Bakkhai

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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ArtsWatch Weekly: dance of life

From Scheharazade spinning stories to a 6-year-old spinning a galaxy, a whirl of creative energy keeps Oregon in the dance

DOES ANY LITERARY TALE DEAL MORE DIRECTLY with the power of storytelling than the story of Scheherazade? The visier’s daughter created a tapestry of words that saved her life, surviving for a thousand and one nights by spinning a string of stories so fascinating that the tyrant who had planned to kill her was compelled to grant a stay of execution night after night so she could tell the ending of each unfinished tale the following night. Scheherazade’s tale of tales fascinated the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, whose music for it in turn fascinated the late Portland choreographer Dennis Spaight, who created a ballet to it in 1990 for Oregon Ballet Theatre. Now OBT is in the midst of its first revival of Spaight’s story ballet since 1993.

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s visual phantasmagoria Scheherazade. Photo: Yi Yin 

Spaight’s version of the Scheherazade tale, which was something of a Portland all-star collaboration with sets by the celebrated painter Henk Pander, costumes by the visionary theatrical designer/director Ric Young, and lighting by the masterful Peter West, is the anchor of OBT’s thirtieth anniversary season-opening program, and Martha Ullman West, in her ArtsWatch review Wit, speed, a blast from the past, declares it a “grand entertainment.” She continues: “I have never seen Scheherazade better-performed than it was on opening night, and that’s saying something.”

But Scheherazade, Ullman West stresses, is only part of the story. The OBT dancers’ performances of William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated and George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto are equally distinguished: “It’s brilliant programming, …. Each ballet is a gift to the audience, and a gift to the dancers as well, offering them opportunities to stretch and grow, hone their technique, and refine their artistry.”

Brian Simcoe in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The program has three more performances, Thursday through Saturday in Keller Auditorium. After that, who knows what Scheherazade’s story-hungry tyrant might do?

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Bakkhai to the future

Shaking the Tree's visually ravishing new version of Euripides' ancient Greek tragedy ripples nervously down the centuries to now

Don’t aggravate the gods.

This seems like sound advice even today, when the universe is out of kilter enough without purposely sticking a thumb in its eye. How much more sage must it have seemed back in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece, when the pantheon of deities had all the flaws of humans, but were infinitely more powerful, and therefore infinitely more dangerous, and infinitely more used to getting their way?

This holds true particularly if the god in question is named Dionysus (or Bacchus, as the Romans had it), god of wine, fertility, religious ecstasy, ritual madness, and – oh, yes: that giddy and unstable illusion called theater. Dionysus could throw a whale of a party, but he was hardly known for his reasoned approach to problem-solving. He was a vindictive sort, and he bore a grudge, and he gathered devotees who were in his thrall, no matter how cruel or ridiculous or unspeakable his demands might be. If that sounds familiar – well, at a time when the world cries out for Apollonian restraint, here we are, captured in a Dionysian frenzy in our culture and politics, swept up in a foolish and destructive nightmare of blind impulse.

Bakkhai: tellers of the tale. Photo: Meg Nanna

Which may or may not have been why director Samantha Van Der Merwe chose to start the new season at her Shaking the Tree Theatre with Bakkhai, a play you might know better under the title The Bacchae or The Bacchantes, in a new version by the poet and classicist Anne Carson. Euripides’ tragedy, which premiered in 405 B.C.E. in the appropriately named Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, carries a scent of heedless yet inevitable doom that seems to have parallels to the present day, although it’s hardly a perfect fit: It’s tough to blame the gods for our all-too-human current predicament.

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