New Expressive Works

ArtsWatch Weekly: a squeeze, a shuffle, a Fertile sprawl

Real-estate blues and a major reshuffle at RACC top the news; Fertile Ground's new works sprawl across the city; Federale's Hegna sounds off

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, the real-estate mantra goes, to which we might add: Availability, availability, availability. Price, price, price. As greater Portland’s real-estate market heats up, prices are rising and affordable places to use for performance halls and galleries are becoming scarce: In a city that’s staked its future on the creative economy, many of its creative groups and people are finding the landscape tough to negotiate.
 

High-stakes space crunch: Lever Architecture has designed a new theater and office complex for Artists Repertory Theatre on half of the block it used to occupy in Goose Hollow. The other half features a large tower. Rendering courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

In his story Arts groups play the real estate game, architecture and planning writer Brian Libby, who knows the city’s development scene through and through, takes ArtsWatch readers into the space squeeze and the many ways that artists and cultural groups are coping with it. “The erosion of small performance spaces seems to indicate how a booming economy can be a curse for struggling arts organizations as much as a blessing,” Libby writes. This is the first of several stories Libby will be writing for ArtsWatch on the complex topic of space and art: Watch for more.
 

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Dance preview: Everything and nothing

Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram integrate classical Indian dance forms and a modern dance sensibility in "Listening to Silence"

It’s Sunday night and I’m at New Expressive Works, watching a few minutes of tech rehearsal for the upcoming Listening to Silence, a dance performance co-created by NEW founder and executive director Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram, the assistant director of Odissi Dance Company. Before heading over to interview the pair, I was sitting on my porch listening to the rain as it beat down, mulling over the idea of listening to silence and reading through the ancient Rig Vedic poem 10.129 (Nasadiya).

The poem speaks of the creation of everything, the paradoxical and complex nature of it all, and alludes back to the idea of nothingness or a great void. Knowing that the Nasadiya had been an important point of inspiration for the work, I concluded that listening to silence must be similar to the experience of that great nothingness.

Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram have collaborated on a new dance, Listening to Silence/Image courtesy of New Expressive Works

When I asked Raghuram what the process of creating Listening to Silence has done to her perception of silence, she responded succinctly. “Before this project, I thought silence meant no noise, no movement,” she said. “Now, I find silence in everything and anything.”

So how can the experience of nothingness be found in everything and anything? Ganesan and Raghuram are using their new work as a space to tackle these larger than life concepts. Traditional classical Bharatanatyam training and a keen sense for pushing boundaries intermingle as they present their findings in a 50-minute performance set for a three-show run this weekend, January 31-February 2, at New Expressive Works in Southeast Portland. 

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Listening to Silence is the result of years of Ganesan’s research. Ancient texts like the Rig Veda, writings about silence by poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Jiddu Krishnamurti, and more recently, her conversations in rehearsal with Raghuram all play into the final product.

To get a feel for the kind of imagery the work pulls from, here’s an excerpt from Rilke’s poem I have many brothers in the South, translated by Robert Bly, which served as an inspiration: 

Yet no matter how deeply I go into myself
my God is dark, and in a webbing made
of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.
I know that my trunk rose from this warmth, but that’s all,
because my branches hardly move at all
near the ground, and just wave a little in the wind.

This project is the first time Ganesan and Raghuram have worked together. Last year, I got to know Raghuram when I interviewed her for my article on Portland dance-transplants. Yashaswini performs extensively in India and the U.S. She has performed in several international festivals—the International Odissi Festival, All Women’s Art Festival, Marghazhi Season at RR Sabha, and Tamara Arts Festival, among others. She is a principal dancer and the Assistant Director of Odissi Dance Company, the only actively touring Odissi company in the United States.

Ganesan, herself a South Asian immigrant, now serves as Portland’s very own Creative Laureate. She is a contemporary Bharatanatyam dancer and Artistic Director of Natya Leela Academy, where she choreographs and performs potent and universally relevant movement expressions in Bharatanatyam. Her Southeast Portland art space, New Expressive Works, fosters cross-cultural dialogue and exchange. Although Ganesan’s past projects have pushed traditional bharatanatyam boundaries, her collaboration with Raghuram in Listening to Silence stands as her first work with a professionally trained classical Bharatanatyam dancer. The pair’s knowledge and years of immersion within the rich philosophy, history and spirit of Hindu culture allow for a deep dive into the concepts of silence, nothingness, and paying attention. 

As we discussed such topics our conversation about the work came to drop-off points, but Ganesan and Raghuram aim to guide the audience through their work. They hope  that audiences will leave with greater understanding of concepts that are not only deeply rooted in Hindu tradition and philosophy but also permeate the lives of all of humanity—universal concepts seen through a Hindu lens.

To achieve such a lofty goal, the creation of Listening to Silence required the duo step outside of a traditional bharatanatyam performance structure. “We spent a lot of time finding the common ground between a contemporary approach and classical bharatanatyam,” noted Ganesan.

For comparison, Raghuram explained that when a traditional bharatanatyam dance is performed, the form of the performance is set in a way similar to that of a ballet class, where each exercise has a specific placing in the flow of the hour-and-a-half dance. Avid Indian dance fans arriving late to a Bharatanatyam performance would know the exact sections they’d missed and which ones were up next, solely based on the section being performed—regardless of their familiarity with the work or the choreographer. 

Listening to Silence frees itself from this structure, although this contemporary approach to a traditional style does not parallel Western dance at all. While modern dance originated as a rebellion against ballet, “the traditional way of learning gets us here,” Ganesan explained. “We are not breaking from tradition. There is so much to learn from the ethos, or the rasas.”

The rasas are the juice, or essence, that classifies the aesthetics of the work across genres of Indian art. For more detail on that concept, check out a piece of mine from last year, when I covered a show by a visiting Bharatanatyam couple with a focus on one of the rasas: love.

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While Ganesan has been working outside of the traditional lines of the style for quite some time now, Listening to Silence marks Raghuram’s first step to a different aporach to creating Indian dance. When I asked her how that experience had been for her, she said that her main worry was that veering from the set structure of Bharatanatyam would create misunderstanding in the audience. Raghuram noted that her experience of contemporary modern dance was so unconventional that understanding it became difficult. The cloak of experimentalism covered its lack of ability to communicate meaning. It’s an art, she said, to guide the audience through your work while still giving space for their imagination and interpretation.

That’s what Listening to Silence attempts to do. Ganesan was clear that their work is “not research, and not an experiment. We are making art to make meaning,” she said. 

Listening to Silence uses a plethora of mixed-media to pull the ideas together. Among them is a sound-score by Roland Toledo, whose work focuses on the natural environment and explores the potential of data to create a fabric of immersive audio. The work also includes recordings from NASA, as well as video projection and intricate lighting design.

“We are not cultural ambassadors of an age-old practice that is dying,” Ganesan says. “We are here. We exist. We are making work.” I was reminded of a 2019 conversation with Raghuram, when we discussed the challenges of cultural separation as an Indian artist in the West, and she told me about the “extra responsibility of Indian artists here to increase sensitivity [and awareness],” surrounding such ancient and sacred forms.

After sitting with the Ganesan and Raghuram for just an hour, I began to notice just how universal the topics we traversed were. Though nuanced and rooted in Indian traditions, what Ganesan and Raghuram are talking about is inherently human, and thus, relatable to everyone. The paradoxical journey of the work is like the verses of the Nasadiya, contradicting itself only to resolve in peaceful clarity. Like nothingness containing everything, or the idea of listening to silence. 

Composing on this side of complexity

Third Angle “Homecomings” program showcases Oregon-connected composers--but takes too few risks

By DANIEL HEILA

Contemporary classical music composers–whom we might define as “those who look to the classical canon as root”–are frequently self-conscious about the historical and perennial shortcomings of modern art music (“that which seeks to transcend the history of western music”–again, my definition). Hyper abstract structures, gratuitous dissonance, obfuscated rhythmicality, and self-indulgent conceptualism can all alienate the audience and performers–although minus the adjectives these approaches are all fertile ground when used objectively. So it is understandable that a goodly portion of the genre’s repertoire is in opposition to a perceived aesthetic toxicity.

Many composers seek to traverse the morass of complexity to access an elegant simplicity on the far side (tip of the hat to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.). This journey is deceptively arduous and involves coming to terms with the very complexity to be transcended. Third Angle New Music’s concert Homecomings of October 17th and 18th, held in Studio 2 of New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), evidenced varying degrees of success in this endeavor, with a program of work by composers who have come up in Oregon and then gone out into the world (or stayed local in two cases) to establish themselves in professional careers.

Percussion and audience at Third Angle's "Homecomings" concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Percussion and audience await Third Angle’s “Homecomings” concert at New Expressive Works, October 2017. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Over the lengthy, single act evening I became aware of two prominent features of the music. One was a tendency toward reliable structures on which hung thin forms (the shape of the music that fills out the structure) which were in some cases almost anemic. The other feature was, for lack of a deeper analysis, the presence of the above-mentioned self-consciousness, perhaps what could be called risk aversion.

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Field of Vision

Conference introduces national organization to Portland through performance and discussion of pressing issues in Oregon arts

A group of prominent Portland artists sat around a table with representatives of some of Oregon’s heaviest hitting arts funders, and the conversation was growing tense. How do funders determine which artists receive support, one artist asked, especially individuals and small organizations that might lack resources and track record compared to better-funded and -staffed institutions? Why do funds seem to flow to the same organizations year after year, even though the art they pay for doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community the organizations and artists both purport to serve? 

Such questions have long troubled Oregon’s art scene as it evolves into a more diverse community. But we seldom hear them voiced aloud in a public event, especially with both donors and recipients present. It’s even rarer for the conversation to proceed beyond accusation to explanation and understanding.

But that’s what happened last spring when Portland’s New Expressive Works hosted the 2019 National Field Network Conference. Presented by staff members from the national organization Jennifer Wright Cook and Shawn René Graham, local Field office representatives Jen Mitas and Katherine Longstreth, and conference consultant Subashini Ganesan, the two-day event — which included performances, installation, and discussion– introduced the New York-based arts organization The Field to Portland, and offered about 200 Oregon artists and arts advocates the chance to participate in conversations about the work The Field is doing, and related issues arts organizations face here.

Pepper Pepper performed excerpts from the forthcoming ‘Noise/Data’ at The Field conference. Image: Karl Lind.

Along with putting artists and art funders around the same table for candid discussions, the first day events presented The Field’s history and explained its Fieldwork method for giving artists needed feedback on their work. The second day featured a panel of Northwest artists discussing the role of social media and digital media in their art practices, plus several performances of dance, music, installation and multimedia art — a welcome injection of actual art into the discussion of arts issues. The event raised some tough but necessary questions about Oregon’s art scene pertinent to artists, presenters, funders, and audiences.

This weekend, Portlanders can see some of the fruits of The Field PDX’s work as artists who’ve received feedback through its Fieldwork process show their work at New Expressive Works’s 12th Residency Performance, where they participated in a residency with Longstreth.

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Dance preview: The essence of love in Indian dance

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran focus on the rasa of love in their bharatanatyam concert Sunday night

Across genres of Indian art, rasas—the juice or essence that classifies the aesthetic of the work—play a key role in transporting the audience to a realm of wonder parallel to the one we live in. Though the ancient form of Indian dance, bharatanatyam, may seem mysterious and other-worldly at first, the emotional content that serves the style is recognizable, even without the benefit of extensive cultural education.

When I asked visiting bharatanatyam dance couple Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran of Chennai, India, what their favorite rasa was, Viraja replied simply, “The king of the rasas: shringara (love). A love for what you do, a love for the art, and our love for each other.”

 Sunday, in a one-night only performance at Portland’s New Expressive Works, the duo will perform an hour’s worth of traditional Indian dance, followed by a special audience talk-back that will help answer questions that may arise.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran will perform Sunday night at New Expressive Works. Photo by Sibu Kutty

Bharatanatyam is a beautiful and rich dance form laced in tradition traced back in  Sanskrit texts from the 2nd century CE. “There’s a lot of misconceptions around bharatanatyam because it’s an ancient art form; a carrier of tradition, of ways of the past. There are many ways to demystify it,” says Subashini Ganesan, founder and director of N.E.W. 

Viraja and Shyamjith are a dynamic dance couple trained from the illustrious Kalakshetra Foundation, based in Chennai. Kalakshetra is an intensive university program founded in 1936 that has received international attention for its perfectionism and clean, geometric approach to the preservation of classical Indian dance. Reflecting on their  Kalakshetra training, Viraja noted that it’s rewarding now as professional dancers to be asked if they are from Kalakshetra, based on their performance qualities alone. That reputation seeps through Viraja and Shyamjith’s work as creators and performers, further validating the level of training that informs their movements.

Kalakshetra’s program emphasizes that there is more to learning the artform than just the movements, however. The idea that the dance progresses as the dancer’s life experience becomes more full and mature is equally important. While chatting with Ganesan, she also cited that principle, recalling her early teachers explaining that “you won’t perfect bharatanatyam until you’ve felt the emotions of it in your real life.” 

Shyamjith noted that the school “gave us an eye for beauty, and a system to follow when creating.” Later in our conversation, he explained that he likes to push the boundaries of the tradition as the choreographer of their performances. For him, that might mean using music with a more modern feel to it, which you’ll have a chance to hear in the final dance of the Portland program, which uses the melodies of composer Sri. Balamurali Krishna.

Viraja Mandhre and Shyamjith Kiran/Photo by Paresh Gandhi

Sometimes, this type of innovation receives pushback from more traditional practitioners of the ancient form, while others welcome the new ideas. “We try to improve ourselves and change based on the feedback we get about out work,” says Shyamjith. 

Viraja and Shyamjith’s Portland program includes a blend of the rasas, the Indian term that refers to the feelings evoked in Indian artistic practice. The nine rasas are shringara (love), haasya (comedy), raudra (fury), karuna (compassion), bheebhatsya (aversion), bhayaanaka (terror), veera (herosim), adhbuta (wonder), and shanta (peace). Given that the dancing duo is also a couple in real life, I wondered how the rasa theory played out in their artistry, and how it relates to the idea that your understanding of the practice increases as your life experience broadens.

“The whole reason we are dancing together is because we believe in each other. As artists, we strive toward the same thing, to strike a chord. That is rasa,” said Viraja. Their work’s foundation is “to be honest, to be sincere, and to bring the best of our energies together. We try to live up to each other’s strengths.”

The experience of the performers’ intimate bond as partners should be enhanced in the cozy performance studio at N.E.W. Similar to western ballets, bharatanatyam is typically performed in large theatres with proscenium stages. The grandeur of the theatre reflects the breadth of the dance form as it narrates mythical legends and spiritual ideas of sacred Hindu texts. I asked them how they felt bringing their work to a smaller space than what they are used to. Audience members will be able to see each facial expression and have a close view of the intricate footwork that denotes the form.

“Personally, I feel cautious. You have to be very clear and not be distracted by the audience. But we are human,” says Shyamjith.

Viraja sees these potential distracting moments as just that, moments, and then you are still in your performance.  Shyamjith shared that some of the rasa expression comes more naturally to a woman, and that he’s sometimes hesitant to try them. But, in a similar way to how he pushes boundaries as a choreographer, Shyamjith uses this challenge as an opportunity to push himself and his ways of storytelling.

For the pair, the talk back will serve as an important exchange of understanding. Without it, “the stage becomes a divide between the audience and the art,” Viraja says.

 Viiraja and Shyamjit will perform Sunday, July 28, at 5 pm. Limited tickets are available through New Expressive Works.

Keylock company finds its footing

The contemporary dance company stages its first evening-length performance with work by founder Shaun Keylock and two others

Portland’s Shaun Keylock Company staged its first evening-length performance this past weekend at New Expressive Works, offering contemporary pieces that demonstrate the emerging company’s aesthetic and interests, as well as founder/artistic director Shaun Keylock’s curatorial practice, which combines technical rigor with historical references and a queer sensibility.

The bill featured two of Keylock’s pieces as well as work by Seattle’s Jordan
MacIntosh-Hougham and Portland’s Josie Moseley. The last time I saw Keylock’s work was June 2018, when he debuted Calamus for New Expressive Works’ 10th residency cycle. After that residency, Keylock continued to meditate on Calamus—a piece about what he calls “quiet queerness” that draws from Walt Whitman text and World War II-era oral historiesand created a second, more mature iteration of the work for this program.

Kristalyn Gill (from left), Shaun Keylock, Trevor Wilde, Jillian Hobbs, and Liane Burns wig out in Jordan MacIntosh-Hougham’s “Bad! Bad! Bad!” Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

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DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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