Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble

DramaWatch: Experiments in higher learning

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "How to Learn" schools the college experience; plus Halloween treats and other appetizing shows.

The theater artist Robert Quillen Camp has taught at Brown, Santa Barbara and Lewis & Clark College. He has what he calls a “practical” graduate degree (an MFA from Brown) as well as a PhD (UC Santa Barbara). And PhDs are the norm for his parents and grandparents. “I think of it as the family business,” he says of academia.

Presumably all this has helped prepare him to write and direct How to Learn, the upcoming production from the determinedly boundary-pushing Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE), for which Camp wrote the script to 2016’s Procedures for Saying No.

A multilayered examination of “the relationship between education, privilege, and knowledge,” as the PETE website puts it, How to Learn takes the form of a meandering lecture by a humanities professor as part of the announcement of a “student-centered student center.” It was inspired by a set of lectures on education that Friedrich Nietzsche delivered in 1872 and its strange mixture of academic critique and surreal self-reflection is underscored by Camp’s elaborately composed sound design.

Jacob Coleman stars in Robert Quillen Camp’s “How to Learn” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo: Owen Carey.

A recent late-afternoon rehearsal at the Sunnyside Community House, however, sounds like it’s taking place not at an ivy-encrusted university but a boisterous grade school — in the next room over, separated by little more than a large curtain, a couple dozen small children take part in what might be a beginning capoeira class.

Unflappable amid the cacophony of chanting and drumming, Camp and PETE co-founder Jacob Coleman proceed with their scene work, going over a part of the lecture in which Coleman’s un-named lecturer, the play’s sole character, recalls a bizarre and tragic incident from his undergraduate years. Amid a drug-altered visit to a night garden, some students encounter a  professor/mentor who launches into an impromptu lecture of his own:

“I can teach you something you don’t know.

Because you know, the university is like a failed state, a ruin, a nothing. It’s a ghost. You can’t learn anything there.

Originally the university was designed to teach men to serve god. Then later, the nation. But now, we don’t believe in God and we don’t believe in country. So now it’s just like, serve yourself. And if you are just working for yourself, if you are only serving your little tiny ego, you can’t learn anything. The only way to learn is obedience.”

As slippery as it is engaging, How to Learn is by turns a jeremiad, a self-justification, an explication, an evasion…In one section, the lecturer questions the institution’s ideals and methods, in the next he regales us with tales of his own misadventures as a student, and soon these streams begin to merge in surprising ways. The talk is sprinkled with off-hand references to Dewey and Foucault and the like, but the overall effect keeps drifting from the intellectual and toward the comic and phantasmagoric.

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Theater review: Uncle Vanya lets his hair down

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's rousing 'Uncle Vanya' locates the clown in Chekhov

Before Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s smashing version of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” takes center stage in this particular review—and it will, I promise, it will—allow me a little digression?

We all come to the theater in various states: physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. The theater may change one or all of those states (which is exactly what it’s intended to do!), but those states also bleed over into the play we see. At least that’s the way I understand it.

My state of mind entering Reed College’s Performing Arts Center was partly affected by a book. It is among my favorite possessions—a copy of Tolstoy’s extended essay “What Is Art?”, translated by Aylmer Maude in 1930 for the Oxford University Press’s The World’s Classics series. The book is small and deep blue and old—this edition of it was reprinted in 1950—nothing fancy or pretentious, my favorite kind of edition, like the Penguin Classics, say, or Everyman’s Library.

The scenic design for PETE’s “Uncle Vanya” is by Peter Ksander, and lighting is by Miranda k Hardy./Photo by Owen Carey

What makes this book one of my favorites, though, is its provenance. A friend and colleague picked it up at an estate sale, and on the inside cover it is inscribed in a beautiful, calligraphic hand: Lloyd J. Reynolds December 1955. Reynolds, about whom I knew nothing until I moved to Portland, famously taught at Reed College from 1929 until 1969. His subjects included creative writing, art history and the graphic arts, especially calligraphy, and his students included poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among many others. His successor at Reed, Robert Palladino, carried on the tradition, and one of Palladino’s students was Steve Jobs.

So, I loved that the book had belonged to Reynolds, but better yet, that he had marked the copy of “What Is Art?” with his own annotations, underlinings, and passages he considered particularly pertinent. It is a wonderful book in all ways.

Although I had dipped into it many times previously, I started reading it in earnest over the holidays, and so it was on my mind when I collided with PETE’s “Uncle Vanya.” And Tolstoy affected my experience of Chekhov as a result.

He would almost have to.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Dancing in Iran

An Independence Day conversation with Iranian dancer Tanin on what it's like to dance in Iran, where dance is prohibited

On the 240th anniversary celebration of our country’s independence from Britain, I am reflecting on our country’s ideals and what living in a “free” country means to me as an artist. Are we really as free as we think we are and are others really as persecuted and as restricted as we think they are? Yes and no. It is a complex question with complex answers that I am in no way trying to answer in it’s fullest here. To be honest I am not sure that one experience is different from the other. I am simply interested in creating a jumping off point for thought and conversation.

I thought an interview with a dance artist and colleague friend of mine who is Iranian and living in Iran, would be a good starting point.

Her name is Tanin (not her actual name for reasons of safety and anonymity). She is 23 and a dancer, choreographer and filmmaker. I first met Tanin several years ago when she submitted her first film to the dance and film festival that I started in New Jersey called The Outlet Dance Project. Her film and the conditions of her life and her perseverance to dance are moving and inspiring, and I have long wanted to share her story.

But first…the week in dance.

Performances this week

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Linda Austin in Procedures for Saying No by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. Photo by Owen Carey.

Procedures for Saying no
Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble
June 3-July 2
Shaking The Tree, 823 SE Grant St

Loosely based on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” the play examines toiling away in the workplace and the procedures that govern our lives and the consequences of saying no. The work features Portland dance artist and co-artistic director of Performance Works NW Linda Austin. Arts Watcher Barry Johnson was there and gives his take on the performance here.

Marissa Rae Niederhauser and Stephanie Lavon Trotter
Studio Showing
7:30 pm June 30
Flock Dance Center, 8371 N Interstate Ave. #4

An informal showing of work by nomadic dance artist Marissa Rae Niederhauser in collaboration with Portland’s performance and sound artists Stephanie Lavon Trotter.

Niederhauser has a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA and makes body based work in dance, film, performance and installation. She has presented work at On the Boards, Seattle Art Museum, Velocity Dance Center, Henry Art Gallery, and Seattle University in Seattle, WA and at Judson Memorial Church to name a few.

Trotter’s work focuses on voice and more specifically Opera. She holds a MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College, and a B. Mus. in Vocal Performance from Cornish College of the Arts. Trotter was an Alembic Artist in 2015 at Performance Works NW.

Below is my conversation via email with Tanin.

What are the restrictions on dance in Iran? How do they affect you or not affect you?

Well, dance has a weird situation in Iran. As you might know, Islamic laws are not friendly toward dance; it is considered a sin and especially women are forbidden to dance. As a result, no dance school is here. On the other hand, although it is restricted officially, there are many dance classes held in Iran! Especially in big cities like Tehran, you can find ballet classes in every neighborhood. The classes mostly are held at gyms.

I as a ballet instructor receive many calls each week from mothers who want their little girls to learn ballet and also young girls who had not the opportunity to learn ballet in their childhood, so they are going to learn it in their adulthood. I want to say that people do have this passion for learning ballet and dance and want to pursue it. And I can confidently say that it even has become a trend here! Why do almost all mothers want their kids participate in ballet classes? There are also some ballet classes held in private kindergartens and many kids attend ballet classes in Iran. But all these events are underground and you can never be sure what will happen to you later.

What was dance in Iran like when your mom was growing up?

After the Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979, the National Ballet of Iran was closed and dancers were banned from working and many fled from Iran. It seemed that everything has disappeared. In this very weird situation, my mother started teaching dance at private homes with small groups of children or adults.

Is there a professional modern or ballet dance scene where you live?

Actually, there are many underground dance performances held in Iran, in some private saloons or small theaters, but they are not officially allowed. I should say it with regret that dance performances here are not very professional as there are a very few well-educated dance teachers and choreographers in Iran—very few. The outcome of performances is not very interesting as a result.

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Still from Tanin’s film Immensity. The photographers name has been withheld to protect his identity. Photo courtesy of Tanin.

What is your artistic practice or how do you do your art? How did it develop, what is your dance background?

My mother had the chance to be educated under an instructor who used to dance and teach before Iran’s revolution. She had a passion for dance and I took after her. She used to teach dance for many years and I actually started dancing from the very early age of four. After that, I took some classes here under some other teachers and then looked everywhere to learn more about the dance world. I went to Armenia and also took some classical ballet and contemporary dance lessons there, which was very helpful for my future career. I have been teaching ballet for more than 7 years, and the last 3 years has been in my own private cozy ballet studio.

I can say that I found my own artistic approach to dance in 2014, when I attended a Coursera class online in Creating Site-specific Dance and Performance by Stephan Koplowits from CalArts University. It was a very good opportunity for me to know many dance artists and learn more about dance issues internationally. As a result, I directed a couple of dance films. One called Immensity, which was filmed in a lakeside, and Beyond the Frames, shot in an abandoned building in north of Iran. These two have been screened in more than 15 dance film and film festivals in the USA, Canada and Europe. The latter one also won an award of Best Experimental Short Film from Mallorca International Film Festival in Spain.

Both my films are considered conceptual films. I always wanted to express feelings and concepts using dance, and now I actually use two very powerful things to share my ideas and perceptions about life: dance and film. Although I live in Iran, I can now share my ideas internationally.

I want to take the opportunity here and thank someone who may not know it, but I owe a lot to her. She is Mrs Donia Salem Harhoor, one of the directors of The Outlet Dance Project festival in New Jersey. I met her in the Coursera class, and after some time she messaged me on Facebook and said they have a dance film festival and would be happy if they receive a film from Iran, too. Just because she contacted me, I decided to give it a try. I had never thought of filmmaking before, so I can say that she somehow changed my life! Thank you dear Donia!

Are you in contact with dance outside of Iran and how are you connecting with that? Live or Internet?

Well, I never wanted to live in an isolated planet for myself. I have tried to learn more about dance and issues debated on it and have connection with international artists. In 2016 I attended the Cinedans dance film festival held in Amsterdam personally, where my film was also screened. It was a very good opportunity to meet great artists and exchange ideas with them. I should thank the internet too! It has always been my best friend in my career providing me many information, books, videos, dance friends!

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Still from Tanin’s film Beyond the Frames. The photographers name has been withheld to protect his identity. Photo courtesy of Tanin.

What is it like being a dancer in Iran?

It is like dancing while you are constrained! I am not complaining as I have also been very fortunate and successful in my career anyway and I could find my own way, but every time I wanted to do something, I had to fight for things that were very unusual. I had to accept a very high risk for me and my crew when choosing a location for my dance films since it was not acceptable at all if we were caught by the police! You always carry this fear with yourself here. Also there is usually no professional performance held, so you cannot actually be a dancer. Who is a dancer? Someone who dances for herself, or someone who performs on stage?

Anyways, I have been very fortunate so far. I have many students here and we have built up a very friendly and lovely dance community for ourselves. My students are my best friends now. They enjoy the spirit of our class, and it is always so much fun for all of us. I enjoy being so useful here as there is not many educated instructors here. When people call me, they express as if they have discovered someone! I could never feel as proud and happy as I am now, in any other places. I now feel that I am serving the women of my country and bring smile and happiness to them. What else would I like to have in this world more than this? I am now working on my third film which is a dedication to the dance situation in Iran, my students and those who are working in this field in Iran.

Are you thinking of studying dance abroad in a college setting?

Well I actually have received admission to several MA programs in Contemporary Dance Performance from a few Universities in Europe, and I am doing the preparatory work right now to attend one of them.

Upcoming Performances

July 9, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton
July 9, Todrick Hall Presents: Straight Outta Oz
July 13, A Wake for Conduit: Celebration & Farewell Party, Conduit Dance
July 14-23, Death and Delight, BodyVox Dance Company
July 16, Un Jour Pina M’A Demande (One Day Pina Asked), Directed by Chantal Akerman
July 16, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 17, Noelle Stiles, Veronica Martin, Chris Lael Larson, Pure Surface
July 29, Dog Day Dance: A Futuristic Variety Show, Produced by Ben Martens
July 29-31, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre NW, JAW Playwright Festival
August 4, Galaxy Dance Festival, Polaris Dance Theatre

‘Procedures for Saying No’: The office cataclysmic

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "Procedures for Saying No" parodies office culture and gives a glimpse of the wildness within

I have spent many days working in offices (and observing other offices in operation), witnessing and participating in a multitude of tiny moments of friction, inner and outer, a rubbing together that often rubs out the actual work. In those days, years, decades, I have learned that the most delicate maneuvers, the riskiest and yet often the most satisfying, involve working around a directive from above. Or even better, an attempt to subvert the great historical tradition of the office itself. Because sometimes opposition is necessary, both for the mental health of the employee and for the health of the organization itself.

Not that opposition is necessarily all that risky. Sometimes it seems baked into the whole process. And that’s where we arrive at “Procedures for Saying No,” Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s fourth installment of its investigation of Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the Journey Play project, with words by Robert Quillen Camp, who teaches at Lewis & Clark College, and direction by Rebecca Lingafelter.

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles star in "Procedures for Saying No" by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble/Owen Carey

Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman and Cristi Miles star in “Procedures for Saying No” by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble/Owen Carey

“Procedures for Saying No” takes place in a modern office, where very modern meetings to discuss very modern protocols and deal with very modern problems are called, in part to relieve the drudgery of the desk work. How boring is it? The packet each audience member receives before the show attempts to explore those depths, outlining a series of steps each of us should take to get into the proper state of irritated stasis—the tiny, time-wasting tasks we call busywork.

The stasis of the modern office. Or is it ennui? In either case, “Procedures for Saying No” doesn’t linger over its parody of the office environment. Eventually it takes a turn for the apocalyptic, though I was never quite sure how metaphorical that turn was, and whether the metaphor was psychological or something wider—social, political, anthropological.

Not knowing wasn’t a bad thing, maybe because the moment-by-moment action and discourse on stage by the PETE regulars (Amber Whitehall, Jacob Coleman, Cristi Miles), augmented by Linda Austin and Murri Lazaroff-Babin, was so captivating. Where is this play going, I asked when I took a second to consider larger questions. But then I was back into it. “One day you will go to work and you won’t go home.”

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Dance Weekly: Preserving dance, like jam!

Erik Nordstrom's new film on Portland dance past as the present looks uncertain

This weekend brings us two dance film events and two live dance performances. Because dance is ephemeral, it is an interesting challenge to search for new ways to capture and preserve it. This weekend brings us several of those possibilities.

First up is the screening of a filmed version of a live performance by Degenerate Art Ensemble of their latest work, Predator Songstress. Degenerate Art Ensemble is a dance/theatre company based in Seattle, and the film is by Portland based filmmaker Ian Lucero with costumes by Alenka Loesch. (I interviewed Loesch several months ago on her life in Butoh.). Lucero is also known for his filming of Waking the Green Sound by Wobbly Dance’s Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson.

Next is Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present, a documentary film by Portland dance artist Eric Nordstrom who will be screening his film alongside Off Location by Carolyn Altman and Bonnie Merrill, Waking the Green Sound by Wobbly Dance’s Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson, and Carla Mann’s Ching. I interviewed Nordstrom via email and that conversation unfolds below.

And last but not least two live performances: Alegria! by Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre and Procedures for Saying No by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, featuring dance artists Linda Austin. These you will have to see and hear with your own eyes and ears, the good old-fashioned way.

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Dance Weekly: Dance through the sorrow

Risk/Reward opens, Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre gives a Ted Talk and more

This has been a horribly sad week. Another mass shooting has occurred, and this one has hit the LGBT community hard—a community that is integral to the dance community worldwide. Without the contributions of LGBT dancers and choreographers throughout history, I really don’t know what dance would look like today. This shooting makes me think about the AIDS epidemic and how it destroyed a whole generation of artists, artists we will never know and whose impact on the world we will never see. There are now 49 more people that we will never know.

Emmaly Wiederholt who has a blog called Stance on Dance wrote in response to the Orlando shooting a piece called On Guns and Dance. In it she says, “The fact that the victims of this horrible shooting were dancing, in essence trusting one another to be uninhibited in what they assumed was a safe space, makes this shooting all the uglier. I consider it one of the most egregious breaches of morality to strike violence when people collectively have their guard down. They were dancing, drinking and flirting, for goodness sake. They were cavorting on a Saturday night during Pride month when the LGBTQ community has much to be proud of and celebrate.”

So in response, I say, let’s dance. Let’s dance in solidarity with the LGBT community and the victims and survivors of the Orlando shooting. Let’s dance as a political act against the oppressive forces of the world. Let’s dance to process our collective grief and to feel joy and ecstasy. Let’s dance for love and because we can. Let’s dance.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: thinking about Orlando, and the impact of art

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER MASSACRE. The latest one, unless another sneaks in before deadline, came in the wee hours Sunday morning at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a U.S.-born gunman carrying an assault rifle and claiming allegiance to ISIS opened fire, killing forty-nine people, wounding fifty-three, and then being slain himself in a shootout with police. He may or may not have been gay; several people reported that he was a semi-regular at the club. He was certainly homophobic. He may or may not have been a radical jihadist: initial indications are that he was acting as a lone wolf. Orlando’s is being called the worst mass shooting in United States history, at least by a lone gunman, and who knows how long that record will stand? (Other massacres have been more deadly, but not as quick or efficient: the Wounded Knee Massacre carried out in 1890 by U.S. Cavalry troops on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation left at least three times as many dead.)

We’ve been here before, over and over, from Sandy Hook to Columbine to Virginia Tech to Reynolds High School in suburban Portland to Umpqua Community College in southern Oregon, and on and on and on and on, world without end, amen, amen.

Portland Gay Men's Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus performs Saturday at Schnitzer Hall. 2010 photo

It’s difficult to rank these atrocities – impossible, really – because whatever the body count, people are killed, survivors are shattered, worlds are torn apart. This one comes with an increasing sense of futility, a belief that the nation lacks the political and moral will to do anything about it. Here at ArtsWatch we won’t get into the political arguments of what can or can’t be done: those arguments are all around us, and by this point you know where you stand and how you will respond. I will say that some form of rational control on the sale of firearms, and a civilian ban on the sale and possession of assault weapons, are necessary in a civilized society. And I will note that this latest massacre hits cultural communities hard, because so much of the arts world has been invigorated and often led by GLBTQ artists and the creativity they’ve brought to dance, theater, music, the movies, literature, and visual art. So many gay people have been drawn to the arts, partly, because for all of its ordinary human quirks and bickering and biases and self-indulgences and jealousies and backbiting and exaggerations, the arts world is also open and generous and welcoming to talent wherever it rises. In that sense, we are all gay. We stand as one.

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