Oluyinka Akinjiola

What a kick! Dance that moved us

2018 in Review, Part 4: Dance that turned our thinking inside out and took us places where we'd never been before

Sure, we love big jumps and fast turns, but that’s not what makes the best dancing. The best dancing is the kind that takes us places we’ve never been before, or turns our thinking inside out.

Some of Oregon ArtsWatch’s best dance writing this year did that, too. Collectively, the OAW dance team—the writers covering dance, that is; don’t book us for your holiday party just yet—has decades’ worth of writing, research, and performing experience, as well as the burning desire to produce insightful and inspired coverage of dance in all its forms.



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Lucky us: we had so much to do in 2018 that we can’t revisit it all here. Instead, we’re sampling some of the moments, big and small, that especially moved us this year:

 


Odissi Dance Conpany’s Artistic Director Aparupa Chatterjee with the ODC repertoire: Tanvi Prasad, Divya Srinivasa, Divya chowdhary, Swati yarlagadda, and Ramyani Roy. Photo: Sarathy Jayakumar

Embracing Odissi in the age of Trump

The 2016 U.S. presidential election continued to galvanize artistic action two years after the fact. “Since Donald Trump took office, I have been watching and admiring artists all around the world react to his words and policies and have been wondering how I should respond myself,” Jamuna Chiarini mused. “I think that my choice to step away from my Western dance practices and focus solely on Odissi is my response. The more degraded American culture gets, the less interested I am in being a part of it.”

Chiarini’s piece explored Odissi’s technical and cultural assets and illustrated why it particularly appeals to her in this degraded day and age: “Some dances in the Odissi repertoire aren’t even taught until a dancer reaches 40, because it’s believed that younger dancers don’t yet have the emotional depth and life experience to properly express what the dance is about. Odissi also doesn’t have strict rules on body shape and size as Western dance culture does. What is considered beautiful is much broader in Indian dance culture.”

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Rejoice! finds community in ‘A Midsummer Night at the Savoy’

Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater melds Shakespeare and the Harlem Renaissance to show us a way forward

With the premiere of A Midsummer Night at the Savoy, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater has created something that feels both timely—touching on race and migration, two issues at the forefront of America’s collective consciousness—and timeless, in that it hopscotches across countries and eras.

Oluyinka Akinjiola, Decimus, Michael Galen, Bethany Harvey and Jamie Minkus in “A Midsummer Night at the Savoy”/Photo by Andy Batt

Don’t go expecting an African dance concert per se: despite what you might think from the name, Rejoice! is primarily a contemporary dance company. “Our goal is to broaden people’s idea of contemporary dance,” artistic director Oluyinka Akinjiola told me last week. “We reference African dance traditions but put them in a contemporary context. Contemporary dance doesn’t always mean Euro aesthetics.” That said, you will find a trajectory of African influence across the Caribbean, South America, and the U.S. in You. Me. World, a kind of prelude incorporating West African, capoeira, street- and club-dance styles. Pay attention, because they’ll all reappear in the main event.

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Diversity dances: Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater

Oluyinka Akinjiola's troupe mixes a social justice message with choreography drawing on the joyous movement of the African diaspora

In what place in America could it be more necessary to express the black and brown perspective than right here in our organic-kale-kombucha-Subaru-loving, second-generation hippie town of Portland, also known as the city with the fifth highest percentage of white residents in America’s top 40 metropolitan areas?

When Oluyinka Akinjiola relocated back to Portland from Rochester, New York, the artistic director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater joined the 6.3% of Portland residents who identify as Black or African-American, according to the World Population Review. “At the time I did not see dance in Portland that reflected an experience I shared, or even people that looked like me on stage,” Akinjiola remarked in an email exchange. “My only option was to create a path for myself as a choreographer and performer.”

Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater performed this weekend at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center/Photo courtesy of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater

And create her own path she did. After securing two platforms (Subashini Ganesan’s New Expressive Works Residency Program and Linda Austin’s Alembic Co-Production series) in Portland to present her vision of creating space for people of color within the arts community,
she created Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater—one of the city’s very few predominantly black contemporary dance companies. Diversity in the company has always been a priority Akinjiola emphasizes through casting and choreography. To her, being in a creative environment with other people of color is vital to raising the awareness of the general population.

Over the weekend the company presented new works by Akinjiola, Michael Galen, and Jamie Minkus at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in a three-show run. The evening’s program, entitled UPRISE, featured work inspired by the despair that followed President Trump’s election, and, consequently the need for a collective uprising. The roots of UPRISE come from Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by American political activist and author Angela Davis, published in 2016. For Akinjiola, the book’s most important message was the need to bring diverse groups of people together: “That speaks to my soul being that my goal for Rejoice! is to remain a diverse company and represent the histories and perspectives of black and brown communities within the Americas.”

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