Katherine Disenhof

A Portland pandemic dance survey

Local dance companies and choreographers are adapting to the new normal

During the past couple of months I have been checking in regularly with some of the folks that make up Oregon’s dance community to see how things are going. The good news is that Oregon’s dancers are still dancing. You definitely can’t keep a dancer from dancing under any circumstances. It’s who they are and it’s what they do. Plus, dancers are already used to working under harsh conditions and with minimal resources anyway. The bad news is that their situation doesn’t look like it’s getting better any time soon.

The multitalented Katherine Disenhof soaring through the air.
Photo by Jason Hill.

Almost immediately following the lockdown, the international dance community jumped online and began connecting with each other and audiences through dance classes, performances, and discussions via Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Here in Portland, Katherine Disenhof a dancer with NW Dance Project, who has since left the company and moved back home to the Bay Area, created Dancing Alone Together, an online hub where dancers could go to find online dance classes and events during this time of “social distancing.” 

As of today, you can pretty much find every independent dance teacher and dance studio online, teaching daily classes, of all kinds, including Oregon dance studios and companies. 

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Comedy tussles with drama in NDP’s ‘Room 4,’ ‘Carmen’

Physical humor animates premiere and revival in the dance company's 15th season opener

The premise of Sarah Slipper’s new dance Room 4, which opened Thursday in the Newmark Theatre and is continuing its premiere production through Saturday night, is quirky and appealing, in a how’s-she-going-to-do-that? way: to cross the cryptic playwright Harold Pinter with the over-the-top comedy troupe Monty Python, translate both into the world of dance, and see what happens.

From left: Disenhof, Couture, Parson, and Nieto in the premiere of NW Dance Project artistic director Sarah Slipper’s “Room 4.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

In a way, it seems an impossible challenge. Pinter and Python are almost opposites of the British theater, Pinter with his minimalist pauses and impenetrable meanings, Python with its absurdist maximalist glee. Pinter can be humorous, but in a dank and baleful way. Python stares into the abyss and finds it an uproariously funny place, a droll minefield of jokiness. Yet both also share an ingrained suspicion of human nature and institutions, both rely on cleanliness and sharpness for their theatrical effects, and both are bent on upsetting the apple cart of convention. It’s here, in Pinter’s evasive precision, Python’s oddball physicality, and their shared jaundice, that Slipper and her Northwest Dance Project performers find a common vein. Cleanliness is next to godliness, not that either Pinter or Python holds a lot of truck with the Big Guy.

Room 4 is performed by four dancers, each named simply and cryptically by a color: William Couture (Mr. Brown), Katherine Disenhof (Ms. Green), Franco Nieto (Mr. Grey) and Andrea Parson (Ms. Blue). They are in an office, that enduring 20th and 21st century symbol of hell on earth, with desks and no windows, and are struggling for supremacy in quest of a rumored promotion for one of them to the much-desired “outer office,” which includes a window that actually opens. There’ll be a twist, and that’s really all you need to know about the plot. The dancers move in concert to text recorded by a quartet of actors and consisting of a string of repeated office-hell phrases: “Why bother?”; “We’re all in this together.”

One of Slipper’s great strengths as a choreographer is her knowledge of what her dancers’ bodies can do and her ability to shape their motions in surprising ways. The four dancers in Room 4 move fluidly yet somehow also haltingly together, reaching, bumping, stacking, stretching against one another and the desks onstage, creating a bumptious action that at once goes all over the place and nowhere at all. And in spite of the forced conformity of the office atmosphere, the dancers’ individual personalities find their space, from Nieto’s swagger to Disenhof’s sly sass. The piece begins with a paper bag stuck over one of the office workers’ heads, and the whole thing’s carried out in a blind and empty routine that seems to want to be both comic and harrowing. The miming’s terrific – stylized large-gesture movement that surely owes something to Monty Python’s exaggerated physical storytelling, although in one of the funniest sequences the modus operandi seems closer to the Three Stooges.

The color-coded costumes are by Alexa Stark, the excellent lighting by Jeff Forbes, and the suitably foreboding found-sound score by Owen Belton. In the end, the unstable balance between comedy and drama tips toward the dramatic, which lands the comedy a square one on the jaw. That would be Pinter, winning over Python in a TKO.

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The company in Ihsan Rustem’s “Carmen.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The humor comes out to play more clearly in the second, longer portion of the program, the return of resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem’s Carmen, which is updated to the 1950s, complete with rockabilly impressions and a concentration on hair: a beauty shop for the woman dancers, a barber shop for the men. This Carmen was a delight when it premiered in 2017, and it’s a delight now: Rustem’s taken a story almost as familiar as the tale of Santa’s visits down the chimney, and made it his own. This program marks the beginning of NDP’s 15th season and reflects a natural evolution. The company began with a commitment to perform only original works, and has done them by the dozens. It’s an adventurous mission, by its nature something of an unpredictable joy ride. Some of the dances, of course, stand out from the pack, and the company has gradually begun to build a repertory of such pieces that it keeps and repeats. Now, all of NDP’s dances are original, but not all of them are new.

Three of the four main dancers from 2017 return to their roles here: Andrea Parson as the cool-temperature, nouveau-riche seductress Carmen; Franco Nieto as DJ (for Don José), who falls intemperately for Carmen’s charms; and Lindsey McGill as the sweet but forlorn Micaëla, who was engaged to DJ until Carmen slinked into town. A late injury sidelined Elijah Labay, who is replaced quite swimmingly by Anthony Pucci as Eli, the sideburned, swiveling new guy in town, who plays Carmen’s game possibly better than she does herself.

Nieto hoists Parson in “Carmen.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Rustem knows how to shape a narrative beautifully, creating something of a contemporary riff on the classic story ballet, and his wit is always present but never overpowering. Once again the dancing is crisp and superb, with the Wolf Pack women’s corps of Disenhof, Samantha Campbell, Colleen Loverde, and Julia Radick matching the men’s corps of Kevin Pajarillaga, Couture, Kody Jauron, and the slyly named “Hair Dryer” like socks to a hop.

As Jamuna Chiarini reported a few days ago, four long-time company members are leaving after this production. Labay and Radick, who recently married, are moving to his native Quebec. McGill is going home to Texas, and Campbell wants to move into arts administration. All four will be missed. Newcomers Loverde and Pajarillaga are stepping in, and look to be good additions.

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Northwest Dance Project’s Room 4 and Carmen have their final performance at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, in the Newmark Theatre of Portand’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket information here.

 

 

Chamber Music Northwest: risk-taking redeemed

This summer’s festival, like last year’s, shows a classical music organization refreshing itself with new performers and new music

One day about four years ago, recently installed Chamber Music Northwest executive director Peter Bilotta was chatting with a major donor to Portland’s annual summer classical music festival. The funder “called us ‘musty,’” Bilotta recalls. “I decided this art form is alive, not musty — and we’ll prove it to you.”

This year’s five-week edition, which ended July 29, revealed a festival that has shaken off the mustiness. Bristling with listener-friendly new music, fresh young performers and diverse older ones, CMNW has managed to pull off this stealth reinvention while also holding on to most of its aging core audience, its renowned longtime performers, and a healthy dose of core classics.

Bright Sheng’s ‘The Silver River’ finally debuted at Chamber Music Northwest this summer. Photo: Tom Emerson.

For most of the years since its founding in 1970 as relatively cozy event at Reed College, CMNW has operated as West Coast summer outpost for musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which long time CMNW artistic director David Shifrin long ran. It added a second venue at tony Catlin Gabel school and mostly focused on core classics and a commissioned work or two each year, often from de facto house composer David Schiff, a Reed prof.

But new music and new performers have lately played a much greater role. “I felt one thing holding us back was being too cautious about the canon,” Shifrin recalls. When the affable visionary Bilotta arrived in 2013, he found an eager partner. They introduced innovations that have reinvigorated the festival: Protege Project, Casual Wednesdays, a new music commissioning fund (which Shifrin actually created earlier but gained traction only after the recession), more outreach programs, a weekly noon new music series, year-round programming, and more. Together, Bilotta says, “we decided it’s time to start shaking things up, taking more risks. We decided we were comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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