"Yes, it's faux leather," reiterates Walter Jaffe, co-founder of Portland's White Bird Dance, as we walk around the looming hunk of plywood and foam studded with countless nails and pin screws that is being completed at Stage Right scene studios in Southeast Portland.
That mass of materials will come together as a new 10-foot-tall set for a group of dancers from Netherlands-based company Conny Janssen Danst to crawl and sprawl on, bump up against and—amazingly—bounce off of.
In its American debut performances this weekend, courtesy of White Bird, Conny Janssen Danst will perform Rebound, created by company founder/choreographer Conny Janssen. There are five men. There are three padded walls. And there is a trampoline.
Rebound, which premiered in the Netherlands in 2001, is about power, sanity and sexuality. And it's a piece very much dependent on a sturdy set.
Jaffe and partner/co-founder Paul King discovered Conny Janssen in 2001 at a European dance festival—and were immediately taken with her movement. "She has this incredible integration of different kinds of dance styles, from modern to hip-hop," he says. "It's very theatrical."
Jaffe and King, who have featured companies ranging from Mark Morris to Compañia Nacional de Danza (Spain) in their decade of presenting contemporary dance in Portland, decided they had to find a way to get Janssen's company to the United States. After seeing a video of Rebound a few years later, they were hooked, and decided to give the company its American debut with the work.
They were also seemingly stumped by the exorbitant costs involved in transporting the Rebound set to the States, which could have run upward of $30,000. Thyra Hartshorn, director of production at Oregon Ballet Theatre, says those costs sound about right. OBT both builds and rents sets for their programs, andbuilt sets are generally on the more spendthrifty side: The abacuslike grid featured in Kent Stowell's Through Eden's Gates on OBT's recent winter program cost about $5,000.
"When we asked [Janssen] to tour the piece, we had no idea how expensive it would be," Jaffe says. "We knew about dealing with customs for transporting the set and all of that."
But then an idea struck: how about building the set in Portland? It turned out there were a few local set shops with the chops to build it, and at a fraction of what it would have cost to ship the original set overseas. All said and done, the Portland replica of the original will run about $23,000.
Jaffe enlisted the help of Rod Langdahl, owner of Stage Right studios, which builds sets of all sizes for theater companies like Oregon Children's Theatre and Lakewood Theatre Company as well as local films and, according to Langdahl, "a ton of infomercials."
Langdahl coordinated the retrieval of sketches, photographs and materials specifications (faux leather included) from Janssen's design team. The project has been Langdahl's—and Stage Right's—first international set-design work, but he claims it's been "easier than working with a lot of local companies. Not too difficult, but definitely on the larger scale of projects we do."
And the set will be built to last—for a while, anyway: After playing in Portland, Langdahl will break down the set and drive it to Escondido, Calif., for a series of performances there. Afterward, the set will retire to storage until another U.S. dance presenter picks up the work and takes it on the road.
That's certainly what choreographer Janssen and her company would like to see happen with Rebound. Working on the dance marked a creative departure for her: by starting not with dance steps, but with the set.
"How would it be if the set were the first step of the creation process?" Janssen says she asked herself at the outset. "We wanted to make a box room with no possibilities for the people to go out...to make it anonymous, with no history at all."
Janssen's company marks the end of a yearlong celebration of international women choreographers for White Bird—a survey that has ranged from Tania Peréz-Salas to Gina Gibney, among others—and Janssen doesn't mind being noted as a "woman choreographer," though she thinks of herself as more than just that.
"In general, my work is always about how we relate to each other, how we survive in this jungle we call 'world,'" she says in thickly accented but intelligent English. "Sometimes they say you see that a woman has created this piece—it touches different colors than a man would. I try to find those colors...not only strong, but sensitive."
And what does the trampoline mean, anyway?
"I always find men curious—they want to know how something works," she says. "It means trying to get away, to aim for space, for getting high, for weightless." So will Janssen be in attendance for her company's buoyant U.S. premiere? "No, unfortunately," she says. She may send her dancers flying in her work, but Janssen, as a rule, doesn't get near an airplane.
White Bird Dance presents Conny Janssen Danst at Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, 620 SW Park Ave., 725-3307. 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, March 22-24. $14-$25.