Anna Halprin

Vanport Mosaic’s flood of memories

ArtsWatch Weekly: A festival to remember, theater heats up, All Classical's leap forward, whither Europe, Chachalu steps up, more

MONDAY IS MEMORIAL DAY, a national remembering of soldiers who have died while on duty, and this is a week for other meaningful anniversaries, too. Tuesday marked a full year since George Floyd was murdered at the knee of a Minneapolis policeman, setting off national protests, accelerating a nationwide battle over race and cultural and political life, and reverberating through the presidential election and the failed Capitol takeover of January 6.

And Sunday will be the 73rd anniversary of the Vanport Flood, which on May 30, 1948, burst through a a 200-foot section of railroad berm just north of Portland on land where Delta Park and its surrounds now sit. Floodwaters from the Columbia River poured in, inundating the wartime city of Vanport, sweeping away its infrastructure, killing at least 15 people, and leaving 18,500 homeless. It was a sudden cultural reshaping with historic consequences. Built in 1942 to house workers at the Portland and Vancouver Kaiser shipyards and their families, Vanport had a population of 40,000 at its height, making it the second-largest city in Oregon at the time. It was also, for its few years, the most racially and ethnically diverse city in Oregon: Wartime workers came from all over, creating an instant city that looked and acted very differently from the Oregon of its time, and more like the multicultural nation that the United States is becoming in the 21st century.

A few of the faces of Vanport, Oregon’s most racially diverse city before floodwaters washed it away in 1948. Photo: City of Portland Archives

SIX YEARS AGO THE VANPORT MOSAIC FESTIVAL sprang into being, building on the memories of Vanport to expand upon its meanings in contemporary life. Created by Laura Lo Forti and Damaris Webb, it began as a Memorial Day Weekend event at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, with a historical display, play productions, and other events. It’s grown since into a citywide event lasting several weeks in various venues, including online. This year’s festival, which involves about 200 artists, activists, historians, collaborating groups, and others, began Wednesday and continues with both virtual and in-person events through June 30. 

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Stephen Petronio: Past and present

The choreographer has recovered and re-staged several postmodern classics, which inform his own current work

Stephen Petronio returned to Portland’s Newmark Theatre four years after his company danced the haunting, longform piece Like Lazarus Did. This time, his company performed a concert that included both a recent, original work and a set of iconic and influential pieces from some of Petronio’s postmodern heroes and mentors—Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and Anna Halprin.

Starting in 2014 with Merce Cunningham’s RainForest, the company has added one or more historic pieces to its repertoire as part of the project Petronio calls Bloodlines. After celebrating his company’s 30th anniversary, Petronio began Bloodlines as a way to honor the choreographers whose works were pivotal to Petronio’s own legacy. At the same time, the series provides a new path forward for the company—each season they perform a new, original work alongside the historical pieces. As writer Melanie George explains in her excellent essay included with the program, Bloodlines establishes “a ”dialogue with itself and current and future pieces by Petronio.“ It’s a way of saying, ”this is where we’ve come from,” that doesn’t just leave Petronio’s influences in the past: The historic pieces brought to life on the stage, some of them for the first time in many years, find an equal footing with brand new work.

Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A With Flags,” performed by the Stephen Petronio Company/Photo by Julie Lemberger, courtesy of White Bird

This invites a comparative reading of the dances, new and old alike. Besides Cunningham, Petronio has focused on Trisha Brown, Halprin, Paxton, and Rainer for this exciting, ongoing project.

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