Fertile Ground Festival of New Works

DanceWatch Weekly: Echo’s otherworldly dance for all

What's happening in Oregon dance now

I recently spent three marvelous hours watching Echo Theater Company members negotiate a system of harnesses, ropes, and pulleys to move a butterfly with gigantic opalescent wings and a mad, spiky hermit crab-like monster around a stage. The atmosphere was electric: it was exciting to watch the collective synapses fire as the company, in an egalitarian way, created art in real time. “Whatever information set you have, you just lend it to the group to try to make the thing,” said creative director Aaron Wheeler-Kay. “The collaboration is constant and ongoing,”

Wheeler-Kay, a Portland native and Jefferson dance alum, directs ETC, which specializes in acrobatics, aerial dance, and physical theater. He has created an otherworldly new family-friendly work, It’s Like This, in collaboration with education director Wendy Cohen, deaf composer Myles de Bastion, ARC in Movement founders Alicia Cutaia and Russ Stark, and Rebound Movement instructor Laura Cannon for the upcoming Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, which runs January 24-February 3. The festival features new artistic work in various stages of development, from workshopped to fully formed, in dance, theater, comedy, film, and everything in between. (Check out Bob Hicks’s breakdown of festival offerings beyond dance in Speed-dating at Fertile Ground.)

You don’t often get to see the mechanics behind the theater magic, but in this production it’s all out in the open. The curtains are drawn to reveal the performers or riggers who hold the ropes propelling the central characters. The butterfly is attached to a four-pulley system that hoists her up and flies her around; the crab monster only needs a two-pulley system, because her movement is lower to the ground. The riggers need to remember the choreography and the timing of the ropes: it’s just as entertaining to watch these folks pulling, flying, and tumbling along with the performers.

The whimsical, gravity-defying creatures that slither, bounce, float, and pounce through It’s Like That are enhanced by imaginative costuming, music, and lighting. The show is designed to be accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers (and performers, two of whom are deaf). Composer de Bastion, a hardware/software designer, conceptual artist, and musician, founded CymaSpace, which specializes in equipment that translates audio information into sight (through light) and touch (through vibration). The music he has envisioned for It’s Like This, both improvised and composed, combines electronic and guitar sounds, he told me when we spoke through an ASL interpreter on Monday. A group of volunteers and a programmer worked with him on the software program he uses to track the music when he plays. Viewers will be able to feel the sound, thanks to a mechanism installed under some seats that creates low-frequency vibrations. American Sign Language interpreters will work all of the performances, and LED light panels installed on the back wall of the stage will use color to represent tone and blinking to represent rhythms.

Echo Theater Company will present its new work at Essentials, a program it will share with Tempos Contemporary Circus’ Underneath, a piece about living a good and fearless life. Essentials lasts an hour in total and will take place at Echo Theater, 1515 SE 37th Ave.

Performances this week

The MAC Dancers perform “The Project Approach” at Groovin’ Greenhouse Feb. 2.  Photo courtesy of Polaris Dance Theatre.

Fertile Ground Festival of New Work/Groovin’ Greenhouse
January 24-February 3
Check the Groovin’ Greenhouse and Fertile Ground websites for locations and times
The Fertile Ground Festival of New Works, including its dance-centric arm, Groovin’ Greenhouse (hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre), unfolds in venues around town with new performance works in various stages of development. Choreographers and companies presenting movement-related work in this year’s festival include Novoa Dances, Michal Schorsch, Hannah Downs, Polaris Company, Polaris Junior Company, NEO Youth Company, NW Fusion, the MAC dancers, Vitality Dance Collective, ELXR Dance Company, A-WOL Dance Collective, PDX Contemporary Ballet, ELa FaLa Collective, and Ballet Fiesta, Echo Theater Company, Tempos Contemporary Circus, and Living Room Circus.

“The Cutting Room” by BodyVox Dance Company. Photo courtesy of BodyVox.

The Cutting Room
January 24-February 9
BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave.
Multiple movie genres (action, comedy, drama, sci-fi) and memories of favorite films inspire BodyVox’s cinematic, virtuoustic dance performance The Cutting Room. Former BodyVox dancer Jonathan Krebs returns to perform with the company; look for new company member Jessica McCarthy and apprentice Coltrane Liu as well.

Sankalpa Dance Ensemble is one of 11 groups performing at the fundraising event Nrityotsava. Photo courtesy of Sweta Ravisankar.

Nrityotsava 2019 /Fundraiser
Indian Classical and Folk Dance Event
Hosted by Kalakendra
5 pm January 26
Lakeridge High School, 1235 Overlook Dr., Lake Oswego
Kalakendra’s mega Indian classical and folk dance fundraising event will feature 11 area professional and student groups performing dance styles including Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Gaudiya Nritya, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Assamese, Punjabi, and more. The Portland-based Kalakendra promotes performing arts from across the Indian subcontinent through classical dance and music performances.

Kudo Taketeru performing at The Tiny Theater PDX. Photo by Sophia Emigh.

The Art of Seeing: The Masculine Dancing
Anet Margot Ris
The Tiny Theater PDX
4 pm January 27
The Tiny Theater PDX, 3306 SE 65th Ave.
New to the performance scene is The Tiny Theater PDX, a home for radical performance curated by Anet Margot Ris, the theater’s founder and self-described “artistic directress.” Ris, a multi-disciplinary performer and former member of Daniel Nagrin’s The Workgroup and The Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble, among others, launches the theater’s 2019 Sunday series The Art of Seeing with The Masculine Dancing, an evening of film and video depicting 20th- and 21st-century male dancers/choreographers. Screenings will be followed by a conversation about how the masculine is portrayed. The series continues through May with sessions devoted to The Feminine Dancing, clowning, drag, and performance art.

Vancouver, B.C.-based Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art brings its cross-disciplinary work “Telemetry” to Portland. Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art
Presented by White Bird
January 31-February 2
1 pm February 2, master class with Shay Kuebler at Floor Dance Center, reservations recommended
Vancouver, B.C.-based choreographer Shay Kuebler and his company Radical System Art draw from martial arts, hip-hop, contemporary ballet, modern and tap to create theatrical, highly physical work. In the 65-minute work Telemetry, Kuebler and award-winning tapper Danny Nielson (who performs as part of the eight-member cast and contributes the work’s rhythmic score), explore the science of telemetry, a communications process by which measurements and other data are collected and transmitted to receiving equipment for monitoring. Kuebler extends that idea to the human body, using it, he says, as “a device—a tool—that translates, relays, and communicates intangible and unseen processes. Dance [uses the] body [to] translate an audible form into a visual form.” In short,Telemetry focuses on how the human body serves as a kind of antenna for sound, energy, and memory.

Upcoming Performances

February 2019
February 5-19, Chinese New Year at Lan Su Chinese Garden
February 6, Ballet Outsider: Gender Politics and Power, a panel discussion hosted by Eugene Ballet Music Director Brian McWhorter
February 8-10, The Gift, PDX Dance Collective, choreography by April MacKay, Zahra Garrett, and Rachael Singer
February 9-10, Romeo and Juliet, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
February 13, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, presented by White Bird
February 14, Fall In Love With Flamenco, Espacio Flamenco Portland
February 15-16, Two of a Kind: A Shared Evening of Dance, Beth Whelan and Trevor Wilde
February 16-23, Cinderella, Oregon Ballet Theatre
February 20, Beijing Dance Theater, presented by White Bird
February 21-24, Anicca/Impermanence, Minh Tran & Company
February 22-24, Alembic Resident Artists Performance, Performance Works NW
February 23-24, Left of Center, AWOL Dance Collective
February 24, Bharanatayam Margam by Mugdha Vichare and Mayurika Bhaskar, students of Sweta Ravisankar
February 28-March 2, Compagnie Hervé Koubi, presented by White Bird
February 28-March 2, Trip The Light Fantastic, NW Dance Project

March 1-3, The Odyssey, Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
March 1-3, Materialize, PDX Contemporary Ballet
March 7-9, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, presented by White Bird
March 8-10, Interplay, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
March 9, Shakti, Sankalpa Dance Ensemble, Sweta Ravishankar, Sridharini Sridharan, and Yashaswini Raghuram
March 9, Painted Sky Northstar Dance Company, Walters Cultural Arts Center
March 10, The Sleeping Beauty, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema-Live from Moscow, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
March 14-17, Corteo, Cirque du Soleil
March 14-21, Ordinary Devotions, Linda Austin
March 16, A Midsummer Night at the Savoy, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater
March 29-31, New Expressive Works Residency Performance

April 5, Lecture Demonstration with Rosie Herrera and Company, Reed College
April 4-6, Parsons Dance, presented by White Bird
April 4-13, The Pearl Dive Project, BodyVox
April 7, The Golden Age, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
April 9-10, Savion Glover, presented by White Bird
April 11-14, Director’s Choice, Oregon Ballet Theatre
April 12-14, Shen Yun, Presented by the Oregon Falun Dafa Association
April 13-14, The Firebird, Eugene Ballet, Eugene
April 24, Philadanco, presented by White Bird
April 25-27, Encores, NW Dance Project

May 9-11, Contact Dance Film Festival, BodyVox and NW Film Center
May 10-12, Shaun Keylock Company
May 10-12, Current/Classic, The Portland Ballet
May 10-12, Cleopatra (World Premiere), Ballet Fantastique, Eugene
May 17-19, Undone, PDX Contemporary Ballet
May 19, Carmen Suite / Petrushka, Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema-Live from Moscow, presented by Fathom Events, BY Experience, and Pathe Live
May 26, Derek Hough: Live! The Tour, Eugene

June 7-15, The Americans, Oregon Ballet Theatre
June 7-9, Up Close, The Portland Ballet
June 13-15, Summer Performances, NW Dance Project

‘Just This One’ review: staging the blues

Jukebox musical based on the life of legendary Portland bluesman Paul deLay electrifies Fertile Ground festival

At the Fertile Ground Festival performance of Just This One, a jukebox musical based on the eventful life of late Portland bluesman Paul deLay, I went to a play and a great blues concert broke out.

I never got to hear deLay, who died in his native Portland in 2007, live. Having devoted way too many college nights to intense study of great local and touring blues masters at one of the nation’s great blues clubs, Antones, I was too snobby (not to mention too busy covering other music after moving here) to imagine that Oregon could produce great blues comparable to what I’d so often heard in Texas, except for maybe Robert Cray. By the time I realized my error, a year after moving to Portland, deLay was gone, stolen by leukemia at age 55

Saeeda Wright, Lisa Mann, LaRhonda Steele, Ben Rice in ‘Just This One.’

So the fact that even a deLay newbie like me so enjoyed Wayne Harrel’s new musical shows that his songs and story (even as fictionalized here) are plenty compelling for any blues lover — not just those trying to relive deLay’s glory days performing at the Fat Little Rooster.

That’s because this show wisely keeps the spotlight on deLay’s masterfully crafted, often wryly humorous music, not the characteristically contrived story frame, and enlists a stage full of powerful performers to deliver it. Even though the show, ably directed by Judy Straalsund, happened in the backroom of a southeast Portland piano store, Michelle’s Piano Company, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine I was back at Antone’s, minus the clouds of cigarette smoke.


‘Rosa Red’ and ‘Spellbinders’ reviews: staging history

A pair of Fertile Ground readings show the tricky challenges of using historical characters in contemporary drama

Putting history on stage can be challenging when the figures aren’t well known. Playwrights must provide much historical context, and after months or years of researching their lives, it can be hard to maintain audience perspective. Two of this year’s Fertile Ground Festival plays by Portland writers involving historical figures from the early 20th century smacked into both roadblocks. But with some repairs, both might make fascinating history-inspired dramas.

“This isn’t a historical drama!” cautioned Laura Christina Dunn, the multitalented singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist/ writer at a talkback after a staged Fertile Ground reading of her new Rosa Red at Portland’s My Music. But it turned out that the audience did need to learn more of the basics of the early 20th century socialist/feminist/pacifist Rosa Luxemburg’s eventful life than appeared in this early incarnation of her show. Not just because she’s the title character, or because of her historical importance, but so we can fully understand what’s at stake: destroying capitalism to save humanity, and why it meant so much to her that she was willing to risk her life for it.

Playwright/musician Laura Dunn

At the talkback, at least one audience member said he wasn’t even sure Rosa was a real historical character. She sure was, and a captivating one at that, but the details of her life probably aren’t too familiar to many of today’s Americans. Program notes can provide some background, and the show uses Luxemburg’s own letters to supply more. But because she wrote them from prison, locked up for seditious behavior,  the fiery activist had to use innocuous or coded language, which requires still more explication.

We don’t need need a full biography because Rosa Red isn’t really about its title character. The musical focuses on the dilemma of the recipient of those missives. Sophie Liebknecht is torn between two newborns: her friend Rosa’s revolutionary ardor (shared by Sophie’s husband Karl) for the birth of a new world, and Sophie’s own need to nurture and protect her baby from the repercussions of standing up to state violence, the violence that put Rosa in prison in the first place and ultimately killed her and Karl. Had it not already been taken, Sophie’s Choice might have made an apter title.


4X4 review: quality quartet

PDX Playwrights' Fertile Ground showcase presents diverse selection of short takes

An agitated, hooded man angrily approaches a Transportation Security Administration agent at an airport security station, demanding to know what they’re doing to his son. Violence seems likely to erupt any moment.

That was the arresting opener of Contraband, the opening play in Fertile Ground‘s 4X4: a Collection of One Acts. Produced by PDX Playwrights, the local reading group whose many contributions to the annual showcase of new works amounted to a festival within a festival, the four short one-acts performed at Portland’s Hipbone Studios demonstrated the group’s eclectic variety of theatrical approaches. This creative generator (whose meetings I attend) makes a fine pairing with Fertile Ground’s annual performing arts incubator.

Tom Wiitherspoon and Jonathan Wexler (or is it the other way around?) in ‘Steve and Steve,’ at PDX Playwrights 4×4: A Collection of One Acts. Photo: Charlie Latourette.

As Contraband’s tense encounter continued, a TSA supervisor joined in, until the low-level agent was able to find enough common ground to get the dad conversing instead of confronting. As Karen Polinsky’s play progressed, with the guard mediating between the father and the higher level TSA bureaucrat, we learn that the dad’s obnoxiousness really arises from fear — not just about the incident that landed his son in lockup, but about the boy’s differentness, and more.


‘Living Things’ review: animating the everyday

Fertile Ground musical finds magic in unexpected places

Not all the characters in Archie Washington’s enchanting new musical Living Things are, strictly speaking, alive. Carnival bowling pins that get knocked over and set back up again over and over; components of a science fair rocket; a robot Mars lander and its orbital companion; a decommissioned rocking horse in a doomed shopping mall— all have speaking roles in this charming six-episode anthology, as do other creatures not generally understood by humans to be conversational: a fly, a moth, a butterfly, a potted plant.

Yet in Washington’s unbounded imagination, all those objects, animate and otherwise, have something to say, and plenty to feel. Even in the preliminary version showcased last month at Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival,  Living Things magically takes us back to when we were kids and we imagined what everything around us— animals, plants, toys— might be saying or thinking or feeling. Some of us still do that, even after we’ve grown up, though not as often as we probably should.

Jenna Yokoyama, Sean Dodder, Netty McKenzie, Camille Trinka, Zachary Johnsen in ‘Living Things.’

A moth unexpectedly finds himself attracted to an injured butterfly, even though he can’t quite figure out what she is. “It’s Always the Pretty Ones,” sings the horny moth’s friend, warning him against getting too close, but he can’t help it.

That story’s resolution needs a little more action to believably motivate the moth’s final act of generosity, and in a later episode, I had trouble understanding the carnival bowling pins’ escape plan. Most of the episodes could stand a bit of trimming (none run longer than about 10 minutes or so), especially a short-lived housefly’s near-monologue— the most melancholy and least successful of the lot. Yet despite such minor blemishes, I was captivated by their stories, and I wanted these animate objects to achieve their goals —that’s the magic Washington imbued in them.


Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovitch, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

The dance pioneer debuts his "Love Songs" at Groovin' Greenhouse, part of Fertile Ground

At 2 and 7:30 pm on Saturday, January 21, Laura Stilwell, Felice Moskowitz, Terry Brock and Emma Mochnick will dance Les Watanabe’s Love Songs, part of Fertile Ground’s Groovin’ Greenhouse, hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre.

I was initially interested in learning more about Watanabe when I heard that Love Songs was being performed by a cast of older, retired dancers. As an aging dancer I am always interested in how other dancers feel about aging and performing in a culture that vastly prefers youth. I also learned that Watanabe, currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Western Oregon University, had had a rich, prolific performing career with some of America’s great, early modern dance pioneers, including Alvin Ailey and Lar Lubovitch.

I was astounded that I had lived in Portland for five years and had never heard of Watanabe, so I decided I had to talk with him and learn more about him.

Over several days last week we chatted via email, and that conversation unfolds below.


DanceWatch Weekly: Inauguration weekend dance

Several big shows are on tap this weekend, including Tahni Holt at White Bird, BodyVox, Groovin' Greenhouse, and New Expressive Works

It’s an historic week for so many reasons, some happy, some frustrating, but here, we will focus on the happy and far less frustrating dance events in Portland.

Opening last night at Reed College’s Diver Studio is Tahni Holt’s Sensation/Disorientation, a White Bird commission that looks at femaleness and its layers in modern-day culture, will be performed in the round, by six multigenerational performers from 15 to 60 years old.

Sensation/Disorientation will be performed by Tracy Broyles, Muffie Connelly, Carla Mann, Eliza Larson, Suzanne Chi and Aidan Hutapea, with music by Luke Wyland, costumes by Alenka Loesch and dramaturgy by Kate Bredeson. Holt, within her choreography, investigates concepts of ritual, duration, exhaustion, vitality, and organic versus in organic, rupturing familiar cultural narratives around the female body specifically addressing age and weight.

For further insight into Holt’s process you can read Hannah Krafcik’s article, Reading into Tahni Holt’s ‘Sensation/Disorientation.’ Krafcik co-facilitates an ongoing movement practice with Holt at FLOCK Dance Center in North Portland and possibly offers a more intimate knowledge of Holt’s thinking and doing. You can also listen to OPB’s State of Wonder by Aaron Scott where he talks with dramaturge Kate Bredeson, musician Luke Wyland, Tahni Holt and White Bird directors Paul King and Walter Jaffe on the different aspects of the production.

Sensation/Disorientation was not intended to bookend the 2017 inauguration but works perfectly in that space anyway. Holt suggested in Krafcik’s article that we attend the Women’s March downtown and then head to her concert later in the evening. Sounds like a good plan to me.