Contemporary Dance

By SANDRA KURTZ

Seattle loves a festival.  Whatever the topic—food, film, music, boats—we’ve got some kind of event that offers city dwellers a chance to dive into their obsessions, and dance is one of those. In June, when a lot of dance communities are winding up the year with studio recitals, Seattle audiences are facing a scheduling challenge with two significant festivals, full of brand-new and new-to-us programming.

Robert Moses’ Kin is one of the big names at this year’s Seattle International Dance Festival. Photo by RJ Muna.

Portland audiences are probably already familiar with On the Boards: the Seattle presenter has collaborated with regional friends like PICA in the past, and Oregon artists have swapped spots with Seattle folks in projects like the TBA Festival. In Seattle, On the Boards stakes its reputation on presenting work from the leading edge of performance, wherever that might be at the time. Most of the year, its artists come from far and wide, but in June, the Northwest New Works Festival (held June 12-16) narrows the geographic focus, digging into the region and connecting local creators to international trends.

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Keylock company finds its footing

The contemporary dance company stages its first evening-length performance with work by founder Shaun Keylock and two others

Portland’s Shaun Keylock Company staged its first evening-length performance this past weekend at New Expressive Works, offering contemporary pieces that demonstrate the emerging company’s aesthetic and interests, as well as founder/artistic director Shaun Keylock’s curatorial practice, which combines technical rigor with historical references and a queer sensibility.

The bill featured two of Keylock’s pieces as well as work by Seattle’s Jordan
MacIntosh-Hougham and Portland’s Josie Moseley. The last time I saw Keylock’s work was June 2018, when he debuted Calamus for New Expressive Works’ 10th residency cycle. After that residency, Keylock continued to meditate on Calamus—a piece about what he calls “quiet queerness” that draws from Walt Whitman text and World War II-era oral historiesand created a second, more mature iteration of the work for this program.

Kristalyn Gill (from left), Shaun Keylock, Trevor Wilde, Jillian Hobbs, and Liane Burns wig out in Jordan MacIntosh-Hougham’s “Bad! Bad! Bad!” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

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Ordinary Devotions, a new contemporary dance work by veteran Portland choreographer and performer Linda Austin, is meant to do two things: find glamour in everyday objects and honor the ordinaryand extraordinaryqualities of the aging body.

Now 65 years old, Austin has had time to consider both topics. She has been a working artist for more than 35 years; in 1999, she established the well-known Foster-Powell DIY arts space Performance Works NorthWest with her technical director and partner, Jeff Forbes, to host performances, offer residencies and workshops, and provide affordable rehearsal space for Portland artists. By the time I arrived there to talk with her about this new work, the everyday objects she spotlights in the piece had spilled out onto the performance space from her living area, which is separated from the venue by a door on the back wall. A white vinyl tarp, a twig, stones, a lamp, cassette tapes, multiple spools of thread, some shoes, and various knickknacks were carefully placed across the floor with a seemingly methodical, even devotional precision.

Linda Austin looks for the extraordinary in "Ordinary Devotions." Photo by Jeff Forbes.

Linda Austin looks for the extraordinary in “Ordinary Devotions.” Photo by Jeff Forbes.

“It was kind of organic,” mused Austin, recalling how she accumulated these particular objects. She’d started working with the spools of thread in the beginning, spurred by her desire to be slightly levitated off the earth. Throughout the work, Austin rearranges the spools to support her body as she lies on her back or walks across the floor. “I’ve always had this fascination with the extraordinary in the ordinary. I like doing something weird with a matter-of-factness,” she laughed. “I’m interested in the ‘thingness’ of the body versus the animated nature of things. Finding this commonality and endowing each [thing] with the qualities of the other intrigues me.”

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“Man not by abdomen and buttock plates or vertebrae but through his currents, his weakness what recovers from shock, his startings.”

So begins a selection from surrealist French poet and artist Henri Michaux, who asserts himself in Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s current performance at the Newmark Theatre. If you’re familiar with Chouinard’s electric, transgressive, and sometimes bizarre choreography, it makes sense that she would be drawn to Michaux’s poetic transmutations of the body. If you aren’t familiar with this award-winning Québécois choreographer, this weekend’s show will serve as an excellent introduction.

The company, making its fourth Portland visit through White Bird, has brought two pieces with it. The first is 24 Preludes by Chopin, is one of the company’s best known. It premiered in Vienna in 1999 and was first performed in Portland as part of White Bird’s 2005-’06 season, Preludes displays early hallmarks of Chouinard’s unmistakable movement in a rapid succession of short, effervescent vignettes set to Chopin’s preludes, most of which run less than two minutes. The second is Henri Michaux: Mouvements, which premiered in 2011 and travels deeper into Chouinard’s corporeal experimentation. Consisting of 64 pages of simple, energetic ink drawings, a 15-page poem, and an afterword, Michaux’s 1951 book Mouvements becomes a physical score through Chouinard’s literal reading of its semi-abstract, figurative blots of ink. The dancers, dressed in black Lycra, cavort across the stage in front of giant screens onto which the drawings’ contorted shapes are projected.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard performs "Henri Michaux: Mouvements." Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Compagnie Marie Chouinard performs “Henri Michaux: Mouvements.” Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Chouinard’s movement is unmistakable, but more nuanced than it may seem at first. You might be tempted to write it off as grotesque or simply weird if you only experience it through internet clips. People often post gifs or videos of perhaps her most infamous work, bODYrEMIX/gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS, in the comment sections of online discussions about modern art, as knee-jerk examples of its excess or strangeness generally. I can understand that take if viewers have only seen her work online, without seeing the amount of play and esprit in the performance or understanding the company’s dedication to exploring the movements and peculiarities of the body. Chouinard’s dancers in bODY_rEMIX pull exaggerated faces and crawl, flop, and bounce across the stage in little more than gauze wraps and touches of body paint, employing canes and crutches in ways they were never intended to be used.

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‘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.

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Acclaimed Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin has returned to Portland for the West Coast debut of her award-winning minimalist new duet, Split. Considering how often White Bird has featured projects involving Guerin over the years, the work she brings to our city still continues to surprise. In some ways, Split is unlike anything Guerin has done, but it bears the intense clarity of gesture, deep directorial collaboration, and carefully considered structure that viewers who were fortunate enough to catch her previous projects should expect.

Guerin was last in Portland in 2017 as part of the stunning collaborative production Attractor. This knockout of a show was one of Guerin’s rare collaborations with her partner, Gideon Obarzanek, the founding director of dance company Chunky Move. In the spirit of both companies, they shared directorial and choreographic duties with two more collaborators: the dancers of Dancenorth Australia and Senyawa, an intense, experimental two-person band from Java. The show was loud and intense. An imposing column of cables hung from the ceiling, powering Senyawa’s instruments as if from some energy source in the sky. The dancers managed to match the tempo and tone oSenyawa’s vocal acrobatics, giving the impression that they were linked to the musicians by the same arcane electricity.

Prior to that show, in 2012, Lucy Guerin Inc. came to Portland with Weather, in which elaborate set design and prop work were integral to the choreography. Using simple materials such as plastic bags and strips of paper, Guerin and her collaborators created a miniature weather system onstage for her dancers to inhabit. More than gimmicks or set dressing, the objects came to life and integrated sublimely with the movement of the piece.

Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane grapple in Lucy Guerin’s “Split.” Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Using these shows as reference points for Split might seem to highlight the differences in tone, scope, and structure among Guerin’s various projects. However, if we look more deeply, we can see a few conceptual threads running through the fabric of her choreography. Each piece is grown rather than planned, created collaboratively with every member of the production—the dancers, the musicians, the lighting and stage designers. Each show manages to feel dense yet highly considered—every component serves its role and seems to be there for a reason. The complex and intense symmetry and synchronization seem to serve that purpose directly. What does and does not happen at the same time, or what does or does not have the same tone, are fundamental to each of these performances, from the smallest movements of the dancers to major structural decisions.

In their introduction to Split, which opens the 2018-19 Uncaged series, White Bird co-founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe mentioned that they rarely book duets, but felt that this was Guerin’s “masterwork.” What does that mean? The specifics of superlatives can blur into a vague sense of “really very good.” Mastery, however, is different from “exemplary” or “best.” It suggests a combination of total control and total freedom; masters know their work inside and out and can speak through it clearly and articulately. Mastery has nothing to prove and can cut through the dressing of a discipline to show us the nature of the work.

By that measure, “masterwork” seems like an appropriate description of Split. Plenty of shows seem fun or impressive enough to make us non-dancers wish we could perform the same feats. But this show made me want to be a dancer so I could better understand what the dancers were saying about dance itself. So much of dance defies written description—which is the main reason I haven’t yet tried to describe the actual movement in the piece. The show is made of a few simple components, but they add up to something complex.

The space Steiner and Lane share gradually shrinks in “Split.” Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

As viewers finds their seats, a hypnotic beat pulses quietly from the speakers. This soundtrack, composed by British artist Scanner, serves as a sort of auditory armature throughout the whole piece. Its minimal, repetitive structure is influenced by contemporary minimal music, but stops short of the complex polyrhythms and phasing that composers such as Steve Reich or Terry Riley are known for. It’s a rhythm that feels both intellectual and visceral, beating at the rate of an endurance runner’s heart.

As the show opens, dancers Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane stand on an empty stage, squared off by white tape outlining the perimeter. Steiner is completely naked, Lane wears a simple blue satin gown. The lighting is spare and directional—a broad spotlight that falls from the rafters, highlighting every edge and corner of Steiner’s body and every twist and fold in Lane’s gown.

The movement demonstrates Guerin’s minimalist bent. Starting in perfect sync, split by a distance of about five feet, the dancers work through individual positions combining everyday gestures with the simple movements that have been part of  modern dance vocabulary since choreographers including Trisha Brown began foregrounding components of human movement in the 1960s. Within the first few minutes, however, both dancers fling out their arms with the sort of speed we see in movies when editors drop a few frames to make action seem inhumanly fast. Later, some of the minimal lighting changes occur with the same snappiness, signaling significant transitions in the arc of the piece.

These intentionally startling moments split the otherwise steady rhythm supporting the movement throughout the whole show. Guerin’s decisions about how and when to break from a prevailing structure make her movement feel both tightly packed and carefully chosen. Split is so stripped down that every piece of it feels on view —it’s more sushi than soup—and we are invited to focus intensely on these pieces. Having Steiner perform entirely in the nude makes our scrutiny feel less analytical and more humane. When they dance in unison, Steiner feels like a living X-ray of Lane’s movement; when they move in opposition, Steiner serves as Lane’s counterpoint.

These tools of reduction, rupture and opposition are what move the show forward. Progress is marked by points where Steiner and Lane stop dancing, take a quick breather, and then split the working area of the stage in half with a roll of white tape. A quick burst of light from the side of the stage signals them to continue, and they re-engage in half the space they had before. These breaks come quicker and quicker, until the dancers barely have enough room to stand. They fight, they support each other, they cling to each other, and they drive each other out. Split is full of the things that make movement into dance, but it’s surprising for how few parts it needs to achieve that.

Split runs 8 p.m. Saturday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Find tickets here.

Finding humanity at the intersection of contemporary dance and circus

Circa stages West Coast debut of Humans in Portland

Circa, Australia’s leading contemporary circus dance company, has chosen Portland for the West Coast premiere of Humans, which runs through October 13 at the Newmark Theatre. This is a smart show with lots of audience appeal; it’s family-friendly enough that there’s even a Sunday matinee. Artistic director Yaron Lifschitz describes Humans as “a report on what it means to be human. How can you express the very essence of this experience with your body? Where are your limits, what extraordinary things can you achieve and how can you find grace in your inevitable defeat?” This show quickly reveals how contemporary circus arts can help answer these questions about the human experience.

According to dance critic and producer Cindy Sibilsky, contemporary circus performance was “born out of the desire to utilize the exceptional physical vocabulary of acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and other specialty-skilled performers, modernize them and update the expressions bodily, emotionally and visually and transform both audience and critical perception of what circus is and can be.” Circa just as effectively explores what contemporary dance is and can be.

Circa in “Humans.” Photo by Pedro Greig, courtesy White Bird.

Aesthetically, Humans is stripped down. Almost every trapping of traditional circus is missing: there’s no knife-thrower flinging sharp objects around an assistant’s body, no clowns, makeup, animals, ringmasters, juggling, or really any props at all, save the few that can support performers (trapeze and aerial straps do appear at points). There are touches of slapstick in some of the performers’ interactions, but no dedicated passages of physical humor, as would appear in a traditional variety-style circus performance. Acrobatic movement is the major part of circus heritage that Circa brings to the stage, along with intense collaboration, coordination, and trust among the performers as they display world-class acrobatic prowess. The physical stakes are high enough to elicit gasps from the audience many times throughout the evening.

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