Sunday in the park with the Halprins (while Rome burned)

So, while Wall Street Giants shuddered, pivoted and crashed to the ground, Art Scatter was amusing itself at “City Dance,” the celebration of Lawrence and Anna Halprin, specifically Lawrence’s Portland plazas and fountains, Anna’s dances and early ’60s San Francisco art music, which somehow affected both. I will type (or is it keyboard, technically?) as long as I can, until the shock wave takes us off line… oddly it seems appropriate to muse on subjects such as these during times of economic crisis.

We’ve already set up the fountains, and to a lesser extent the dances, in a post below. To summarize, L. Halprin was hired by Ira Keller and the PDC to provide some public spaces for Portland’s first major Urban Renewal project, the demolition of the South Auditorium district and its replacement by a Skidmore, Owings, Merrill office/residential park. Keller was so happy with these, that he later asked L. Halprin to finish off the set with a plaza/fountain in front of what was then Civic Auditorium. It’s now the Keller Auditorium and the fountain is now Keller Fountain, though old-timers will be excused for calling it the Forecourt Fountain.

Fast forward 40 years or so. The fountains and plazas, important icons in the history of urban landscape design, could use a little conservation work, and so architecture writer/magazine editor Randy Gragg, the Halprin Conservancy, Third Angle New Music Ensemble and four Portland choreographers (Tere Mathern, Cydney Wilks, Linda Austin and Linda K. Johnson) banded together to help raise our collective consciousness about the Halprins’ work by staging a moving concert through all four sites (Keller Fountain, Pettygrove Park, Lovejoy Fountain, Source Fountain).

So on Sunday afternoon, sunny and warm, several hundred Portlanders, unaware perhaps that financial Redwoods were crashing, assembled to watch the show on the last day of the Time-Based Art Festival. Maybe there were more than that, adding the two concerts together. The second concert was so packed that when I arrived right before it began, I couldn’t get close enough to see anything much at the first site, the Keller Fountain, but that’s not going to deter me from my posting. Because there were three more sites to visit.

Because it’s completely inappropriate to our subject, but in the spirit of worthless financial instruments (I have absolutely no idea what a financial instrument is… I imagine a French horn for some reason), I will enumerate my findings.

1. Keller Fountain was thronged. Too thronged for a latecomer. So even though word from the first, 1 p.m., show had already filtered down to me that Tere Mathern and her company’s occupation of the Keller pools and waterfalls was quite beautiful, I was unable to see it, except for a bit at the very top, during which Tere and her dancers got very wet. This is one of the problems with outdoor performance, but really it’s OK, because I determined that if I couldn’t manage an appropriate experience at the Keller, I’d just jump ahead to Pettygrove Park.

2. Second stage goes free-form. Pettygrove is in a little canyon surrounded by tall buildings about a block away from Keller. It features a few hillocks, a large plaza and a fountain with a large Manuel Izquierdo bronze sculpture. When I arrived early, Third Angle was warming up to play a game of musical “Telephone” with the musicians scattered among the trees and mounds each playing a snatch of a song, which was then picked up one way or another by the next musician. Were they practicing or had they already begun? Meanwhile the dancers, led by Wilkes, were practicing, too. Or maybe not. And they were also in the process of invention, because Wilkes had structured the time and place but not created the content of the dance, leaving that to the dancers. Once the crowds arrived, there was quite a bit of tussling on the mounds, some free-form modern dance (in the old style, mostly) and some comic moments, mostly supplied by dancer Mike Barber.

3. Austin dances Riley. I was first to Pettygrove, which meant I was among the last to Lovejoy Fountain where Linda Austin and company danced to Terry Riley pieces of music. This was really effective: the music was louder and more focused and Austin’s investigation of the fountain was amusing and pretty complete, as the dancers clambered about its walls and entered its pools. I especially liked the bit in which one of the dancers dropped cups full of water from one level to the one below, not pouring but sort of “flinging”. Once the music entered its percussive phase (a can with a big metal chain, for example), my attention wandered to a tattoo on the right arm of a young woman — it had an architectural element (a column maybe?) and a manga character. Interesting. Anyway, did I mention that the piano was in the pool of water?

4. We then were led in procession to the small Source Fountain. Along the way we were met by some young women spilling water out of large buckets (not splashing, just spilling) and other young women telling us details about their lives and families and then taking off articles of clothing. Some disrobed more than others. Somehow there was a logic to this. When we arrived at the Source (Halprin designed the series of fountains as a “watershed” which starts at the highest elevation with the Source), we were encouraged to link hands and circle the fountain before exiting. By this time, this made sense, too! Which is a sign that choreographer Linda K. Johnson had understood all that had gone on before. This makes sense: she has been investigating how art meets urban space down at South Waterfront for an entire year!

5. The spaces are really usable. Previously, Gragg had pointed out that Halprin designed the fountains to be used, to be animated by people entering them, to be thought of as stages of a sort. City Dances accomplished this, beautifully. At Pettygrove, I ran into dancer Joan Findlay with husband artist Phil Sylvester (and a couple of little dogs). She remembered that the first time she ever saw the old Portland Dance Theatre was at an outdoor concert at Lovejoy Fountain, with dances by Bonnie Merrill and Judy Patton. She determined that this must have been around 1977 — three years later she was dancing in another old Portland company, Jann Dryer’s Cirque, that had emerged from Portland Dance Theatre. Outdoor performances were a staple of PDT during the summer — it was a different time, I suppose, aesthetically and economically. But I liked it.

6. No matter what Mr. Gragg says about hindsight, the design around the spaces is atrocious, he must agree.
Not just bad. Grotesque. There isn’t a single structure that addresses any of the spaces directly, except for Keller Auditorium. They are surrounded by parking structures, blank tower walls, the back ends of smaller buildings. Maybe Pettygrove works as something like a pocket canyon part, wooded and secret, but that’s not the point of parks — “secret,” I mean.When I mentioned this to a colleague, he said, “That’s ’60s urban renewal for you.” I’m not sure what the implications are for the parks themselves, for their future — in a way, the awful design around them was the reason they had to be “discovered”. They seem superfluous, unused, remote, and therefore marginal. Which is what the conservancy is about, I suppose. Step 1: demolish the surrounding smaller buildings and start over. Step 2: renovate the towers to make them face the parks somehow.

My perfect city has lots of performances like this one, like the old days, when art and music met the people where they lived. Does this make me a victim of nostalgia? I don’t think so…

Art Scatter photographers, have any photos of the event? If so and you want to share them, send them to — we’ll get them up!