Linda K. Johnson

The Year of Living Cautiously, Pt. 2

Dance on screen: It's not the same as sitting with an audience for a live performance in a theater, but when theaters are shut down, it's a balm

Before Covid, I watched dancing on screen for several reasons, none of them related to recreating the experience of watching live performance, or as a substitute for it.

One was for reference, or what the French call an aide memoire, something to jog my memory of a performance I’d seen in the flesh, three-dimensionally, on the stage or in the studio or on a specific site, before I wrote about it. An example of that is watching the six-minute video of Linda K. Johnson’s Polka Dot Square piece, a viewing that verified that one of the dancers performing last October on artist Bill Will’s socially distanced giant polka dots in Pioneer Courthouse Square had been wearing red. Yet it in no way reproduced the joy I had derived from seeing birds doing a flyover, or feeling the chill in the air, or being part of an equally elated audience at the actual event. 

My rotten handwriting has also driven me to look at performances I’ve already watched in the dark—I often can’t read it. God forbid I misidentify a dancer in a review, or invent choreography that wasn’t performed.  (I am guilty of doing both of those things, for which I am still apologizing.) When Oregon Ballet Theatre performed Bournonville’s Napoli, I used a DVD of a different production—which had been staged by the same people—to remind myself of specific choreography, and while that recorded performance was extremely good, seeing it on my television screen with only my cat as my audience companion flattened it considerably. 

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancers in the United States full-production premiere of August Bournonville’s “Napoli,” October 6-13, 2018, at the Keller Auditorium. Photo: James McGrew.

The second reason is connected to research, to see what dances and dancers looked like that I have had no opportunity to see live. A few that come to mind are Janet Reed as Swanhilda in Coppélia (I was only three);  Loie Fuller’s nature-inspired dances (performed well before I was born, though I have seen one reconstruction at the Maryhill Museum of Art, which also has film clips in her archive there); and James Canfield and Mark Goldweber in the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction of Petrouchka (which was not performed in Portland on tour). 

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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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The year in dance: 2020, go away!

A look back at a year of closures, crises, streamings and reimaginings, and ahead to a more cheerful 2021

I have been trying to summarize 2020 Oregon dance events in my head for days now in anticipation of writing this piece, but every time I sit down to write, something catastrophic happens in my personal life that takes my attention away. It seems fitting that 2020, the year of Donald Trump’s impeachment, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor by the police, the evisceration of the performing arts industry, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide from Covid-19, should end so badly. 2020 has been the saddest, loneliest, most tragic year I have ever known.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


Ironically, the first 2020 DanceWatch was a preview of Marquee TV, the newish streaming service for dance, opera, and theatre. Who knew that this idea would no longer be an anomaly a couple of months later and that ALL performing arts would end up online. 

Part 3 of Linda Austin’s (Un)Made. Choreographed by Linda Austin in collaboration with the cast. Visual design and costumes by Sarah Marguier; Set design by Linda Austin; Set construction by Seth Nehil; Sound design by Seth Nehil; Lighting design by Jeff Forbes; Performed by Austin, claire barrera, jin camou, Nancy Ellis, keyon gaskin, Jen Hackworth, Allie Hankins, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles, and Takahiro Yamamoto. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

January, which feels like a thousand years ago, was a month packed full of dance performances. One was part three of Linda Austin’s a world, a world, which I previewed. This iteration of the four-year-long project was a collection of movements taken from the earlier two phases of the process, reworked and reimagined into a completely new idea performed in two disparate worlds. The entire process was chronicled on the (Un)Made website and includes performance and rehearsal photos and writing by Austin and Allie Hankins, the project’s dramaturg.

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