Gregg Bielemeier

The Year of Living Cautiously

Veteran dance critic Martha Ullman West looks back on a year of Covid isolation and moments of movement that vividly broke the spell

My year of living cautiously began the end of February last year, and while I had hoped it would conclude close to the same day this year, I think it’s more likely to stretch into a second year of the same.   

 In the past year I have seen two, count them, live dance performances, and one dance film in a theater, Alla  Kovgan’s stunning 3D documentary Cunningham. (I think all dance films should be shot in 3D, based on this one and Pina, Wim Wenders’ 2011  film about Pina Bausch, both shown at Portland’s Cinema 21.) 

 I have watched as many streamed performances as I could bear; written one obituary tribute;  read a dozen or so dance and dance-related books, some of which I was dipping into for a second and third time; and, in the name of shameless self-promotion, finished writing a book I started thinking about at the turn of the millennium.  Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet, the gods and Covid willing, will be published in May.  

Jacqueline Schumacher, in her teaching studio in downtown Portland’s Odd Fellows Building, ca. 1975. Photographer unknown.

Dance watchers will know that Reed was a native Oregonian, who was trained in Portland by Willam Christensen, as was her close friend Jacqueline Martin Schumacher. Schumacher, who died in September, 2019, would have been 100 on November 30, 2020, and a centenary celebration was under discussion when Covid hit; needless to say it did not take place. 

Both women were founding members of the San Francisco Opera Ballet (now the San Francisco Ballet) and danced, respectively, the roles of Odette and Odile in the first American evening-length production of Swan Lake.  Reed went on to a stellar career with Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.  Schumacher brought her star power back to her  home town, returning to Portland in 1942, when San Francisco Ballet went on hiatus right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

Here she established a ballet school with rigorous standards (ask any former pupil!) where she taught generations of Portland students, many of whom became professional dancers. Equally important, as the founder of the Portland Ballet, a successor to Christensen’s company and a precursor of Oregon Ballet Theatre, she was pivotal to the establishment of the city’s resident ballet company.

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Strike up the virtual festival band

ArtsWatch Weekly: Online Fertile Ground fest marches on, film fest updates, Hal Holbrook on jackasses & politics, monthly guides

BELLS ARE NOT RINGING AND NO MARCHING BANDS OR HIGH-STEPPING HORSES are sashaying through the center of town, but it’s festival time in Portland. We’re talking, of course, about Fertile Ground, the city’s annual festival of new performance works, which in an ordinary year would see revelers scurrying high, low, and in between across the metropolitan area, into basement and attic spaces and grand theater halls, to be among the first people on the planet to see the beginnings of upwards of a hundred new creative works, in all stages of development, from first readings to workshops to full-blown world premieres. Over its dozen years Fertile Ground has become something like a localized Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the restriction that shows aren’t imported – they have to be made here, by people who can plausibly claim to live here.
 

A whirlwind of dance, circus, and aerial action awaits in Petra Delarocha’s “Prismagic Radio Hour,” premiering at 9 p.m. Friday in Fertile Ground.

This year everything’s changed: What had been known and celebrated for its in-the-moment acts of performance has transformed because of Covid restrictions into a virtual festival. As the 2021 festival moves into its final days – it began on Jan. 28 and closes on Saturday, Feb. 7, although projects can be viewed online through Feb. 15 – ArtsWatch’s writers have racked up a lot of screen time. We haven’t seen everything, but we’ve spent hours watching, and we’ll be watching more. One thing that’s stood out has been the ability of some projects to think like hybrids, making the most under the circumstances of the possibilities of both film and live performance. 

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Shaun Keylock Company: Dancing the past into the future

The Shaun Keylock Company navigates Covid-19 shutdowns in its new space while looking to Portland’s modern dance elders for direction.

The Shaun Keylock Company paves the way for the future by honoring the past with a revival of a suite of solos and duets that choreographer Gregg Bielemeier created between 1993 and 2002. 

Let’s flash back to just over a year ago, to let’s say…simpler times. It’s January 1, 2020, and most of us are riding that superficial, yet undeniably contagious new year high. We’re setting lofty goals and suiting up in the new exercise apparel we scored over the holidays and heading to the gym…or better yet, the dance studio. Keep contagious in mind.

For Portland-based choreographer Shaun Keylock, that January 1 wasn’t just another start to a new cycle around the sun: It was the day he opened the doors of his brand-new contemporary dance space, Shaun Keylock Studio, in the Albina neighborhood of North Portland. At the new studio, Keylock and company would be able to create and rehearse new dances, teach class, and produce community events for other community artists. 

We all know what happened next, because it happened to all of us. By the middle of March, we were all bunkered in our houses, downloading Zoom, debating whether gloves were necessary for a quick run to the grocery store, and clutching our toilet paper rolls with an intimacy that was (here it comes) UNPRECEDENTED.

The classes and rehearsals that had begun at the studio paused, and Keylock, along with all of the other studios around town, was forced to rethink what it meant to be a small business owner with a financial plan  based entirely upon humans gathering together in an enclosed space. Well, it’s been almost a full year now since Covid shook the framework of our lives, and we’ve all figured out how to navigate (for better or worse, more or less) through this rollercoaster of a time.

But what really happens when you’ve just opened a dance studio just as Covid-19 tramples through the world and you’ve got a company of nine eager dancers depending on rehearsals and performances for both income and mental stability? I’d been able to witness the studio’s growth throughout 2020, as I had been teaching a weekly contemporary class at the studio before the classes shut down, but I wanted to get the full picture from Shaun about what it’s been like behind the scenes as a new studio owner and director of SKC. I sat down to a Zoom chat with Keylock about what 2020 has meant for the studio and to learn about the company’s exciting new project: an intergenerational collaboration with local LGBTQ+ elders and master choreographers for a performance series reviving historic dance works for new audiences.

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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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Tripping on Memory Lane

Turning points in a life of dance: Eric Skinner moves on, Balanchine's grave, Paul Taylor's passing, Pacific Ballet Theatre days, 'Napoli'

A visit to Balanchine’s grave (and my mother’s).

The departure of Eric Skinner for a new life in Chicago.

A reunion of Pacific Ballet Theatre’s dancers.

The death of Paul Taylor.

These are the happenings of the past five weeks that have sent me tripping on Memory Lane, making me realize that the personal and the professional are, in my case as in many, inextricable from each other.

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George Balanchine, who died on April 30, 1983, is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Sag Harbor, Long Island, one of this country’s oldest whaling ports, and now, for better but more often worse, one of the Hamptons. He made no stipulation in his will about his final resting place, and some, according to Bernard Taper, his first biographer, thought he should have been buried in Venice, with Stravinsky and Diaghilev, or in Monte Carlo. But Balanchine detested Venice, was charmed by Sag Harbor on his visits there when he was in residence at his Southampton condominium (he reportedly told someone it reminded him of the South of France). And while he remained firmly rooted in Russian culture, he was without question the principal creator of American ballet style – an American citizen, and proud of it.

George Balanchine, right, with New York City Ballet dancers, in Amsterdam, August 26, 1965. Dutch National Archives, The Hague / Wikimedia Commons

Which made it entirely appropriate to bury him in this historic American cemetery, which contains a monument to whalers lost at sea, a marker for a soldier of the Revolutionary War who, and I quote, “Did not run away,” and the graves of novelists Nelson Algren and William Gaddis, playwright Lanford Wilson, writer and actor Spalding Gray, pioneering site-specific artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and, across the path from Balanchine, dual pianists Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, who were longtime friends of his. Close by as well lies Alexandra Danilova, his muse and common law wife, whose impact as ballerina and teacher on American dancers was nearly as powerful as his.

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