Friday, January 21, 2011

Dance review: Mary Oslund slows it down

By Barry Johnson

When I was working on a story about choreographer Mary Oslund for Portland Monthly back in November, I sat in on a rehearsal of Childhood Star, which premiered Thursday in White Bird's Uncaged series. At that rehearsal, she was experimenting with the idea of slowing the movement phrases she'd created by something like half. Usually, Oslund's work occupies the entire tempo spectrum, from still to explosive, but most of the time I'd characterize it as "brisk." At least. So the rehearsal worked to my advantage -- it was far easier to see what was going on when everything was in slow motion.

"Childhood Star"/Photo by Julie Keefe
Oslund must have liked what she saw back then, because Childhood Star, now in performance, still moves along at a deliberate clip, and seeing it that way again was informative. It made the dance seem "minimal" somehow, reduced to the basics, even though the phrases themselves, if you sped them up, wouldn't have seemed that way at all. So I don't mean less complex. But stretched out in this way, we appreciate those lingering phrases, those slowly unfolding gestures, those pauses which grow into full stops, in a different way, as though we are seeing them for the first time, maybe in the same way we appreciate a cube differently when we've seen Sol LeWitt address the idea.

I don't think it's any easier to dance it this way, though sometimes, when a long line of muscles engaged in order -- thigh to belly to shoulder to arm to wrist to fingers -- it seemed positively luxurious.  I wanted to stretch in this way, too. But then at other times, keeping the momentum of a  phrase going seemed nearly impossible or the dance asked the dancer to extend a leg very slowly, almost too slowly to maintain balance.

The compensation for this pain was paid to the viewer -- in legibility. Usually in an Oslund dance, way too much is going on at any one time to "see" it all, to figure it all out, to feel comfortable with a sense of the whole. That's not how I felt about Childhood Star, not that I think I've decoded it or anything. But I found myself strangely satisfied watching the turns led by the shoulders, say, a characteristic Oslund move, or the way her dancers raised both arms above their heads in a gesture that seemed both martial and dancerly at the same time, ready to strike and sublimely graceful.

Oslund likes to run a complicated phrase -- one that turns in on itself and the torso, collapses to the floor, springs forward, reaches quickly upward -- into a long extension, and in that extension the dancer regains balance and finds expressive power. The best interpreters of Oslund, to my eye, are able to express something (in body language) throughout the phrase, husbanding little moments to show us the transfer of weight, say, or the rotation of the hips. Those little moments popped during the whole dance, like champagne bubbles hitting the surface.  In slow motion, though, things get syrupy and elastic, on one hand, and tense (on the other).  We see the angles, corners, quick-steps, balance points -- the full span of the movement.  And (going back to LeWitt), it's not just a cube anymore or just a dance: It's human intelligence unfolding alongside the bodies. And the dance seems as inevitable as the cube.

Sol Lewitt cubes/Miami Art Museum
If this all sounds a little abstract, well, it is a little abstract. Although Oslund told Marty Hughley that Childhood Star is about outliers -- people who have special characteristics at the far end of the Bell Curve -- I didn't see any physical correspondence on stage for that idea. I did see these cool lumpy balls designed by artist Christine Bourdette -- I wanted to bellyflop on one. And the music by Australian Darrin Verhagen, a frequent Oslund collaborator, was appropriate to the tempo of the dance, brightening occasionally, never truly somber perhaps, but deliberate even when it was propulsive. Oslund pieces don't dance to the music, actually. They aren't excavations of musical scores; they don't surf the rhythm or find their identities in the melodies. They accompany.

I like the company of dancers that Oslund has assembled for the concert. It contains Oslund veterans -- Rinda Chambers, Jim McGinn, Keely McIntyre, Amber Baker, Jessica Hightower, Michelle Rogers -- and relative newcomers -- Paige McKinney, Vanessa Vogel, Richard Decker.  A duet featuring Chambers and McIntyre seemed to get at what's at stake in an Oslund dance most directly, but I didn't think anyone was out of place, not even the newcomers, and that's not always the case.

What IS at stake? I suppose at first it's just the expressive power of the body itself, kinetic intelligence exchanged and transformed into emotional intelligence, maybe, or even cognitive intelligence.  That's enough, of course, but I'd speculate along these lines:
Dear World, This is who we are. This is what we do. We won't trick you or charm you. We will show you our steadfastness, our commitment, our deliberate choices. We will not interpret ourselves for you: We leave it to you to find what you need in what we do.
Childhood Star changed my emotional weather, my heart rate, the way I think about Oslund (specifically) and dance (generally), how my body felt to me. It made me want to dance in all the ways I dance, with the people I like to dance with. In short, it worked on me the way all great art works on me. I didn't pause when I typed "great," just so you know.

Keely McIntyre's Drift

The opener for the concert was a duet by Keely McIntyre, which she danced with Noel Plemmons, and it was an excellent complement to Childhood Star.  It had a similar stateliness and steadiness that sometimes read as "serenity" and sometimes seemed more plaintive than that, and McIntyre's vocabulary and phrases weren't out of place, either, not that they mimicked Oslund's at all. Drift is more personal, more emotional, more tender, to my eye at least, than Oslund tends to be.

McIntyre is a terrific dancer, well-knit and quick, and she uses the assurance she has about completing any complex phrase to give herself room for those tiny pops I was talking about in Oslund's work. That means she can make a simple transfer of weight seem profound.  The duet with Plemmons wasn't flashy at all, but it bound them together in intricate, telling ways.


1. I wrote about Oslund's Bete Perdue in 2008 on Art Scatter, including this section with some, ahem, advice:
But let’s say I was asked to provide an Oslund primer for prospective dancers. What might my rules be:
1. No faces, neither looks of consternation nor happiness. Just dance.
2. Every gesture means something. Be there for it.
3. Avoid the timidity implied by “washy,” indistinct movements, which means…
4. Be aggressive. Don’t dance carefully. Commit.
5. Don’t rush, you have time to say something if you have something to say (and you should have something to say).
6. Be aware. There are others onstage with you, learn from them, amplify them, serve them.
7. Find your own way. Oslund’s choreography gives you expressive space. Create something amazing in it.
2. Here's Catherine Thomas's insightful review of Childhood Star for The Oregonian.

3. The concert runs through Saturday, though tickets are in short supply. By the way, White Bird commissioned Childhood Star, and Joanne and Steven Rizzo and Joan and John Shipley sponsored the performance.


Walter said...

Thank you, Barry, for an extremely thoughtful and illuminating review. I will post it on our Facebook page. Walter

MightyToyCannon said...

Thanks for adding your perspective into the mix. I saw the show on Friday night and thought it was quite wonderful. I loved that it was both familiar and remarkably fresh. I feel privileged to be in Portland and to have observed Mary's work over the past decade and more. Keely McIntyre's duet was perfectly lovely as well--she's one to keep an eye on as a dancer and a choreographer. Finally, thank you, White Bird, for commissioning and supporting this work.

Barry Johnson said...

Walter and MTC, thanks for reading the post, following Oslund's work and in Walter's case, making this occasion possible in the first place!