Eric Nordstrom

Mary Oslund: A Personal Tribute

Martha Ullman West remembers the Oregon dance legend, who has died at 72, and whose influence remains strong among dancemakers

Mary Oslund, who as artist and administrator, choreographer and teacher, collaborator, mother, and mentor was central to the flowering of the arts in Portland for more than three decades, died on November 17 at her home in Southeast Portland, at age 72. The cause of death was MSA (Multi-System Atrophy), a rare neurological disease that attacks seemingly every part of the body most needed for moving and breathing and thinking, never mind the practice of the art of the dance.  

One of the last times I saw her, almost exactly a year ago, was at a performance by CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston at the Newmark Theatre. She had trouble lifting that beautiful, 19th century poet’s face to greet me, and I thought at the time what an effort it must have been for her to watch those dancers perform Merce Cunningham’s Biped and Beach Birds, brilliantly using the technique that she carried in her own lovely bones. That said, there is little doubt that Mary’s passion for dance – doing it, creating  it, teaching it, watching it – did not stop her from making the effort, and if she thought about it at all, made it absolutely worth it.   

Mary Oslund, with her daughter Liv leaning against the mirror: in the studio and in her element. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Mary was diagnosed with MSA a little more than a decade ago.  She told me about it, in confidence, at Gregg Bielemeier’s 60th birthday party, in August 2010, while we sat on our hosts’ hard cement back steps, observing the revelry and getting caught up. I asked her how she was, and in a calm, level voice, she described her symptoms – loss of balance, muscle weakness, dizziness. For the first time in nearly three decades of free-wheeling conversations about a wide range of professional and personal subjects, I did not know what to say. 

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DanceWatch Weekly: Dance Camp at Breitenbush

DanceWatch rejuvenates itself in the wilderness

I have a lot of questions these days about dance. What is it really? What does it mean? What is its purpose? What is its value? Is one expression of dance more valuable than another? As a dancer myself, how do I feel about leaving behind the traditional, mainstream, American value systems in dance? How do I feel about never taking ballet again and finding other ways of moving, expressing, and staying in shape that feed me and make me feel good about myself instead of depleted and defeated? Can I be happy in other dance worlds? Will I feel a loss? Will I be OK with that loss? Is it really a loss or just a perceived loss?

From this place of curiosity (if not perplexity), I decided to go to Dance Camp at Breitenbush Hot Springs with Portland dance artists Meshi Chavez and Winky Wheeler. Chavez and Wheeler facilitate weekly Portland dances that could be called ecstatic dance but really incorporate many more ideas from other movement modalities and philosophies. Chavez is also a Butoh dancer and I have participated in his Being Moved workshop and weekly Butoh classes, so I knew that Dance Camp would be a safe space for me to be vulnerable and to ask the questions troubling me.

Dance Camp was at Breitenbush. If you don’t know, Breitenbush is a hot springs on 154 acres in the Willamette National Forest, about 100 miles from Portland. Its main lodge, built in the 1930s, is the center of activity and houses a large dance studio (with a disco ball), a dining room that serves vegetarian food only, two libraries, and a lobby with a piano that someone is almost always playing. Breitenbush also has a steam sauna and numerous soaking pools that are full of naturally hot water from the earth that sit around 107 degrees. Clothing is optional when bathing. Breitenbush is also completely off the grid, utilizing its own hydroelectric power system and natural springs for power and heat. Campers can sleep in the main lodge, cabins or tents.

On my drive to Breitenbush, somewhere between Detroit Lake and Breitenbush, my cell service dropped out. It was a magical moment, an electric moment. A point of no return. It was the beginning of four days with no wifi, no cell service, no communication with the outside world. Bliss.

Dance Camp with Chavez and Wheeler was four days short. It began at dinner time on Thursday and ended with lunch on Sunday. For four days we ate and danced, ate and danced, ate and danced, and danced some more. And, of course, soaked many times over in the hot springs.

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