Salt

DanceWatch Weekly: Nancy Davis and Portland Ballet

The artistic director of The Portland Ballet talks about the winding road that led to this weekend's concert

I’ve been trying to write DanceWatch for about five days now without much success, until now of course. I seem to function best under great pressure, kind of like how a diamond is made. Take Jamuna, apply an intense amount of heat, and pressure, and voilà DanceWatch is written! A kind of stressful and undesirable scenario to create under but sometimes unavoidable. You see, I am mostly a full-time, stay-at-home mom, but, also a dancer, choreographer, and dance writer, and sometimes everyone’s else’s needs take over and I can’t quite find the time to sit down and write.

This week’s disastrous attempt to write (I’m exaggerating a bit for theatrical effect) was partly due to post-performance fatigue (I performed with Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theatre this past weekend, which Elizabeth Whelan reviewed for ArtsWatch), a traveling husband situation that turns me into a single parent for a few days, and a myriad of other crazy events that included an emergency trip to the vet, calls from my son’s principal, the cats, the stuff, the whatever. Right now, as I write this, my 55-pound boxer/lab puppy is standing on my chest panting in my face demanding to be scratched and walked. It’s a circus, and I love it. It’s because THIS is my life that I’m always curious as to how other dancer/teacher/choreographer parents “do it” and stay artistically focused.

I recently became friends with Portland Ballet’s artistic director Nancy Davis on Facebook, and suddenly I was seeing gorgeous photos and videos of Davis as a young dancer in my news feed. Then I saw a photo of her beautiful daughter Lauren Lane on a poster for St. Louis Ballet, and I realized that I didn’t know Nancy Davis at all, and I definitely didn’t know she had a daughter who had also grown up to become a professional dancer.

I only know Davis as I see her now, as the artistic director and founder of The Portland Ballet academy. But how did she get here, what influenced her artistically, and how did she manage to raise a child in the midst of it all, I wanted to know. So, in between her rehearsals for Portland Ballet’s upcoming show Current/Classic, which opens May 4-5 at Lincoln Hall, and my performances, we got a chance to speak on the phone.

The Portland Ballet studio dress rehearsal of Us by Josie Moseley. Photo courtesy of The Portland Ballet.

Davis, who is from California, began her ballet training with one of Los Angeles’s most flamboyant characters, Madame Etienne. Madame Etienne was born in Greece but raised in Paris. Kathryn Charisse was her given name, and she ran a studio called the Hollywood Dance Studio that catered to movie stars. She was the one time sister-in-law of dancer-actress Cyd Charisse, toured the vaudeville circuit with her parents and her ten siblings as a child, and always dressed in a flamboyant outfits. She frequently wore a tiara and full makeup, according to accounts on a blog called lastcappuccino.com.

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DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

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SALT on America’s wounds

Inspired by Gandhi's Salt March of resistance, Shaking the Tree's new venture blends art, theater, and dance in a collective raised voice

Shaking the Tree Theatre, under the artistic direction of the imaginative Samantha Van Der Merwe, incorporates visual art into each of its theatrical performances. With SALT, opening Tuesday for an all-too-brief six-day run, Shaking the Tree is flipping that concept on its head. SALT is the first of Shaking the Tree’s acts of resistance – “in direct response,” according to the SALT program, “to a Trump presidency and its implications of hate, exclusion, bigotry, and fear.”

Van Der Merwe was inspired to create this first act in Shaking the Tree’s four-year project by Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the 1930 Salt March (or Dandi March). In that speech, he famously encouraged his followers to resist peacefully. “We have resolved to utilize all our resources in the pursuit of an exclusively nonviolent struggle, he said. “Let no one commit a wrong in anger. This is my hope and prayer. I wish these words of mine reached every nook and corner of the land.” Van Der Merwe asked a cross-section of the city’s finest artists — from many cultures, genres, and backgrounds — to use Gandhi’s speech as a jumping-off point.

SALT teams around Samantha Van Der Merwe’s “Thread.” Photo: Meg Nanna

The Shaking the Tree space is divided into eight 8×8 boxes, and each artist (with Van Der Merwe’s piece, created out of salt, in the center) was given that space to create something, anything. Some artists will be performing as part of their piece, or have others performing. Some is visual art. Some have video. Some are interactive.

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Boléro, with a wink

Ihsan Rustem's affectionate reinterpretation of the Ravel classic highlights the three premieres in Northwest Dance Project's season-opening show

Some works of art seem too much with us. A Christmas Carol. The Scream. Pachelbel’s Canon. The Nutcracker. Boléro. But they are too much with us partly because they resonate. The trick is to see and hear them with original eyes and ears, with something of the freshness of a first encounter.

Or, if not a first encounter, then a fresh take, a new way of looking at something overly familiar. That’s what Ihsan Rustem, Northwest Dance Project’s endlessly inventive resident choreographer, has accomplished with his bright and witty new Boléro, which he’s rescued from the graveyard of pop-culture banality and restored affectionately to its pedestal of seductively oddball expressionism.

Boléro was the big crowd-pleaser as NDP opened its 13th season Thursday night, rocking the house and bringing the crowd cheering to its feet at Lincoln Performance Hall. The program, which repeats Friday and Saturday nights and is titled Boléro+, follows essentially the same format as what the company for several seasons called New Now Wow!: three dances by three choreographers, all of them premieres.

We’ll get back to Boléro. First, the +es.

*

Cody Jaron (in gray) and Franco Nieto, with Ching Ching Wong in background, in "Post-Traumatic-Monster." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Cody Jauron (in gray) and Franco Nieto, with Ching Ching Wong in background, in “Post-Traumatic-Monster.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

German choreographer Felix Landerer kicks off the program with his Post-Traumatic-Monster, a long piece that’s almost two separate dances joined at the hip: in fact, part of the opening-night audience thought it was over when the piece paused for its transition, and began to applaud, tentatively. Set to a crunching score by Christof Littman and cast moodily in long looming shadows by lighting designer Jeff Forbes, PTM is about the relationship between two dancers – the dramatically paired Ching Ching Wong and Franco Nieto, dressed by designer Cassie Ridgway in bright red – who are surrounded by an amorphous sludge of outsiders dressed in gray. The gray gang represents the things that get in the way – “an organism that at some point might develop a dynamic of its own,” as Landerer explains in his program notes, “so what we intend to form and build might eventually turn into something that gets out of control and shapes us instead.” In other words: no fairy-tale ending for this love affair. It’s a struggle of memory, fear, and regret.

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