Mary Oslund

Passages: The ones we lost in 2020

Looking back: Remembering Oregon writers, dancers, musicians, theater artists, and others who died in the past 12 months

The year 2020 included, among its many disruptions, the deaths of several notable arts and cultural figures in Oregon. Here are 15 who we remember in particular for the art they made and the lives they led. Some, like the National Book Award-winning writer Barry Lopez, whose Arctic Dreams is a genuine classic, have international reputations. Some, like contemporary choreographer and dancer Mary Oslund, had outsized and lasting impacts that focused on Oregon but also reached beyond. All deserve our notice and gratitude for helping to shape our notion of culture in the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon’s passages join a long list of national and international cultural figures who died in 2020. Among them are the likes of playwrights Larry Kramer and Terrence McNally; the stage designer Ming Cho Lee; visual artists Christo, Milton Glaser, and Peter Beard; musicians John Prine, Little Richard, Bill Withers, Charlie Pride, Leon Fleisher, and Krysztof Penderecki; novelist John le Carré; dancer/actor Ann Reinking; and actors Chadwick Boseman (brilliant in his final role as the trumpeter Levee in the Netflix film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Olivia de Havilland, Zoe Caldwell, Kirk Douglas, and Diana Rigg.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


A note on Rigg: Many people remember her primarily as the sizzling secret agent Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers; others for her sterling stage career. I revere her also as the author of the collection No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews, an often achingly funny compilation of terrible and frequently wrong-headed notices gathered from historical records and sent her by her friends and fellow performers. It was prompted in part by a 1970 review by the legendarily caustic John Simon of her appearance in the play Abelard and Heloise: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient buttresses.” Sometimes turnabout is fair play: She showed that she could play the game just as well or better, and her book landed on Simon and his soulmates like a ton of tongue-in-cheek bricks.

The people we lost in Oregon, and will remember:

Sara Waddell and BRAVO’s Seth Truby, passing the torch. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Sara Waddell, teacher and music lover. Sara “Penny” Waddell of Beaverton was a teacher and mother and aspiring cellist who learned, in her early 50s, that she had a fatal cancer. She and frequent ArtsWatch photographer Joe Cantrell had become friends, and when she told him she wanted to pass along her cello and violin to students who could use them, he helped her connect with BRAVO Youth Orchestras, many of whose members can’t afford their own instruments. On Jan. 21 we told her story, with Cantrell’s photographs, in A cello, a violin, a final grace note. On Feb. 23 Waddell died, at age 52 – but her memory, and her musical instruments, play on.

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Eggnog & Nutcrackers to the 2020 rescue

ArtsWatch Weekly: Holiday shows in the St. Nick of time; making theatrical spirits bright, gallery art, new music, fresh flicks, passages

EGGNOG AND CHRISTMAS MUSIC ARRIVED A FEW WEEKS EARLY at our house, and really, who could blames us? – the quicker we can nudge 2020 toward the door, the sooner we can move on to something a little more promising. The early arrival of eggnog in grocery-store coolers was, I suspect, a calculated move by the dairy industry, which rightly surmised that a lot of people who’ve pretty much had it with this train wreck of a year would like an early start on the holiday season. As for those Christmas CDs (yes, we still listen to CDs), a lot of the greatest music known to humankind was composed for winter celebrations. Even popular holiday songs can feel like old friends and true companions. Winter Wonderland is an eminently hummable and whistleable tune, even if, after a certain number of repetitions, your podmates cry for mercy.

One of the things that goes with the season is The Nutcracker, a Russian tradition that became an American inevitability, performed annually to box-office hallelujahs everywhere from New York City Ballet to Miss Marcie’s Junior Terpsichorean Academy in Little Falls, Oklahoma (if such a training ground for budding balletic talent actually exists). For a stretch of several years it was one of my annual tasks to review the newest incarnation of The Nutcracker in town, an assignment that usually gave me enjoyment in the watching but consternation in the writing: What could I possibly say that was both pertinent and new? One year I found myself lost in description of the one thing that seemed, at that particular performance, most striking: the pleasure on the faces of the flock of star-struck little girls who had rushed down to the orchestra pit during intermission to get a little closer to the magic. Pertinent? On that day it seemed almost the whole point.

Sugar plums with a beat: Portland’5 Centers for the Arts presents a one-night stream Dec. 12 of Decadancetheatre’s live-recorded “Hip Hop Nutcracker,” set in Brooklyn in the 1980s, with Kurtis Blow as emcee. Photo courtesy Jennifer Weber 

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Mary Oslund: A Personal Tribute

Martha Ullman West remembers the Oregon dance legend, who has died at 72, and whose influence remains strong among dancemakers

Mary Oslund, who as artist and administrator, choreographer and teacher, collaborator, mother, and mentor was central to the flowering of the arts in Portland for more than three decades, died on November 17 at her home in Southeast Portland, at age 72. The cause of death was MSA (Multi-System Atrophy), a rare neurological disease that attacks seemingly every part of the body most needed for moving and breathing and thinking, never mind the practice of the art of the dance.  

One of the last times I saw her, almost exactly a year ago, was at a performance by CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston at the Newmark Theatre. She had trouble lifting that beautiful, 19th century poet’s face to greet me, and I thought at the time what an effort it must have been for her to watch those dancers perform Merce Cunningham’s Biped and Beach Birds, brilliantly using the technique that she carried in her own lovely bones. That said, there is little doubt that Mary’s passion for dance – doing it, creating  it, teaching it, watching it – did not stop her from making the effort, and if she thought about it at all, made it absolutely worth it.   

Mary Oslund, with her daughter Liv leaning against the mirror: in the studio and in her element. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Mary was diagnosed with MSA a little more than a decade ago.  She told me about it, in confidence, at Gregg Bielemeier’s 60th birthday party, in August 2010, while we sat on our hosts’ hard cement back steps, observing the revelry and getting caught up. I asked her how she was, and in a calm, level voice, she described her symptoms – loss of balance, muscle weakness, dizziness. For the first time in nearly three decades of free-wheeling conversations about a wide range of professional and personal subjects, I did not know what to say. 

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