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…


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+: The more we dance together…

They were dancing in unison at the first Dance+ festival program

Because it was a warm day on Thursday, I took the elevator to Conduit’s fourth floor studio to catch the first program in this year’s installment of the Dance+ festival. Most of the people in line with me seemed to understand that the warmth would likely extend to the studio itself, so they dressed down and dressed cool. I did, too, and you’d be advised to do the same as temperature rise this weekend…because I think you will enjoy what’s happening on the dance floor. Fortunately, official word is that floor air conditioners are on the way to buttress the ceiling fans.

I’m going to describe specifically (and briefly!) the four pieces I saw in a moment. But first a word about unison dancing, when two or more dancers are dancing the same steps, either at the same time or serially (maybe as part of a little movement “round”). Unison dancing is a core tool for choreographers for lots of reasons: At the beginning of a dance it can establish the movement vocabulary of the piece, for example; it can emphasize a certain passage; it can provide a thesis for further movement antithesis to play against, even it just involves some independent solos. We could go on!


For me, unison dancing can have other effects that are harder to explain, less technical and more atmospheric or subtextual or…something. For example, a lot of dance feels somehow “utopian” to me: In an ideal world we all meet each other and know our parts, when to partner and when to solo, and in solidarity we might start dancing together in unison. The underlying power of those disco scenes in Saturday Night Live was the almost tribal sense of connection the dancers had. Country line dancing has a similar effect.

Even in modern dance, which often seeks to describe or convey the effects of our dystopian world, I find a model for a better world: we’re all fit and agile and know what to do. And yes, unison dancing underscores that sense. It also factors into the erotics of dance, for me, but that’s a subject that takes more time and thought than I have available at the moment! But never fear, the erotic comes up in at least two of the dances in Dance+. And all of them had lots of unison dancing in one form or another.

Enough preamble: For Dance+ we have four dances, each less than 20 minutes, performed by small ensembles, often the result of a deep collaboration between a choreographer and another artist (composer or set designer, for example). And actually, the first piece on the program wasn’t a performance at all, it was a computer-animated video.

Black Friday; Parking Lot Dance II/Paul Clay and Todd Barton
Video artist Clay projected Black Friday onto one large central and two smaller flanking screens, starting it on the parking lot of a Target store before Black Friday shopping day, assembling a crowd of humans (who all look the same), sending the masses into the red mist melee inside the store, and then gathering them for a celebratory and, yes, tribal and, yes, unison “dance” at the end. I don’t know why I put parentheses around that dance: It was choreographed, an eerie intersection of the robotic and the naturally human. I’ve been syncopating my arm movements differently since seeing it!

I probably don’t have to underscore the theme, but maybe I should mention that Clay and composer Barton’s take on consumer culture is genuinely clever and looks and sounds great.

Jen Hackworth's "Beast," sculpture by Meghann Gilligan/Photo by Meghann Gilligan

Jen Hackworth’s “Beast,” sculpture by Meghann Gilligan/Photo by Meghann Gilligan

Beast/Jen Hackworth and Meghann Gilligan
Gilligan created the props for Beast, specifically a long red boa-like object, a black bird/dragon headdress, and a white geometric “sail,” not very tall but big enough to mostly conceal one of the dancers, Keyon Gaskin, for most of the dance and then an erotic mixing of limbs and torsos by Gaskin and Hackworth at the end of the piece.

Hackworth and Claire Barrera do most of the heavy dancing, and their very precise unison dancing near the beginning of Beast got me thinking about the subject to begin with. You have to be well-rehearsed to dance anything complicated in unison, and they did. Then they spun out into solos, usually very big movements or floor work, before experimenting with the props and concluding with the duet.

This Beast was a little scary, dangerous, unpredictable, and carried over the theme of discord and alienation from the film, oddly enough, though it didn’t end with a happy dance of contented consumers.

Revivify/Alter Structure
Alter Structure is Roland Ventura Toledo, who in Revivify created a dense sound environment with words from Maya Angelou and Steven Hawking, among others, mixed in. Toledo performed at a central console onstage, and as he began two black-suited dancers, Stephanie Lanckton and Mizu Deseirto, stood well behind him at the back of the stage, their backs to us, arms and bodies tilted at identical (unison) angles. When we saw their heads finally, they were encased in silvery masks. As the soundscape moved through various textures Lanckton and Deseirto continued to move in slow and angular ways, at first, mostly in unison, and then gradually picked up the pace and explored the spasmodic, before ending up in their own tangle on the floor at the end, then a separation, lovely really, reaching back for one another as they parted and the lights went to black.

Right. Anxiety. Because of the fans, maybe, I couldn’t understand many of the word in sound environment. One fragment from Hawking: “spontaneously created out of nothing.” He must have been talking about the Big Bang, and yeah, a universe spontaneously created out of nothing has scary implications.

Anna Conner and Company/Photo by Jim Lykins

Anna Conner and Company/Photo by Jim Lykins

Luna/Anna Conner + Co.
Conner comes from Seattle (everyone else on Program 1 was Portland-based, and she and her dancers Autumn Tselios and Julia Cross performed her very high energy, rough-and-tumble, toughly erotic choreography with great skill, including the most complex unison dancing and partnering of the evening. At the end of the show, members of each group were instructed to tell the audience 10 words about the piece. Cross said: “Our goal is to access our true vulnerability and power.” And they nailed it. Is there a story in Luna, a tale of dominance and submission in the roughhouse partnering that goes on? I didn’t process it that way, probably because narratives need characters and specific characters didn’t emerge for me. That didn’t keep Luna from engaging me at a very visceral level.

Program 1 of Dance+ continues at 8 pm through July 12.

Program 2, which features Zahra Banzi and Dylan Wilbur, Meshi Chavez and Roland Toledo, kle marshall and Meagan Woods, Christopher Peddecord and Lindsey Matheis, and radical child… and Kara Girod Shuster, runs at 8 pm July 17-19.

All shows are at the Conduit studio, 918 SW Yamhill St., Suite 401.