TBA Festival

ArtsWatch Weekly: old, new, always

Same old story? Brash new wave? In Oregon arts & culture this week, old and new mix it up, and it's sometimes tough to tell which is which

ART IS ABOUT STRIDING BOLDLY INTO THE FUTURE and discovering the new. The Portland Art Museum, for instance, is getting ready to open the first major retrospective of the work of American artist Hank Willis Thomas, whose photography, sculpture, video, and collaborative public art projects turn their focus sharply and sometimes satirically on the flashpoints of contemporary culture and the struggle for social justice and civil rights. Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal …, which will run Oct. 12-Jan. 12, is the museum’s big fall-season attraction, and a central part of a run of shows in the next few months about the work of artists of color: the essential Portland painter Isaka Shamsud-Din, the great Robert ColescottFrida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the just-opened exhibition Question Bridge: Black Males.

Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, from the series Strange Fruit, 2011. Digital c-print. 50 x 73 inches. © Hank Willis Thomas, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

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The Week: Art is where you look

From Eastern Oregon to a paint-out on the coast to queer opera and TBA Fest in Portland to the streets of New York, art is all around us

THE ARTS WORLD MIGHT BE FINANCIALLY FRAGILE, with a tenuous toehold on the economic stepstool, but art and culture are all around us, wherever we look – and certainly, wherever ArtsWatch’s writers look. Carnegie libraries-turned-community-art-centers in Eastern Oregon. Street art and “high” art having a deep-in-the-trenches conversation in New York. Dancers in the woods near Astoria and a landscape paint-off in Cannon Beach. Queer Opera in Portland, a virtuoso theatrical solo turn in Clackamas County, Pavarotti on the radio, contemporary performance art at PICA’s TBA Festival in Portland, a great photographer imprinted on the nation’s memory. And really, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of things.

Pendleton Center for the Arts, in a former Carnegie Library. In the
home of the Pendleton Round-Up, Randy Gundlach’s horse statue by
the entrance adds a Western touch. Photo: David Bates

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Reports from TBA 2019: Ligia Lewis

Obfuscation and illegibility in artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis's "Water Will (In Melody)"

by ELLA RAY

As the culminating part of the BLUE RED WHITE trilogy by artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis, Water Will (In Melody) distorts canonical configurations of body and language by taking up the project of illegibility. Presented by PICA’s 17th annual Time Based Arts festival (TBA), Water Will (In Melody) opposes neoliberal progress and dominant categorization, rejecting the physical and conceptual articulations of representation that are projected onto the Black subject in exchange for something dark, something defined outside of whiteness. Lewis, accompanied by Titilayo Adebayo, Dani Brown, and Susanne Sachsse, presents a two-part performance that uses the four figures to investigate individual and collective ability to escape expectation, both of the theater and of themselves. 

While the puppet-like characters contort and twist their plastic and silk dressed bodies against the black stage, swampy sounds of crickets and trickling water fill the spaces between us and them. The scene is set in a way that references the outdoors and exposes the logistical aspects of theatrical production: off-stage is visible, the curtains are slightly too short, and the lighting equipment encroaches on the stage frame.  The mood is still marshy and gothic as if the theater is amidst a southern swamp. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

As the performance progresses, the women share the stage through choreographed moments that rely heavily on a combination of mime and bodily movements to reference physical anguish and personal pleasure. The dancers fold over themselves and writhe across the stage bumping against one another against  a loop of layered sounds and parts of speech. The corporeal aspects of Water Will are interjected with monologue spanning from excerpts of Grimm’s Fairy Tales during the opening sequence to a lengthy German speech by Sachsse. In the moments where language is foregrounded it is then disrupted, muffled, cut off, or drown out. This interruption is most obvious in a moment when Lewis spoke while she shoved her hand down her mouth, gagging herself in both a sexual and violent manner that made it nearly impossible to understand her. 

The disruption of intelligibility via the hand is a thread continued throughout the performance. The hands, central to mime gesticulation, are used in Water Will to unveil the interiority of the subjects. The palms and fingers of the performers are used to scratch, please, and undo almost as if their insides are begging to escape their predetermined forms. In exposing the exterior (including the audience, the theater, and each other) to their interiors, we could ask who they are performing for and what are we bearing witness to? 

Between the first and second act, there is a brief breakdown in the proceedings. A spotlight floods the four dancers and they begin what feels like pop-princess choreography set to the sound of an uptempo remix of an Enya song. While forming a straight line, the dancers thrust their pelvises, cross their arms with cheerleader energy, and evoke a familiar feeling of  “positivity.” The sterility of the breakdown deeply contrasts the stickiness of Water Will as a whole. On the Saturday iteration of the performance, the audience responded by laughing and clapping in approval of the breach in plot. In this abrupt and concise interlude it is  apparent that the spectators are complicit in the unfolding of the performance. While the material preceding and following this interruption concentrates on the subtle horrors of desire and possibility, this section antagonistically points at the audience and acknowledges them as part of the larger system that wills some to act on those feelings while denying others. 

The crowd is addressed multiple times throughout the performance. During the second act an intense strobe light turns on the audience. The flashing of various patterns of neon white jolt you into position and disrupt the theater experience. This happens again later with a searchlight that roams the theater, stopping briefly on audience members and then continuing on its path. Although this section of the work lasted a mere 2 minutes, the usages of this kind of lighting amplifies the role of the omnipresent voyeur — possibly referencing militarized and colonial surveillance mechanisms that the gender and racialized body is incessantly subjected to. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

Throughout Water Will, Lewis is central both in place and attention. This disrupts a multitude of established hierarchies of contemporary performance that attempt to flatten Black femmes, uncomplicating their relationship to the theater and to being watched. As Brown, Adebayo, and Sachsse periodically appear and reappear onstage, they emphasize that the theater is an actual theater, there is an unbridgeable gap between the performer and the audience. Lewis, however, challenges the gap by, getting close to the audience and entangling us again and again in her obsessive pattern. As water begins to rain down from behind the curtains, washing over the jerky yet sensual choreography, the performers appear like towels being wrung out — holding form but seeping from the inside as they glide across the stage and ground themselves in pooling puddles. In this section, Lewis’s distorted face and masturbatory gestures have a pulse of their own. On many occasions Lewis’s movements felt like a mashup of Velvet Rope-tour-era Janet Jackson and Kayako from The Grudge

The 60 minute production ends with Adebayo singing a church hymn while the Lewis, Brown, and Sachsse melt into the darkness of the stage. As the wrestling comes to a halt and water puddles on the stage, Adebayo’s voice sounded as if someone passed her the mic by surprise. Lewis revealed in a recent TBA and PICA sponsored conversation with scholar and curator bart fitzgerald that the song is titled “I Won’t” — playing again with the concept of will and concluding their guttural meditations of escape with rejection of everything that came before. The show closes with language the clearest its been through the entirety of the performance. With no movement or distortion, Water Will (In Melody) asks the audience to listen to what happens after the storm. Eventually the performer turns her back on us, simultaneously acknowledging the audience’s gaze and rendering visible the facade of the theater. In negating the physical gaze and audience expectation, Lewis solidifies Water Will (In Melody) as a mission in obfuscation. 

Ella Ray an art historian, facilitator, and arts-worker whose practice focuses on the Black contemporary art and process. Ella earned a BA in Art History/Critical Theory from Portland State University in 2018 and currently works for the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art doing work around public engagement and decentralizing dominant culture. 

DanceWatch Monthly: TBA gets it going

This year's Time-Based Art Festival is loaded with dance events, and the rest of the month is brimming with dance, too

It’s September and it’s time to celebrate because Portland’s 2019-2020 dance season is here, and it’s tremendous! Listed below are September’s performances as well as all of the dance related performances that I am aware of in Oregon from now until next summer. The list will of course grow as new performances pop up, so check back often. Spend time with the list, ogle its greatness, click the links, and research at will. There is a lot to choose from and you don’t want to miss a thing!

The incredible amount of Portland dance offerings this year span American modern dance history, show breadth in style and approach, represent different cultures/counter cultures and countries, offer many ways to interact with them, and will be performed by local, national, and international dance companies and artists.

This week? It’s TBA time! TBA stands for Time-Based Art, and it’s the Portland Institute For Contemporary Art’s annual 10-day festival (September 5-15) of performance, music, visual art, film, workshops, lectures, and after-hours parties. The festival is inherently interdisciplinary and champions local, national and international artists who reflect and respond to our times. It’s a mind-altering, opinion-changing, heart-opening extravaganza of the senses. 

This year, the work of legendary, slow-motion Japanese performance artist Eiko Otake opens the festival and her work is woven throughout, an homage to Eiko and her dance partner Koma. During TBA’s inaugural Festival in 2003, Eiko and Koma performed “Offering,” a meditation on sorrow, in Portland’s Jamison Square fountains.

Below I have highlighted the dance-centric TBA events along with other September dance performances, because that’s what we do here at DanceWatch. For the full schedule of TBA events go to PICA’s website. Enjoy!

September Performances by week

Week 1: September 2-8

Members of the cast of In the Heights. Photo courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

In The Heights
Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, directed by May Andrales
August 31-October 13
Portland Center Stage at The Armory, 128 NW Eleventh Ave

In a Dominican-American community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, life is bubbling on a hot summer day in this tale of a neighborhood’s struggles and sacrifices in search of identity and place, by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Premiering in 1999, this Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical directed by May Adrales (she also directed Chinglish or Portland Center Stage), with choreography by William Carlos Angulo, brings hip-hop and the sounds of salsa, merengue, soul, and rhythm and blues, to center stage. 

Renowned Japanese dancer Eiko Otake, in her solo work, A Body in Places. Photo courtesy of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.

A Body in Places (TBA:19)
Eiko Otake 
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
6 -8 pm September 5 (Opening Reception) 
September 5 – October 24, Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA, 511 NW Broadway, Free

Inaugurating the opening of TBA’s 19th festival, Eiko Otake, one half of the renowned Japanese dance duo, Eiko and Koma, will perform her 2014 solo, A Body in Places, in and around the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s exhibition gallery. The work has been performed in 40 sites around the world, and it responds to the architectural elements of the gallery, the audience, nature, time and space, death, family, politics, and Eiko’s experience revisiting the nuclear disaster site of Fukushima. 

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Milka Djordjevich’s ‘Anthem’: Are we making art, or is it making us?

Milka Djordjevich’s Anthem is characterized by dream-logic and surprise, tempered by the absolute command that the dance requires

By PAUL MAZIAR and JESSICA CERRATO

The dancers enter the theater with stately, measured grace, four women in bright costumes moving in procession, hands and bodies enjoined in a line moving in synchronous time. The dance begins en media res, with a minimalist score pulsing and ticking throughout the performance space—the audience wrapping the wooden dance floor in the tiered setting of an amphitheatre. The slow, deliberate manner of the dancers’ steps culminates with the repetitive opening music; it is dizzying, trance-like, unexpected. The sacred feminine is evoked in pressing gestures to the body: deliberate and rhythmic as music hums and intensifies the unfolding drama, each step and fluid movement leading into another while the dancers begin to interact—lightly slapping each other’s bodies and their own as if in a rite, clapping time.

Milka Djordjevich’s “Anthem,” which was performed at the TBA Festival/Photos courtesy of PICA

Each rhythmic step cycles, morphs, replacing the next set of lithe movements; the dancers interweave and rotate among each other. Soft gestures frame and press: breast, pelvis, buttocks. Hands clap and bodies twist in folkloric momentum—chain dancing, intricate patterns infusing order with wild spirit spiraling outward, from choreography to improvisation, experimentation unraveling into revelry.

Otherwise, it’s an ordinary late Sunday afternoon.

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MusicWatch Weekly: voicing identity

Portland performances bring new perspectives to music and gender

When making the transition to align their bodily appearance with their true identities, transgender women must learn to deal with the fact that their old voices don’t transition biologically, even with hormone treatment. One of them, New York composer Sarah Hennies, turned that experience into multimedia drama. Thursday and Friday at PICA, 15 NE Hancock St., Third Angle New Music presents her Contralto, a multimedia work that uses “the sound of trans women’s voices to explore transfeminine identity from the inside and examines the intimate and peculiar relationship between gender and sound.”

The Last Artful, Dodgr performs at TBA.

The new music organization’s collaboration with PICA’s Time Based Arts festival combines live music for strings and percussion with film and recorded voices of transgender women. Hear an OPB interview with Hennies.

After Contralto’s Thursday show, stay at PICA to hear a pair of electroacoustic duos: LA lap steel dobro guitarist Caspar Sonnet & koto master Kozue Matsumoto (seen recently at Portland Creative Music Guild shows), and Oakland’s Kaori Suzuki & John Krausbauer, who create soundscapes with voice, bell, percussion, electronics, and amplified strings. Also at TBA, catch Portland’s own fab The Last Artful, Dodgr‘s Saturday late night show at PICA.

Speaking of gender and voice, hear seven women perform scenes from famous operas with a queer twist at Queer Opera Experience’s debut concert Saturday at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall. Instead of casting based on traditional gender roles, the scenes from Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutti (They’re All Like That), La Boheme, Ariadne at Naxos, and Trouble in Tahiti. And check out this blog post by one of QO’s singers Jena Viemeister, who heads up Eve Song Project PDX, teaches voice and has performed with Portland Opera, Opera Theater Oregon, Opera on Tap and more.


Sarah Hennies – “Contralto” (preview) from Sarah Hennies on Vimeo.

• Cascadia Composers celebrates its tenth anniversary season with ten concerts this year, and Caldera, Saturday afternoon’s free, family friendly outdoor show at Portland’s Mt. Tabor Park Amphitheater, features some of the organization’s — and the city’s — finest composers. Leave it to Cascadia to make rock music — with actual rocks! Susan Alexjander’s electronic Rock Piece offers audience members the chance to participate, while her Ananda Sama stars violist Christina Ebersohl. Song of the Stars features a visual display that audience members can view on their own devices while with composer Alexander Schwarzkopf controls the music via laptop. Jennifer Wright’s No Disrespect employs an abandoned piano, alien sounds, and spray paint to explore the cultural pressures of urban life. Daniel Brugh’s nature-inspired Listen to the Earth features synthesizers, digital media and gongs. Mei-ling Lee’s La’ah and girl-power The Feather pair a solo dancer with an electronic score. Stay tuned for my ArtsWatch Cascadia Composers feature Friday.

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