Wednesday, February 19, 2003


The New Scientists
Fresh spaces and structures dictate a new approach for Portland dance.

By Kelly Clarke

Choreographers are asked to create entire worlds with only a dancer's body. But the physical space in which dancers perform leaves an imprint as distinct as a fingerprint on their movement. Questions of how space acts upon choreography - or how movement can transcend a performance area's limitations - are among the hallmarks of contemporary dance, as is a move away from traditional theatrical venues.

Site-specific wild women, like choreographers Ann Carlson and Wendy Houstoun, have used everything from convents and circus tents to New York street corners to test out new theories in environment and public involvement. Recently, Portland has seen an explosion in sans-stage creativity, much of it, intriguingly, on a smaller scale.

Whether its braving Mike Barber's traveling cabaret, Ten Tiny Dances, or the laid-back vino vignettes of Tracy Broyles' Busted @ Crush, one thing is clear: "site-specific" means experimenting with how location shapes the tone and texture of work. Now Broyles and her fellow dancemakers Tahni Holt, Dawn Joella Jackson and Daniel Addy will be working through the quirks of 1,000 square feet of concrete and wood at their new studio/performance space, the Water St. Project.

Barber and Broyles have both made ripples with their interest in making dance more accessible, using food, drink and chunks of easily digestible choreography to pique the interest of crowds at Crush and Bernie's Southern Bistro.

"I had a vision of having modern dance available in the same way that you see a band - something entertaining for the eyes and ears," says Broyles. Indeed, her sensuous solos, pairings and trios captivated quaffing audiences at the Southeast wine bar this winter. The intense lack of space, which had the performers dancing less than an arm's length away from the audience, demanded a visual precision that both challenged and excited Broyles.

Barber has had a similar goal with his Tiny Dances since 2002 but added the confines of a 4-by-4-foot plywood square to the equation. "It's kind of over-the-top," he says. "The tiny stage is an exaggerated form of limitation that makes dancers act in ways you wouldn't normally expect."

Performing among glasses of pinot noir and shrimp roulade is ultimately an act of relaxed experimentation for both choreographers. "I'll try out an expansive work in the confined space and often find some surprising new ways to move," explains Barber. This element of surprise and discovery within a small space will be the driving creative force at the Water St. Project.

After tossing around the idea of opening their own space for more than four years, this tightknit group (of which each choreographer is a dancer in at least three of the other members' companies) finally anted up last June to sub-lease the new space: a second-floor walk-up of red-painted concrete and recycled gym flooring in the wilds of industrial Southeast Portland.

Nestled within a jigsaw of artists' studios, the raw space (which alternately rumbles with the passing of trains or semi trucks from a nearby overpass) has proven to be as great an inspiration for its new inhabitants as the cafe projects. "It's so different to be creative in a place that is yours, realizing how specific to that space your work can become," says Jackson, whose newest piece focuses on genetic research. "For me, it's the urban energy: the thoroughfare, the view of the river and the constant movement of the freeway. My movement has changed because of the electricity of these pathways."

Holt, who formerly held a closed-door policy when it came to her creations, has found freedom in this communal space (even curious onlookers from the adjacent realty office are common visitors)." "I'm really attached to the walls--throwing myself against them," Holt admits. "They are concrete, so you can actually bang against them and use them as another dance floor."

The building has wrought the biggest physical change on Daniel Addy's aerial company, Aviator, which traded dangling 30 feet above the Eastbank Esplanade for Water St.'s low, exposed beam ceilings. Although he felt hampered by the change at first, the committed group member has now started to refocus his work on three-dimensional space. "Like scuba diving in air," he explains. "I've found that using every side as a horizon is great"

The group celebrates its new home with a grand-opening dance party this Saturday, featuring a loose bill of familiar faces, including odd duck Gregg Bielemeier, Lyndee Mah, Susan Banyas, Miss Murgatroid and Linda K. Johnson, among others. The evening is a fundraiser for Water St.'s first performance series this coming April.

"It feels brave embarking on this project," says Addy. "I'm proud but nervous for us because it's a fragile time. But that is when art spills out of people."