‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.


Jann Dryer, 1947-2013: every movement was a prayer

Martha Ullman West remembers one of the 'scary wimens' who planted the seeds of contemporary dance in Portland

Jann Dryer dancing circa 1980; set by Henk Pander

Jann Dryer dancing circa 1980; set by Henk Pander

UPDATE: You can read Jann Dryer’s official obituary notice here.


For nearly twenty-five years I have carried with me a memory of Jann Dryer, who died at age 65 on February 25 after a brief illness. In my memory she is dressed in black velvet and patchwork, out in the middle of nowhere, sitting with two other dancers on railroad ties that are tied to nothing. Her pinky is extended, and she is primly “drinking” tea from a delicate cup. This section of a four-part work called “Zoom” was  titled, in the words of Larry McMurtry, “Scary Wimens.” “Zoom” was performed at Portland State University’s Shattuck Studio Theatre in November, 1989.

Dryer, one of a number of “scary wimens” (Bonnie Merrill, Catherine Evleshin, Pat Wong and Judy Patton) who were integral to the establishment of contemporary dance in the city, was born in Portland on August 19, 1947, and grew up in Southwest Portland. She spent a good deal of her girlhood east of the mountains, and her use of space in her choreography reflected that landscape.  She was a champion equestrian who qualified for Olympic jumping at a time when women need not apply, and that athleticism was very much a part of her choreography, for herself and for the members of the Portland Dance Theatre, which she helped to found in 1970.  This applied  to Cirque, which she established in 1980, after Portland’s first modern dance company disbanded.

Dryer was educated in Catholic schools in Portland, including St. Mary’s Academy, which has a strong program in the arts. She had left the faith of her youth by the time I knew her, and yet she once told me that when she danced, every movement was a prayer. For college, she went first to Bennett College in New York State, then to the Boston Conservatory, where she majored in theater.  All of her work was intensely theatrical and visually oriented: costumes were as integral to her repertoire (she created more than 40 pieces) as choreography, sets, props and sound, and when Dryer stopped dancing, she became a first-rate couturier. Her coats, made from vintage Pendleton blankets, were a marvel of design and color.