Monday, April 4, 2011

Weekend reviews: We danced 'til we dropped

By Barry Johnson

How "local" is dance? Would an observer from a "neutral" place -- Switzerland, Omaha -- detect a specific, distinctive dance style in Portland, say, different from Chicago or Seoul?  Or are the borders of dance so permeable that its useless to talk about geography at this point, and we're all Cunningham dancers now?
LDP in motion/Photo:Yong Hoon Han

At various times, I've thought of Portland as the Galapagos Islands of dance (and theater, for that matter), so isolated that entirely new species of movement arise here. In any new specimen, the careful field biologist might note a quirky Gregg Bielemeier tic here, a Bonnie Merrill pattern there, Mary Oslund's shoulder roll and a general looseness of expression balanced by an attitude of sureness, maybe combination of Jann Dryer and Judy Patton.

All of these choreographer/dancers, except for Oslund, danced with Portland Dance Theater in the 1970s and then after that company's demise, continued (for the most part) to live and work and teach in the city, at Portland State and Conduit dance studio. And small generations of their students have continued and extended their work, developing along their own paths.

But this is a simplistic way of thinking about modern dance here, because those dancers had influences, too, often by way of New York -- Cunningham, of course, and the Judson School, for example. And lest we think of New York as the center of the cultural universe, we should remember that Cunningham and Judson stalwart Trisha Brown grew up in the Northwest (Washington), and that Anna Halprin's improv experiments in the Bay Area had their effects here, too.

The visit to Portland this weekend by the Seoul-based Laboratory Dance Project brought all this to mind. How Korean was it?

Then on Sunday, the Art Gym opened an exhibition that is deeply dance related, featuring artifacts from the dance preparations of four local choreographers -- Linda K. Johnson (who now lives in the Bay Area), Linda Austin, Tahni Holt and Susan Banyas. On Sunday, the first three of them performed, too, and in the Art Gym's smaller gallery, we could see videos from dance here in the 1980s, with dances by many of the Portland Dance Theater dancers mentioned above. How Portland was it?

Laboratory Dance Project/White Bird/Lincoln Hall

I had no idea what to expect from LDP, the Seoul-based contemporary dance company, which made its Portland debut this weekend at PSU's Lincoln Hall, part of the White Bird Uncaged dance series. Would it be folk-dance inspired? Resemble some form of Japanese performance art? Take on the coloration of Broadway musicals or advanced European ballet theater?

After the first dance on the program, Are You Happy to See Me?, I decided on the last of these -- without the ballet part. In some important ways it fulfilled nearly all of the requirements of international-style contemporary dance. I ticked off those characteristics in my head toward the end of the piece.
  • Is the general "subject" anxiety? Check.
  • Does the music involve bass-heavy, hip-hop beats, industrial techno and maybe something oddly off-kilter? Check. In this case the off-kilter part was martial band music.
  • Are the costumes a little strange? Check. Blue denim skirts for the all-male company with flimsy brown shirts.
  • Does the set have an inexplicable component? Check. A large silver translucent square suspended above the stage through with a stage light shines.
  • Do little snatches of narrative emerge occasionally from a mostly abstract movement environment? Check.
  • Does the tempo speed up to the spasmodic and throttle down to the glacial? Check.
  • Does the movement combine everyday movement, unison calisthenics and expressive gestures (somber or grief-stricken)? Check.
  • Is the ensemble more important than individual virtuosity? Check.
  • Are the dancers fit as fiddles and fully engaged throughout? Most definitely.
I speculated that the martial music bits and heavy anxiety might reference the state of Cold War between the two Koreas on the one peninsula, and if I were making art in Seoul, I suspect it would be impossible to think sometimes about the madcap but well-armed regime to the North, Freedonia with nukes. But I couldn't be sure. Other readings of it were possible.

After the concert ended, White Bird helpfully staged a little audience talk-back session with the company. And the choreographer, Mi Sook Jeon, said that was exactly what her piece was about -- the way the two countries would approach each other, a hand would be extended in friendship and the somehow things would fall apart again. And yes, then I remembered the offers to shake hands, especially in the very last section of the dance, a dancer reaching forward in a pool of light, and then plunged into darkness.

My point is simply this -- the general expectation that all art should communicate directly and immediately, without mediation of any kind, is just wrong. As in anything, the more information about the subject you have, the more direct experience, the better chance you have of interpreting and assessing it correctly -- and the more useful it likely will become for you.

The LDP concert wasn't chock-a-block with obscure references, though. The second dance, Modern Feeling, choreographed by dancer Insoo Lee and danced with his old friend Jinyook Ryo (more good info from the talk-back),  is something of a comic masterpiece. It starts with Ryo sitting in a chair in deep contemplation. Lee sits next to him, but can't "communicate" with him. He reaches out and puts his hand on Ryo's leg, which immediately starts spasming in a bad case of Nervous Leg Syndrom. The hand is removed; the leg stops. Lee tests the effect again; yes, more violent shaking, so violent at one point that Lee's body picks up the vibration, too, and then they are off in a swirl of give-and-take action, inventive and funny, with traces of tae-kwon-do, hip-hop and gymnastics involved. Lee said he and Ryo have been dancing together for 15 years, since their days together as B-boys back in their home town, entertaining the locals with break dancing, and that familiarity and friendship is apparent in the dance.

Changho Shin's exuberant No Comment concluded the concert with energetic, up-tempo unison movement, a little like a dance club routine punched into overdrive, that spread out into the audience, allowed the dancers some gymnastic b-boy expression, and thoroughly delighted everyone. What was the point? To get us off our feet!

LDP was established a decade ago, and was Korea's first modern dance company, created, according to Jeon, to emphasize new work by Korean choreographers and move the dance community beyond Martha Graham technique into other worlds of expression. Most of the dancers seemed to come out of hip-hop, and they said they were heading to a club after the performance (they didn't say which one), the show after the show.  How Korean is hip-hop? How Korean is contemporary dance? As Korean as it wants to be...

Dance: before, after during, The Art Gym, Marylhurst University, Terri Hopkins curator

I was glancingly involved in this exhibition -- I wrote the wall text for the Past Moves room, where the videos from the 1980s are looping -- so I'm not going to delve too deeply here into the exhibition or the performances on Sunday. The Art Gym was full of dancers and choreographers from many generations, and that by itself was bracing.

I'm not sure that Johnson, Holt and Austin are "representative" of dance here now, but that's the problem with the idea that there's a distinct Portland style. These days, things are obviously more heterodox than in the '80s when I first started following dance here, though even then, eddies and whirlpools of different influences and creations made it hard to define a Portland style. Dancers come and go and return with new ideas.

The pieces they did were installation oriented. So, when we walked into the space, stacks of cardboard boxes filled the back wall, the props for Holt's Sunshine, and carefully folded blankets of many colors and patterns filled a case on another wall, with videos of some of Austin's year-long movement diary project (which deserves a story all by itself).  Dance is pretty ephemeral and exhibitions need objects, generally, and the choreographers complied. Johnson contributed a grid of small bags with objects related to her solo.

I enjoyed the three performances, though I was admittedly in a receptive mood -- so many people I knew were there, the occasion was so celebratory, I'd spent a little time watching the old videos and re-visiting the past. Reverie and analysis don't go together very well. So, just a few notes.

I don't think I'd ever seen Johnson quite this "personal" in her work -- a mosaic of various states and movements, some relating to the exhibition (she told me later) and others from childhood. And despite one screaming fit, it all seemed comfortable and familiar somehow, especially the part where she played the kids' game of trying to balance on a small rock.  Everyone gasped when she pulled a large plastic bag over her head, especially the few with little children, and it made me realize how powerful that particular taboo is. She then stuffed the bag up her shirt, and though I thought she might throw herself into a bag-protected belly flop, she never did.

Austin had used those blankets recently in an improv at Disjecta, and the first part of this piece (which I took to be semi-improvised) involved the dancers spreading those blankets on the floor, lying on them, then getting another one from the case: repeat. Things went on from there -- quietly, without drama, small groups forming and dispersing -- and it produced an agreeable meditative state. Holt danced with Robert Tyree, and when I say "danced" this time, I really mean it, because Holt did something immediately recognizable as dance, swift and stretch, at least for a while once the box-rearrangement section was over. Boxes and blankets -- we could write an entire essay on that "subject" (and if you happen to do so, send it to me and I'll post it here!).  I've already used the word "familiar" but that was part of it, common items that somehow engage the imagination, emotions, memories, old stories.

These small, intimate performances had little to do with LDP's show at Lincoln Hall, though again, this was a matter of choice. The Korean choreographers might leaned in a more personal direction; the Portland choreographers might have created a spectacle for Lincoln Hall. And the "choice" element is another thing that works against "local." Ultimately, maybe local in dance is simply who is dancing near you now.


Bob Hicks reviewed LDP quite positively for The Oregonian... Susan Banyas will perform at The Art Gym at 2 p.m. on April 30 and May 14... the next White Bird show features work by Israeli choreographers Yossi Berg and Oded Graf, which will allow us to get into this issue yet again!


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