Jeff Forbes

Dance Preview: Linda Austin’s ‘a world, a world’

Choreographer Linda Austin concludes a four-year experiment with the we way remember, forget, re-imagine and recreate art

Linda Austin’s a world, a world opens Thursday night at her home studio-theater, Performance Works NW, which she co-directs with her husband and lighting designer Jeff Forbes. Forbes also designed the lighting for a world, a world. Sound design is by Seth Nehil with visual design and costumes by Sarah Marguier. 

Austin, who grew up in Medford, Oregon, and attended Lewis & Clark College, has been making dance and performance since 1983. In the late ‘70’s she moved to New York City where she got involved with what was then called the “downtown dance scene,” which included workshops at Movement Research, whose programs carry on and extend the legacy of Judson experimentation. While in New York, her work was presented at Performance Space 122, the Danspace Project, the Kitchen, and Movement Research at Judson Church and in the early ‘90’s she lived and made work in Mexico. In 1998 she moved back to Portland, Oregon, where she and Forbes bought a small church, which she turned into a studio, and founded the performing arts non-profit, Performance Works Northwest. 

Choreographer /performer Linda Austin in part 3 of (Un)Made in 2017. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

Since her move back to the West Coast, Austin has presented work at PWNW, Conduit, On the Boards’ Northwest New Works, Velocity, and PICA’s TBA Festival, and back in New York.

Austin has been awarded numerous prestigious awards, including the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Merce Cunningham Award (2017), a Fellowship in Performing Arts from the Regional Arts & Culture Council (2014), as well as Fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts (1992) and the Oregon Arts Commission (2007 & 2019). Her work has been supported by the Regional Arts & Culture Council, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and Movement Research, as well as residencies at Djerassi and Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center. Her writing has appeared in The Movement Research Performance Journal, Tierra Adentro (Mexico), the literary journal FO A RM and a 2003 collection from MIT Press, Women, Art & Technology.

In 2015 when Performance Works NW celebrated its 15 anniversary, I interviewed Austin, which you can read here. In the interview, she talks about how her experimental style developed in New York and her move back to Portland. This year Austin, Forbes, and Performance Works NW will celebrate their 20th anniversary.

Part 3 of (Un)Made in 2017. Pictured here are dancers claire barrera, and Noelle Stiles. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis

This new work, a world, a world,  is a visually arresting dance for seven dancers: claire barrera, Muffie Delgado Connelly, Nancy Ellis, Hannah Krafcik, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles, and Austin. It drops the viewer into the same, saturated, arena-like environments that the dancers themselves inhabit. The work offers an immersive experience that is an amalgamation of movement, sound, image, and language. a world, a world continues through January 25. Seating is limited because it is built into the set—there are 30 seats total each night. 

a world, a world is the culmination of a four-year-long choreographic process that began with (Un)Made, a solo created and performed by Austin, who then passed it down in relay fashion, like a game of telephone, to eight other performers: Jin Camou, keyon gaskin, Matthew Shyka, Linda K. Johnson, Nancy Ellis, Robert Tyree, Tahni Holt, and Jen Hackworth. These performers then in turn passed it down to a group called the Dream Team—Claire Barrera, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles, and Takahiro Yamamoto— and it was finally performed again by Austin herself.

The experience played out what it looks like to remember, misremember, and adapt. Austin was interested in investigating new ways of authorship and finding “a way of dissolving self-importance,” she said when we spoke last weekend. “I had an initial idea about losing your boundaries…in a devotional sense.”

Part 3 of Linda Austin’s (Un)Made in 2017 at Performance Works NW. Pictured here are dancers Nancy Ellis and Danielle Ross.
Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

We, the audience, tracked the details from Austin’s original performance through each one of the performers, observing what was lost, what remained, and what was changed. The entire process was chronicled on the (Un)Made website and includes performance and rehearsal photos as well as writing by Austin and Allie Hankins, the dramaturg for the project.

The second phase was called (Un)Made Part 2: the last bell rings for you, and was a collaborative, large ensemble score (a structured framework for improvisation) that featured movement artists Claire Barrera, Jin Camou, Nancy Ellis, Jen Hackworth, Allie Hankins, keyon gaskin, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles and Takahiro Yamamoto and involved 18 new participants with varying levels of performance experience. In this phase, Austin was interested in having “people experience making something together, performing it together, and also being able to watch the result.”

Philosophically, she wanted to create community but also wanted to challenge herself “as a choreographer to make something satisfactory out of simple elements and people who aren’t dancers.” Austin also sees dance in everyday movement and honors the trained and untrained moving bodies, also honoring her own experiences as an untrained dancer in the beginning of her career by balancing the pieces movement style between both worlds.

Part three, a world, a world, is a collection of movements taken from the other two phases of the process, reworked and re-imagined into a completely new idea that is performed in two disparate worlds—one oversaturated with repeated patterns in darkness, and the other quiet, clean, and peaceful and full of light.

Part 3 of Linda Austin’s (Un)Made in 2017. Photo by Chelsea Petrakis.

In watching this process unfold over the past three years I have become acutely aware of how imperfect and suspect my own memory is. I definitely don’t remember everything; I survive day-to-day on a collective memory shared by my family and close friends. If I can’t remember something, someone else definitely will. We are an inseparable unit that acts as one.

Austin seems to be tracking memory in this choreographic process, in turn creating her own collective memory and community with the performers involved. Legacy comes to mind.

For myself, the making of a dance becomes inseparable from the experiences I am having outside the studio. The questions I have, my relationships, what I’m interested in, they all consciously and unconsciously inform the choices I am making in my art eventually creating a cyclical relationship where you can’t extract one from the other. Maybe it’s always been that way. We recreate the world we live in, in our art.

So, Austin is curious about how we are influenced by culture, our awareness of those influences, whether we like who we are, is it changeable, can identity be fluid, can we keep our individuality while living harmoniously in a community, and what are different ways that we author/alter the narrative of our lives. All of those questions and possibly some answers can be found in a world, a world.

a world, a world, January 16-25, Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave.

The unkindness of strangers

James Canfield's distillation of "A Streetcar Named Desire" highlights NW Dance Project's premieres, with Sarah Slipper's dance of love

The funk and sweat and desperate seediness of New Orleans are so thick in the air above James Canfield’s new dance Sketches of Connotation that you can almost smell them rising from the stage of Lincoln Performance Hall. It’s an intoxicating aroma.

Sketches, Canfield’s distilled evocation of Tennessee Williams’ beautiful nightmare of a play A Streetcar Named Desire, is the anchor of NW Dance Project’s fifteenth-season-ending Summer Premieres program, which opened Thursday and continues Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s a gorgeous, exquisitely crafted piece of dance theater, the work of a choreographer who’s stayed true to his longtime vision of dance as a reflection of popular culture and who now, as a veteran artist, seems fully in control of his considerable imaginative skills.

William Couture, Anthony Pucci, Colleen Loverde, Kody Jauron, Katherine Loverde, and Franco Nieto in the world premiere of James Canfield’s Sketches of Connotation. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

NDP’s program of three premieres also includes company artistic director Sarah Slipper’s Save Me the Plums, a sweet and often funny dance of love and loss performed beautifully by Andrea Parson and Franco Nieto; and Felix Landerer’s angsty All’s Been Said, in which a dancer in a polar-bear mask declaims about magicians and climate change.


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.”