Performance Works NW

June DanceWatch: Back on stage

Oregon Ballet Theatre leads the way as Portland dancers perform for live audiences for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Summer is back and so are the dancers. Live and in-person, as a matter of fact! Throughout June, you can find dancers in the courtyard at the Oregon Museum of Industry and Science (OMSI), on the lawn of a private residence in Lake Oswego, at Zidell Yards in Portland’s South Waterfront district, throughout Portland’s public parks, in the trees at Mary S. Young Park in West Linn, and at the experimental performance hub, Performance Works NW in Southeast Portland. Suddenly, dancers are everywhere!

Who knows what the future may bring, but at this moment, the veil has lifted, and life as we knew it—with dancers performing for live audiences—is returning. But don’t worry, all of the performance venues require masks and social distancing, so you will be safe. And just to warn you, you might be shocked at how much you missed the dancers, so bring the tissues. Things might get emotional. 

From left to right OBT dancers Xuan Cheng, Brian Simcoe, Christopher Kaiser, and Jessica Lind rehearsing Nicolo Fonte’s 𝘊𝘩𝘰𝘳𝘰𝘴. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

One of the companies gearing up to perform outside is Oregon Ballet Theatre. The state’s biggest dance company will be performing June 5-12 on the new Jordan Schnitzer CARE Summerstage at OMSI. The outdoor stage is a shared vision between Portland Opera, the ballet, and the science museum to safely bring back live ballet and opera performances to Oregon audiences. 

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May DanceWatch: Questions about the future

Portland dance companies and presenters are still trying to figure out what 2021 will look like

Welcome to the mid-to-late pandemic temperature check of Oregon’s dance community. For the most part, the dancers are still here, but everyone else is in a holding pattern, riding out Oregon’s 4th wave of Covid-19 and waiting for people to get their vaccinations.

Last week I reached out to several Oregon dance companies and presenters via phone and email to see how they were doing. I asked them what returning to “normal” might look like, how it might happen, how they were preparing, and how it’s changing their programming. But before I dive into those conversations, here are three dance performances happening in May!

Performances this month

Pictured are the dancers of BodyVox working virtually with dance photographer Lois Greenfield on her new choreography for the Pearl Dive Project, Photosynthesis, streaming now StreamingVox. Photo courtesy of Jamey Hampton.

Pearl Dive Project 
BodyVox 
Currently streaming: Episode One: Lois Greenfield, Photosynthesis
May 6th Episode Two: Poison Waters, Too 
May 27th Episode Three: Ludovico Einaudi, title TBA 
June 17th Episode Four: Yiyun Li, River like a sea 
July 5th Episode Five: Matt Groening, title TBA  
All episodes are available to stream on-demand on Vimeo.
TalkAbout on StreamingVox, a virtual conversation between BodyVox co-founders and rock musician Jeremy Wilson. 

Born out of the desire to see what kind of choreography non-dancers and other creatives could create, BodyVox artistic directors Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland created The Pearl Dive Project. Each year they invite a who’s who of renowned artists to create new work for the company. This year’s newly christened choreographers are dance photographer Lois Greenfield, drag performer Poison Waters, Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, writer Yiyun Li, and cartoonist Matt Groening.

Dancers Wendy Hambidge and Jorge Samuel Faria finding common ground from not so common experiences. You can see Hambidge and Farias work as part of the upcoming Performance Work NW Happy Hour on May 20. Photo courtesy of Performance Works NW.

Performance Works NW Happy Hour
Featuring: Wendy Hambidge, Jorge Samuel Faria, Rachel Kessler, and Matt Fielder
5 pm May 20
Virtual
You must register by 3 pm the day of the show to get the Zoom link
ASL interpretation by Jme James Antonick

In this month’s happy hour, Performance Works NW will feature the work of Wendy Hambidge, a Portland dance artist, somatic therapist, and Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner and Teacher, and Brazilian dance artist Jorge Samuel. During a residency in Curitiba, Brazil, the two met up and formed a partnership inspired by their commonalities, differences, and how they engage with their ancestral histories. This collaborative work-in-progress looks back and looks forward and embraces the now. They will present a ten-minute improvisation that they filmed back in 2020 called, Stand Up, Show Up, Own Up.

Also painter Rachel Kessler and Matt Fielder (performer, sculptor, writer, stop-motion animator, fool, and musician) will present a collaboratively made film called,a short remarkable video.

The evening also includes a cocktail demo of the Palm Springs Paloma, a toast, a performance, lively discussion, PWNW-themed Bingo, and prizes, of course!

Abstract Alice
Choreographed and performed by Andrea Parson
Videographer/editor: Stephen Kimbrell
May 24th-May 30th on YouTube 

In this ten-minute dance film, choreographed and performed by NW Dance Project dancer Andrea Parson, images of Alice and the White Rabbit from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are woven together with dance, spoken word, masks, and film to answer a question that propels Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole: Who am I? 

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In the ups and downs of the pandemic, this week has been a “down” as much of the state went back under heavy restriction protocols. The exasperation of the leaders of various dance companies, big and small, came through loud and clear, even via email.

“We are caught in a seesaw of Covid recovery/resurgence,” said BodyVox artistic director Jamey Hampton. “Just when we open BodyVox back up for classes, new restrictions come down. It’s been nuts.” 

“We feel fortunate that our dancers were amenable to finding a way to keep working. We never laid them off,” Hampton said. “Instead, we made works specifically for the camera that will outlive all of us…in digital form. These works are archeological representations of how a team of artists chose to cope with the most severe creative challenges of our lifetimes to date.” 

“I would be remiss if I didn’t express the critical importance our supporters have played in our ability to remain creative over the past year,” he said. “We have had virtually zero income from ticket sales. Those who bought season tickets before the pandemic grabbed hold of our necks almost universally chose to donate the balance of their investment. Numerous others have recognized our efforts to remain connected and vital, and have donated funds, streamed our online shows, come to our socially distanced video gallery installation, even attended our drive-ins…I am humbled and inspired by the outpouring of support we have received. Not to mention two critically important PPP loans from the US government.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin Irving likened his pandemic experience to racing, out of control, down the rickety train track in the tiny coal car from the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Even though it was a challenging year, Irving is proud that no one in the company got Covid-19, and in several weeks the whole company will be vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic, the company received lots of support from audiences who donated almost all of last season’s tickets back to the company. The company and school have maintained a robust digital presence with classes, talks, and performances and have plans for live performances of some kind in the near future. What comes next for the company will be announced in June. Stay tuned!

For NW Dance Project executive director Scott Lewis, applying for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant was like the “the performing arts version The Hunger Games, as a clever friend of his described it. We “are hopeful that (a) we didn’t mess up and that (b) we receive some funding,” he told me. 

“We are exploring multiple options for a full-fledged company performance with new works in the fall (2021). Not being afraid of “dancing out of the box,” outdoors is a strong possibility. We are also looking at smaller and/or alternative venues and different ‘scales and structures’ with respect to performances since (we believe) it will likely be too early to plan on hundreds of people sitting elbow-to-elbow for 90 minutes in a big room for some time to come.”

Primarily focused on their education programs, NW Dance Project continues doing hybrid classes with limited in-person capacity, masks, and social distancing as the Oregon Health Authority guidelines allow, which has been a yoyo kind of experience, Lewis said. “The state/country’s most recent turn is discouraging. The day we can yank the cameras and TVs out of the studio will be a happy one.”

Eugene Ballet, directed by Toni Pimble, also has plans for live performances with full-length Cinderella and Nutcracker scheduled for the fall 2021-22 season. The season will also include a program called Uncommon Women that will feature guest women choreographers and a new work by resident choreographer Suzanne Haag in collaboration with percussionist Pius Cheung. 

One of the most exciting developments for the company during the pandemic has been moving into a brand new, 30,000-square-foot home, custom built just for them in the new Midtown Arts Center in Eugene. Their enviable space, which takes up three floors of the center, features seven studio spaces, two of which are the size of the stages at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. The ceilings are between 11 and 20 feet high, allowing dancers to leap with ease without worrying about hitting the ceiling. There is plenty of storage room on site for pointe shoes, costumes, and scenery. Other amenities include offices for the artistic staff and lounging areas for the dancers, a library, and a wall of mirrors, with small wall-mounted tables and benches for dancers to do their hair and get ready for ballet. The studios have also been outfitted with large, flat screens, speakers, and microphones to continue teaching virtual classes or rehearsals with out-of-town choreographers. 

Another great aspect of the building is that it also houses Chamber Music Amici, Eugene Concert Choir, Eugene Opera, Lane Arts Council, Orchestra NEXT, and Pacific International Choral Festivals. Having all those non-profit groups together in one building will reduce costs for everyone by sharing maintenance and operating costs. At the same time, their co-habitation will promote collaboration on projects.

Robert Guitron, artistic director of Polaris Dance Theatre, hopes this idea of a group of artists sharing space to cut down on costs and create community, collaboration, and less competition between them, is what will come out of the pandemic. There have been many social changes within the dance community, so hopefully, some of those will stick, and the dance environment can be a healthier one, he said. But for right now, Guiton, like other dance school directors, is working hard to keep student enrollment up, virtually and in person, to pay the rent. 

For Linda Austin, artistic director of Performance Works NW, everything still feels up in the air. But luckily for her, her overhead is low, and she has gotten a lot of help through foundations, CARES, PPP, and individual supporters. Financially they are “OK for now,” she said. “It’s very hard to know when/if our earned income, mostly from studio rentals for rehearsal and performance and ticket sales, will return to what it used to be”

Austin is hoping to host a series of live performances over four weekends in July to wrap up the current Alembic artist residency. Each artist will have a weekend of their own and how that happens, whether it’s by livestream, or inside with a small masked group, or outside with a larger masked group, is completely up to the artists and where we are at in the pandemic. 

There are tentative June performances scheduled by outside renters, and Austin herself will possibly show a solo work-in-progress called 3 Miles of Possible. “It’s durational—when complete, it might last several hours,” she said. “It’s meant to be dropped in on, as in a gallery setting. So I am hoping to have completed one mile of the three-mile trajectory and test it out in our space for a few days, with a small audience coming and going as they like. Not sure how we’ll handle the flow of people yet or what the maximum will be. We will also stream it.” Austin is also hoping that a project she has been working on with dance artist Allie Hankins will come to fruition as a live performance in 2022 as well.

“Live streaming as an additional way of involving/reaching audiences may become something we always do, actually,” she said. “This is one of the changes that we have made this year that will likely stick. And though we’ve always had a sliding scale, I would love to be able to keep the scale we’ve been using during the pandemic: $0-$30. We’ll see.”

Austin isn’t sure yet about inviting a new group of Alembic choreographers for next season, suggesting she may reconsider the shape of the program. “Instead, though, for next year we might offer a few space grants—either by invitation, application, or random drawing.” 

For PDX Contemporary Ballet artistic director Briley Neugebauer, “returning to “normal” still feels somewhat distant. “While there have been vaccine rollouts, going back to extreme risk has raised a lot of questions. When will the numbers drop again? Will they go back up? What about the variants and what does all this mean for returning to in-person rehearsals, classes and live performances?”, she expressed. “Will we ever really return back to normal? In many ways, this year feels very similar to last in terms of not knowing what will be possible and, most importantly, what is safe to do.”

“The hope is to return to performing live in the Fall, said Neugebauer. “However, we understand that this might not be realistic,” she continued. “So instead, we will plan for everything (as much as we can). I know planning for everything is not easy, but it seems like the smartest thing to do. We will have plans A-Z at our disposal. Our hope will be to perform live, but if we can’t we will continue making dance films like we have done this year. We actually had such a wonderful time making them this year that we hope to continue making them! Maybe if possible, combining both film and live performance in one season!”

TriptheDark Dance Company and Chapel Theatre artistic director Corinn deTorres, has been laying low since November when she and her husband welcomed a new baby. The time off has been great for her to get used to being a family of four without the regular stressors of everyday life, she said.

TriptheDark Dance Company created a performance subscription series and has produced one video per month since September. A different choreographer choreographed each month in a different movement style. “They’ve been dancing in the theatre, masked, since September and will conclude the season with one last video in May,” she said. “You can still sign up for the TriptheDark season and receive all nine videos at once!”

“Now that it’s spring, we’re looking forward to some outdoor events and making plans for our (hopefully indoor) 2021-22 season starting this fall. We spent many, many hours preparing to apply for the Shuttered Venues federal grant only to realize we weren’t eligible, so we’re just sort of holding on, embracing the quiet, until we can welcome you all inside the theatre once again.”

For Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre artistic director Oluyinka Akinjiola, the company’s work continues to center on Black Lives and issues of racial justice. The company has continued, she said, “to stay present, find new ways to cope, stay connected and heal.”

In February, the company created At the Dinner Table, a dance film that examines how we set the table for a better future and for a better us. “We are done asking for a seat at the table; we are building our own,” the film’s description read. “We acknowledge the ancestors that helped pave the way, the lives lost which sparked movements, and the mess that meets us at the door. Using an Afrofuturistic perspective, we want to know how you will show up, what you will give, and if we will ever sit down together.”

Now the company is working on a new dance film called Who We Carry, about the emotional, physical and mental labor that each of us bears daily, generationally, and communally as we process grief. The company is trying to finish filming before June 6, the due date for Akinjiola’s new baby. 

When I talked with White Bird co-founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe, they didn’t feel like there was much to say, but there was. For King, Covid was just one of the many problems affecting downtown Portland where the theaters are that White Bird rents for performances. The other is houselessness, “which is not really being addressed enough, and the vandalism and destruction,” King said. There has also been a “cultural shift to going to places like Beaverton Town Center or Washington Square Mall where the parking is free, there’s security, the restaurants are open, and the shops are open,” he continued. “There isn’t any tension or worry about being in those places.”

In March 2022 the new Patricia Reiser Arts Center in Beaverton will open that houses a 550 seat theatre and conveniently has a stop on the Max line. “Portland has lost its mojo for sure,” he said. “And people are finding other ways to serve their needs.”  

White Bird has dates reserved in the theatres for 2021-2022, but is in competition with larger commercial productions who sometimes have priority and can bump them from the schedule. In talking to artists worldwide, King knows that given some notice, they could be ready to perform, so releasing the dates just doesn’t work for them just in case that’s actually possible. “If somehow it does open up, we can rev up and just do a partial season or a non-subscription season, or who knows…,” he said.

For White Bird, their future feels uncertain. “We’re really not sure what the future looks like for us. If we were to continue a programming aspect of White Bird would it be what it was before, would it morph, would it become a festival, or artist of color only? We don’t know. We just do not know if we will be able to continue,” King continued. “I heard a phrase today on NPR that in Germany they are calling these companies and non-profit organizations that don’t have revenue and are receiving money from the government to stay afloat zombie organizations or companies. We’re kind of in that mode right now. We’re still in force majeure. We can’t make our own decisions, we can’t plan, we never thought it would be this long, and we don’t know how much longer we can hold up.”

Derek Chauvin, George Floyd & the art of crisis

ArtsWatch Weekly: A Portland Oscar nod; Dawson Carr's big day; diving into dance; conversation with a laureate; musical BRAVO; fish tales

ON TUESDAY, THE BIGGEST CULTURAL NEWS OF THE WEEK – maybe the biggest since the January 6 insurrection in the nation’s capital – came down. Derek Chauvin, who almost a year ago, as a Minneapolis police officer, pressed the life out of George Floyd with his knee, was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It was a rare case of a police officer being held accountable in the killing of a citizen – even, as with Floyd, of an unarmed citizen – and it seems, at least for now, to have topped off a year and more of intense cultural division. Any other decision by the jury most likely would have set off a firestorm across the nation.

The political and cultural fissures of the past year have pulled the arts & cultural world into the fray, perhaps inevitably: If art reflects its culture, how can it possibly stay uninvolved? In Portland, public statues have come tumbling down and institutions have been under attack: Two men were arrested and charged with smashing another $10,000 or more worth of windows at the frequently targeted Oregon Historical Society during rioting last Friday. The window-smashing and other acts of destruction came during protests against recent national killings of Black citizens by police, and a police killing in Portland’s Lents Park of a man with a history of mental illness.

George Floyd was the focus of a Black Lives Matter mural painted by Emma Berger and others last year at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Place.

In the past year a rapid growth of public protest art has transformed the sides of many buildings in the city and the plywood covering boarded-up storefronts. Across the nation, in arts and cultural organizations large and small, racial equity has become the issue of the day, an overdue conversation in search of action, and an issue that is unlikely to be resolved by a single decision in a single courtroom on a single day.

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DanceWatch: Pandemic downs and ups

Everyone's course through this year of isolation has been different—and sometimes it leads to growth

At the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns last March, it was exciting to have EVERYTHING go online. Dance classes, performances, lectures, and community conversations were suddenly available at the touch of a button. 

In the past, as a dance artist, I’d felt like I was never in the right place at the right time to get what I needed to succeed in my dance career. It felt like I was living in the wrong place, wasn’t studying with and being seen by the right teachers, and was missing out on auditions and opportunities. I felt like I was always out of step. FOMO (fear of missing out) was real for me. This was significantly exacerbated when I decided to have a baby, which took me right out of the game. But not anymore, thanks to Covid-19. (I feel yucky saying that.) Because suddenly everything I ever wanted was online. 

But, as you all know now, it’s hard to go at it alone in our tiny houses month after month. As you also know, trying to get time and space alone to be creative in a house with other people is REALLY HARD.

I tried connecting to what was available online. Still, it couldn’t keep my attention, and the sheer volume of choices became overwhelming. 

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Poets helping dancers: It’s one of the benefits

A Poet’s Benefit for Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest celebrates 20 years of dance and literature

“Beneath the ivy are the brambles / beneath the brambles are the needles… Beneath the dirt is the water / beneath the water is the rock… Beneath the bones are the seas / beneath the sea is the glass…”

These were some of the words recited over a Zoom call by poet Chris Ashby, who wore a deep blue flannel shirt and gazed down at what he referred to as “a medley of geographic water poems.”

Performance Works Northwest’s Linda Austin

Ashby let flow a series of sea-driven passages, all paralleling the abundant yet shifting state of Oregon’s poetry community today, one full of writers eager to share their words while limited to the virtual boundaries of a post-pandemic world. Ashby was one of more than 12 poets who took part in A Poet’s Benefit for PWNW: The dance moves on and prose limps hopelessly behind, a virtual literary fundraiser presented by Spare Room and Passages Bookshop on January 31.

This event, originally created during the summer of 2020 in honor of the 20th anniversary year of Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest, also marked 19 years of the Spare Room Reading Series, hosted by David Abel. While the original live event concept had to be virtually revived due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the online aspect of the evening allowed for all five founding members of the Spare Room Reading Series to be joined by poet performers in Oakland, Arizona, and Toronto, in addition to Portland.

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DanceWatch: Virtual Nutcrackers and Happy Hours

This month the dancers are playing remotely with the holiday favorites

In a normal year, December is a bustling time for dance in Oregon with Nutcrackers and holiday shows busting out all over. But this isn’t a normal year, and without the holiday shows, dance is comparatively quiet. But don’t fret, dance performances haven’t disappeared entirely. Technology and dancer ingenuity are here to save your holiday dance watching traditions. So put on those festive jammies, grab a hot toddy if you’re old enough, and get out your Nutcracker collection ‘cause December dancing is here!

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Even amidst the chaos in our world right now, artists are getting creative and finding ways to perform for you. September’s performances are a combination of live, live- streamed, and recorded performances. 

In preparation for this month’s live performances that require social distancing, let’s play a few games. Let’s imagine that social distancing is a dance and that you are a performer in this dance. A dance that includes everyone around you. All the world’s a stage, right?

First, find a broom. Hold the broom out to your side, parallel with the floor, with one end about a foot from your center. This is approximately six feet. Two arms length. This is the suggested distance that we are supposed to keep between us to keep us safe from catching and spreading Covid-19. Now, walk around the house moving the broomstick around your body 360 degrees and experience what this measurement actually feels like. Yup, it’s bigger than you think. Watch out for those dishes and that lamp! 

If this doesn’t work for you and you need a different visual, measure six feet out from your center and place objects from your house in a circle around you on the floor. Now feel your feet on the ground, reach your fingertips up to the sky, and spread your arms out on either side of you and turn in place carving out the edges of your space with your fingertips. You can even take this a step further and explore your space beyond the vertical and horizontal tracing all of the areas in between. Now take this imaginary space that you have explored and create a giant bubble with it and put yourself in it. You now live in a bubble at all times! Stay in your bubble!

Next game. Imagine that you have a string attached to your bellybutton that connects your body to others. Imagine that we are all connected to each other, all the time, through this extensive web of strings. Take a moment to feel what this really feels like, to keep other people around you in your consciousness at all times. Imagine being out in the world and stringing yourself to people walking by you or folks standing in line with you at the grocery store or protestors downtown. You CAN be conscious of yourself and others all at the same time. 

Now, get into your gigantic bubble and connect your string to the people around you. Keep your distance but stay connected and go forth into the world. 

These are exercises or dances that dance teachers often give to their youngest students to help them learn body awareness and to keep them from bumping into and injuring each other during class. These awareness tools can keep us safe, create compassion, and connection. And don’t forget your costume, your mask!

Performances keep popping up, so I will be adding them to this list as they come up. Check back often. 

September Dance Performances

The beautiful Portland performer and community activist, Chisao Hata.
Photo courtesy of Chisao Hata.

Luminaries
Echo Theater Company PDX
9-10pm September 1

Under the full moon, in an undisclosed location somewhere in Portland (The event address will be emailed the day of the show), Echo Theatre, Portland’s zany, forward thinking, acrobatics, aerial dance, and physical theater company, will present, Luminaries, an hour long performance of music, dance, and storytelling. The event features Japanese-American performing artist and community organizer Chisao Hata, triple threat Bevin Victoria, Korean-American actor, writer and director Heath Houghton, and theatre and television actor Tessa May. Topping off the evening will be performances by the renowned Echo Theatre Company Education Director Wendy Cohen and Director of Operations and Community Engagement Aaron Wheeler Kay, who specializes in acrobatics, aerial dance, and physical theater.

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