‘X’ marks the 10-year spot for Polaris

The company's 'X-Philes' looks back on a decade of dance in Portland

In a pre-curtain speech at Polaris Dance Theatre‘s “X-Philes” matinee on Sunday, artistic director Robert Guitron, as is customary, expressed his gratitude to donors and supporters, and acknowledged the contributions of lighting designer Howard Waldron and other staff members. But he reserved his most heartfelt thanks for the dancers, past and present, as they celebrate the anniversary of the company he and Sara Anderson founded a decade ago.

He was absolutely right to do so. The dancers’ equally heartfelt commitment to Guitron’s ballet and jazz-infused modern aesthetic, coupled with the excellence of their training, meant that there was something interesting to watch in each of the 10 pieces on the retrospective program. Some were excerpts from larger works; others were self-contained; most had been reworked to fit the Polaris studio space at 1501 S.W. Taylor Street.

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It’s a given that Guitron knows his craft. He certainly should, having made more than 200 dances for Polaris over the last decade, and quite a few before that. Even the excerpts contained a discernible arc, a beginning, a middle and an end. And there is nothing constrictive about his choreography. He likes dancers to move big, to travel, to fill the space, and they do.  What’s problematic for me is an almost unvarying earnest tone to the work. (The two pieces set to music by the Temptations are the exception, and they come at the end of the show.) It also troubles me that the dancing  in every piece is precisely on the beat of the music, and the movement vocabulary is limited to Graham-like pelvic contractions, running, walking, spiraling to the floor, hip-swinging, and yearning arms, with a few jumps sprinkled into the mix.  Every choreographer, at least one hopes, develops a movement vocabulary of his or her own, and Guitron has  done that. It’s not the task of critics to tell an artist what to do, only to express what worked and what didn’t from their perspective. But I wish he would now play with that vocabulary, stretch it, vary it, augment it and perhaps encourage the dancers to improvise in performance.

The two pieces that worked best for me were very different from each other.  “Don’t Go,” to a score by singer Ólafur Arnalds and Guitron (who does quite a lot of composing for Polaris), is centered on Kieraqmil Brinkley, whose loss of her legs and arms at a very young age, caused by a bacterial infection, in no way hampers her as a highly expressive, musical dancer. It begins with Brinkley, seated in an old-fashioned armchair, watching other cast members – Anderson, Haley Blaise, Jenny Dubac, Claudia Fernandez, Briley Neugebauer, M’liss Stephenson, and Tia Zapp, whose veiled faces suggest a ghostly presence, with Blake Seidel, one of the company’s two men, by her side.  Their duet provides a touchingly tender moment; the ensemble’s spiraling movement in this case is suggestive of group grief, and while the sentimentality of the score is not my personal cup of oolong, as Noel Coward used to say, it fits the dance’s narrative tristesse.

“Cloud Nine” – the penultimate piece on the program, originally presented in a 2011 show titled “Lil’ Mo” – is the other. With its hip-slung movement and black costumes topped by hats on all seven dancers, it  is an obvious Bob Fosse knock-off, which doesn’t matter in the least. It begins with the dancers seated on chairs, and they rapidly get off their booties and shake them like mad, splaying their fingers as well,and  clearly having a terrific time.  So was the cheering, mixed-generation audience.

Guitron demonstrated his ability to handle dancers in groups in Movements 3 and 4 of a piece he made in 2012 called “Discooperie,” although in Movement 4 the dancers wear red blindfolds in a choreographic statement of Guitron’s conviction that anybody, no matter how physically challenged, can dance. Definitely these professional dancers can dance blindfolded, and with groping gestures, can simulate moving without sight. But at the end of the day, this looked more gimmicky than profound.

All of the dancers are technically accomplished; I couldn’t take my eyes off a couple of them. M’liss Stephenson, a founding company member who is also rehearsal director, completely inhabited the yearning movement in “Change,” to a score by Arvo Pärt, which also contains a quite lovely trio. And in everything she danced, from “Quiver”s kicks and leg extensions to the concluding “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” Haley Blaise – who started studying with Guitron when she was 12 –  compelled me to watch what she did and how she did it, whether she was spotlighted or not. She’s now 30, and it is said she wants to retire. Please don’t.

Film clips from Polaris shows over the years, with a voiceover narrative by Guitron, tie the program together, inform the audience of the company’s history, and give the dancers time to change their costumes. A clip of the choreographer performing in the troupe’s first concert made me wish he were dancing in this one, as well.
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“X-Philes” runs through November 10th at 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, and 2 pm Sundays, at the Polaris Studios, 1501 S.W. Taylor Street. Ticket information here.

One Response.

  1. barrehopping says:

    Martha needs to stick to The Ballet – she clearly knows little about more modern dance or the music that accompanies it…

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