The year in dance: 2020, go away!

A look back at a year of closures, crises, streamings and reimaginings, and ahead to a more cheerful 2021

I have been trying to summarize 2020 Oregon dance events in my head for days now in anticipation of writing this piece, but every time I sit down to write, something catastrophic happens in my personal life that takes my attention away. It seems fitting that 2020, the year of Donald Trump’s impeachment, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor by the police, the evisceration of the performing arts industry, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide from Covid-19, should end so badly. 2020 has been the saddest, loneliest, most tragic year I have ever known.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


Ironically, the first 2020 DanceWatch was a preview of Marquee TV, the newish streaming service for dance, opera, and theatre. Who knew that this idea would no longer be an anomaly a couple of months later and that ALL performing arts would end up online. 

Part 3 of Linda Austin’s (Un)Made. Choreographed by Linda Austin in collaboration with the cast. Visual design and costumes by Sarah Marguier; Set design by Linda Austin; Set construction by Seth Nehil; Sound design by Seth Nehil; Lighting design by Jeff Forbes; Performed by Austin, claire barrera, jin camou, Nancy Ellis, keyon gaskin, Jen Hackworth, Allie Hankins, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles, and Takahiro Yamamoto. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

January, which feels like a thousand years ago, was a month packed full of dance performances. One was part three of Linda Austin’s a world, a world, which I previewed. This iteration of the four-year-long project was a collection of movements taken from the earlier two phases of the process, reworked and reimagined into a completely new idea performed in two disparate worlds. The entire process was chronicled on the (Un)Made website and includes performance and rehearsal photos and writing by Austin and Allie Hankins, the project’s dramaturg.

2020 also marked the 20th anniversary of Performance Works NW, the studio-theater in Southeast Portland co-directed by Austin and her husband and lighting designer, Jeff Forbes. Their space is integral to Portland’s dance community and, through various programs, supports performance-based artists in many ways at different stages in their careers. 

Bharatanatyam dancers Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram dancing in “Listening to Silence.” Image courtesy New Expressive Works

January also saw the debut of Listening to Silence, a gorgeously lit and costumed duet by Portland Bharatanatyam dancers Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram. The work explored the undefinable nature of silence while integrating classical Indian dance forms with modern sensibilities. Dance writer Elizabeth Whelan interviewed both Ganesan and Raghuram and previewed the work in Everything and nothing

February rolled in with a lot of love and relationship-oriented dances and then came March. That fateful month that I summoned with a stanza from Emily Dickinson’s poem Dear March-Come in-.

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 poem will forever have a new meaning for me in the context of the pandemic. Maybe none of the insanity of 2020 would have happened if I hadn’t invited March in for tea. 

White Bird co-founders Paul King, Walter Jaffe, and Barney.
Photo: Jennifer Alyse

Then, because of the rapid spread of Covid-19 and lockdowns everywhere, the world came to a screeching halt. Performance cancellations rolled in one after another, with White Bird, Portland’s most prominent dance presenter, canceling their entire season. Having to cancel a whole season put White Bird on the brink of ruination, which you can read about in White Bird on the brink

We waited and waited and waited for the virus to disappear and to be able to get back to our beautiful lives, but it never happened. The days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, and time stretched on and on, losing all meaning.  

On May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, killing him. Soon after, protests ignited around the world centering on the discriminatory and racist practices of the police. In response, people began calling out arts organizations about their lack of equity and their exclusion of people of color. 

In June, facing online backlash from the dance community over Black Lives Matter and the community’s lack of inclusion, Portland’s Big Four dance groups – Oregon Ballet Theatre, NW Dance Project, BodyVox, White Bird – agreed to changes. Elizabeth Whelan reported on the story in How Portland’s big dance organizations responded to Black Lives Matter.

The multitalented Katherine Disenhof soaring through the air. After being layed off from NW Dance Project because of the pandemic, Disenhof created an online hub called Dancing Alone Together that became an invaluable resource for dancers world wide that listed dance classes and ways for dancers to connect.
Photo: Jason Hill

In July, I checked in with Oregon’s dancemakers, from bigger groups like Oregon Ballet Theatre and BodyVox, to independent choreographers like Amy Leona Havin, to important small-space operators like Linda Austin and Subashini Ganesan, to Black arts local legend Bobby Fouther, and many more. Most everyone was feeling a money crunch. The good news was that Oregon’s dancers were still dancing. The bad news was that no one’s situation was getting better anytime soon.

In August, DanceWatch came back online monthly with tons of live, live-streamed, and recorded performances to choose from for the rest of the year, including virtual Nutcrackers to help finish off the year with some semblance of normalcy. Things were starting to look pre-pandemic. 

In October I previewed the 20-minute, filmed theater piece Matter, conceived, written, and performed by Charles Grant, directed by James Dixon. Matter is a deeply personal portrayal of a young Black man’s quest to find a way to save Black lives by examining police brutality and gun violence. Grant originally conceived of Matter in 2017 as part of his apprenticeship at Portland Playhouse, and is unofficially calling it Matter 2.0 this time around. Sadly, because of the disproportionate amount of violence toward Black bodies, it is still part of our larger cultural conversation. Grant hopes he doesn’t have to keep bringing it back over and over again. 

Dancer Catherine Egan performing in the Untitled choreographic performance Score by Linda K. Johnson in Pioneer Square. Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Also, in October, I got to dance LIVE with people AND plants in a site-specific work by Portland choreographer Linda K. Johnson on the colorful, 12-foot, vinyl “dots” organized in a grid pattern by Oregon artist Bill Will on the bricks in Portland’s Pioneer Square. Socially distanced and with masks, of course. 

Yours truly, Jamuna Chiarini, performing alongside my plant in the Untitled choreographic performance Score by Linda K. Johnson in Pioneer Square.
Photo: Jingzi Zhao

Johnson embraced the parameters of the pandemic by emailing each dancer a video of her choreography with instructions on what to wear and when to arrive, which dot to stand on, and how to finish the dance. Johnson pre-recorded a set of vocal instructions that acted as the dance score to listen to through earbuds from our cell phones while we danced. The dance itself was a mix of set choreography and improvisation that we performed on our dots, moving from dot to dot while sometimes cradling a potted plant. 

Untitled (RealTime Interspecies Assemblage for PNW Native Plant Species, dancing humans, COVID space realities, Bill Will’s mind, and the particular circumstances of Oct. 15th, 2020) Choreographic Performance Score – Linda K. Johnson. Dancers: Tahni Holt, DeeAnn Nelson, Gregg Bielemeier, Shaun Keylock, Tracy Broyles, Mizu Desierto, Wendy Hambidge, Stephanie Schaaf, Noelle Stiles, Celine Bouly, Catherine Egan, Joan Findlay, Leah Wilmoth, Chelsea Petrakis, Sarah-Luella Baker, Jamuna Chiarini, Tere Mathern, and Hannah Krafcik.
Photo: Jingzi Zhao

After having not seen anyone in the dance community since March, the excitement and the joy I felt in their company were immense. I cannot wait to dance with everyone again! You can see a video of the performance here.

Mary Oslund, with her daughter Liv leaning against the mirror: in the studio and in her element. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

On November 17, Oregon dance legend Mary Oslund died in her home in Southeast Portland, at age 72, from a rare neurological disease called MSA (Multi-System Atrophy). In her tribute to Oslund, dance writer Martha Ullman West wrote that there “are few dancers in this town whose lives she did not touch, and whose lives did not touch hers.” If you would like to watch Mary Oslund’s Zoom memorial on Vimeo, click here. 

Lastly, the year ended on a high note with the opening of a new dance studio by NW Dance Project principal dancer Franco Nieto. Feeling stifled and restless during the shutdown and wanting to respond to institutional and systemic problems in the dance world, Nieto felt that it was time for him to step forward and take a leadership role to guide the next generation of movers.

The captivating, gravity-defying, award-winning dancer Franco Nieto. Photo: Jason Hill

His new studio will be inside the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in the Kenton neighborhood of North Portland and will be called Open Space. Nieto’s vision for Open Space is a collaborative one. He wants it to be a welcoming creative, accessible container for dance and movement free of judgment where curiosity is encouraged, and “play is the way.”

Having worked closely with choreographers worldwide in his ten years with NW Dance Project and enjoyed the mentorship of legendary Portland jazz dancer and teacher Tracy Durbin, Nieto brings a lot to the table for the Portland dance community. 

I’m going to end this year’s Oregon dance recap with one of my favorite poems by Shel Silverstein, which I think fits this year and the hope that I feel for the future and our future. 

“There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.”

― Shel Silverstein

Cheers to a new start!

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