New Expressive Works

Amid crises, creating art to heal

Portland's former Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan-Forbes leads a city drive to nurture art for a time of grieving and healing

In April of this year the City of Portland announced a six-month grieving and healing initiative titled “Community Healing Through Art.” Led by the city’s outgoing creative laureate, Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, the six-month initiative uses community engagement to drive public art projects to promote healing among Portland communities after the extraordinary health and cultural crises of 2020 and 2021.

With initial support from the offices of Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Carmen Rubio, the project has grown to a $200,000 initiative thanks to funding from the Oregon Community Foundation and the Miller Foundation. As part of the initiative, 13 grants were awarded to artists and organizations in Portland to create individual projects totaling $65,000. A full list of the grantees, whose projects range from a Black Arts Summer Showcase music festival to a Parkrose district youth film project to end gun violence, can be found here.

The first of these projects began this week, a Joint Collaborative Garland by the Independent Publishing Resource Center. Local poets will contribute first lines of poems that reflect on the grief and healing of the past year. The zine library will be open through September for community members to contribute to the installation.

Arts advocate Subashini Ganesan-Forbes. Photo: Intisar Abioto

Ganesan-Forbes was appointed Portland creative laureate in 2018, and was succeeded earlier this summer by the dual laureates Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez. But she’s continuing with the healing initiative, which she’d begun before her term ended. We talked with her about the initiative’s projects and what they might do:

TJ Acena: What is the history of this project?

Subashini Ganesan-Forbes: From the beginning I made it clear that, yes, I’m leaving as creative laureate but it’s gonna take a lot of time to even think about what the concept of community healing could be. The first month was a lot of organizing, thinking and strategic work. I’m super grateful I was given a lot of freedom to create, build, and initiate a lot of collaborations.

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Subashini Ganesan: Last official project

Portland's Creative Laureate is leaving the post with one last community-healing project

Since January 2018, Subashini Ganesan (she/her) has filled a curious role within the regional arts scene. In addition to her own career as an artist and arts administrator, Ganesan has served as the Creative Laureate appointed by the City government of Portland to advocate for the vast arts and cultural ecosystem.

As is typical of government, the role of Creative Laureate comes with an expiration date and is designed to turn over every two years. However, Ganesan’s tenure proved an exception. Given the unexpected impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, she agreed to extend her term to three-and-a-half years in order to provide continuity of support during a time when, as she put it, “advocacy is needed.” 

Choreographer Subashini Ganesan in her “Listening to Silence” performance, 2020/Photo by Intisar Abioto

Times of change are afoot with the onset of spring. As more and more people get vaccinated and prepare for the possibilities of physical togetherness, the search for a new Creative Laureate appointee is also underway. In addition to interviewing with ArtsWatch’s Dmae Roberts for Stage and Studio about this transitional period, Ganesan met with me and spoke about her advocacy work during this time and her last, community-healing project as Creative Laureate.

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Subashini Ganesan: Creative Laureate Checks In

Stage & Studio: Dmae Roberts and Portland's arts advocate talk about Covid relief, EDI initiatives, and what the next laureate might do

What is the current state of Portland’s creative community? One person who has had her finger on the pulse of the needs and challenges for Portland’s artists is Subashini Ganesan, and she’s checking in with Dmae Roberts.

Subashini Ganesan-Photo: Intisar Abioto.

In 2018, Ganesan was selected to become the Creative Laureate of Portland, the first woman of color to represent the city’s creative community. As the cultural ambassador of Portland, she conducted surveys to help artists define needs for affordable space, and organized arts and culture communities in an event, “Walk with Refugees and Immigrants.” She also co-founded and organized an emergency relief fund for artists during March through July in 2020 as the arts community struggled to adapt to COVID-19.

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Once things clear out, what do you hear?

Recalling Caroline Shaw’s Third Angle visit: a song, a memory, and a chat with the composer

I just have to tell you about this song I’ve had stuck in my head for the last nine months, rattling around my quarantined brain ever since my personal Last Concert from the Before Times.

It was Friday, March 6th (an obligingly dark and stormy night), two days before the state-of-emergency declaration, and Third Angle New Music Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann was standing in the dimly lit Studio 2 at New Expressive Works on Southeast Belmont, starting the second night of 3A’s Caroline in the City concert with a Ram Dass quote:

When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying “You are too this, or I’m too this.” That judgment mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.

Caroline Shaw performing at New Expressive Works in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Caroline Shaw performing at New Expressive Works in March 2020. Photo by Kenton Waltz/Third Angle New Music.

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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

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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