Sunday August 03, 2008


"Ten Tiny Dances" invades South Waterfront

by Catherine Thomas
Special to The Oregonian

Mike Barber's "Ten Tiny Dances" performance series has always been about the space: What happens when choreographers, and their dancers, are limited by a 4-by-4 foot stage?

In various incarnations since 2002, a rotating cast of performers have met Barber's conceptual challenge by either yielding to the micro-stage or straining against it, cramming the platform with performers and objects, expanding it vertically with a tangle of aerial rigging, keeping it simple with solos and duets that wouldn't look out of place on your standard proscenium stage.

A large part of Barber's popular success with this series hinges on his open idea of what constitutes a performance venue, and an added time constraint - roughly ten minutes to distill a work, with a new dance every 15 minutes. At various restaurants, bars and clubs from Portland to Seattle, the vibe has been party cabaret: dinner theater for the see-and-be-seen performance art crowd.

Saturday's free performance, on the sprawling tract of nascent development that is Portland's new South Waterfront neighborhood, was an altogether different affair. For nearly a year, conceptual movement artist Linda K. Johnson has been curating an Artist in Residence Program for this district, opening a conversation about the nature of place and community in an area sprouting massive high-rise condos, gleaming edifices with 360-degree views.

On Saturday, a perfect Portland summer afternoon - sun bouncing off the Willamette, epic clouds drifting in a blue sky and the breeze just right - South Waterfront looked and felt like a ghost town. An exclusive ghost town. Barber's response to the challenge of community building: invite the audience, armed with maps, to come find the performers, tucked into pockets of this developing district on their tiny stages. Set roving musicians amongst the silent streets, and organic food carts, and let spectators imagine what a thriving art culture might look like in this high-gloss landscape.

The Ten Tiny walkabout spanned about a mile, and the immediate draw was the thrill of the hunt: simultaneous performances repeat every 15 minutes, and audience members choose their own routes over the course of three hours.

My route starts with Linda Austin's solo "Nest," in which she emerges dripping from the banks of the Willamette, sliding a board festooned with a hanger, wind-up duck and grasses along a string that leads to her tiny stage, which functions as both an amplified resonance chamber and a shadow box populated by an assortment of objects: stool, carefully-aligned collection of rocks and berries, gilded cage, nest with feathers, clattering plastic ducks suspended from key rings. Austin climbs the stool, manipulates objects against string, creates a soundscape that mirrors the natural world, sings a shanty about the river, caws faintly. Brilliant.

Next up: Sojourn Theatre's "BUILT: Prologue 2," one of five performances by Sojourn on rotation in a courtyard rimmed with water features. Manic performers screaming "Mine!", flapping yellow napkins like semaphore flags and pretending to clean windows. Moving on.

Cydney Wilkes is dancing solo in a red velvet dress on a vast expanse of brown lawn that will someday be a park, and a gamelan orchestra at a slight remove paints the scene of her swaying in an ethereal light.

Barber's at the gate of the aerial tram, garnering a spontaneous audience from disembarking passengers. Barber's dapper in a green suit, invites the audience to voice sensory perceptions into a microphone, but it's his simple gestural dance - slight adjustments of his head and hands - that speaks poignantly of sad interiors and a man adrift in his environment.

Tere Mathern is perched in vivid relief high above her audience at the base of a cliff tower, flanked by two saxophonists, and the sound is crystal. She's swathed in green chiffon catching the breeze, the sun behind her, her tiny frame majestic as she slices and spears and collapses.

Keely McIntyre and Noel Plemmons are dancing what looks to be a lovely duet on stairs, but there's a crush of spectators, and the sight lines are blocked. Five performers from KO&Co. are folding into group acrobatics on their jungle-gym stage. Hand2Mouth Theatre is holding a satirical self-empowerment seminar inside an open garage and asking their audience to complete a "life goals" survey form.

Out on a desolate field of dirt, Suniti Dernovsek crawls slowly onto her stage, her pale yellow dress moving in the wind and looking like a twisted hoop skirt, until you realize it's antlers under the skirt, and the starkness of the terrain and antlers against the wispiness of the dress are a striking palette. Jay Clarke's slow-cadenced tabla lends the dance texture, but substance is absent. Across the gravel path, Rhiza A-D are performing construction-worker theater with pink surveying string. Inscrutable.

Back to Wilkes, where her simple stepping in place to soft spoken poetry and the distant gamelan, her rhythms accelerating and then settling in stillness, make her seem to float above the dry brown grass. Slowly, her dance drifts, until she resumes her bouncy run, arms stretched high overhead and echoing the flux of movement in this public space.

It's a lovely culmination, and the talk afterward turns to potential: What will this urban neighborhood become?