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.

The first company that White Bird brought to Portland was the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which performed for an audience of 1,400 people at the Schnitzer in 1997.  These days, White Bird runs two separate dance series, and hosts concerts by 12 different companies each season. 

White Bird also commissions and co-commissions new work from choreographers around the globe, including Portland choreographers; broadens dance audiences through a variety of outreach programs; works to develop new platforms and venues for dance; and advocates for dance in any way possible. 


In its 22 years White Bird has commissioned 39 works, beginning with Portland choreographer Gregg Bielemeier’s “Odd Duck Lake,” a legendary work that involved many members of the dance community, plus the musical group Three Leg Torso and the late vocalist Lyndee Mah, and was an incredible example of dance theater.

Other Portland choreographers and companies commissioned by White Bird have been BodyVox, Mary Oslund, Josie Moseley, Teeth, Minh Tran, Tere Mathern, skinner/kirk, and most recently Tahni Holt, whose work was performed in the round at Reed College. Beyond Portland, White Bird has commissioned Trisha Brown, Alonzo King, Stephen Petronio, Doug Varone, Mark Morris, Marie Chouinard, Trey McIntyre, and the Martha Graham Dance Company, to name just a few. 

This past year White Bird gave its Barney Prize to three choreographers—Beth Whelan (one of many local dancers who have worked for White Bird behind the scenes, and a contributor as a writer to ArtsWatch), Shaun Keylock, and Trevor Wilde. They will share a program in January 2021 as part of the NW New Voices in Dance program. At least, that’s the plan.

In the 1970s there were 36 dance-only presenters in the United States. Now there are only 13. Losing White Bird would be an immeasurable loss for the international dance community as well as for Portland dance audiences, who, are some of the most enthusiastic I have ever encountered. It would also mean a loss of work for all of those involved from dancers, choreographers, lighting designers, stage hands—everyone who helps to create a platform where contemporary dance can thrive.

*****

Back in mid-January, when life was “normal” and the future was relatively predictable, I interviewed Jaffe and King because I was curious to know what was involved in curating a White Bird season.  I really wanted to know the how and the why of it all: how it all gets done, and their thought processes behind choosing the artists that they do. 

“There is more to White Bird than simply bringing dance to the stages,” Jaffe said to me when we spoke at his West Hills home he shares with King. 

Of course I knew that dances don’t just magically appear onstage for our enjoyment, but I will admit that I did fantasize that Jaffe and King’s life was full of exciting international travel, numerous mind-blowing avant-garde dance performances, and lots of fancy parties and elbow rubbing with famous dance artists world-wide. 

It is a bit like that, but it’s also a “busman’s holiday,” Paul said, laughing. I had never heard that term before: It means, a vacation or form of recreation that involves doing the same thing that one does at work. 

At the beginning of our conversation, Walter pulled out a beautifully designed, six-page brochure with a gorgeous photo of a male dancer barreling across the cover in a red skirt and a vivid headpiece. The dancer is from U-Theatre of Taiwan, and the brochure is titled Bringing the World of Dance to Portland. Inside is a two-page chart that breaks down, “What Happens Before The Curtain Goes Up.”

I guess I’m not the first one to be curious about their process. 

The chart looks like this, but better in real life, of course.

Why was this brochure made?

In 2015, White Bird was one of 18 dance companies and presenters to receive a grant through the The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s new Leadership Grants Program for Dance.


This initiative supports the self-defined, long-term goals of organizations that have demonstrated excellence in and sustained commitment to the field of dance. 

This new support enables grantees to realize their plans to increase organizational capacity, execute new artistic initiatives, strengthen data and evaluation systems, or other strategies that they have determined will best lead them to continued success.

White Bird, which received $200,000 over four years and an additional $50,000 for long-term strategic planning assistance, was in good company. You might even recognize some of these dance company names from previous White Bird seasons: Mark Morris Dance Group, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Stephen Petronio Company, and Urban Bush Women.

The booklet was created from these new funds to help with fundraising to demonstrate all of the work that goes into putting on a White Bird performance. This (the booklet) is all about telling that story,” Jaffe said.

So what DOES  happen before The Curtain Goes up? I asked Jaffe and King to talk a little more about each of the areas mentioned in that brochure.

Scouting

Scouting is a combination of seeing dance live, watching videos, attending conferences like the Association of Performing Arts Professionals in New York, reading reviews, and talking with artists, agents, and other presenters in the field. Watching videos of dances is one of the ways of connecting to new work, but “videos are a little deceiving,” King said. It’s not the same experience as seeing the work live. “It’s a two-dimensional version of this incredible three dimensional vibrant art form.”

Quality


“The very first pillar of our programming is quality,” King said. “It absolutely has to be the highest quality work.”

“The high quality of both the work and also the dancing must be one major consideration for presenting the company,” Jaffe added. 

Relationships/Connection

What it really comes down to for King is “relationships. … It’s developing a relationship with the artist, where they’re at, where you intersect with them, and where you can go from there. You know their development, you are a part of that. So how do you support them?”

Equity

“Social consciousness issues are very much in the forefront,” King emphasized. “Women are responsible for creating modern dance, for contemporary dance, and they’re by far the highest number of practitioners of it. But when you get into legacy, longevity, and power, and support, it’s the men who end up being up there. And why is that? Well, it’s that way in every country that we work with and it’s because of the culture. … This season, six of our 12 companies are led by artists of color and four of those are women. Last year six of our 12 companies were led by artistic directors that were women.”

Beyond quality, what is it you’re looking for? How do you balance what your personal interests are and what you think the audience would like to see? 

“It’s very much a jigsaw puzzle,” Jaffe said. “We see a lot of work; clearly, not everything we see is great. I would say the majority of work that we see at festivals is not right for us. It’s often solos and duets, it’s small-scale work, which is something that would be fine in a festival setting such as TBA (Portland’s Time Based Arts festival produced by PICA), but for us, we can’t really do solos unless it’s Baryshnikov. We have some parameters as to what we can do, and then, of course, we’re looking for something that is unique.”

“We want to stretch our audience,” Jaffe continued. “We want to show them new things, we want to take them along on the journey that we’re going through. We are going together.”

Sometimes the stretch can be difficult. “We have gone too far, we have created a situation where we didn’t provide enough context for the audience to have a way into the work,” Jaffe said.

“So you sit there feeling stupid. Like, ‘What is this? I don’t know what I’m supposed to be feeling, seeing, reacting to.’ And then you kind of go through these stages of: confusion, feeling dumb and then a little pissed off. Laughing. A little bit like, ‘Why is this happening to me, why did I pay for this?’”

“It certainly happened with Maguy Marin, when we brought her, both times.”

“We like feedback,” King interjected.

 “One man wrote and said, ‘I’d rather have a colonoscopy than see that again,’ King told me laughing. “Tell us how you really feel. It’s like that. And you can turn people off and then they don’t come back. So you have to know, you have to take a risk, but how much of a risk is this?”

“I think that’s important, “ Jaffe added. “ I’ve always felt that we need to be leading our audiences, but we can’t be leading them to the point where they won’t come back.”

“That’s why we have two different series: We have the White Bird Dance Series and White Bird Uncaged. The White Bird Dance Series, as you know, is more established companies for the most part, larger companies at the Schnitzer and the Newmark halls, and Uncaged is at PSU’s Lincoln Hall and also at the Newmark Theatre or in an alternative space.”

Fiscal Responsibility

Large-scale dance is an expensive proposition. “You’re not bringing in a single artist, you’re bringing a group of artists. … You have to pay for the load-in, the theater crew, the union crew, then you have to give them time to rehearse if necessary,” Jaffe said. “When we have them for three nights at the Newmark or Lincoln Hall, they come in for five nights and we have to cover their hotel rooms. And there’s also the artist fee, which is the fee we pay the company to perform. And all that keeps going up and up and up.”

“Before the recession [of 2008—a new global recession looms], our earned revenue, the ticket sales, covered about 60 percent of the costs,” King said. “Now it’s 45-48 percent, and that’s purely because costs have gone up. We have not raised our ticket prices in concert with that.

For up-and-coming choreographers who want to be presented, what advice do you have for them?

“We just have to see the work,” Jaffe said. “If we’re to present the company or artist it’s not enough to get an email saying, will you consider me; as Paul said at the beginning, we need to see the work live, with an audience. Not in a showcase. Showcases are very common at conferences. We have to see the full performance and we have to see it live with an audience to get a full appreciation for the work.”

“And then develop a relationship. Relationships are all-important, because if White Bird cannot present that particular artist, maybe we know someone who can. And we love helping to build tours of work that we think is good. If we’re part of it fine; if we can’t be part of it, we try and get the word out.”

“Everyone in the presenting world needs to see the work live, see it with an audience, and get to know the artist and appreciate the artist. And it does take some time. Sometimes we sense there’s something there when they’re very young and that is what we felt with Elizabeth Whelan, Shaun Keylock, and Trevor Wilde. We felt their work was exciting. We don’t want to simply be seen as a presenter, we want to be seen as partners.”

*****

If you have enjoyed any of the programs that White Bird has produced in the past, please consider making a donation to them at this time. White Bird also asks that if you have already purchased tickets please consider donating them back rather than asking for a refund.

Comments are closed.