‘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.


Dance Watch: The return of White Bird and OBT

Conduit news plus the beginning of the season for White Bird and Oregon Ballet Theatre

Big news for the Portland dance community this week: Conduit Dance Inc., Portland’s incubator for independent contemporary dance, has found a new home in the historic Ford Building, at 2505 SE 11th Ave., suite 120. The front of the building opens onto Division street, near the new Max Orange Line, in the quickly growing SE Division community. The new space is practically move-in ready. It is a bright and open, 3,001 sq room, with laminated wood floors, mirrors and ballet barres already installed. The space also has a small kitchen and two dressing rooms.

Last March after 20 years in the Pythian Building in downtown Portland, Conduit was  evicted by its landlord, Nia Technique. Since that time, Conduit’s programs went mobile, and the center continued presenting classes and workshop as well as its annual Dance+ series throughout the city. The artistic team at Conduit—Tere Mathern, Vanessa Vogel, Emily Running and Sara Himmelman—have been working tirelessly to find a new space that met all of Conduits needs, and it has finally payed off. Stay tuned for more news on Conduit as they move forward in their new home.

Momix in Alchemia. Photo by Max Pucciariello.

Momix in Alchemia. Photo by Max Pucciariello.

Presented by White Bird
Oct 8-10
Newmark Theater, 1111 SW Broadway
Inspired by the ancient practice of Alchemy, Moses Pendleton, the director of contemporary dance company Momix, has created a phantasmagorical multimedia spectacle manipulating the four elements of the earth and exposing the sexuality of nature. “Alchemia is about invention and beauty, transformation and renewal, performed with astonishing skill by 10 performers who are as much acrobats as dancers.”-Moses Pendleton. This show kicks of White Bird’s new season.

Amore Italiano
Napoli Act III & Sub Rosa
Presented by Oregon Ballet Theater
October 10-17
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St
Opening its 26th season, Oregon Ballet Theater takes us on a cultural and historic tour of Italy with the world premier of Sub Rosa by James Kudelka and the OBT premier of Napoli, Act III, by August Bournonville.

Sub Rosa comes with a warning label, “Not suitable for children” and is inspired by the infamous life of Italian prince and Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo. He may or may not have been a murder, an adulterer, a vampire,and/or a necrophiliac. haunted by ghosts and plagued by witches.

Napoli, inspired by everyday life in Naples from the streets to the harbour to the Blue Grotto, was choreographed in 1842 by Danish dancer and choreographer August Bournonville. Bournonville technique is characterized by quick footwork, small jumps, understated elegance in the arms and dramatic impact through pantomime.

Portland violinist Aaron Meyer and his six-piece band will open the evening with selections of Italian classics.

The sights and sounds of Cuba Libre: Tiempo Libre's Xavier Mili and choreographer Maija Garcia. Photo: Owen Carey

The sights and sounds of Cuba Libre: Tiempo Libre’s Xavier Mili and choreographer Maija Garcia. Photo: Owen Carey

Cuba Libre
Presented by Artist Repertory Theater
October 3-November 8
Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway
Broadway in Portland! Cuba Libre is a contemporary musical inspired by the collective histories of the members of the three-time Grammy-nominated African-Caribbean band, Tiempo Libre.

With the majority of the dialogue in English and the music in Spanish, the tale is told from present day Miami, flashing back to 1990’s Cuba. The story centers on a Cuban musician who is tormented by the sacrifices that were made for him to pursue his artistic dreams in the United States.

The creative team, primarily Latino, includes Tony-nominated producer Susan Dietz (Fela!, Topdog/Underdog, It’s Only a Play), playwright Carlos Lacámara,  choreographer Maija Garcia, and Artists Rep artistic director Damaso Rodriguez. The company consists of twenty-two actors, dancers and musicians and is a theatrical event on a grand scale.

d. Sabela Grimes, Visiting Artist Lecture
Reed College, PAB Performance Lab, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.
6:30 pm October 8
A lecture/demonstration by d. Sabela Grimes on his artistic process. Grimes is a 2014 United States Artist Rockefeller Fellow and Assistant Professor at University of Southern California. He is a choreographer, writer, composer and educator whose interdisciplinary performance work and pedagogical approach are rooted in the “meta-physical efficacies of Afro-diasporic cultural practices.”

Evidence of a dance, Marginal Evidence by Katherine Longstreth.

Evidence of a dance, Marginal Evidence by Katherine Longstreth.

Marginal Evidence (an interactive experience of dance-making)
Katherine Longstreth
October 1 – November 14
White Box, 24 NW 1st Ave.
6 pm October 1, Opening Reception
Marginal Evidence is a visual art installation about the intimate act of choreography. Dance is ephemeral and when it is gone, what is left? How do we know it existed? What is the evidence left behind? Using the approach of a forensic investigator, Longstreth reveals the private process of dance making and exposes the inner life of archival materials. You can read the full preview here

Portland Dance Weekend: Festival City

Conduit's Dance+ and the Risk/Reward festivals plus a Ten Tiny Dances appearance

You will need a weekend to recover from your weekend and someone to schedule your itinerary if you plan to see everything that’s being offered. I wish I could lay out statistics on how many pieces and how many performers were performing this weekend, but I really can’t, I’ll just say it’s a lot. So get a babysitter and get going.

Dance + looks pretty good. I got a sneak peak the other night and Barry Johnson did too, and he wrote about it. The Reed theater is beautiful and the dances are fresh. Actually, almost all of the work being performed this weekend is new work. Wouldn’t you like to say you were there when so and so artist did that amazing thing? Yes, is the answer. See you there.


Conduit’s Dance+ Festival enters its fourth year in a discombobulated state, uprooted from its home in the Pythian Building in downtown Portland and relocated to Reed College’s spectacular Performing Arts Building, after Conduit was unceremoniously evicted by its landlord. Oregon’s laws governing landlord-tenant relationships are heavily weighted toward landlords, after all.

So, yes, discombobulated but still kicking! This year’s festival, July 8-11, is arranged in two programs, each of which play each night of the festival. I attended the dress rehearsal Tuesday night, and I can tell you that some fierce dancing is involved along with several solo performances, a dancing choir, and a Barbarian Princess.

The theme of Dance+ since its invention by Conduit artistic director Tere Mathern is collaboration. Some of these performances were more collaborative (the dancing choir!) than others, though it must be said that dance tends to be a collaborative enterprise, a lot like theater, combining costumes, lighting, music, sometimes the spoken word and sets, to movement. Not that it has to be, a solo danced in “silence” (John Cage taught us enough about the relativity of that word to demand the quotation marks) in a bare room or outdoors (which one of this year’s Dance+ performances manages, via video) can be a very powerful thing.

But I digress! I was alternately bemused, amused and moved by the seven dance works I saw, not equally, of course, though I’m going to deal with each of them in the same rapid-fire manner.

“Ready?” the soloist in the video I just mentioned, Barbara Tait, asks at one point toward the end of her dance. “Ready,” responds Eliza Larson, who is dancing in front of us in the well-appointed (and cool) studio at Reed College. She then starts to back away from us…


Portland dance companies on the move hither and yon

Oregon Ballet Theatre, Polaris and Conduit are relocating from their long-time home bases

As Portland continues through a cycle of redevelopment fed by an influx of new residents, a good economy and a hot real estate market, Portland art organizations have found their grasp on studios in the central core to be looser than maybe they hoped. Those that own property, such as Oregon Ballet Theatre, have been able to cash in, but renters have faced the necessity and expense of finding new homes. Polaris Dance Theatre, for example, has just announced that it has found new digs, and Conduit, evicted suddenly in March, is in the process of locating space, too.

We don’t have much we can add to Oregon Ballet Theatre’s announcement that it was intending to close the sale of its current building in Southeast Portland and move to a new South Waterfront location by the end of the year. The initial press release was pretty vague, and though we’ve heard a few additional things, nothing approaching “official” or “confirmed.”

The sale will allow the city’s biggest dance company to pay off its accumulated debts and set up “a protected reserve fund, not utilized for day to day operations of OBT, but for the future capital needs of the organization,” as the press release put it. The company didn’t announce how much that fund would amount to, though we’ve heard some numbers batted about in the neighborhood of $4 million. Feel free to disregard that number completely, because it was speculative. When and if OBT tells us how much exactly—and presumably the company won’t know until the sale closes—we’ll let you know.


At Conduit, a vote for brevity and wit

Dance+ continues with a smart, quick dance by Kyle Marshall

Brevity, the long-winded Polonius says in Hamlet, is the soul of wit. That can also apply to non-verbal communication, and Kyle Marshall’s “Soundboard,” the shortest of the nine pieces included in this year’s version of Conduit’s annual Dance+ Festival, is a perfect example.

The New Yorker is the real deal, a young choreographer (he received his BFA in dance from Rutgers University in 2011), and with “Soundboard” he has made a solo for himself that is at once lean and expansive. A beguiling dancer, he not only engages with the audience (he makes eye contact, even!) he embraces it, a rarity in the frequently solipsistic terrain of contemporary dance.
It can be tricky to dance to spoken text, but Marshall, costumed by Meagan Woods in well-tailored slacks and open-necked shirt, moves with ease and energy and engagement to the words of Allen Ginsberg, spoken by the poet—the “soundboard” of the title. I found much of the verbiage in both Dance+ programs (and there was a lot of it) difficult to hear, but such phrases as “contained in my room” and “privilege to witness my existence” were amplified by Marshall’s spacious movement. It was our “privilege to witness [his] existence as a dancer,” not to mention his sheer joy in performing, pushing at air with his hands, walking, jumping, spiraling through and around the wonderful space that Conduit is for dancing.

Kyle Marshall in 'Soundboard' at Dance+/Jim  Lykins

Kyle Marshall in ‘Soundboard’ at Dance+/Jim Lykins

Small wonder that Marshall is currently performing with Doug Elkin, Tiffany Mills (with whom Tere Mathern shared an evening at Conduit in March) and Woods, another Rutgers graduate, who apart from costuming for Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Robert Battle and the like, has her own company and also runs a festival.

“Soundboard” concluded the first half of Part II, which I attended Thursday night. The show began with “Veil,” also a solo, choreographed and performed by Zahra Banzi, arguably another “witness” to the existence of the artist, in which she danced with her own shadow, projected and animated by Dylan Wilbur. I thought of Lucinda Childs’ groundbreaking “Dance,” which premiered at BAM in 1979, in which film of the dancers was projected simultaneously with live performance of the same movement, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying Banzi’s honest, expressive, heartfelt dancing. Like Marshall, she is a generous mover, and there was some playfulness in the way she interacted with Wilbur’s animation.

These solos bookended “before the dawn,” a collaboration of Meshi Chavez—who, the program note says, is passionate about butoh, arguably the most culturally specific dance form in Terpsichore’s quiver—and electronic composer Roland Ventura Toledo, performed by Teresa Vanderkin and Joe McLaughlin. The same program note tells us that the duet “was inspired by Ankoku, (the spiritual aspect of dance) and by imagery of moths, moonlight, longing and desire. It seeks to create a sense of something that has no beginning or end.”

“before the dawn” certainly created a sense of having no end (I didn’t think it ever would), and it has a very clear beginning as Vanderkin, who has a gorgeous long-limbed body and looked extremely chic in a purple tiered cocktail dress, and McLaughlin, in street clothes, inched their way along an invisible line in single file to the front of the space. “Tip-toeing toward Bethlehem” crossed my mind, a paraphrase on Yeats’ “slouching toward” ditto from “The Second Coming,” quoted in the program notes for “Beast” in Program I.

Then as the music started to sound like bombs going off and Vanderkin lifted her arms and began to move spastically, I couldn’t help thinking of the corpse of a Palestinian child on the beach in Gaza, whose image was on the front page of Thursday’s NY Times. That’s not the composer’s fault or the choreographer’s—this piece was made long before this latest appalling development in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that also seems to have no end, but it certainly colored my perceptions of the choreography, making it seem pretentious and glossy. The music, on the other hand, was shattering, physically and emotionally.

Zahra Banzi performs "Veil" at Conduit's Dance+ Festival/Photo by Jim Lykins

Zahra Banzi performs “Veil” at Conduit’s Dance+ Festival/Photo by Jim Lykins

“Confluence,” Christopher Peddecord’s new film made in collaboration with Northwest Dance Project’s Lindsey Matheis, followed the intermission. Let me say at the outset that as a long time viewer of dancing, committed to the immediacy of the exchange that takes place between artists and viewers (or listeners) that occurs only in live performance, as endangered a species as the polar bear, I vastly prefer to watch the melding of film and live dancing (see above) to a stand-alone film in a concert of this kind. And while “Confluence” was performed by many excellent dancers, including Banzi, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Jordan Kindell and Michael Linsmeier, and Northwest Dance Project’s Victor Usov, they were given to perform just about every movement cliché in the book, from aggressively glittering eyes to what looked suspiciously like a group grope. I liked last year’s Peddecord film considerably better; in that one, his approach was reminiscent of the surrealism of Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Part II concluded with “Radiation City,” performed by its creator, radical child/Alexander Dones and Kara Girod Shuster, a native Oregonian and former BodyVox member. The piece also incorporates film, starting with a humor-tinged list of ways to die that includes self-immolation, a metaphor for radical child’s motto: “create. Love. burn,” a more dramatic version of the late Jann Dryer’s motto: “Frame it. Do it. Drop it.” It’s way too long and way too wordy and terribly self-conscious, but both Dones and Shuster are very good dancers, and there is a kernel of innovative movement, particularly in the fall/catch/fall partnering, that would be easier to see if some of the verbal distractions were pared away. “Radiation City” is overstuffed with ideas and needs serious editing, the hardest thing for young artists to do.

“Luna,” the piece that concluded Part I of Dance + and in which I took the most pleasure in watching, also needs editing: It’s about five minutes too long. Created and performed by Anna Conner and Company, the Seattle choreographer had the courage to provide no program notes, but to rely on the dancing to deliver her message about the friendship, erotic and otherwise, of women. I liked it a lot.
Also “Black Friday,” sort of a visual commentary on Marx’s “alienation of the worker” applied to the consumer, and yes, a film, but I thought “Beast” needed a lot more fine-tuning and “Revivify” left me cold and bored, partly again because I couldn’t hear the text. (And in case anyone is wondering, I wear two hearing aids.)

Having said all that, Dance+ this year and in previous years has produced some interesting, innovative work, which is invariably well danced. So I am grateful to the director, Tere Mathern, and the funders, for giving these artists the opportunity to explore their ideas and hone their craft and show their work, and the Portland audience the chance to see the results. I look forward to seeing new artists next year, who perhaps have been challenged to make fifteen minute works rather than twenty. Gassy or not, Polonius had a lot of things right.

Dance card: News and notes of a choreographic persuasion

Trey McIntyre shuts it down, Northwest Dance Project, Conduit, Performance Works Northwest

Portland embraced choreographer Trey McIntyre during his stint as resident choreographer here in 1999—some of the bright contemporary dances he made then are still in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s repertoire (Like a Samba, Speak)and are invariably greeted warmly, and more recent contributions, such as Robust American Love, have continued the relationship.

When McIntyre started his own company, the Trey McIntyre Project, one of his co-founders was OBT dancer Anne Mueller, who as managing director helped guide what was a summer pick-up project through its first few years. She didn’t make the jump with McIntyre to Boise in 2008, but she was there for one of the company’s last performances at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival at the end of June.

“I thought this was a past chapter,” Mueller said last week, “but then I went and it was very emotional—in a fabulous way.”

Anne Mueller and John Michael Schert/ Photo by Jonas Lundqvist

Anne Mueller and John Michael Schert/ Photo by Jonas Lundqvist

I asked her about the New York Times story about McIntyre’s decision to close the company, and she confirmed its accuracy. McIntyre was tired of the pressure and amount of effort it takes to run and keep a touring dance company afloat. He’s rather introverted to begin with, which makes it even harder. He had lots of other creative ideas that he couldn’t pursue (film, photography, writing), and his original “team,” Mueller and John Michael Schert, had moved on.

“It’s worked really well, on a number of levels, and we’ve been able to innovate, but in the end, that level of output is just not sustainable,” McIntyre told the Times’ Marina Harss. That “level of output” was 20 dance works during the past six years, a phenomenal creative burst, especially for someone also responsible for running a dance company.

Not that McIntyre is going to stop making dances: He will return to the freelance choreographer’s life, including an evening-length Peter Pan for Queensland Ballet in Australia, which very well might look wonderful in Portland.

Mueller has just about completed her first year as managing director of Bag & Baggage, the Hillsboro theater company known for the imaginative flights of founder Scott Palmer. She hasn’t stepped away from dance since leaving her post as interim artistic director at OBT, though. She’s continued to dance, teach, choreograph and set dances on various companies. She’ll head to Tulsa this fall to set Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero on Tulsa Ballet, for example. So yes, endings lead to new beginnings.


Last week I wrote about the first program of Conduit’s Dance+ festival, and I felt obliged to point out that the fourth floor studio can get a little on the warm side. Well, Conduit has brought in some air conditioners to help cool things off, and in any case this weekend is considerably cooler than last weekend.

Two more incentives: 1) Conduit will give you a free popsicle when you arrive (again, trying to keep things cool!); and 2) we’re hearing that Kyle Marshall’s solo, Soundboard, is amazing. You can get tickets online for the 8 pm shows, Friday and Saturday nights at Conduit, 918 SW Yamhill St.


Northwest Dance Project is featuring new work by the two winners of its sixth annual Pretty Creatives International Choreographic Competition, Lesley Telford and Eric Handman, on Saturday night at PSU’s Lincoln Hall. Both Telford and Handman have terrific dance resumes: Telford has danced and choreographed for Netherlands Dans Theater, for example, and Handman has worked with a host of big name New York choreographers and teaches now at University of the Utah. Doors open at 7, dance begins at 7:30 on Saturday at Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park.


Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest is hosting a summer party Saturday night at its studio, 4625 SE 67th Ave. Between 6:30 and 10 pm, Austin and such dancers as Luke Gutgsell, Noel Plemmons, Danielle Ross and Grace Hwang will improvise to music by Douglas Detrick and Ben Kates. Then there’s the video component, which will fill up the walls of the studio and an installation/performance by Jin Camou in a vintage Silver Streak trailer. Then things cool off (or heat up) with a dance party until midnight. It’s all free, including beverages and snacks! Such a deal.