agnieszka laska

DanceWatch Weekly: Intersecting with India

A busy week of dance in Portland is loaded with cross-cultural intersections

I have ALWAYS been interested in the intersection and cross-pollination of cultures. As someone who grew up in Berkeley, California, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s (hippie to hip hop), and within the Hare Krishna movement (a Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu religious organization), I live at this intersection. I am the embodiment of that idea.

I may look like a typical, Caucasian, American woman, but I’m not. I went to protest marches in a stroller before I could walk. I was named after a very important sacred river in India. I can sing and recite songs and prayers in Sanskrit. I know how to wear a sari. I believe in reincarnation and Karma. I have always been a strict vegetarian (no meat, fish, or eggs), and I almost allowed my marriage to be arranged (though I found love on my own). And the first dance class I ever took was a Bharatanatyam (classical South Indian dance) class taught by a white American ballerina. These experiences have afforded me the ability to understand many perspectives, to move between worlds, to see beauty in things outside of my own experiences, and to sometimes/often, feel like an outsider.

This week’s dance performances intersect, cross boundaries, share elements, and they speak of new experiences, shared experiences, multicultural experiences, human experiences, that stretch our brains and go to the edge.

Nritya Suhrid. Photo courtesy of Kalakendra.

On Saturday, 17 Indian dance groups from Portland and beyond, made up of students and professionals, will converge on Lewis & Clark College’s Evans Auditorium to perform in Nrityotsava, a fundraiser for Kalakendra—a Portland-based organization founded in 1987, that promotes the performing arts from across the Indian subcontinent through classical dance and music performances. The dance styles presented on Saturday will include Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Odissi, Bharatha Nrithyam, Rajasthani dance, Goan dance, Haryanvi folk, and Garba. It’s going to be an Indian dance feast to end all feasts.

Natya leela Academy. Photo courtesy of Kalakendra.

I spoke with Gidu Sriram, one of the Kalakendra board members, about the importance of an organization like this, especially considering our current political climate and our government’s perspective on immigrants. We spoke via email, and this is what he wrote:

“Indian classical music and dance is one of the richest if not the richest in the world and it dates back to over 2000 years ago. We believe that it is not only our duty to preserve our art but also showcase it to the American audience who may not be aware of it and to present it to the Indian Americans who would be sorely missing it being so far away from their homeland.”

Most of us came to the States to either pursue higher studies or a better standard of living and we were trading our rich culture in this pursuit. Organizations like Kalakendra fill a void by bringing highly talented artists to perform in the United States. In this process, it also brings us pride as we see Americans getting exposed to this art, some of whom have become ardent lovers of Indian classical music and dance.

In the current political environment, it definitely brings diversity and educates Americans to become aware of the rich talent in people from other parts of the world and to not judge people simply by their ethnicity.”

California dancers. Photo courtesy of Kalakendra.

Nrityotsava is being coordinated by Mini Jairaj, a community organizer and accomplished dancer, singer, and musician. Jairaj began taking dance lessons from her father, the late renowned Sri. T Radhakrishnan, at the age of three. He was a master in Kathakali and Kerala Natanam, dance forms from the tropical state of Kerala in South India.

She has also trained in Bharatanatyam from Kalakshetra Vilasini and in Mohiniyattam from Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty amma and her daughter Smt. Sridevi Rajan. She learned Ottamthullal Dance (a Kerala temple art form) from her father and later from master Kalamandalam Prabhakaran. She is currently studying Kuchipudi (a dance form of Andhra Pradesh) from Smt. Anuradha Ganesh, the director of Nartana school of Kuchipudi here in Portland. She is trained in Carnatic music under Sri. Mahadeva Iyer, Sri. Natesan Master and Sri. Kalyana Sundaram Bhagavathar, and has been singing for Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi arangetrams (an onstage debut for students of Indian classical dance and music) for many years.

Folk Jhalak. Photo courtesy of Kalakendra.

I have admired Jairaj from afar for several years now because of her tireless commitment to organizing community events, her ability to perform so many different styles of Indian dance, and her desire for continued learning. Jairaj of course is not alone. She is part of a large community of talented individuals from all over India, also living in the Portland area, who are deeply committed to creating community and keeping their home cultures alive while living here in America.

I hope to see you all at Lewis & Clark on Saturday where you can experience much more and be part of something much bigger. I’ll be there.

Performances this week

The Light of Progress-Portland Winter Light Festival
February 1-3
Flamebuoyant Productions, Circus Luminescence, BodyVox, Éowyn Emerald & Dancers, and Rainbow Dance Theatre
World Trade Center, 121 SW Salmon Street
Across town, in venues far and wide, Portland Winter Light Festival will attempt to draw Portlanders out of their homes into the night, in the dead of winter, to be together in celebration of Winter, art and technology. The festival will feature live performances by BodyVox, Circus Luminescence, Flamebuoyant Productions, Éowyn Emerald & Dancers, and Rainbow Dance Theatre. A little bit of movement energy to keep you warm.

Reed College Dance Thesis Showing: Greetings and Elaborations
Olivia Hasencamp, Mackenzie Schuller, and Rika Yotsumoto
February 1-3
Reed College, Performing Arts Building, Massee Performance Lab PAB 128, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd
Reed Dance thesis candidates Olivia Hasencamp, Mackenzie Schuller, and Rika Yotsumoto integrate their experiences with choreographers Bouchra Ouizguen (Morocco), Ohad Naharin (Israel), Wim Vandekeybus (Belgium), and Bailarines Toda La Vida (Argentina), into new works focusing on intimacy, collaboration, and the subconscious mind.

Oregon Bird sketches—open rehearsal
Agnieszka Laska Dancers
7 pm February 1
Polish Hall, 3832 N Interstate
Celebrating its 15th anniversary, Agnieszka Laska Dancers, directed by Polish contemporary choreographer Agnieszka Laska, in collaboration with composer Jack Gabel, will present new choreography to choral works by Henryk Górecki, Oregon Bird Sketches by Gabel, and cabaret songs of Zygmunt Konieczny to name a few. Full concert April 14-15.

The skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE
Presented by BodyVox
February 1-10
BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave.
Highlighting their Portland dance legacy, Eric Skinner and Daniel Kirk present an evening of two restaged works, Here and there, now and then, Semita, and a world premiere duet. The three works, performed by Brian Nelson, Chase Hamilton, Skye Stouber, Skinner and Kirk, reflect complex relationships, aging, perception, and loss. Dance writer Heather Wisner takes a closer look at the works and its choreographers in her preview Skinner/Kirk Dance Company hits rewind and fast-forward for ArtsWatch.

The Shore of Endless Worlds
A solo by Nathan Montgomery
7:30 pm February 2
The Headwaters, 55 NE Farragut St. #4
In his solo, The Shore of Endless Worlds, Butoh performer Nathan Montgomery reveals that his dance is “an energetic and formal pattern stitched through space and time…a deep inner world…a presentation of the wholly unique individual…a gift of one soul sprouting something beautiful from the dark soil of the human experience.”

Nrityotsava 2018: An evening of Indian Classical & Folk Dances
Presented by Kalakendra
4:30 pm February 3
Evans Auditorium, Lewis and Clark College, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Road
See above.

Chitra: The Girl Prince
NW Children’s Theatre, Co-directed by Sarah Jane Hardy and Anita Menon
February 3-25
Mainstage, NW Children’s Theatre, 1819 NW Everett St.
In this retelling of a fourth century tale from the Mahabharata, co-directors Sarah Jane Hardy and Anita Menon along with a collaborative team of theater artists, musicians, and dancers from India and Portland’s Bengali-American community, tell the story of a warrior princess who struggles to stay true to herself while balancing her responsibility to her people and true love’s call.

The Lady Of The Camellias
Choreography by John Neumeier with music by Frédéric Chopin
Performed by the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
12:55 pm February 4
Playing at Lloyd Center 10 with IMAX, Century 16 Eastport, Clackamas Town Center, and Liberty Theatre.
In a live broadcast all the way from Moscow to a movie theatre near you, the Bolshoi Ballet performs The Lady Of The Camellias, live, for one performance only.

The ballet, choreographed by John Neumeier in 1978 for the Stuttgart Ballet, is based on the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas fils, and depicts Parisian life in the 19th century. The story tells the tale of a doomed love affair between a sick and dying courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, and her lover Armand. The ballet takes place during an auction after Marguerite’s death, and develops into a series of memories recalled from the points of view from Armand’s, his father’s, and Marguerite’s.

Upcoming Performances

February 1-10, The skinner|kirk DANCE ENSEMBLE, presented by BodyVox
February 3-25, Chitra The Girl Prince, NW Children’s Theatre, Co-directed by Sarah Jane Hardy and Anita Menon
February 8, Fall in Love with Flamenco, Hosted by Espacio Flamenco Portland
February 15-18, a·mor·phous, DownRight Productions
February 15, Faculty Dance Concert featuring guest artist Vincent Mantsoe, Hosted by University of Oregon School of Music and Dance
February 16-March 4, Left of Center, A-WOL Dance Collective
February 17-18, Pink Martini, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
February 18, Chapel Theatre Open House, Chapel Theatre
February 21, Mark Morris Dance Group, presented by White Bird
February 23-25, Configure, PDX Contemporary Ballet
February 24-March 4, Alice (in wonderland), choreography by Septime Webre, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre
February 25, Shivarpanam, performance by Sweta Ravisankar
February 26, Rejoice! at AWMC Regional Finals, Rejoice: Diaspora Dance Theater
February 27-March 1, Kinky Boots, Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Eugene

March 2-4, Zorro: The Ballet, Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
March 1-3, Urban Bush Women, presented by White Bird
March 3-4, Voices: A Choreographers’ Showcase, Hosted by PDX Dance Collective
March 4, The Flames Of Paris, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
March 8-10, Jessica Lang Dance, presented by White Bird
March 14, Compañia Jesús Carmona, presented by White Bird
March 15-17, HEDDA, NW Dance Project
March 22-24, To Have It All, choreography by Katie Scherman, presented by BodyVox

April 4, iLumiDance, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5, Earth Angel and other repertory works, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Corvallis
April 5-7, Stephen Petronio Company, presented by White Bird
April 7, Reaching Back to Our Roots: Annual Gala Fundraiser, Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe
April 8, Giselle, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
April 9, Noontime Showcase: Jefferson Dancers, Presented by Portland’5
April 12-14, Contact Dance Film Festival, presented by BodyVox and Northwest Film Center
Apr 14-25, Peer Gynt with Orchestra Next, Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene
April 12-21, Man/Woman, choreography by Mikhail Fokine, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Nicolo Fonte, James Canfield, Jiří Kylián, performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 19-28, Early, push/FOLD, choreographed and directed by Samuel Hobbs
April 20-29, X-Posed, Polaris Dance Theatre, Robert Guitron
April 24-25, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, presented by White Bird
April 24-25, The Wind and the Wild, BodyVox and Chamber Music Northwest

May 4-5, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, New work premiere, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Western Oregon University, Monmouth
May 10-19, Rain & Roses (world premiere), BodyVox
May 11-13, Compose, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 11-13, Alice in Wonderland, Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
May 14, Noontime Showcase: OBT2, Presented by Portland’5
May 16, Ballet Hispȧnico, presented by White Bird
May 17-20, CRANE, The Holding Project
May 23-June 3, Closer, original works by the dancers of Oregon Ballet Theatre

June 8-10, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 10, Coppelia, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema Live from Moscow
June 14-16, World Premiere – Ihsan Rustem, MemoryHouse – Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project
June 15-17, New Expressive Works Residency Performance
June 24, Salem World Beat, Rainbow Dance Theatre, Salem


A Portland ‘Rite of Spring’ momentous in its own right

Ken Selden and Agnieszka Laska join forces to celebrate the 'Rite'


On May 29, 1913, “The Rite of Spring,” choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky to music composed by Igor Stravinsky, premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for The Ballets Russes, the ballet captured a pagan celebration of spring: A young virgin, The Chosen One, sacrifices herself to the God of Spring by dancing herself to death. There were only eight performances of the ballet in Paris and London, and it was not performed again until its careful reconstruction by The Joffrey Ballet in 1987.

“”The Rite of Spring”” is notorious for the riots that supposedly occurred on its opening night in Paris. The night was a hot and humid, and tempers flared as the patrons at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées shared their opinions on the new production. Some reported that the theater broke out in pandemonium and the police were called; another report said a duel was scheduled because a lady was slighted; and another that the music was almost inaudible for the dancers onstage because of all the whistling, catcalling and shouting in the audience. Audiences up until this point were accustomed to a very different esthetic, what was seen and heard that night was considered by many to be ugly and noisy. Whatever the truth was, this was a turning point for both music and dance.

Henri Quittard, a music critic for Le Figaro, called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity”: “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure.” But the view of Jacques Riviere, a French intellectual and editor of The New French Review, has prevailed: “The great innovation of le Sacre du Printemps is the absence of all “trimmings.” Here is a work that is absolutely pure. Cold and harsh, if you will, but without any glaze to mar its inherent brilliance, without any artifices to rearrange or distort its contours. This is not a “work of art” with all the usual little contrivances. Nothing is blurred, nothing obscured by shadows; there is no veiling or poetic mellowing, no trace of esthetic effect. The work is presented whole and in its natural state; the parts are set before us completely raw, without anything that will aid in their digestion; everything is open, intact, clear, and coarse…”


Lauren Michelle Richmond, The Chosen One, in Agnieszka Laska’s version of “The Rite of Spring” /Photo by Chris Leck

The June 7 centennial celebration of “The Rite of Spring” at Lincoln Hall with Ken Selden conducting the PSU orchestra and choreography by Agnieszka Laska was momentous. A live orchestra and a live dance performance on the same stage is rare in Portland, and the concert was met with great enthusiasm by the audience, a sold-out house and a standing ovation.



According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2010, an estimated 12.3 million adults and children were in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution around the world; 56 percent of these victims were women and girls. As many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the United States.

With “Broken Flowers,” Agnieszka Laska, a local Polish expatriate and choreographer, has brought attention to the situation of  this problem. Her episodic,  53-minute dance depicts the devastating psychological effects of being forced into sexual slavery. In collaboration with her composer husband Jack Gabel and nine dancers, she has explored the inner workings and personal relationships inside the world of human trafficking. “People are born to be loved. Things are made to be used. Lives go wrong when things are loved and people are used.” (program notes)

Through dim lighting, a creaky bed, one long wooden table, 3 stools, mirrors and a row of clothes taken on and off, Laska (whose previous dances have dealt with 9/11, the wars in the Middle East, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and airport body scanners) creates a lonely, bleak scene where eight sex workers and one pimp tell a story of dependence, physical abuse, rape, innocence lost, isolation, exploitation, slavery and oppression.

“Broken Flowers” is a series of connected solos, duets and group dances that tell the story of a group of women trapped in sexual slavery by one man. It opens in a very theatrical way with one dancer sitting alone in a spotlight in the middle of the floor while the others are scattered around the dark edges of the stage suggestively lounging across a bed, a table and some chairs.