Nearly 25 years ago, White Bird – the dance presenting company personified by Walter Jaffe, Paul King and their Goffins cockatoo, Barney – burst onto the Oregon arts scene, drawing 1,400 people to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to see the Paul Taylor Dance Company. It was an auspicious start for the neophyte presenters, who soon established themselves among the region’s cultural stalwarts.
But at least a little of this early success came, King now admits, “sort of under false pretenses.”
They had, of course, in Taylor, chosen a big name with which to start their venture. “That company is known,” King said in a recent interview. “But we were not known. We were just two guys and a bird from New York.
“We had no database for audience or anything like that, so we went to the TV show ‘AM Northwest’ and asked if we could do a contest, where we gave away tickets and also a trip to New York to meet Paul Taylor. So they did a contest with us on the show, and Barney picked the winner. He also almost pooped on the host, but he missed. So that was how we started getting a database of names.
”Northwest Business for Culture and the Arts contacted us and offered to jointly host a post-performance reception with dessert and champagne,” King continued. “We sent postcards to the people who had bought tickets. The show was on a Wednesday night and we didn’t think that many people would stay out that late after the show. But it turned out that almost everybody who was invited came. So we had to worry, ‘Do we have enough champagne? Do we have enough dessert?’
And then everyone was asking ‘Can we meet Mr. Taylor?’ And we had to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, but he doesn’t travel with the company very much.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, but he sent me a postcard.’
“We didn’t know what we were doing! I just wrote on the postcards, ‘I hope you can make it,’ and I signed my name, ‘Paul.’ And they all came – thinking Paul Taylor had invited them!”
A little accidental bait-and-switch aside, White Bird delivered the goods dance-wise, and has continued to do so ever since. On Sept. 28 – perhaps another auspicious Wednesday night at the Schnitzer – the company opens its 25th-anniversary season with SWING OUT, a production of New York’s Joyce Theater, presented as a special fundraiser. The rest of the season unfolds in the White Bird Dance Series and its younger sibling series White Bird Uncaged, with troupes ranging from MOMIX to Dallas Black Dance Theatre to Ballet Hispánico to, fittingly, the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Performances take place in the Schnitzer, the Newmark Theatre, Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, and the new Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton.
This season, like those before it, will be a celebration of the varied art of dance and the diverse communities of Portland and the wider world. But it also marks a major change, as the final season in which King and Jaffe will direct White Bird’s day-to-day operations. After that, they’ll hand the controls to Graham Cole, who they named executive director earlier this year.
“We’re very hands-on this season, through May, and that will be our last season of that,” King said. “From then, we’ll be co-board chairs and help grow and diversify the board, raise money and help with the programming. And we’ll help turn over all the relationships we’ve built to Graham – we’ll go with him to festivals and conferences and introduce him to the people we know.”
Added Jaffe, “Even though we’re not going to be so involved day-to-day, we’re very optimistic about the future of White Bird under Graham.”
To hear Jaffe and King recount their company’s history, the key to it all was that they picked a fine place for a fledgling. Said King: “We feel very fortunate. This couldn’t have happened if we were in a different city than Portland. The people here have made it possible.”
The couple, who celebrated their 40th year together in February, met in New York City, where Jaffe had run a German-language publishing house and King was a high-end pastry chef. They were fans of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and in the mid-1980s, connected by a family friend, Jaffe joined the company’s board.
“I was the young person on the board; most of the other people were much older and much more affluent. Basically my role there, besides giving some money, was to start their newsletter.”
In 1996, after checking out several Western cities, they moved to Portland.
“We had no idea what we were really going to do, knowing no one,” Jaffe recalled. “The general manager of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, John Tomlinson, was going to be here at the end of the summer at the Western Arts Alliance Conference. We didn’t know what that was, but we met him there at the Convention Center, and that’s when we met a lot of agents and presenters who specialized in dance.”
One of those presenters was Nancy Matschek Martino, who was working at San Francisco Performances, but previously had spent two decades as head of the Portland State University dance department, where she’d curated an influential performance series. The demise of that department had left Portland without a regular source of high-level touring dance concerts, and in these New York transplants she saw a way to fill the gap.
“She became one of our mentors,” Jaffe said. “Nancy and John talked us into presenting Paul Taylor in Portland. So in July of 1997 we started the company as an LLC – we got our 501c3 nonprofit status two years later, in 1999 – and named it after Barney. We called it White Bird because we couldn’t call it ‘Barney’; that was a purple dinosaur.
”We presented the Paul Taylor Company in October of ‘97 at the Schnitzer, with no subscription base, and had 1,400 people. We were so encouraged by the turnout and the audience, and Nancy Matschek just said, ‘You gotta continue!’“
The venture was helped by Jaffe having received money from the sale of the family business, a corrugated box company, upon his father’s retirement.
“We weren’t off buying second homes at the beach, we were putting it into White Bird at the beginning,” said King. “We also thought, ‘This could only happen in Portland!’ The kind of support we were getting – 1,400 people on a Wednesday night and established organizations wanting to partner with us. That’s not the way it usually happens in cities. So we felt very grateful.”
White Bird quickly grew into a valued staple of the city’s arts menu, most years offering about a dozen shows ranging from the abstract to the theatrical to the folkloric, but always highlighting contemporary sensibilities. Names as storied as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris have graced its marquees; so have such notable homegrown choreographers as Gregg Bielemeier, Minh Tran and Tere Mathern.
“They started small and grew into being one of the most important presenters in the world,” said Jamey Hampton, co-founder of Portland’s BodyVox, whose first show was a 1998 White Bird presentation. “They’ve helped educate a dance audience in this town, and they’ve brought in companies from all corners of the world, so you have a company from the Australian outback rubbing shoulders on the schedule with the Alvin Ailey Company.”
Hampton lauds the pair for their political advocacy for the arts, in Portland and elsewhere, as well as for more personal qualities. “When our kids were little, Paul and Walter used to bring them toys all the time. They’re just mensches.”
Of course, the Bird boys, as Jaffe and King sometimes are called within the local arts biz, stress that the educational aspect is a joint venture.
“It’s been a tremendous learning experience to do what we do, and we’ve always felt like we’ve been on a journey with our audience,” Jaffe said. “We’ve tried never to patronize the audience, we’ve tried to never tell them we know more about dance than they do, because we were learning at the same time that they did. And we continue to do that.
“We really grew to appreciate how important community engagement was to White Bird. A lot of our audience, they come to the shows, they appreciate the dance. And that’s fine. That wasn’t enough for us. We felt strongly – and this has strongly to do with the influence of Renee Mitchell [a poet, teacher, and former columnist for The Oregonian] – that we need to connect with the Black community, the Latino community and other communities of color. And that’s kept growing through the programming, the artists and companies that we’ve brought in – companies from Africa, indigenous companies from Australia, New Zealand. And then we connect them to schools such as Jefferson High School and to community centers, through workshops and ticket-access programs. That is something that is now guiding us almost 100 percent.”
“For us,” added King, “it wasn’t about dollars and cents, it was about trying to make something for the community. The extra things that we do with the dancers when they’re here, with and for the community, are as important or even more important than the work on the stage.”
Those intertwined passions for dance, learning, and community-wide connection have led to some memorably joyful moments.
“I think the pinnacle of the realization of our concept for what really matters to us came together 10 years ago,” King said. “For our 15th anniversary we did ‘Le Grand Continental’ in Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was the best thing I’ve been involved in with White Bird, for me personally. There were 164 non-professional dancers who auditioned, and they didn’t know at the time that no one was going to be rejected. We really worked hard to reach diverse communities here – Pacific Islanders, Latinx … It showed in who was dancing. It really came across that this was a celebration of Portland’s diversity – as much as many people think that’s an oxymoron.
“That was important to us. We had 10 weeks of rehearsal. The Expo Center gave us one of their empty halls for rehearsals, because it didn’t have air conditioning and it was summer. We brought in some big industrial fans and water coolers. We had ages from seven to 70. And it became a family. Everybody involved was happy every time we met.
“That was a high point!”
The very idea of high points, though, suggests low points, too. The Great Recession that began in 2008 was a challenge for arts groups, and Jaffe and King responded by helping to bring together what became the Portland Arts Alliance, an ad hoc conclave of leaders from a broad array of the city’s cultural organizations that met to share ideas and strategies and help one another through the financial shoals.
Hard times hit again a couple of years ago.
“Up until the pandemic, things were going well for many of us in the arts and in the restaurant scene,” Jaffe said. “Portland was really prospering. People looked on Portland as a destination for the arts. We felt that we contributed to that, supported dancers and studios and played a role.
“The pandemic has changed things 180 degrees. Paul and I had great concerns about the future of White Bird. We were at an age, in 2020, where we started to think, ‘How long can we continue to do this?’ If we’d started in our twenties, that’d be one thing. But when we started I was 50 years old. So we were trying to figure out the future, and the pandemic actually allowed us to do that.
“Graham started with us just before the pandemic, in January of 2020. He was hired to run our boutique. When everything shut down in March, we had to let most of our staff go, but he remained with us in our bubble. We recognized how many skills he had. He was a dancer and choreographer, originally from Portland before he went to New York; his father, Gary Cole, helped start CoHo Theatre. He has a strong financial background and he became the first COO we’ve had. He was so impressive in everything, ultimately we asked him if he was interested in taking a major leadership role.”
In addition to establishing the succession, they’ve taken another crucial step. “A major thing for the sustainability of White Bird was getting the offices out of the founders’ home,” Jaffe said. They finally moved operations from their Southwest Portland house to rented offices early this year. A long-term home, downtown at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Taylor Street, is in progress.
“We’re going to have public space, for the first time ever, with a box office and our boutique and viewing stations,” King said, with evident enthusiasm. “We’ll be able to do pre-performance talks and just walk from there to the theater.”
As always in the arts, challenges remain: Rebuilding the pre-pandemic subscriber base. Adjusting to a more cautious market for public events. Continuing to diversify art and audiences alike …
“We’ve taken it this far; this is what we can do,” King said. “I just turned 71, Wally’s 74, and it’s time for new blood, new energy, new ideas. What we say is, look on our website: The values are there, the equity commitment is there. If our team follows those, lives those, and everything that’s decided about White Bird is through that lens, then we’re going to be fine. We have a solid core of people that have expectations about White Bird. Those people are dear to us, and we don’t want to lose what built our relationship with them. They’re getting older like we are. What’s made a difference for White Bird has been our continuity and our longevity.
“But we need to adapt and change and discover and move forward. … It’s tricky, but Graham and his team can do this.”
“Let’s be clear,” Jaffe emphasized. “We’ve spent a lot of money; it’s our life’s work; it exhausted us. But we feel good about the direction. Our role now is going to be supportive – to White Bird and the rest of the dance community.”