Minh Tran

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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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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Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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Minh Tran’s journey to rebirth

In his first new piece in eight years, the choreographer/dancer creates a luminous evocation of a soul's passage to the next life

When does the personal become the universal? That is one of several questions raised by Minh Tran’s Anicca (Impermanence), the Vietnamese-born choreographer’s first new piece in eight years, which premiered on Thursday night in Reed College’s Massee Performance Lab.

Two years in the making, Anicca is in fact deeply personal: It is Tran’s superbly crafted response to the loss of his parents, particularly his mother, its organizing principle the time (49 days) that practitioners of Theravada Buddhism believe it takes for the soul to journey from death to rebirth. “These souls are called wandering ghosts,” Tran said in an interview for Reed Magazine. “They’re living in a world we call the bardo, a (neverland) that doesn’t belong to any place at all. During this time, these souls need a lot of attention and prayers [so] they will be shepherded by the bodhisatta or the Goddess of Mercy until they reach the gate … so they can be reincarnated for the next life.”

Company members circle Carla Mann, who represents the “death soul” of Minh Tran’s mother in “Anicca: Impermanence.” Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

In the course of the 49-minute piece (give or take) the seven dancers in Anicca perform the same number of sections, each of them representing a different stage of the soul’s journey, as well as that of those who grieve and finally find some form of acceptance.

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