Martha Ullman West

What you see & what you get

ArtsWatch Weekly: Richard Brown's photographic tales of Black Portland; picturing Pride; symphony's new chief; words of the poets; more

PHOTOGRAPHS TELL STORIES – all sorts of stories, in all sorts of ways. What seems like a simple process – point a camera, click, catch an image of the reality right in front of you – can take on much more varied and creative form in the hands of an artist. Yes, sometimes great photographs seem to come out of nowhere, as if by accident. But, like any other artists, great photographers have visions of their own, and the camera is the instrument of their vision. 

Father and child. Photo by Richard Brown, from his memoir “This Is Not for You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience.” 

Portland photographer and activist Richard Brown, who was born in Harlem in 1939, is one of those visionaries, as Maria Choban makes clear in her fascinating essay Brown in Black and White, written on the occasion of the release of Brown’s memoir, This Is Not for You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience, which he wrote with Brian Benson. The book, which contains two dozen of Brown’s remarkable photographs of Black life in Portland and elsewhere, suggests the complex and creative interplay of art and action and community in Brown’s life. 

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The arts moment: back, or ahead?

ArtsWatch Weekly: We're emerging, but into what? The culture, and the arts world, consider the possibilities and make plans.

LIKE MOST OF THE NATION, OREGON HAS ENTERED SOMETHING OF A STATE OF SUSPENDED ANIMATION. Are we in or are we out? Do we shrink or do we grow? Scurry back, or look ahead? In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go? Large stretches of rural Oregon, apparently, are eager to go – out of Oregon and into Idaho. Meanwhile, we are free to go unmasked into public spaces if we’re fully vaccinated, but not everywhere and not all the time – and we either are or aren’t on an honor system: Grocery store and restaurant workers and others dealing with the public are being left to police the unmasked to make sure they’re not cheating, and to live with the consequences of their customers’ anger. Businesses that live and breathe on public access, such as the sweet Oregon-scaled Enchanted Forest amusement park south of Salem, have eagerly reopened – and then shut down again in the face of threats from unvaccinated would-be visitors over being required to wear masks. We are one state, it appears, deeply divisible, with liberty and justice dependent on your point of view.

Back to the future? Melvin Van Peebles’ 1968 debut feature “The Story of a Three-Day Pass,” about a Black American G.I. and a white woman who meet and hit it off in France, came two years before his breakthrough hit “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.” And it is, Marc Mohan writes, “the most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week.”

Still, the trend appears to be toward motion – moving ahead – and that includes the worlds of culture and the arts. Museums have reopened, with restrictions. Music and theater and dance are once again among us, if mainly via video stream or on outdoor stages. (But not completely: Portland’s Triangle Productions is entering the final weekend of its production of the comedy Clever Little Lies, live and on an indoor stage, with a quarter-of-the-house capacity of 50 people at a time.)

Here at ArtsWatch we’re shifting with the tide, too. For instance, we’ve renamed Marc Mohan’s movie column, which has been called “Streamers” through the pandemic because movies have been available only via streaming, as “FilmWatch” – because, as Marc notes, movie theaters are beginning to open up again, and whether it’s in a popcorn palace or streaming to your living room screen, a movie is a movie. Even then, as he writes in his latest film column, this whole moving-forward thing can be a confusing muddle of present, past, and possible future. “The most revolutionary ‘new’ movie to hit Portland this week is from 1968, of course,” he writes. That movie is The Story of a Three-Day Pass, the debut feature of maverick filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, “a sneakily acerbic takedown of American racism, particularly its internalized effect upon the psyche of Black Americans.” A story ripped, or so it seems, from the headlines of pretty much any year you choose.



FRIDA’S POPPING UP ALL OVER, IN OPERA AND IN ART


LEFT: Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego Rivera in Anchorage Opera’s 2020 production of ‘Frida’. They’ll repeat their roles this summer at Portland Opera. Photo by Kathleen Behnke, courtesy of Anchorage Opera. RIGHT: Kahlo and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky are among the figures in artist Molly Van Austen’s 175-foot scroll weaving around the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo: David Bates

SUDDENLY IT’S FRIDA KAHLO SEASON IN OREGON: Onstage and via stream from Portland Opera, and on paper in a fascinating art exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. One of a handful of 20th century cultural figures whose work can draw a crowd just about anywhere, the ever-fascinating Mexican artist is either central to or an integral part of both shows. Here’s the word on each: 

  • PORTLAND OPERA’S BOLD NEW SEASON. As we noted here last week, Portland Opera will present Frida, its long-anticipated production of Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s opera about the life and times of Kahlo, in combined outdoor and streaming performances in June. This week, Angela Allen takes us beyond with a broad discussion of the big new changes brewing in the opera company’s new season, which ranges from its still-streaming Journeys to Justice concert of music about the Black experience to the coming traditional Tosca and the contemporary operas The Central Park Five, a Pulitzer Prize winner with music by Anthony Davis, and the “dystopian chamber opera” When the Sun Comes Out, which was commissioned by the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival. “Opera is for everybody, not just for millionaires and folks who get all dressed up,” Damien Geter, one of the company’s artistic advisors, told Allen. “People want to see things about real people, about real things, things that happened in recent times.” Soprano Karen Slack, Geter’s co-artistic advisor, added: “I am both a lover of grand traditional repertoire and new works. Having made a solid career on both sides, I know the power they both possess. A healthy mix of classics reimagined and new works is always exciting. A little something for everyone.”
     
  • ART FROM THE QUARANTINE LIFE. “Cultural life in Yamhill County hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but the engine is revving louder these days,” David Bates writes. “People are making plans, holding rehearsals, scheduling summer art camps.” And at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, he adds, a “delightful new exhibit” addresses the question of what artists will make of the Shutdown Year: “How will a historic, life-changing pandemic translate to the stage, page, and canvas?” The show features suggestions from two artists: Joe Robinson, owner of the East Creek community art studio and anagama kiln near Willamina, who declares that the “large, beautiful pots” scattered around the gallery “can only be accomplished when many hands come together,” and Molly Van Austen, whose 175-foot scroll snaking around the gallery comprises something of a diary of her memories and imaginings during the pandemic. It’s a cavalcade of people: “Each image in this long drawing is a meditation on some dear person in my life. That brings me joy and sadness. Memories prolong life and intensify our emotions.” Among the crowd is a portrait of Kahlo with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Frida seemed to know everybody – and as likely as not, everybody was at least as eager to be around Frida as Frida was to be around everybody.


PEAK EXPERIENCES: GOING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP


From left: Taylor Feldman, Ryan Stee, Stacey King and Shanita King on the trip to the top of Mt. Hood in Devin Fei-Fan Tau’s documentary “Who’s On Top?”

DEVIN FEI-FAN TAU: WHO’S ON TOP? In her newest Stage and Studio podcast, Dmae Roberts talks with Portland’s Devin Fei-Fan Tau, a gay Taiwanese-American filmmaker, about his new documentary Who’s on Top?, in which he and his crew follow four LGBTQ+ climbers – only one of them with previous climbing experience – in their quest to get to the top of Mt. Hood. It’s not just a physical journey, but an emotional one, too, and Roberts’ interview includes the voices of each climber talking about what led them to this pursuit. As Roberts puts it: “Historically excluded and ostracized as not belonging to the adventurer community, the climbers tackle not only a mountain, but assumptions about who they are and how they belong to the world of outdoor sports.” Bonus: The film is narrated by the great George Takei.

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Lawrence Shlim (American, born 1954). “Volcanic Ash, Centralia, Washington,” 1980. Gelatin silver print. Portland Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 81.41.2

TUESDAY, MAY 18, WAS THE 41st ANNIVERSARY OF THE ERUPTION OF MOUNT ST. HELENS, one of the signal events in the history of the Pacific Northwest. (It was a Sunday morning in 1980, and I was in Seattle, waiting at the depot to board the train back to Portland, which didn’t happen because the tracks were wiped out somewhere south of Centralia). The mountain’s cataclysmic explosion was the focus of the Portland Art Museum’s terrific exhibition Volcano! that opened last spring, and that in turn lost most of its run to another catastrophe, the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, the museum assembled this excellent online version of the exhibition, which you can still access. It’s a grand-scale show, with historic paintings going back as far as the 1850s, some wonderful post-explosion paintings by Henk Pander, George Johanson, Lucinda Parker and others, and many photos documenting both the devastation and the recovery that followed. If you click the link, you’ll find your own favorites. One of mine is the photo above, by Lawrence Shlim, of a street scene in Centralia, looking out a window at a man walking through a blizzard of ash. It seems to speak both to 1980 and the plague year of 2020: life enduring and moving on in the midst of disaster. A town staying, and going, too.



THE NIGHT JANET REED DANCED INTO BALLET HISTORY


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Young, fit, and ‘Fancy Free’

On an April evening in 1944, a young dancer from Portland made history as a star of Jerome Robbins' first ballet. What it felt like to be there.

In this excerpt from her new book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, dance critic and frequent ArtsWatch contributor Martha Ullman West writes about Oregon native Reed’s crucial role in the creation of an American classic, Jerome Robbins’ 1944 Fancy Free, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and was set to a score by Leonard Bernstein. Reed danced the role of one of the three young women who go out on the town with three sailors on shore leave. West’s book explores the growth in the 20th century of an expressly American style of ballet, and of the vital roles that dancer (and later, ballet mistress for New York City Ballet) Reed and dancer/choreographer Bolender played in the process.

Excerpted from Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet by Martha Ullman West. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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April 18, 1944, the opening night of Fancy Free, Robbins’s first ballet, was the stuff of artists’ dreams. Nobody, least of all Robbins; Leonard Bernstein, whose first theatrical score it was; or any of the cast members, including Reed, imagined they would take more than twenty curtain calls and make American ballet history. “We all knew something very special had just happened,” Bolender, who was in the audience, said decades later. [Poet and dance critic Edwin] Denby described the scene at the Metropolitan Opera House:

Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, the world premiere given by Ballet Theatre last night at the Metropolitan, was so big a hit the young participants all looked a little dazed as they took their bows. But besides being a smash hit, Fancy Free is a very remarkable comedy piece. Its sentiment of how people live in this country is completely intelligent and completely realistic. Its pantomime and its dances are witty, exuberant, and at every moment they feel natural. It is a direct, manly piece: there isn’t any of that coy showing off of material that dancers are doing so much nowadays. The whole number is as sound as a superb vaudeville turn; in ballet terminology it is a perfect American character ballet.37

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Remembering Jacques d’Amboise

The great American ballet star, who died this week at age 86, was also a great teacher and a great human being: a reminiscence

The news of Jacques d’Amboise’s death came to me in a Facebook message, and it came, this great American dancer/teacher/father/human’s age notwithstanding, as a shock.  His presence was enormous. His absence – he died May 2, at age 86 – is even more so.       

That being said, I can see him, will always see him:

  • As the toddler Apollo, learning to walk, at the beginning of George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky’s 1929 ballet, Apollon Musagete, the original title of the ballet we now know as Apollo.
  • As an exuberant American teenager, working as a gas jockey, in Lew Christensen and Virgil Thomson’s Filling Station, alleviating his boredom on the night shift by reaching for the sky in his tours jetes over the fuel pumps.
  • As a popular-culture cowboy,  an “aw shucks” expression on his face, as he inserts an American macho swagger between the Russian pyrotechnics Balanchine choreographed for him and Tanaquil Le Clercq in the last movement of Western Symphony.
  • Teaching legions of New York City’s public school children, via the National Dance Institute, the organization he founded thirty-plus years ago to give kids regardless of income the opportunity to express themselves by dancing. There are offshoots of NDI all over the world.
  • And, ten years ago, teaching barre to advanced students at The Portland Ballet: knees and feet gnarled from arthritis, his fire banked, but glowing, still with the same hot passion for dancing we saw on stage and in movies like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, back in the last century.
Jacques d’Amboise, with advanced students from The Portland Ballet, while in town in 2011 on a book tour for his memoir “I Was a Dancer.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

I don’t remember when I first encountered d’Amboise offstage—probably in 2004, and very briefly, at the Wall to Wall Balanchine celebration at New York’s New Victory Theater. He came in late, stumbled over my feet on his way to a seat on the other side of Todd Bolender, and paused to give me (and Bolender) a warm and apologetic hug.  But I do remember, very well indeed, the encounters with him from the distance of the upper reaches of the second balcony of New York City Center, where that passion for dancing – and his phenomenal stage presence, elevation, musicality, ballon, and ability to inhabit every role he performed with every fiber of his being – contributed to my own love for this art form and its many permutations. Maria Tallchief, Bolender, Andre Eglevsky, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Janet Reed also had a little something to do with that, not to mention the choreography of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

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The eyes have it: Art of the camera

ArtsWatch Weekly: Photography gets (beyond) real, the art museum reshuffles the deck, true tales of equity, Ashland's indie film fest, more

“IF ONLY I HAD THOUGHT OF A KODAK!” H.G. Wells’s vexed and haunted Time Traveller exclaims in the classic science-fiction novel The Time Machine. “I could have flashed that glimpse of the Under-world in a second, and examined it at leisure.” Ah, to create in a moment and examine at leisure. Photography, in the popular imagination, is the utilitarian art, the engineer of art forms, a documenter of what already exists: As Sgt. Joe Friday is supposed to have said laconically on the radio and television series Dragnet, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In fact, though, while documentation is a crucial element of the photographic art form, it is rarely “mere” documentation. A photo has a frame, and a frame provides, quite literally, a point of view. What’s more, that “perfect accident” of a shot might have taken hours of preparation and years of experience to achieve. In the 180-plus years since the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839, photography has developed into a full-fledged art form, with rich and varied approaches that include but are far from limited to literal description of the physical world. A photographer’s limits are roughly the same as any other artist’s: How far can her skills and imagination take her?

Left: “Falling Apart” (self-portrait), Laura Kurtenbach. Right: “House of Atlas” (from the series “Short Stories/Tall Tales”), Grace Weston.

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Rebuilding a State of the Arts

ArtsWatch Weekly: All around Oregon, the cultural Covid freeze of 2020 begins to thaw. Will it continue?

WE’RE LIVING IN CURIOUS TIMES. Things thaw, things freeze up again. Things close, things open. Vaccines are available, but good luck getting a shot (let alone two). One day it’s snow, the next day it’s spring. People stay home, people flock to reopened restaurants. Schools start up, state Senate Republicans walk out. The national death count soars above half a million as rates of infection taper off. And, as I type this late Wednesday morning, here comes the sun. (Update Thursday morning: There it goes again.)

Here, too, comes a gradual revival of Oregon’s cultural life, in greater Portland and, hearteningly, around the state. Sometimes things look almost the way they used to look. Sometimes everything’s virtual: art exhibitions viewed online; concerts streamed from musicians’ living rooms to listeners’ living rooms; dance and theater via Vimeo or Zoom. Sometimes it’s a hybrid of virtual and carefully spaced live action. And more and more, things are beginning to happen in real space and real time, although with heightened restrictions on distancing, audience size (think small), and safety precautions (think masks and more).

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Virginia Darcé (born Portland, Oregon, 1910; died Los Angeles, California, 1985), “The
Market,” 1938, tempera on board, 22 ½ x 30 ½ inches, Portland Art Museum, Portland,
Oregon, Courtesy of the Fine Arts Collection, US General Services Administration, New
Deal Art Project, L45.3.2
Marwin Begaye (Diné, born 1970), “Columbia River Custodian,” 2018, ed. 18, eight-color lithograph, 28.25 x 22.25 inches, collection of the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, CSP18-101.

In Salem, the big news of the week is that the Hallie Ford Museum of Art reopens for visitors today – Thursday, Feb. 25 – with a particularly attractive lineup of exhibits (and virtual online tours on its web site if you can’t or won’t visit in person). It’s not entirely like the old days: You can’t just walk up and buy a ticket. The number of people inside the museum at any one time will be limited, and you’ll have to make a reservation from the museum web site (link above) for timed entry. But the museum will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays, giving you plenty of options.

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ArtsWatch Good Reads 2018

2018 in Review, Part 9: A Fab 15 of ArtsWatch well-told tales worth a second look

Marc Mohan wonders if it matters that the Oscars are a flop. Martha Ullman West revisits the Big Apple of her youth. John Foyston considers sleek cars and fast motorcycles at the art museum. John Longenbaugh starts a podcast “for some very stupid reasons.” Maria Choban and Brett Campbell relate the fascinating tale of a Sri Lankan engineer determined to build the first Pandol new year’s shrine in America. David Bates dives deep into the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Laura Grimes recalls a day of traffic jams, lost glasses, Ursula K. Le Guin, and … pickles. TJ Acena talks gentrification with performance artist Penny Arcade.

The world’s overflowing with stories, and in 2018 ArtsWatch writers grabbed hold of a bunch worth a second look. Here, for your enjoyment, is a Fab 15 of tales well told.

 


 

The Oscars are dying. So what?

March 9: “This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20 percent from last year’s already dismal numbers,” Marc Mohan wrote in the wake of this year’s television debacle. “… As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

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