Monday, March 20, 2006


Cabaret of "Ten Tiny Dances" plays it safe

By Catherine Thomas

Modern dance done cabaret-style clearly has serious audience appeal. One hour before showtime at the Wonder Ballroom on Friday evening, the auspicious 10th installment of Mike Barber's "Ten Tiny Dances" was sold out, and the box office was turning hopeful spectators away to a chorus of groans. That's uncommon in Portland modern dance, though Barber has reached out to audiences in an equally uncommon way.

Barber has set up his 4-foot by 4-foot stage in several popular restaurants and clubs in the past few years. And on that "tiny" stage, in 15 minute intervals, many of the city's most interesting choreographers have taken a run at producing a short dance piece. The show Friday night was a happy culmination of sorts for all of the outreach Barber has done.

Inside the spacious ballroom, the set-up was dinner theater -- with bar and food service available. Two dozen large tables covered the dance floor and elevated house stage, rows of chairs flanked the edges, and theater seats on the upper balcony offered a prime viewing zone.

In the thick of it all sat Barber's little stage, action central for 10 choreographers with widely ranging aesthetics and a new dance every 15 minutes.

But the choreography largely played it safe. A cabaret needs an element of risk-taking, a smattering of the absurdist and experimental to put some bite into the variety-show cocktail. Barber's tiny stage begs for thinking outside the box, and past installments have maximized the conceit -- the stage has been upended and elevated by different choreographers, and filled with complicated aerial rigging, a huge bubble and an eight-member company squeezed on the stage.

Dominated by solos, Friday's show, with a few exceptions, didn't veer too far from what you could see on any modern dance stage in Portland. One of the exceptions was Linda Austin's "Decorum," for four dancers, which drew the loudest applause for its ingenious take on a rotating music box for errant dolls, a one-two punch of stage savvy and tongue-in-cheek dementia.

The polar opposite of Austin's irreverence, Minh Tran's solo "Ancestor (on tiny space)" was a riveting expression of old age and valor. Contained and twisted, sharp and fast, Tran carved the space in a stark opera using only a gnarled cane as prop.

But the ballroom space was problematic. Barber's voice-over saga of forest ranger "Dick McPherson," complete with onstage terrarium, fell victim to blocked sight lines. And Tracy Broyles' crypt piece " . . . and then there is Desire," performed by Meshi Chavez buried in a box of soil and slowly emerging to climb a rope dangling from the rafters, let off a dust cloud that threatened to settle on nearby diners' entrees.

From the birds-eye balcony view, the scene at the Wonder looked like a hastily planned wedding reception. Add dimly lit: Waiters quickly stopped trying to find patrons in the blackness (no candles on the tables), holding platters of food for up to a quarter-hour until the houselights came on between dances.

The rest of the program succeeded in snapshots: Jae Diego in Josie Moseley's "Mark" was a marvel made for the spotlight, all slashing long limbs and exquisite balance. Mary Oslund's fashion spread with a punk twist "Win Win," a duet for Dana Loewen and Jim McGinn, had the draw of live vocals by contralto Leo Chapeau and baritone John Berendzen. Near the end of Sarah Ebert's flailing solo in Gabriel Masson's "Inevitable," the surprise invasion of four audience members onto the stage emphasized the point -- one woman drowning and ignored amid a tide of vacant passers-by. White-gloved slaps, suggestive gnawing and using your partner as a crutch hinted at odd fetishes in Cydney Wilkes' impenetrable "Itchy Litmus," a duet with Jenn Gierada. Margretta Hansen evoked a woman waking from the claw of an erotic dream in her "4G: Lottie -- ME." And Anne Furfey's swaying "Ready, steady, go . . . " seemed to be about a woman adrift.

All of these were expertly danced, but mostly inscrutable. And that made this a cabaret in need of a pulse-raiser. After 2 1/2 hours, I walked away wishing the outrageous cabaret performance artist Amber Martin, who was in the audience, had been corralled as emcee.