A Festival of Dance

DanceWatch Weekly: Zipping through dance history

An important new film about Portland dance history, Ronald K. Brown, Eugene Ballet and a Butoh series highlight the week in dance

Dance offerings this weekend zip around through history’s timeline and around the world, bringing us ballet from the early 19th century, to a film documenting Portland’s contemporary dance history, to newer contemporary dance works that combines cultural aesthetics in exploration of self and place.

Portland dance artist and filmmaker Eric Nordstrom has captured six decades of contemporary dance in Portland in his new film Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present. The film screens Thursday night at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium in partnership with the NW Film Center.

With the help of some of Portland’s most notable dance artists and writers, along with archival research, Nordstrom has been begun the process of chronicling the history and evolution of contemporary dance in Portland.

Back in June 2016 I interviewed Nordstrom prior to the screening of the film’s first iteration, and I thought I would share that conversation with you again here.

Also happening this weekend is the performance of three works by Brooklyn choreographer Ronald K. Brown and his dance company Evidence, presented by White Bird. Brown has been making work since 1987 that integrates traditional African and contemporary movement aesthetics.

From April 8-11 Brown and his company members will be teaching a series of workshops at Reed College on composition and dance technique, and will give a lecture demonstration on April 10. Space is limited so register soon.

Interview with Eric Nordstrom

What inspired you to make this film?

Having danced in Portland for a decade (with Oslund and Co., Keith V. Goodman, Linda K. Johnson, and POV Dance, among others), I feel like, before this project, my knowledge of the history of dance in Portland was limited. I was seeing a lot of new people moving to Portland with an interest in dance, and realized that most of them were even more unfamiliar with the history of Portland dance, and yet that they were—through their own practices—becoming part of a rich genealogy. I wanted to make this film to honor those who built the contemporary dance scene in Portland, and also for those of us who are currently dancing here to connect with the past.

How long have you been working on this project?

A year-and-a-half. The catalyst to start the groundwork for this film was receiving a RACC grant.

Where have you sourced the most information about Portland’s dance history?

I have worked in the archives at Reed College and Portland State University, which both contain rich materials in the forms of photographs of past performances, and press releases, course rosters, and other primary documents from when both colleges were central to the dance community in Portland and participated in the shaping of Portland Dance.

The most information has come from my one-on-one interviews with over thirty prominent figures from the history of contemporary dance in Portland. These include Vaunda Carter, Bonnie Merrill, Judy Patton, Nancy Matschek, and Gregg Bielemeier, among others. Many of the artists with whom I spoke had their own archives—old VHS tapes of their own performances, often relegated to closets or basements. Part of the goal of this film is to take this material, preserve it, and to centralize it. This is one part of the film about which I am especially excited.

With this film, I’m doing three things: 1. Gathering the information about Portland dance history through these interviews and this archival footage. 2. Preserving this information by recording the interviews and converting artists’ VHS videos to digital format. And 3. Coordinating with the PSU archives to house footage of some of the seminal performances referenced in the film, and some of the interviews in their entirety.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned from your research?

I was surprised to learn how the contemporary dance scene in Portland really stemmed from early programs at both PSU and Reed College. It made me realize how much of an impact university resources have on professional companies, and how professional companies can really influence education. This is certainly something to consider as PSU has just abolished its plans to reinstitute its Dance major—which was cut in 1994—and cut its only full time Dance faculty position; this position’s job was supposed to be to help grow the program back into a major. This feels like a real lost opportunity not just for students, but also the Portland dance community. It will be interesting to see what happens at Reed now that they—for the first time in the history of the college—have a Dance major starting in Fall 2016.

Also, I was fascinated to learn about Vaunda Carter’s PBS television show from the early 1970s. It was called Vaunda’s View and played after Sesame Street.

Another pleasure was hearing recollections about Keith Goodman and Jann Dryer, two very influential people in Portland dance who are now deceased. It was really touching to talk to friends and colleagues of both of these artists, and to hear how important their work was, and how they are missed.

The other thing that is crucial to mention is that during the time of making this film, Conduit—Portland’s longtime incubator for contemporary dance—was evicted from their space on the fourth floor of the Pythian Building, where they’d been for almost two decades. Then it was announced that Conduit is closing the doors of their new rental space in the Ford Building. Conduit has been around for 20 years, and has long been the center of Portland dance. Their shuttering is an indication of a changing landscape in Portland, and this event asks us if this changing landscape is for the better or worse for our city. This is a great moment to look back at Conduit, and I hope that this film honors the space and all of the people involved in making Conduit what is has been.

How did you get involved in dance for film?

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