Sure, we love big jumps and fast turns, but that’s not what makes the best dancing. The best dancing is the kind that takes us places we’ve never been before, or turns our thinking inside out.
Some of Oregon ArtsWatch’s best dance writing this year did that, too. Collectively, the OAW dance team—the writers covering dance, that is; don’t book us for your holiday party just yet—has decades’ worth of writing, research, and performing experience, as well as the burning desire to produce insightful and inspired coverage of dance in all its forms.
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Lucky us: we had so much to do in 2018 that we can’t revisit it all here. Instead, we’re sampling some of the moments, big and small, that especially moved us this year:
The 2016 U.S. presidential election continued to galvanize artistic action two years after the fact. “Since Donald Trump took office, I have been watching and admiring artists all around the world react to his words and policies and have been wondering how I should respond myself,” Jamuna Chiarini mused. “I think that my choice to step away from my Western dance practices and focus solely on Odissi is my response. The more degraded American culture gets, the less interested I am in being a part of it.”
Chiarini’s piece explored Odissi’s technical and cultural assets and illustrated why it particularly appeals to her in this degraded day and age: “Some dances in the Odissi repertoire aren’t even taught until a dancer reaches 40, because it’s believed that younger dancers don’t yet have the emotional depth and life experience to properly express what the dance is about. Odissi also doesn’t have strict rules on body shape and size as Western dance culture does. What is considered beautiful is much broader in Indian dance culture.”
Heather Wisner sampled Indian dance culture—and a lot more—during National Dance Week by taking a different dance class every day for a week and writing about it in her Dance Week Diary. “To narrow my choices, I set a few parameters,” she explained in her series introduction. “I’d only take a class that didn’t require the purchase of special shoes, that you could drop into, that didn’t require a partner, and that was open to beginners.”
From DJ Anjali’s Bhangra session at Viscount Studios to Daniel Girón’s Vogue Femme class at Vitalidad, Wisner bounced, gyrated, and duckwalked her way through just some of the many options. The takeaway? It would take months to try all the classes available at all our local studios. But it’s a worthy goal, and if you start now, you might get close by National Dance Week 2019.
If you were looking for an excellent crash course on postmodernism, meanwhile, Nim Wunnan’s coverage of Stephen Petronio fit the bill. Just after his own company’s 30th anniversary, Petronio paid homage his choreographic influences—Merce Cunningham, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainier and Anna Halprin—by presenting their work and artistic philosophies in his Bloodlines project. Rainier’s famous ‘No Manifesto’ was a good summation of what to expect (sample: “NO to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe.”)
But how audiences absorb these ideas has changed over time, Wunnan wrote: “The lack of aesthetic in this work becomes an aesthetic in itself when placed on a timeline of modern and postmodern dance in the 20th century. It is tempting, if not automatic, to look for something to get that Rainer has emphatically told us is not there to be found. … The more you can leave that worry behind, the more clearly you can see what’s on the stage in front of you.”
Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus flies through the air on KQED
One thing we could all see clearly is the premium Portland creatives pay for space. If Cities Could Dance, a web-based video series that PBS affiliate KQED launched this spring, zoomed in on performers facing gentrification in cities including San Francisco, Detroit, and New Orleans. The Portland segment featured Jack StockLynn, who shared his view on the issues facing local performers with Heather Wisner ahead of the segment’s air date.
As the leader of Sir Cupcake’s Queer Circus, StockLynn called skyrocketing rents the biggest challenge to creating and performing work. “I’m seeing options disappear,” he said. “We rehearse at a circus space at 10 at night, because that’s when the space is free.” High rents affect time as well as space: the farther performers move from the city’s center, the longer their commute to rehearsal becomes. But StockLynn continues to create shows that are “glittery, campy and full of love and positivity,” he said. We’ll look for those in 2019, and delve into what he described as a thriving local circus scene.
Space was also front and center in Waters of the World, choreographer Heidi Duckler’s site-specific homage to the Northwest and the kinship between movement and water flow. Elizabeth Whelan’s coverage demonstrated how Duckler’s innovative use of space—she has crafted nearly 300 performance installations—cheerfully upends traditional theatrical dynamics. “There seems to be no location Duckler can’t turn into a space for dance,” Whelan wrote. “Earlier last week, her company parked a school bus outside the BodyVox studio and danced within, under and around the bus while audience members watched from the sidewalk.”
Duckler’s ability to see potential in an otherwise unpromising location challenges her choreographic skills, expands her venue options, and invites varying degrees of audience participation. “As the movement relocates within the room … the audience shuffles around, finding a new station to observe from,” Whelan wrote. “These moments are part of what make site-specific dance so unique—the audience subtly contributes to the work as a whole, moving around, redefining the space, and making choices on their own as to how much distance is appropriate to leave between themselves and the performers.”
Passive viewing wasn’t an option at Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories, either. In its return to White Bird, the company deployed dance, song, and spoken word with “a central theme of hair, and then beyond to beauty, perception, identity, racism, and colorism.” In other words, this wasn’t simply entertainment. As Nim Wunnan reported, some of the historical and cultural material was unfamiliar to some viewers, and some of the topics were uncomfortable: as one line had it, “Somebody here just wanted to see a show, but we’re going on a journey.”
In the course of that journey, Wunnan wrote, the piece “addressed the fundamental critique faced by any artwork that attempts to confront a complex political issue—what does the medium bring to the conversation? When is it better to dance about racism than to just talk or organize? How can you avoid turning the art into a sort of raw material poured into an engine that drives the message forward?”
Continuing in that vein, Elizabeth Whelan’s coverage of Rejoice! Disapora Dance Theater began thusly: “In what place in America could it be more necessary to express the black and brown perspective than right here in our organic-kale-kombucha-Subaru-loving, second-generation hippie town of Portland, also known as the city with the fifth highest percentage of white residents in America’s top 40 metropolitan areas?”
Artistic director Oluyinka Akinjiola, recognizing that Portland’s arts community needed space for people of color, created a contemporary dance company of black, brown and white dancers who perform choreography influenced by African diaspora styles (Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, house, B-boying, capoeira). “What is political about dance is the physical presence of bodies on stage,” Akinjiola told Whelan in conjunction with the company’s spring show, Uprise, featuring work inspired by President Trump’s election and the need for a collective uprising.
“When I and my company are on stage, people notice race. But why was race not questioned when people only saw white companies on stage? It’s time for people to ask these questions and decide what kind of world they want to see and live in, whose perspectives have not been heard yet, who have been historically kept from being seen and supported.”
Black American ballet dancers were a rarity in the 1950s, when Arthur Mitchell joined New York City Ballet. Mitchell, who became known and loved as the company’s first black principal dancer and later, the founder of Dance Theater of Harlem, died in September at 84.
In paving the way for ballet dancers of color, he earned both accolades and abuse. In her tribute, Martha Ullman West recounted interviewing Mitchell, who recalled that at his NYCB debut performance, “There was some bald guy sitting right behind the conductor. And he said, ‘By god, they’ve got a nigger in the company!’ And the [audience] went crazy––shouting and screaming, like when Stravinsky did Le Sacre du Printemps.’”
But Mitchell persisted, and the dance world is better for it. Portland in particular reaped rewards beyond the integration of the art form, Ullman West noted: in 1982, when Dance Theatre of Harlem visited Portland, married company members Elena Carter and Joseph Wyatt, looking to move out of New York to raise a family, accepted teaching jobs at Jefferson High School. Both also danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Carter was a founder of the Da Vinci Middle School dance program. The pair shared their skills with countless Portland dancers, enriching the city’s culture for years to come.
Fall, arguably the city’s busiest cultural season, opened in fierce fashion with The Beautiful Street. As Jamuna Chiarini reported, this opening-night event for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 2018 Time-Based Art Festival began as “MC Brandon and DJ Gaan led the audience through a history lesson of hip hop/street dance styles with performances by Portland dancers.”
What followed was a 7-to-smoke freestyle dance battle, with eight dancers competing round-by-round in the styles spanning breakdance, hip-hop, house, locking, popping, vogue, and waacking. It was an electrifying event from start to finish. “The audience, who circled tightly around the dancers vying to see every step, was totally and completely engaged,” Chiarini wrote. “To be able to improvise and do it as well as these dancers did under such pressure is an incredible feat.”
For one-of-a-kind insight into Pilobolus, just ahead of the company’s fall appearance with White Bird, Bob Hicks turned to BodyVox cofounder Jamey Hampton, an early Pilobolus dancer. The physicality and off-kilter artistry that Pilobolus became known for, Hampton said, influenced his own choreographic work years later: “No one had ever seen anyone do anything like that: three guys hanging on to each other to form an amoeba, shapes shifting organically, deeply athletic and powerful,” Hampton told Hicks. “And they told me the reason they did that … was that they couldn’t dance without holding on to each other.”
Hicks’s story was essentially a two-for-one deal: In addition to giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at what made Pilobolus special, it revealed what Hampton took from his experience with the company and applied to running BodyVox, which opened its own show a week later: “Two things,” Hampton said. “One is, remain open-minded and let your imagination fly without barriers, so you can be inventive. The other: Let yourself consider the impractical and the impossible. And then if there’s a light there, see what you can do to get to it.”
Dancers became dancemakers as Oregon Ballet Theatre and NW Dance Project turned over choreographic duties to their company members for season-ending shows. It was a winning gambit for artists and viewers alike.
OBT’s Closer program, Heather Wisner wrote, offered a closer look at the choreographic potential of company members dancers Katherine Monogue, Makino Hayashi, and Peter Franc, plus OBT rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, and the performance, at BodyVox’s intimate space, gave viewers an up-close view of four world premieres. “Like musicians who try their hand at composing, dancers who turn to choreography will experience missteps and breakthroughs along the way (and, as Kipp admitted, ‘moments of crippling self-doubt,’)” Wisner wrote. But, she concluded of the new pieces, “there is plenty of beauty and interest to be found within them.”
With Wolf Tales at PSU’s Lincoln Hall, NW Dance Project continued its holiday tradition of letting the dancers make their own work. “It’s usually an interesting and revealing sort of program to see,” Bob Hicks wrote. “What might the dancers do on their own? Who has interesting choreographic ideas? How might it differ from the company’s usual style?” The newly reconfigured company, which added new dancers after others departed, “has emerged as a tight-knit, talented group of eight …who know each other’s styles and possibilities and work easily together,” Hicks wrote, producing an evening that “delivers a pretty high payoff. I wouldn’t call it high art. I would call it a kick in the pants.”
As the year began to wind down, Martha Ullman West offered a bittersweet personal perspective on losses to the dance world, putting into historical context a series of significant happenings in 2018.
One was her trip to New York, where she visited the grave of New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine. “All I could offer him was my everlasting gratitude for being a part of my life for the past seventy years or so and, out loud, I thanked him for being one of the people who taught me how to look and how to see,” she wrote.
Another was the death this year of dance giant Paul Taylor, whose company inaugurated Portland’s White Bird Dance series two decades prior. Without White Bird, she noted, Portland would not have seen Taylor’s masterful 9/11-inspired Promethean Fire “or his marvelous company, which will, unlike so many others, continue without him, dancing his work and the work of other modern choreographers,”
And there was the departure, to Chicago, of longtime Portland dancer Eric Skinner, whose dancing and choreography with Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox, and his own company, Skinner/Kirk, contributed mightily to the city he adopted as an artistic refuge. “Skinner, who was in his early twenties when he moved to Portland, believed the city was a place where ‘I could be me and not pretend the way I had when I was growing up in Muncie [Indiana],’ he told West. “Portland gave me the freedom to be myself and explore that in my work.’”