Elegant, physical, forward dance: The pleasure was ours

Phase Phrase, tere Mathern. Photo: Performance Works Northwest

Our partner-in-scattering Martha Ullman West, taking a break from the balletic battles, scurried over to Performance Works Northwest over the weekend for a shot of contemporary-dance fresh air. Here’s her report:


“I am wired for skepticism. I cannot leave the questions alone. They unravel everything. My skepticism is like an old screen door. There is a metal smell and old dust that stings my nose. There is a tiny hole in the screen, which I can’t help but worry larger with my finger.”

— Sarah Hart

What that text had to do with the movement, the elegant, thoughtful, considered and highly physical dancing presented at Performance Works Northwest last weekend beats me, but Daniel Addy’s installation, consisting of a screen door with a moist green landscape projected behind it, and on the other side of the studio, a window with a watery view, framed The Portland Project handsomely.

TouchMonkey. Photo: Performance Works Northwest The show began with TouchMonkey, in the persons of Carolyn Stuart and Patrick Gracewood, who are longtime practitioners of Contact Improvisation, a form based on trust and the ability to make on-the-spot kinetic connections. Stuart was wearing a black cloth over her eyes, which meant her responses to Gracewood were entirely by touch and contact.  Their duet, titled Special Alembics, (nice pun!) was performed to music played live by Eddy Deane, Alley Teach, and David Lyles of The Contact Lounge Band.

The performance was at once sensual and intellectual, and downright suspenseful. My God, what are they going to do next? I thought at one point, as they entwined and re-entwined their bodies on the floor, becoming at times a single body that appeared to have eight misplaced limbs. Nobody “wired for skepticism” can dance with a partner blindfolded, it seems to me, particularly one on whom she depends to shape the next step in the dance.

Tere Mathern, one of this city’s most cerebral choreographers,
came next with Phase Phrase, performed by Hannah Downs, Sally Garrido-Spencer, Vanessa Vogel and Mathern herself. As they went along they embellished the propulsive phrase they performed and then stripped it down again, characteristically geometric and angular.  The four women to some degree played off one another, but this dance was pretty clearly planned ahead of time, with plenty of contact — one dancer touching another on the shoulder, causing that dancer to extend her arm in a straight line — but little improvisation. Tim DuRoche created a score that was minimalist to the Nth degree; I’ve liked his previous collaborations with Mathern and Mary Oslund, but this one I found exasperatingly repetitious.

Sometimes dancing is just about dancing, despite the program note about Gregg Bielemeier‘s Tracings that explains it is a duet working with the idea of distilling form, vessel and shadowing. And what a pleasure to watch Taylor Alan Young, a recent arrival in Portland, incorporate Bielemeier’s relaxed-appearing movement style into his own body. That kind of ease, that comfort in one’s own skin, is hard to come by, particularly the juxtaposition of small movements of head, neck, hands, against large, traveling ones.

What all three choreographers have in common isn’t Hart’s intriguing text, but rather the experience and wisdom to abstract from it a mood, or an atmosphere, or a dance that expands the horizons of the audience and at the same time provides a great deal of pleasure.

The Portland Project was skillfully curated by Anne Furfey, who produced it along with Linda Austin as part of Performance Works Northwest’s Alembic series.

Taylor Alan Young (left), Gregg Bielemeier. Photo: Performance Works Northwest