Twyla Tharp

ArtsWatch Weekly: Jamison and Thomas, together again

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

It was thirty years ago almost today that Jamison/Thomas Gallery opened in downtown Portland, entering a very small gallery scene and injecting it with something fresh: a broader sense of what defined art, beyond academe and boardroom collections. It grew out of the little Folkcraft Gallery, which William Jamison had set up as a sort of gallery and shop (I once picked up a couple of small rag rugs there, to add a shot of rustic color to my tiny apartment of the time) and where the younger Jeffrey Thomas went to work. When it morphed into Jamison/Thomas, the new gallery kid in town upended expectations and opened its doors to a lot of brash new talent, much of which fell into “outsider” territory, a natural fit for a gallery with roots in folk art.

"Jeffrey and William," Stan Peterson, 1994.

“Jeffrey and William,” Stan Peterson, 1994.

Twenty years ago Jamison died from the effects of AIDS, one of the multitude swept away in the years of the plague, but he’s never been forgotten. Two prime city galleries – Froelick and PDX Contemporary – have direct links to Jamison/Thomas, and scores of artists’ careers have been aided by the gallery’s openness to fresh ideas.

Buehler+show+1985_9040+copyOn Wednesday, Thomas opens the show Jamison/Thomas Gallery: 1985, at his new gallery Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art in the emerging Slabtown gallery district of Northwest Portland. Among the ’80s artists represented will be a lot of familiar names: Gregory Grenon, Rick Bartow, Tom Cramer, Stan Peterson, Mark Bullwinkle. Deb Norby, Baba Wagué Diakité, Eric Stotik, and others. The exhibition, besides being a look back at what a significant slice of the city’s contemporary art scene looked like three decades ago, is also a fundraiser for the William Jamison Scholarship at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Thomas calls the show “a time warp of sorts,” and “an unvarnished exhibition that will showcase ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ of the 1980s mainstream art scene in Portland. No punches are pulled. Some artworks remain as fresh and relevant as the day they were made. Other art reminds us of a specific period in history, the Reagan years, when the world started moving towards design-based explorations of surface patterns and effects over deeper emotional content.”

Thomas (left) and Jamison, back in the day.

Thomas (left) and Jamison, back in the day.


Twyla Tharp on Paris and the right to assemble. The sterling choreographer Twyla Tharp, whose company performed in Portland a month ago in the White Bird dance series, has been writing a journal for the New York Times, and today she wrote about the terrorist attacks on Paris, and what such breakdowns mean to the everyday process of culture, for which the arts are an exploration and a metaphor. How, in the face of atrocity, does the show go on? Tharp writes: “Ultimately we go on with no mention of this obscene parallel reality abroad. But our pre-curtain announcement, ‘Turn off cellphones as a courtesy to fellow audience members,’ seems poignant to me as I think about courtesy, as I think about gatherings, and as I realize that performance cannot take place without the right to assemble. … my focus is jumbled. The world is on fire again.” Amid the flames, the world of the stage may seem irrelevant, and yet it is precisely for such things that individual rights, the cultural value of living and letting live, exist: to guarantee the small, and personal, and perhaps irrelevant. And from such seemingly inconsequential things rise the larger principles of civility and how humans choose to live with themselves and one another. For artists and all of us, Beckett might have framed the situation best: I can’t go on. I must go on.


A few things to consider this week:

  • Dali Quartet at The Old Church, On Thursday, Friends of Chamber Music brings the Venezuelan quartet, all graduates of their country’s El Sistema music training program as well as of American conservatories, for a program of Latin American classics.
  • Tomás Svoboda’s Clarinet Concerto: On Friday and Sunday, the Portland Columbia Symphony features the legendary Portland composer’s 2013 concerto, featuring its original soloist, Michael Anderson. Also on the program: Reznicek’s Eine Lustspiel Overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
  • Original Practice Shakespeare’s Twelfe Night. The OPS shtick of controlled anarchy in the supposed manner of the Elizabethans works best with the comedies, and this one (complete with Original Practice Spelling) is one of the best. It’s at McMenamins Mission Theater on Wednesday evening only. Kids are welcome with adults (and with a 6:30 p.m. curtain and 5:30 doors-open, it’s OK on a school night), and the show (but not the food or drink) is free.
  • Dogfight at Staged!The Portland premiere of the 2012 Off-Broadway hit, a musical that sweeps its audience back to 1963 and the budding pressures that would soon explode in Vietnam, continues through November 29. The talented Paul Angelo directs the Staged! production, which is at CoHo Theatre.
Ryan Monaghan, Max Artsis, Danny Walker in Dogfight at Staged! Photo: David Kinder

Ryan Monaghan, Max Artsis, Danny Walker in Dogfight at Staged! Photo: David Kinder


Great films, great Northwest. The Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival has been an annual Portland attraction since way back in 1973, and this year’s edition, the 42nd, ends on Wednesday. ArtsWatch has been keeping its eye on the action. Lily Hudson interviews Thomas Phillipson, who’s run the show for the past 15 years, and departs after this one. The diversity of approaches by the region’s filmmakers continues to impress him: “(T)he work is so varied that any summing up seems feels forced and exclusive.” And Hudson and Erik McClanahan take a look at some of the festival’s highlights, including Ian Berry’s documentary Make Mine Country, about the continuing impact in the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia of the country music that American GIs stationed there in the 1940s brought with them. The film, Hudson writes, offers “plenty of space for the joys and sorrows of Golden Age country to echo through this most unexpected of locales.”

Ian Berry's Make Mine Country at the Northwest Filmmakers' Festival.

Ian Berry’s Make Mine Country at the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival.



ArtsWatch links


Adriana_Baer_small-450x300Adriana Baer talks about leaving Profile Theatre.
Seemingly at the top of her, and her company’s, game, Profile’s energetic artistic director announced this fall she was leaving. She sits down with Marty Hughley for ArtsWatch to talk about why, and what the future might hold. Baer on the knotty process of running a company: “Every AD I’ve ever talked to spends more time, by a huge margin, administrating, fundraising, budgeting, producing – left-brained stuff – than artistically creating.”

Golden Retriever review: Fashion over form. Tristan Bliss gets all hot and bothered about the music ensemble’s show at the Old Church: “(U)pon arrival I quickly realized that I was in for a show that badly wanted to be cool. Wanted to be cool above anything else, including creating or listening to emotionally engaging music.”

Vanessa Van Obberghen: Emotional data. Mack McFarland decodes the Antwerp-based artist’s exhibition idealSTATE at Portland’s Worksound International: “Van Obberghen aims to share the malevolent side of data. its easily manipulative character, an unreliable, un-representable frenemy whose intentions are never clear and subject to outside influence.”

Orlando, from page to stage. Martha Ullman West takes in Sarah Ruhl’s play Orlando at Profile Theatre and traces its pedigree back to the audacious Virginia Woolf novel on which it’s based: “The book ends with: ‘And the twelfth stroke of midnight sounded; the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight.’ That’s where Ruhl’s play ends, too. And if Woolf’s five-hundred-year family saga in three hundred pages is impressive, Ruhl’s distillation of it in less than two hours of stage time boggles the mind.”

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, by Roger Fry, ca. 1917. Leeds Museum and Galleries/Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, by Roger Fry, ca. 1917. Leeds Museum and Galleries/Wikimedia Commons



About ArtsWatch Weekly

We’ve been sending a letter like this every Tuesday to a select group of email subscribers. Now we’re also posting it weekly on the ArtsWatch home page. In ArtsWatch Weekly, we take a look at stories we’ve covered in the previous week, give early warning of events coming up, and sometimes head off on little arts rambles we don’t include anywhere else. You can read this report here. Or, you can get it delivered weekly to your email inbox, and get a quick look at all the stories you might have missed (we have links galore) and the events you want to add to your calendar. It’s easy to sign up. Just click here, and leave us your name and e-address.

And finally…

We end with a couple of requests. First, if you have friends or family members who you think would enjoy our cultural writing online, could you please forward this letter to them? The bigger our circle of friends, the more we can accomplish. Second, if you’re not already a member of ArtsWatch, may we ask you to please take a moment and sign on? What you give (and your donation is tax-deductible) makes it possible for us to continue and expand our reporting and commenting on our shared culture in Oregon. Thanks, and welcome!

Become a member now!


Vintage Tharp, defining America

In a rare and vital Portland performance, Twyla Tharp and dancers celebrate America as it ought to be, and as it is

When I opened my e-mail Thursday morning, I found among the many demands for money by various worthy causes, one from something calling itself Define America.

How serendipitous.  Wednesday night in a White Bird presentation at a packed Schnitz, Twyla Tharp and her extraordinary troupe defined America at its best with their “I can do anything I damn well please and do it damn well” dancing.

Americans as a people resist pigeonholing, much as critics and politicians would like to put us there, and keep us there, neatly filed away as modern, tap or ballet dancers, classicists, iconoclasts, or, politically speaking, conservative, liberal, socialist, anarchist.

It’s not the political that concerns us here, although there are political aspects to Preludes and Fugues and Yowzie, the two new works Tharp made to celebrate her golden anniversary as an artist of the dance. Both reflect today’s political events and social concerns, without, thank goodness, a shred of pomposity or didacticism.

Yowzie: Tharp linchpins Okamoto and Dibble. Photo: Ruven Afanador

Yowzie: Tharp linchpins Okamoto and Dibble. Photo: Ruven Afanador

Tharp has been thinking about Preludes since 9/11.  Her company (a different company from the one she assembled for this tour) had performed at the World Trade Center a few days before, and was supposed to return several days later. On a day when much of the country was paralyzed by the shock of the attack on American soil, Tharp’s first instinct was to move. As the story goes, she had Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier [WTC] on her laptop and started dancing to the music.

The result, fourteen years later, was a dance she says “is the world as it ought to be.” The world she has made is ordered, peaceful, one in which tempers are not lost and humor is found, with several moments that reminded me of a child dancing while someone plays the piano, simply reacting to the music as Tharp did in a shattered New York, in 2011.

Preludes begins with a fanfare composed by John Zorn for the occasion, which sets the celebratory tone for the evening and introduces the dancers, who are dressed by Santo Loquasto in snappy gold-belted khakis for the men, and flippy, short-skirted sundresses in bright colors for the women.  Loquasto, who did the set as well as the outrageous psychedelic patchwork costumes for Yowzie, has been working with Tharp since 1974, when they did Push Comes to Shove for American Ballet Theatre: think Baryshnikov, free of tights and doublet, in plush shirt and trousers, wearing a bowler hat that becomes part of the choreography.

Indecorous classicism characterizes the movement for Preludes, the intersection of music and movement mathematically precise, a puzzle that Tharp both makes and solves, reminiscent of the matching of multiple planes of color in a Rubik’s cube. The steps – and are there ever steps – are vintage Tharp: social dancing, bravura turns, duets, trios, quartets that juxtapose ballet line, straight, pure geometric line that many of these classically trained dancers have spent years achieving, against the collapsing limbs of a Raggedy Ann doll. To this heavenly music’s shifting tempos, the dancers skitter and skip, or swoop in a curve, then slide to a halt, like a ballplayer sliding into second base, the latter echoing Tharp’s early work with the post-modernists.

Is the piece an homage to Tharp’s influences?  You see some Paul Taylor, when one dancer leaps over the prone body of another, some first-position flexed feet that could come from Merce Cunningham (you heard me!) or George Balanchine (see Apollo), some upper-body curving that surely comes from Martha Graham, and one section of several couples dancing that made me think of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. Cameo bravura dancing (at one point pirouettes à la seconde elicited cheers from the audience), jitterbugging, and the social dancing of the choreographer’s youth are all part of the mix. At the start, a male and female dancer cling to each other, in a slow, sexy, sorrowful duet (and no, I don’t know who they were, the sight lines at the Schnitz being what they are).

Preludes ends with a stunning circle dance by all twelve company members, a unifying principle if ever there was one. The women’s red, blue, yellow, purple, orange, lavender costumes made me think of Matisse’s two paintings of dancers, although his dancers are nude. Planes may be used to destroy buildings and lives, this seems to say, but the world keeps turning.

Audience behavior during Preludes was a bit jarring; there was applause every time the music shifted, or a dancer did a bravura turn, not acceptable behavior at a symphony concert, nor was it here. There was a standing ovation at the end, and a few people departed from the theater, muttering about clichés. How are they clichés when their original designer reinvents them in her own work?

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

Yowzie, too, begins with a fanfare, the dancers posed on stage behind a scrim in silhouette (and speaking of clichés, where have we seen that before, and how often?). As James F. Ingalls’ lights intensify, we see the dancers dressed in Loquasto’s mad motley, executing Tharp’s signature vocabulary, but skewed a different way—it’s angular, hip-slung, down-and-dirty at times, and just as complicatedly musical as Preludes, though this time the music is American jazz, songs by Jelly Roll Morton, Wesley Wilson, “Fats” Waller and Henry Butler, recorded by Butler and Steven Bernstein with The Hot 9. Rika Okamoto, who has been dancing for Tharp since 1993 is the linchpin of this piece, with Matt Dibble, who started working with Tharp in 2001, telling a story of a man and a woman who fight (he’s abusive) and separate, each then flirting with others, he with another man, in a movement sendup of gay stereotyping, and duly get back together again – only this time, she’s in charge.

Yowzie begins in a carnival atmosphere (there’s a jagged-lined, multi-colored backdrop that looks pretty jazzy in a nonliteral way), the dancers deployed in such a way that they look like a really big, jovial crowd. Okamoto and Dibble weave drunkenly among them; they are really wasted, in the inebriated sense, both of them. Okamoto collapses in a seated position, her body hinged forward, like the Ballerina in Fokine’s Petrouchka—this carnival atmosphere is deliberate, I think; Petrouchka starts the same way. But that’s a Russian carnival. Here, the music places the work in New Orleans, another city struck by disaster. While I decide halfway into the piece I’m not fond of the costumes, I’m having so much fun watching these dancers I stop taking notes. Their energy is palpable; they’re dancing like crazy.

Tharp calls Yowzie the “world as it is” – a world, the dance says, in which we suffer and celebrate, love and learn, and deal as best we can with the messiness of human relationships. Nothing’s orderly about this piece, although it’s definitely designed. And Okamoto, whether staggering around like Judy Collins’ “drunk in midnight choir”; or wistfully, desperately, searching for her man; or spinning wildly, reminds me of Tharp herself when she was dancing. And that’s nothing shabby.

Does Tharp break new ground in either of these works?  I’m not sure, and in truth I don’t much care. On her golden anniversary, she puts on one helluva show. That’s enough for me, though I hope it’s not enough for her: I want to see what she does next.


ArtsWatch Weekly: Day of the Dead

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

Suddenly it’s mid-October, and Halloween’s grinning around the corner, as is the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, which counterintuitively livens things up considerably, especially on Portland’s theater scene. This week, Teatro Milagro opens its twentieth annual celebration of the Day of the Dead, this time called La Muerte Baila, for a run through November 8. The talented Rebecca Martinez has put this bilingual show together, and we never know exactly what to expect until we’ve seen it, but this description from Milagro gives a hint: “When a disenchanted muertito refuses to return to the realm of the living, La Muerte must stop her own grumbling and set things straight.” Dancing, comedy, and a tour through “the realms of grief and remembrance”: get on your dancing shoes.


Sofia Tlamatiliztli May-Cuxim, all dressed up for Milagro's La Muerte Baila. Photo: Russell J Young

Sofia Tlamatiliztli May-Cuxim, all dressed up for Milagro’s La Muerte Baila. Photo: Russell J Young

Elsewhere on this week’s theater calendar, we detect something of a, well, theme:

Meanwhile, Post5 Theatre opens a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, with Cassandra Boice directing and Todd Van Voris leading the cast. But that’s a horse of a different collar.

And speaking of horses, Wayne Harrel’s Remme’s Run – the tale of a wild six-day horseback gallop from Sacramento to Portland in 1855 – opens at CoHo. A.L. Adams reviewed the show’s trial trot at last spring’s Fertile Ground new-plays fest for ArtsWatch.


Twyla Tharp: a lifetime in dance

The great American choreographer talks about her work, her influences, and her upcoming show at Schnitzer Hall

Meeting with children after a performance of Yowzie in Los Angeles a week or so ago, Twyla Tharp  was asked how long it takes to make a dance.

“A lifetime,” she said, compressing James McNeill Whistler’s response to a question about why he was asking for a thousand pounds compensation in a libel suit against John Ruskin. The 19th century critic had slammed a painting that in literal terms had taken him a couple of days, Whistler said, to make.

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

Twyla Tharp: a lifetime of dance. Photo: Walter Whitman

On Wednesday, Tharp stops at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland on a tour celebrating half a century, or a lifetime, of making dances. The performance, part of the White Bird dance series, is sold out. Her “extraordinary group of dancers,” in her words  (and I believe them), will perform a program of new works that by all accounts – including hers, in her marvelous New York Times “Artist’s Journal” – sums up her phenomenal career as a choreographer who has cultivated and changed many fields of dance.

That career began with a solo titled Tank Dive that Tharp performed in the spring of 1965, less than a year after her graduation from Barnard College, where she majored in art history. In a telephone interview last week, I asked her if her liberal arts education in a top women’s college had informed her work. Yes, it had, she replied, with its “thorough grounding in history.”