Shaking the Tree

One year after: Waking up to the slow thaw

ArtsWatch Weekly: A year into shutdown, signs of revival: Stimulus aid for the arts, museums reopening, a theater with an audience of 1 to 5

A YEAR AGO TODAY I PARKED MY CAR IN FRONT OF MY HOUSE, tossed the key in a drawer, and began to shelter in. Suddenly I was home (if not, thank goodness, home alone), away from the concerts, theater and dance performances, museum visits, coffee-shop conversations with artists and writers, and other rounds that had made up my peregrinations around Portland and the Pacific Northwest going back deep into the previous century. The day before, I’d been at the Portland Art Museum, walking with curator Dawson Carr through Volcano!, the big exhibition of artworks relating to the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens. Scant days later, the museum shut down. As “ordinary” life began to crumble I was also putting the finishing touches on an essay about revivals of two retro plays I’d recently seen – Blood Brothers at Triangle Productions and The Odd Couple at Lakewood Theatre. That piece never went beyond my computer files: Both shows were quickly canceled as Covid-19 restrictions hit Oregon, and the nation, and the world, full force. 

The world had tipped upside down, and the arts & cultural world, which in the intervening twelve months has been devastated economically by shutdowns, tipped with it. Now, after more than half a million deaths in the United States (including more than 2,300 in Oregon) and more than 2.6 million globally, the world is cautiously trying to tip itself back up again. It has a long way to go. Many millions of people in the U.S., and billions globally, are awaiting inoculation, and a new wave of infections is only a few indiscretions, mask-burnings, or rogue viral variants away. But vaccines are being manufactured much more quickly and on a much bigger scale, and delivery systems are improving. Cautious hope, perhaps crossed with reckless impatience, is beginning to rise.                     

Unknown Russian artist, Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign (Platytera) with beaded riza, c. 1800–1850, tempera on wood panel and glass beads, 9” x 8”; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art; among the featured works as the museum reopens March 15.

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Seeking Refuge: Enjoy a live performance again

Shaking the Tree’s new multimedia installation offers the electricity of in-person theater in a safe viewing experience

Has the past year changed you? Humbled you? Brought you to your knees? 

Has it left you feeling helpless, lost, bereaved? 

Have you shocked yourself with your own strength, with the power you have to endure, to persevere and maybe, just maybe, to overcome?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then Refuge, a multimedia installation from Shaking the Tree Theatre, has something for you.

Communing with the goddesses: Take refuge. Photo: Brian Libby

Refuge is a unique performance experience consisting of 11 illustrated panels arranged in a circle, each dedicated to a different goddess (such as Our Lady of the Infinite Night Sky). You and your pod of up to five people sit within the Stonehenge-like circle and listen to audio-based (or, in a couple of cases, watch video-based) stories of these goddesses, each performed by a different person, as they share their wisdom, offer their consolations and remind us of our place in the universe. 

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Fertile, Grounded, Virtual & Here

ArtsWatch Weekly: Portland's festival of new performance goes online; finding the humans in the frame; fresh flicks; new theater & more

RIGHT ABOUT NOW EVERY YEAR FOR THE PAST ELEVEN YEARS before 2021 the hustle and bustle’s hit performance spaces large and small in Portland and environs – an energetic outpouring of new work at just about every stage of development, from first reading to workshop to staged reading to full-blown premiere production. In an ordinary year the Fertile Ground festival of new works presents more than 100 pieces of theater, dance, film, and other performance, by Oregon artists, from first-timers and unknowns to projects from the biggest performance companies in town. It’s been a creative free-for-all, predictable in its unpredictability, a sprawling mega-event in which you never know what you’re going to see next, and that’s a very big part of the fun.
 

Scene from Myhraliza Aaza’s “Oh Myh Dating Hell,” debuting at 9 p.m. opening night – Thursday, Jan. 28 – in this year’s online Fertile Ground festival of new works.

This year, of course, is far from ordinary – and so, Fertile Ground 2021 is far from ordinary, too. You might say it’s breaking new ground, which might be as fertile as the old, but in very different ways. Fertile Ground opens today – Thursday, Feb. 28 – and continues through Feb. 7 entirely online, with a lineup that’s both curated and vastly reduced: thirty-six projects, all created to be streamed online, making their debuts over the run of the festival and available to view on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels through Feb. 15. Streaming the shows is free, although the festival is happy to accept donations.

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Striking a reckoning with death

Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman's paired solo shows "Delicate Fish/BARDO" take a tender look at grief, pain, and death

To die is a process whose edges are feathered in all directions

To grieve is to feel love that has nowhere to go. 

These words followed me around in the weeks leading to the show, first arriving in the press release that landed so casually in my inbox while I was paying my electric bill and answering mundane emails. A  few days later, it arrived in caption-form… mixed into the chaos of my instagram feed and blaring with depth amidst everyone’s social worlds. Finally, it reappeared on the simple one-page program I was handed at Shaking the Tree Theatre when I arrived to see Delicate Fish/ BARDO. Created as a split bill between local choreographers Jess Evans and Lyra Butler-Denman, the performance was just as haunting as those words that wafted in and out of my mind leading up to opening night. 

The poetic nature of Delicate Fish/BARDO , which repeats at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, March 5-7, pulled me in the first time I saw its marketing. The tender words chosen to describe the works, the curiosity of the title, and the simplicity of its presentation as it emerged into the public eye brought wonder to its existence. The program takes an intimate look at grief, pain, and one of the most challenging aspects of life: death. With such a clear thematic pathway of the show, the collaboration was surprisingly more organic than you’d expect.  “The way that our two pieces communicate or compliment was purely by synchronicity,” says Evans. “Both of us, in very different ways, had been interfacing with the energies that surround and infuse death, grief, and healing.”  I’ll share more of our interview below, but first, let me get you up to speed on what opening weekend had in store. 

Jess Evans. Photo: Chris Larson

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DanceWatch: Dear March, come in!

Oregon's dance month marches in like a lion, and a tango, and some ballet, and some butoh, and some funk, and bootleggers, and more

Dear March – Come in –
How glad I am –
I hoped for you before –
Put down your Hat –
You must have walked –
How out of Breath you are –
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –
Did you leave Nature well –
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell –


This is the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s Dear March – Come in –, a poem that describes the month of March like an old friend who has finally arrived, long awaited, but will soon leave because April is knocking at the door. Spring has arrived! The poem seems to express that time is fleeting, patience is a virtue, and we should enjoy things and life while they last. Our Portland winter hasn’t been as challenging as some, but it’s definitely been dark, and I am so glad to see the light again and feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

To me there is such an obvious connection between nature and dance. The body is nature. We are born of the earth, sustained by it, and return to it when we die.  Like nature, dance is also fleeting and lives in the moment. Dance and dancers, like seasons, grow and change, bloom, age, are affected by their environments, and flourishes when they are loved. 

March’s dance offerings are an interesting combination of the political and personal, the historical and imagined, and nature and connectivity, with a bit of comedy and religion sprinkled in. Enjoy!


DANCES AND DANCE EVENTS IN MARCH


Week 1: March 1-8

Marta Savigliano, Tango and the Political Economy of Passion
Presented by the Reed College Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies Colloquium Series and moderated by Reed College Dance Professor Victoria Fortuna
Noon March 4 
Reed College, Vollum College Center, Room: 120, 3203 S.E. Woodstock Blvd., Portland

Offering both an insider and outsider point of view, Marta Savigliano – an Argentine political theorist and dance professor at the University of California at Riverside –, discusses her book Tango and the Political Economy of Passion (1995); a text on tango’s national and global politics that received the Congress of Research on Dance Award for Outstanding Book 1993-1996.
The event is free, and all are welcome. Lunch will be served, so please RSVP to cwilcox@reed.edu so that the right amount of food can be provided. 

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DramaWatch: Uncommon Ground

Fresh voices and surprising ideas emerge through the annual Fertile Ground festival of new work, and the theater week stays busy elsewhere, too.

The time has come again for Portland’s annual mid-winter performance bloom. Fertile Ground, “a city-wide festival of new works,” marks its 11th year and features 11 days of world premiere plays, play readings, workshop productions of works in-progress, dance, puppet shows and so forth. Dozens of shows in dozens of places around town, some ticketed, some free, almost all accessible with a $70 festival pass — that “almost” caveat necessary because many shows sell out or at least producers of popular shows fill up the reservations set aside for pass-holders.
In any case, it’s a great time to take time to race around (obeying all traffic codes and etiquette, mind you) and indulge in the cold-weather cornucopia. 

In addition to the basic concept outlined above, you’ll want to consult the 2020 festival guide or its online equivalent to help make choices about what to see. It’s a lot to take in and even after — perhaps especially after — perusing the 24-page guide you’ll have questions. I did. So I called festival director Nicole Lane.

“Who the heck are all these people??”

Well, actually I tried to make the question sound more professionally journalistic than that. I mentioned that in the festival’s early years it featured major productions by big companies such as Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep, but that’s no longer the case. And that projects seems less likely these days to come from the ranks of theater artists and writers whose work we see the rest of the year. But I was really asking who are all these writers and directors and producers I’ve not heard of before.

Fertile Ground festival director Nicole Lane. Photo: courtesy of Fertile Ground.

“Fertile Ground has evolved in terms of meeting the needs of Portland artists,” Lane replied. “It was founded upon a very open, non-adjudicated process.”

In the beginning — not coincidentally, she pointed out, when she and festival founder Trisha Mead were working for some of those big theater companies — the big producers were paying attention to the opportunity the fest presented and scheduling new works in conjunction with it. But the overlapping complications of new-play development and season planning make it difficult to keep getting brand new plays produced and also make sure they get staged at such a particular spot on the calendar.
Lane points out that the large companies are “finding ways to be supportive without putting shows in,” such as the panel discussion on IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) that PCS is hosting on the festival’s final day, Feb. 9.

As for the folks who are in the festival, Lane was kind enough not to point out that the fact that I haven’t heard of them probably says more about me than about the artists in question. Instead, she gently reminded me that, ““one of the major tenets of Fertile Ground is producer education and opportunity — developing a new crop of producers alongside the new crop of works and ideas.”

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Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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