The Year of Living Cautiously

Veteran dance critic Martha Ullman West looks back on a year of Covid isolation and moments of movement that vividly broke the spell

My year of living cautiously began the end of February last year, and while I had hoped it would conclude close to the same day this year, I think it’s more likely to stretch into a second year of the same.   

 In the past year I have seen two, count them, live dance performances, and one dance film in a theater, Alla  Kovgan’s stunning 3D documentary Cunningham. (I think all dance films should be shot in 3D, based on this one and Pina, Wim Wenders’ 2011  film about Pina Bausch, both shown at Portland’s Cinema 21.) 

 I have watched as many streamed performances as I could bear; written one obituary tribute;  read a dozen or so dance and dance-related books, some of which I was dipping into for a second and third time; and, in the name of shameless self-promotion, finished writing a book I started thinking about at the turn of the millennium.  Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet, the gods and Covid willing, will be published in May.  

Jacqueline Schumacher, in her teaching studio in downtown Portland’s Odd Fellows Building, ca. 1975. Photographer unknown.

Dance watchers will know that Reed was a native Oregonian, who was trained in Portland by Willam Christensen, as was her close friend Jacqueline Martin Schumacher. Schumacher, who died in September, 2019, would have been 100 on November 30, 2020, and a centenary celebration was under discussion when Covid hit; needless to say it did not take place. 

Both women were founding members of the San Francisco Opera Ballet (now the San Francisco Ballet) and danced, respectively, the roles of Odette and Odile in the first American evening-length production of Swan Lake.  Reed went on to a stellar career with Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.  Schumacher brought her star power back to her  home town, returning to Portland in 1942, when San Francisco Ballet went on hiatus right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

Here she established a ballet school with rigorous standards (ask any former pupil!) where she taught generations of Portland students, many of whom became professional dancers. Equally important, as the founder of the Portland Ballet, a successor to Christensen’s company and a precursor of Oregon Ballet Theatre, she was pivotal to the establishment of the city’s resident ballet company.

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Ansa Capizzi as Princess Florine and Matthew Powlicki-Sinclair as Bluebird in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s February 2020 production of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photo: Yi Yin

SCHUMACHER WOULD HAVE ENJOYED OBT’s REVIVAL of Christopher Stowell’s  2010  staging of The Sleeping Beauty, the first live performance I saw last year.  I took my grandchildren to see the last show of the run on Sunday afternoon, February 23.  Ordinarily I would have attended the opening performances the previous Saturday, both the matinee and evening shows, and reviewed them, but the kids—Nutcracker veterans—were otherwise engaged that day, there was a full house that night, and there was no pressing need for me to write about it again, so seeing the closing show without needing to take notes was just fine with me.

Actually, I prefer closers to openers, especially for the Tchaikovsky-Petipa “big three,” all of which are in OBT’s repertoire. The dancers are likely to be far more secure in their roles than on opening night and willing to go for broke; technical difficulties have been ironed out; the orchestra, having had additional practice, plays with more ease and assurance. 

In some ways, Sleeping Beauty is the most challenging of this classical trinity, especially for a small company like OBT, where the dancers often double and triple up in the many technically and dramatically challenging roles the work contains.  As an example, Jessica Lind on the opening Saturday danced the calm, stately, mediating Lilac Fairy variation at the matinee, and that evening performed the role of the speedy Princess Florine in the third act’s Bluebird pas de deux.    

We saw Eva Burton and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair in their only performance as Aurora and Prince Florimund, and I’m damned glad we did. Burton, who was promoted to principal dancer last October, showed herself a true ballerina, masterful in her technique, inhabiting the role’s shifts from strength (the first act’s Rose Adagio), to vulnerability (her “death” by spindle in the same act; her sleep-dancing in the Vision Scene) to regal self-assurance as a bride in Act II. 

This was no surprise. Burton’s gifts and versatility have been evident for a number of years, and in Trey McIntyre’s Robust American Love a couple of years ago she danced—off point, mind you—with an abandon that told the hardscrabble story of a pioneer wife and mother with the same eloquent clarity as her classical portrayal, in Sleeping Beauty, of a 16-year-old French princess forced by an evil fairy godmother to put her life on hold for a century.  The irony of seeing just as the pandemic began a ballet about an entire court, aristocrats and servants alike, being put to sleep for a hundred years by an enraged party crasher didn’t occur to me last February, but it sure as the devil does now.   

Eva Burton in the 2020 OBT revival of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Pawlicki-Sinclair, who had danced as compellingly as Burton in Robust American Love, was particularly brilliant in Act Two’s grand pas de deux.  He elicited audible gasps with his soaring elevation in the bravura tours en l’air, and the precision of his footwork throughout, hallmarks of a male solo made famous in this country by filmed performances of Rudolf Nureyev. And while Pawlicki-Sinclair did not achieve the technical perfection that is the goal  of all classical dancers (he lost control coming out of a pirouette) it didn’t matter. This Florimund was an artist, and he was human. 

Moreover, his partnering was courtly, considerate, and appropriately ardent, and made me want to see him and Burton dancing together again in a number of ballets, including Giselle and Napoli, in which he had shone as Gennaro, the decidedly unprincely fisherman who loses his love to a sea monster and has to retrieve her from its undersea lair.  Alas, this  promising partnership is not to be. After only two seasons with OBT, Pawlicki-Sinclair has returned to the Netherlands, where he previously danced for a decade with the Dutch National Ballet, to focus on choreography and teaching.  It was nice to learn from an OBT press release that this gifted, versatile dancer, at home in the work of such formally disparate choreographers as Alvin Ailey, August Bournonville, Twyla Tharp, and Nicolo Fonte, considers dancing Prince Florimund the “cherry” on top of his dancing career.

Brian Simcoe and Xuan Cheng, company veterans, have had the time to develop  a seamless partnership in a wide variety of work, and I would love to have seen them dance the leads in Sleeping Beauty.  Cheng, however, performed a deliciously frightening Carabosse at the last matinee, which the kids adored and so did I.  I had promised them dancing cats in the last act, where the fairy-tale characters perform, but in the interest of compression Stowell had cut their variation, so the young cat lovers had to be satisfied with the Wolf and Red Riding Hood.  That made them giggle mightily, and Peter Franc, performing the Bluebird divertissement—which contains, hands down and feet pointed, one of the most technically difficult roles in classical ballet—impressed the hell out of me. His shape-changing upper body curved in flight, hands and feet beating the air, Franc met his dancing ancestors halfway and more, giving the solo its classical due with 21st century energy.

The orchestra, moreover, was terrific. Its playing, under the baton of Music Director Niel de Ponte, made me hear new things in Tchaikovsky’s score, specifically in these third-act divertissements.  Nothing about the performance disappointed me, not the corps de ballet, not the soloists, not the principals—far from it, in their case. Everyone involved is to be congratulated for pulling it off so well.

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IF ANYONE HAD SUGGESTED TO ME that a dance with the words “RealTime Interspecies Assemblage for PNW Native Plant Species” in its title would give me a Champagne high, I’d have told them they were already high, and not on Champagne.   

That, however, is  precisely what happened when,  after eight months of starving for live performance, and three months of semi-confinement indoors because of the pandemic and Portland’s wildfire-polluted air, I happily went to see  Linda K. Johnson’s  “Untitled [see above]” dancing humans, Covid space realities, Bill Will’s mind, and “the particular circumstances of Oct. 15th, 2020.” 

The performance took place in Pioneer Courthouse Square, not exactly in conceptual artist Bill Will’s mind, but on, around and between that fertile mind’s vision, namely the 12-foot vinyl dots placed 10 feet apart on the floor of Portland’s vaunted living room. Johnson, who in the course of her career as a choreographer and dancer has collaborated with many visual artists, is one of a number of Portland artists of various disciplines invited by the Square administration to participate in a project titled “Polka Dot Courthouse Square.” Their charge was to interact with Will’s visual commentary on the need for social distancing in the Age of Covid, and, secondarily, to model that behavior for their audience and passersby. 

The “particular circumstances of October 15th, 2020”  (apart from the impending election and the exigencies of the pandemic) were  skies of the deep translucent blue of Chinese porcelain, crisp air warmed by the sun, a sparse but smiling audience, an assemblage of sixteen dancers, about the same number of flourishing green plants, and a flock of migrating birds, too many to count, swooping and wheeling, joyously, in a dance of their own, high overhead. That part, and the glorious weather, were unpredictable and therefore not part of Johnson’s plan. Outdoor performances in a Portland autumn are always risky, given our rainy climate.

What Johnson had wanted, originally, was a cast of forty dancers who would interact with an equal number of plants, but because of previous commitments and the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, many were unable to accept her invitation.  Those who did—a generationally, stylistically, and culturally diverse mix of the city’s modern dancers—delivered a short, sweet, generous performance that filled the square with movement art, and me with unexpected delight.

Wearing masks, and in some cases bright, solid-colored clothing, the dancers were put through their paces by Johnson via cell phone, in a task-driven performance in the manner of postmodernist Yvonne Rainer.  The audience could not hear a sound score that included Guy Klocevsek’s appropriately titled Air of Gathering Pipers, a reminder to the dancers that they were performing on land “where generations of indigenous peoples had gathered before colonizers reorganized [read stole] it.” Most important, for the purposes of performance, the score contained instructions, in Johnson’s voice, to do things like walk to the purple polka dot to the left and place a plant in its center, and for an individual dancer to perform a solo on the yellow polka dot toward the center. All of the dancers were masked, and therefore faceless.  

On a sunny day in October, dancing in around Bill Will’s polka dots in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Photo courtesy Linda K. Johnson

What we could see was Joan Findlay, dressed in bright red shirt and trousers, extending her long limbs with the same elegant thrust as when she was dancing in Jann Dryer’s Cirque thirty years ago; and Gregg Bielemeier, unmistakable in a fuchsia silk shantung suit he’d pulled out of his costume trunk, juxtaposing space-eating movement with shakes of the head and flutters of the fingers.  Johnson, who led with her body as well as her voice, was equally recognizable to me—I’ve been watching her work for nearly as long as I’ve watched Findlay and Bielemeier—in a navy blue jumpsuit, moving as precisely as she does when performing Rainer’s Trio A, in which she is a living archive.  I also recognized Shaun Keylock’s fluid dancing, and Wendy Hambidge’s solemnity, and Catherine Egan’s environmentalist ritualism when she carried a plant from one polka dot to another. And Tere Mathern’s poised, angular dancing made me remember the beautiful work she and Minh Tran did together in days of yore, when all kinds of modern dance flourished at Portland State University, and therefore in the city. 

But I had to ask who was dancing in a chic, full-skirted, tight-waisted lipstick-red dress.  That turned out to be Stephanie Schaaf, a relative newcomer to town, and I hope to see a lot more of her work in the future.  Tracy Broyles, butoh artist Mizu Desierto, Noelle Stiles, Celine Bouly, Leah Wilmoth, Chelsea Petrakis, Sarah-Luella Baker, Jamuna Chiarini, Tahni Holt, DeeAnn Nelson, and Hannah Krafcik all did their parts that day to connect the dots with one another and the audience, which was spread out through the square.  I stood a little distance from painter Phil Sylvester, with him enjoying his wife, Joan Findlay’s, performance.  And everyone else’s.

It’s that exchange of energy—between performers and audience, among audience members, that no video or stream or film of dancing can replicate—that lifted my spirits that day, and does again as I write this. There are exceptions. Stay tuned!

About the author

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

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