Something that’s been filling my time has been teaching Dance for Parkinson’s Disease and connecting with Virginia Belts here in Portland. The Dance for PD curriculum was started by Mark Morris Dance Group and has spread through the U.S. from there. I’ve been so lucky to work with a group of dancers with Parkinson’s here in Portland. The connection between all of us has been poignant for me, even with having been virtual. They have a lot of courage. Towards the end of your life, PD robs you of a lot of autonomy and self-control. Sitting with them through that on a regular basis is a connection I’ve been really thankful for. It’s really helped me realize that there are a lot of uphill battles in life that don’t have to be specific to any illness.
See SOLO TRIPS Wednesday-Sunday, Jan. 26-30, at A-WOL Dance, 513 N.E. Schuyler St, Portland. Ticket information here.