Jefferson Dancers

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Dancer Olivia Ancona’s path from Portland to ‘Suspiria’

Olivia Ancona has collected plenty of passport stamps in her journey from Portland stages to the silver screen. A student and performer with The Portland Ballet, Jefferson Dancers, and Northwest Dance Project in the mid-2000s, Ancona plays the dancer Marketa in Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the 1977 horror movie, which is set in a dance school and company run by (spoiler alert!) witches. Besides performing in the film, Ancona served as a dance coach for stars Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth.

We caught up with Ancona while she was settling into her new digs in Berlin, and got her take on her early career, her time performing internationally with companies including Batsheva and Tanztheater Wuppertal, the Suspiria experience, and the real horrors that professional dancers can face.

Oregon Arts Watch: Where are you now? What are you doing currently?

Olivia Ancona: I’m in Berlin where I’m based, although just came from Wuppertal, in the north of Germany, having spent the past month guest-dancing for Tanztheater Wuppertal | Pina Bausch.

I’m putting my suitcases down for a couple of months after several years of nomadic living and freelancing. I will teach a workshop in the city alongside my partner, Scott Jennings, a member of the Pina Bausch company, and in January will prepare to set the work of Israeli choreographer/L-E-V artistic director Sharon Eyal at Konzert Theater Bern, a contemporary company in Switzerland.

Describe your trajectory from Portland to present.

I returned to Portland in eighth grade after living abroad with my family in London; my experience with The London Children’s Ballet solidified my desire to be a part of new creations and to perform. Upon our return, I continued my classical training at The Portland Ballet for three years. However, pointe work became too painful and I was told I had pre-arthritis in my feet and should probably stop dancing. I had no plans to listen to doctors’ recommendations and sought out other platforms for movement and training, auditioning for the Jefferson Dancers. This pre-professional program gave me the opportunity to rehearse in a variety of styles and to perform numerous times a year.

I saw the Batsheva Dance Company for the first time in Portland through White Bird and I fell in love with the company. The dancers were like no others I’d seen before—individualistic and unique but with the skills of superheroes. Their agility and passion really spoke to me. I decide to pursue dancing with the company; I applied to the Juilliard School with an essay about Batsheva!  I was able to work with Batsheva’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin [at] Juilliard, and I attended summer courses with him in Tel Aviv.

At the end of my junior year, Ohad invited me to join the Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company which most dancers [join] before entering the main company. After two years, I left as a founding dancer of L-E-V with Israeli/Batsheva choreographer Sharon Eyal … [I did a] half-year tour in Europe for Belgian creator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and his troupe, Eastman.

Despite feeling artistically fulfilled with these freelance projects, I craved some stability, and after two years with L-E-V, took a soloist position at the Royal Swedish Ballet as one of the contemporary members. But before long, I returned to Batsheva’s main company, where I had the opportunity to create with Ohad Naharin and Roy Assaf.

Olivia Ancona in “Mr. Gaga,” the documentary about former Batsheva Dance Company artistic director Ohad Naharin. Photo by Gadi Dagon.

After almost three years working full time for institutions, I was hungry for freelance opportunities and a creative world beyond Israel. Although I had never worked with [choreographer] Damien Jalet prior to Suspiria, he had spent years collaborating with Sidi Larbi, and had seen me perform, which was my link to participating in the film. Beginning in the fall of ’16, hours after my last show with Batsheva, I caught a flight to Milan and was immersed in preparation, research, coaching Dakota, acting, and dancing in Suspiria for about four months. After this intense experience, I returned briefly to the States. I spent six months teaching Gaga workshops in the U.S. and Europe and returned to Juilliard as one of the choreographers in their summer intensive.

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Warm hug from (and for) a giant

"If it's good, they will like it": The late, great Arthur Mitchell left a lasting imprint on dance, and a Portland writer recalls the man.

“Thank you, thank you. Now go home and do your homework,” Arthur Mitchell told 1,500 or so cheering children in the Keller Auditorium, his voice descending from the first balcony, sounding like the voice of God.

Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company he founded in 1968, was here on tour, probably sometime in the mid-1980s, and had just performed Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries, a plotless ballet set to music by Poulenc that is definitely not the usual school-show fare. DTH did have more conventional school show ballets in its repertoire at that time—John Taras’s Firebird, set in a tropical jungle rather than a Russian forest, comes readily to mind, as well as a Giselle re-cast in a Louisiana bayou. In Voluntaries, moreover, the dancers were costumed in skin-tight, dappled unitards, which could well have elicited some snickers. They didn’t. The kids were so enthralled you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Arthur Mitchell shortly after joining New York City Ballet, 1955. Photo: Carl Van Vechten. Columbia University Libraries Online Exhibitions: Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer

I was astonished by their response, and said so to Mr. Mitchell (as people often addressed him), who had insisted I sit next to him for the performance. “If it’s good, they will like it,” he told me firmly, and indeed, the dancers had torn through Tetley’s blend of classical and modern movement with so much athletic energy and technical finesse, it’s doubtful the kids even noticed what they were wearing.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Erik Kaiel comes home

A Jefferson High grad returns home, BodyVox intersects with the Imani Winds, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre and so much more

Choreographer Erik Kaiel and his dance company Arch8, now based in the Netherlands, will be performing in his hometown of Portland for the first time since Kaiel graduated from Jefferson High School’s dance program in 1990.

After leaving Jeff, he spent a decade in New York City making dances in subway stations, sculpture gardens, empty swimming pools, city streets, and on stages, too. In 2003 he moved to the Netherlands where he is now the artistic director of Arch8 and Crosstown Den Haag, a choreographic fellow at Danslab, and a faculty member at the Artez Dance Academy in Arnhem. In 2010 he won both the Dutch national prize for choreographic talent and the No Ballet competition in Germany.

Presented by Boom Arts, Arch8 will dance an award-winning quartet, choreographed by Kaiel in 2012, called Tetris, a work specifically made for children inspired by the 1980s video game of the same name.

Erik Kaiel’s Tetris performed by his company Arch8. Photo courtesy of Arch8.

Tetris, the dance, uses everyday movement like walking, sitting, standing, traditional dance, complex partnering and acrobatics to mimic the game’s objective—to stack and fit different block configurations into an existing block structure to create a connected line of blocks across the screen. The dance aims to explore our connections with each other, with the larger world, how we build languages of intimacy and our private inner worlds. It’s meant for “the kids who can’t sit still, for the ones who like to climb the walls, and those who can imagine further than they can see,” it says in the dance’s description. If the description is the qualifier for who will enjoy the dance, then it’s a dance for pretty much for everyone, as far as I’m concerned.

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DanceWatch Weekly: My vacation to Japan

You can go to Japan, or you can go to Butoh College here at home and catch Stephen Petronio, too

I have just returned from a week in Japan, and I am in an elated, exhausted, jet lagged, watery, impermanent state of being neither here nor there. My mind is still navigating Japan, but I am physically back in the beautiful, blossoming spring of Portland.

In Japan it’s also spring, and everywhere you look there are cherry trees in full bloom with cascading pink flowers and countless people posing for photos under them. This past weekend in Arashiyama, a district on the outskirts of Kyoto, spring appreciations/celebrations were in full swing. The Hozu River, which runs from the mountains down into Kyoto, is lined with cherry trees. Large families with young girls dressed in colorful kimonos were strolling in the warm air along the banks, taking pictures under the trees, shopping, eating ice cream, and socializing into the wee hours of the evening. It was idyllic.

I don’t think I have ever experienced, appreciated, or even noticed spring in quite this way before. The slowed down pace, the appreciation of the trees, of nature, of seasons, the color of the blossoms, the attention to family and tradition; it was all so beautiful and put me in a gooey, honey-like, euphoric state.

In Tokyo I was extremely lucky to get a last-minute ticket to see a tea ceremony, dance, and music performance by Kyoto’s renowned Geiko/Geisha and Maiko (Geisha in training) called Miyako Odori, a spring dance performance that has been performed annually since 1872. The geisha are consummate performers and hostesses who dedicate their lives to perfecting the performing arts. Becoming a geisha was the first respectable profession for women in Japan and should never be confused with prostitution.

Miyako Odori. Photo courtesy of Goin’ Japanesque!

The hour-long performance was a compilation of six dances celebrating Japan’s seasons while introducing us to famous places and beautiful locations throughout Kyoto—like the mountains, streams, and temples. There were 60 performers in all, live music and singing, lavishly designed sets and lighting, and gorgeous colorful silk kimonos for days. The movements were delicate, graceful, exacting, with not a finger out of place. The experience made me fall in love with ritual all over again and understand its importance in daily life.

In contrast to this elaborate classical experience was a Butoh class I took in Kyoto with choreographer Ima Tenko. Tenko directs her own, three-person company called Butoh Company Kiraza and was a member of Byakkosha, an acclaimed Butoh company that ran for 14 years and broke up in 1994. Tenko’s company performs every Thursday to a small audience of eight or nine; sadly I was not able to see them perform. But, I did take class with her in her studio that she rents in a Korean section of Kyoto that used to be mens’ garment factory before the war. Referring to time periods in relation to the war is common in Japan. Posted on the inside of the door to her studio is a poster of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, performing The Rite of Spring.

Butoh dancer Ima Tenko performing Hisoku. Photo courtesy of Ima Tenko.

Even though she and I had language barrier issues, I still felt like I fully understood what she was saying. Movement speaks volumes, you know. It was almost like I could hear her speaking in English in my head even though she wasn’t. I found that her warm up exercises were familiar as they were based on modern and postmodern dance, and her themes of humans in nature are universal. We even did a sumo exercise, practiced the Butoh walks, which are based in Noh Theatre, and on the way Japanese people walk, and we scrunched up our faces and shuffled around like bent old ladies at the end of class to fully understand the experience of authentic movement embodiment.

I thought as a Westerner that going to Japan to take Butoh would be a completely unfamiliar experience, but it wasn’t. Even though I live 5,000 miles away, and I am not a regular Butoh practitioner, I still felt a connection with Tenko’s movement history because of the modern dance lineages that we are both tied into from our training that connect us all world wide. It was pretty cool.

And with that I offer you this week’s performances, some of which are Butoh based.

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