Saturday night was BIG in downtown Portland -- traffic was slopping over from the Timbers game, the symphony was in concert, some sort of do was animating the Portland Art Museum, the restaurants looked busy. I was headed for quieter climes, or so I thought, to watch Gust, the debut dance concert of TopShakeDance. But when I got there, the old Pythian Building was hopping, with a prom party on the fifth floor and a wedding on the second -- people were looking GOOD.
Conduit dance studio is on the 4th floor, and dancer/choreographer/TopShakeDance founder Jim McGinn has climbed those steps many times to rehearse with Mary Oslund and Tere Mathern, among others, over the years. He's danced with Oslund's company for 12 years and Mathern's for seven, and that by itself gave a hint of what to expect from McGinn's Gust.
Not that choreographic history is necessarily choreographic destiny, I suppose, but Gust was physically demanding (check), an hour with no intermission (check), abstract (check again), engaged with an equally abstract soundscape (check with an asterisk), ranged from the still to the frenetic (yo), found its expressiveness both in the overall form and structure of the dance and its small gestures (double yo). A description of Mathern or Oslund's work would contain many of the same elements. Which isn't to say McGinn's Gust is derivative of their dances, just in the same family.
Remember the asterisk on the soundscape? Remember the prom party and wedding? Remember "old" Pythian Building? Yeah, the sound of American pop music was bleeding into and throbbing under and above the studio throughout the concert. That's too bad, because the soundscape, composed from field recordings of wind that Loren Chasse has gathered all over the globe, was a key signifier in the dance, which I was able to gather from the few moments that I could hear it clearly.
Gust, yes, as in wind. In the program McGinn talked about growing up in windswept New Mexico: "While riding my bicycle at high speed from hilltops and through valleys I learned to ride the wind by conforming to its changing forces, turn by turn." The dance started with the dancers (McGinn, Dana Detweiler, Chase Hamilton, Jessica Hightower, Pamela James and Amanda Morse) lying in the semi-dark, very still but occasionally shuffling a little or raising an arm, adapting, I thought, to the wind in the soundscape. The floor work in this opening section gradually became more complex and soon the dancers were upright and ripping through some strenuous movement, led by McGinn -- strong, fast and aggressive.
McGinn kept the tempo changing, though, and soon we were in a slo-mo section, the dancers stretching on one leg, before things started speeding up again, spinning with broken arabesques, solo and in unison bits, gradually becoming fast and even convulsive.
This is hard to picture, I know: six dancers in motion, movement often led by the shoulders (like Oslund) and accelerated by deep bends at the knees, ready to tumble into -- almost anything. Occasionally, it all looked a little Tai Chi-like, but a series of stiff postures and spasms of motion displaced that comparison quickly. And I think it was all heading to a solo by McGinn, about two-thirds through the dance, acrobatic, smooth and tumbling, then still and erect and falling, covering big space, ending on his knees arms cracked at the elbow and raised, maybe in supplication, head lifted to the sky.
The great thing about watching the choreography of someone you know mostly as a dancer is that you think you are seeing how his (or her) body really wants to move, after bending itself to someone else's demands for so long. That's what I thought as I watched McGinn's solo: This is what his body has wanted to do all those years! Which is probably completely wrong, but somehow seemed right at the moment, right and satisfying.
Soon after, the dancers assumed positions very similar to how they began the dance -- lying on the floor, changing minutely as the wind blew. I thought things were over, but a few more episodes remained, an unintentional postscript for me. Hey, it happens. It gives me time to mention one of the recurring motifs I liked in Gust -- the way the dancers would casually walk over to an area of the stage where a solo or duet was occurring and watch the duet unfold. I don't know why, but it just seemed right, and then they'd be there on hand to take the choreography in a different direction when the duet was over.
One of the satisfactions of watching an art form in the same place over a number of years is that you get to see a dancer or an actor or a painter or a musician develop before your very eyes. That has happened for me with McGinn, a transformation, the creation of an artist, and all I can really do is applaud in the audience and tip my hat here. Which is what I'm doing... right now.
Gust continues at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 26-28, at Conduit, 918 S.W. Yamhill St., fourth floor. Tickets: $12-$25; topshakedance.eventbrite.com or 503-221-5857
Here is Bob Hicks' sensitive review for The Oregonian: "'Gust' is a quick, fluid, intensely musical dance, focused on a single idea yet varied enough in its movements to hold the audience's interest for an hour. In fact, one of its greatest charms is that it's aware of its audience's needs: Without ever pandering, it entertains."
Jim McGinn figured prominently in my review of Oslund's Bete Perdue in 2008.
I didn't say much specific about McGinn's dancers in TopShakeDance, though I could have said many nice things. The hard thing with the choreography is making each second really count, really say something, and I thought the company worked hard at that. They also mirrored McGinn's muscular approach to movement.