White Bird Dance

White Bird on the brink

The venerable Portland dance presenter faces a major deficit due to concert cancellations during the pandemic

Have you noticed that it’s the arts we are all turning to right now to survive? 

While we wait out our “sheltering at home” and attempt to dodge the covid-19 virus long enough to keep our hospital beds and intensive care units from overfilling, it’s the free dance performances, free music concerts, free books, free museums exhibits, free art classes—all online—that are making this horrible situation bearable. 

But the question is, will these same arts organizations be there when life gets back to normal, whenever that is? 

Unfortunately, from where I stand right now, it doesn’t look good.

On Tuesday afternoon White Bird, Portland’s biggest dance-only presenter and one of the few dance-only presenters left in the United States, announced that if the organization can’t make up a $350,000 shortfall by June 30, it will have to consider the painful possibility of shutting down for good. The shortfall is the result of show cancellations due to the pandemic. You can read their full announcement here

In addition, White Bird will also see a 20 percent increase in rent from Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, which comprises the Schnitzer, Winningstad, Keller, Newmark, and Brunish halls: White Bird is a frequent renter of the Schnitzer and Newmark halls. The venues are owned by the City of Portland and managed by the Metropolitan Exposition Recreation Commission for Metro.

The situation is dire, White Bird co-founder Walter Jaffe said to me this morning when we spoke on the phone, but it’s dire for all arts organizations, he stressed. 

White Bird is a nonprofit organization that brings a variety of well-known and emerging, national and international dance companies and choreographers to Portland. It was launched in 1997 by Walter Jaffe and Paul King and was named for their beloved cockatoo, Barney, who is now 32.

Paul King, Walter Jaffe and Barney, of White Bird. Photo by Jennifer Alyse.

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DanceWatch Monthly: February is all about the love

February in Portland dance is all about love and its many forms (not just Valentine's Day)


It’s February and love is in the air. Dance performances this month, appropriately enough, express love in a wonderful variety of ways. From the familiar romantic love to platonic love. From the love of connecting with community too connecting with oneself. From the love of music to the love of pure movement. From the love of sharing, to the love of technology, to the love of the wild. From the love of experimentation and research to the love of a good book and a good story, to the love of intimacy, and to the love of things big and small. For the love of god. For dance itself and for the gift of emotional expression. 


“To dance is to be out of yourself,” American choreographer Agnes de Mille famously proclaimed. “Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.” 

So, let’s dance, and do it with love.

Dances in February

Week 1: February 1-2

Holy Goats!
Performance Works N
2 pm February 2
Performance Works NW, 4625 SE 67th Ave

Holy Goats! Sunday afternoon improvisations and bagels are back!  This new iteration will be devoted to dance and music by Portland-area and visiting artists. The dancers include Allie Hankins and Caspar Sonnet, Pepper Pepper, Tracy Broyles + Adrian Hutapea + jaime lee christiana, Luke Gutgsell + Kennedy Verrett. The musicians: Catherine Lee, Caspar Sonnet, Dan Sasaki, Annie Gilbert, and Stephanie Lavon Trotter.

Founded in 1999 by Artistic Director Linda Austin and Technical Director Jeff Forbes, Performance Works NorthWest || Linda Austin Dance engages artists and audiences of the Pacific Northwest in the process of experimentation, creation and dialogue around the presentation of contemporary performance. 

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Dance preview: Restaging two great Merce Cunningham dances

Robert Swinston, who has been immersed in Merce Cunningham dances for almost 40 years, brings "BIPED" and "Beach Birds" to town

I love that dance is so transient. I hate that dance is so transient.

I love the urgency, the surprise, the physical shudder of understanding that a great dance delivers. I hate that once it’s over, it’s impossible to duplicate. We in the audience, after all, will never precisely pass in this way again, and neither will the dancers onstage. That’s where the urgency comes from—the desire to hold on to a particular, delightful filament of moments in time.

So, yes, I’m talking about the late Merce Cunningham and this weekend’s visit (November 21-23) by the French company CNDC-Angers, part of White Bird’s 2019-20 season. The company will perform two of Cunningham’s astonishing works of the 1990s, Beach Birds and BIPED, and if anyone is going to capture lightning in a bottle, it’s going to be these guys. 

CNDC-Angers will perform Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds” this weekend at the Newmark Theatre/Photo by Charlotte Audureau

CNDC-Angers is led by Robert Swinston, who was a central part of the Cunningham company for more than 30 years, performing in both Beach Birds and Biped. He began staging Cunningham dances in1993, and after Merce died in 2009, he became both the company’s director for its final two years of existence and a trustee of the Merce Cunningham Trust. He’s led CNDC-Angers since 2013, working with Cunningham material of various kinds and with other companies along the way.

The confluence of the Trust, Swinston, and the nature of Merce’s dances, which are organized around a defined dance technique, mean that we’re going to see something very close to the original Beach Birds and BIPED at the Newmark Theatre this weekend. The can’t take us back to the ‘90s or the experience of watching these dances performed for the first time, but the only thing missing entirely will be the shock of the new—because choreographers around the world have been influenced by Merce generally and these two dances in particular. I think that if you’re a dance fan, you’re going to see this right away.

I emailed a few questions about the concert to Swinston and he was kind enough to reply.

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Sasha Waltz’s KÖRPER: Bodies meet wall, artfully

White Bird's first foray into contemporary German choreography runs into a wall—and the bodies that run into it

Dancers took the stage at the Portland premiere of Sasha Waltz’s KÖRPER before the audience had finished taking their seats. While all the lights in the Newmark Theatre were still on, the industrial sounds of Hans-Peter Kuhn’s multi-channel soundtrack blurted from speakers around the theater. Two dancers approached the the massive wall that bisected the stage diagonally (think Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc), and at the same time individual body parts—a foot here, some fingers there—emerged from two small holes in the weatherbeaten, blue-grey surface of the enormous monolith.

This was not going to be an ordinary show.

Designed by Thomas Schenk and Heike Schuppelius, both of whom studied architecture, the wall is unlike any set seen before in a White Bird performance. The first German company ever presented by White Bird, the presence of Waltz and her amazing wall in Portland owes much to the assistance of the organizations collaborating in the Year of German American Friendship 2018/19. With all that in mind—and considering that the dancers alone represent more than a dozen countries—the show crackles with a sense of a great converging of effort and ideas into a singular experience, marked by a monumental wall.

Sasha Waltz and Guests brought a strong dose of experimental German dance to White Bird this weekend./Photo courtesy of White Bird

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Acclaimed Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin has returned to Portland for the West Coast debut of her award-winning minimalist new duet, Split. Considering how often White Bird has featured projects involving Guerin over the years, the work she brings to our city still continues to surprise. In some ways, Split is unlike anything Guerin has done, but it bears the intense clarity of gesture, deep directorial collaboration, and carefully considered structure that viewers who were fortunate enough to catch her previous projects should expect.

Guerin was last in Portland in 2017 as part of the stunning collaborative production Attractor. This knockout of a show was one of Guerin’s rare collaborations with her partner, Gideon Obarzanek, the founding director of dance company Chunky Move. In the spirit of both companies, they shared directorial and choreographic duties with two more collaborators: the dancers of Dancenorth Australia and Senyawa, an intense, experimental two-person band from Java. The show was loud and intense. An imposing column of cables hung from the ceiling, powering Senyawa’s instruments as if from some energy source in the sky. The dancers managed to match the tempo and tone oSenyawa’s vocal acrobatics, giving the impression that they were linked to the musicians by the same arcane electricity.

Prior to that show, in 2012, Lucy Guerin Inc. came to Portland with Weather, in which elaborate set design and prop work were integral to the choreography. Using simple materials such as plastic bags and strips of paper, Guerin and her collaborators created a miniature weather system onstage for her dancers to inhabit. More than gimmicks or set dressing, the objects came to life and integrated sublimely with the movement of the piece.

Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane grapple in Lucy Guerin’s “Split.” Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

Using these shows as reference points for Split might seem to highlight the differences in tone, scope, and structure among Guerin’s various projects. However, if we look more deeply, we can see a few conceptual threads running through the fabric of her choreography. Each piece is grown rather than planned, created collaboratively with every member of the production—the dancers, the musicians, the lighting and stage designers. Each show manages to feel dense yet highly considered—every component serves its role and seems to be there for a reason. The complex and intense symmetry and synchronization seem to serve that purpose directly. What does and does not happen at the same time, or what does or does not have the same tone, are fundamental to each of these performances, from the smallest movements of the dancers to major structural decisions.

In their introduction to Split, which opens the 2018-19 Uncaged series, White Bird co-founders Paul King and Walter Jaffe mentioned that they rarely book duets, but felt that this was Guerin’s “masterwork.” What does that mean? The specifics of superlatives can blur into a vague sense of “really very good.” Mastery, however, is different from “exemplary” or “best.” It suggests a combination of total control and total freedom; masters know their work inside and out and can speak through it clearly and articulately. Mastery has nothing to prove and can cut through the dressing of a discipline to show us the nature of the work.

By that measure, “masterwork” seems like an appropriate description of Split. Plenty of shows seem fun or impressive enough to make us non-dancers wish we could perform the same feats. But this show made me want to be a dancer so I could better understand what the dancers were saying about dance itself. So much of dance defies written description—which is the main reason I haven’t yet tried to describe the actual movement in the piece. The show is made of a few simple components, but they add up to something complex.

The space Steiner and Lane share gradually shrinks in “Split.” Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti

As viewers finds their seats, a hypnotic beat pulses quietly from the speakers. This soundtrack, composed by British artist Scanner, serves as a sort of auditory armature throughout the whole piece. Its minimal, repetitive structure is influenced by contemporary minimal music, but stops short of the complex polyrhythms and phasing that composers such as Steve Reich or Terry Riley are known for. It’s a rhythm that feels both intellectual and visceral, beating at the rate of an endurance runner’s heart.

As the show opens, dancers Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane stand on an empty stage, squared off by white tape outlining the perimeter. Steiner is completely naked, Lane wears a simple blue satin gown. The lighting is spare and directional—a broad spotlight that falls from the rafters, highlighting every edge and corner of Steiner’s body and every twist and fold in Lane’s gown.

The movement demonstrates Guerin’s minimalist bent. Starting in perfect sync, split by a distance of about five feet, the dancers work through individual positions combining everyday gestures with the simple movements that have been part of  modern dance vocabulary since choreographers including Trisha Brown began foregrounding components of human movement in the 1960s. Within the first few minutes, however, both dancers fling out their arms with the sort of speed we see in movies when editors drop a few frames to make action seem inhumanly fast. Later, some of the minimal lighting changes occur with the same snappiness, signaling significant transitions in the arc of the piece.

These intentionally startling moments split the otherwise steady rhythm supporting the movement throughout the whole show. Guerin’s decisions about how and when to break from a prevailing structure make her movement feel both tightly packed and carefully chosen. Split is so stripped down that every piece of it feels on view —it’s more sushi than soup—and we are invited to focus intensely on these pieces. Having Steiner perform entirely in the nude makes our scrutiny feel less analytical and more humane. When they dance in unison, Steiner feels like a living X-ray of Lane’s movement; when they move in opposition, Steiner serves as Lane’s counterpoint.

These tools of reduction, rupture and opposition are what move the show forward. Progress is marked by points where Steiner and Lane stop dancing, take a quick breather, and then split the working area of the stage in half with a roll of white tape. A quick burst of light from the side of the stage signals them to continue, and they re-engage in half the space they had before. These breaks come quicker and quicker, until the dancers barely have enough room to stand. They fight, they support each other, they cling to each other, and they drive each other out. Split is full of the things that make movement into dance, but it’s surprising for how few parts it needs to achieve that.

Split runs 8 p.m. Saturday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Find tickets here.

Paul Taylor and White Bird, intertwined

The Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to Portland with sparkling versions of three mid-career Taylor dances

White Bird has brought the Paul Taylor Dance Company back to Portland for the sixth time this weekend, a remarkable dedication to the twisty elegance, dark undercurrents and sheer fun of Taylor’s work and the talent of his dancers. This particular visit touches all those bases with a program that spans a period in Taylor’s choreography after he’d moved past youthful exuberance toward a more layered, focused art. Arden Court (1981), Syzygy (1987) and Piazzolla Caldera (1997) are all well-made dances that retain Taylor’s playfulness and his darker side, on one hand, and integrate them into formal movement invention of the first order.

I’m going to talk a little about each of those pieces, but in the analytical process, I hope neither the delight of the visual spectacle nor the bone-deep communication of the dances gets forgotten. That experience is the most important aspect of a Taylor concert, after all, and the reason that the company’s many visits to Portland make sense.

Paul Taylor Dance Company, “Arden Court”/Photo by Paul B. Goode

Paul King and Walter Jaffe started White Bird 20 years ago, and the first company they brought to town was Taylor’s. I think of this decision as a sort of marker, a statement about how King and Jaffe thought then (and perhaps continue to think) about quality, creativity, importance. And it has served them—and their audience—well through those two decades.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Inside and outside the bubble

The Oregon dance scene extends beyond Portland, we are happy to report, and a ton's happening in town, too

When I lived on the East Coast, New Jersey specifically, it took about an hour-and-a-half of driving to get anywhere—to New York, Philadelphia, even to southern New Jersey. That was the norm, it was accepted, and we did it obediently, with occasional grumbling here and there. But I’m glad I did it because New Jersey did not offer the artistic communities, resources and variety that I craved. Don’t get me wrong, Jersey isn’t ALL bad, it does have the best pizza and bagels in the land, and it’s home to a magical place called Grounds For Sculpture, a 45-acre outdoor sculpture park, inhabited by a pride of peacocks.

Because of this experience, I was relieved when I arrived in Portland five years ago to discover that everything I wanted and needed was just 10-15 minutes away from home. But now, in the process of scouring the internet for dance performances, I am learning a lot about dance communities outside of Portland, and my original concept of Portland’s community has broadened to include them. I see these communities as opportunities for exchange and partnership, and a way to break out of the Portland bubble and connect to other dance communities. It’s time to get back in my car.

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