Two-thirds of the way through White Bird's latest Uncaged show,
around the time Minh Tran started sashaying around the perimeter of Forestry Center's Miller Hall wearing a ripped '80s style tee with the word "LESBO" spray-painted on the front of it,
I had already given up all hope of understanding exactly what was going on. But at least I wasn't yawning anymore.
The Portland dance presenters commissioned three works from both ebullient local choreographer Minh Tran
and his longtime cohort Tere Mathern
(who each have their own dance companies here in town) to be performed in the round under the dream-catcher ceiling at Miller Hall for five sold out shows running through this Sunday. Mathern's sextet took the first part of the night, the pair of dancemakers performed a short duet and then Tran ended the evening with his new group work, Kiss
. It was one of the most uneven, puzzling, snoozy and yet, in moments, fascinating shows I've seen in quite a while
—a night that involved everything from free jazz and Jetsons
costumes to giant sexy video displays, movable sculpture and half-naked pregnant ladies. If you can't make up your mind whether that sounds like a great night from reading that sentence, don't worry—neither can I (I'm still making up my mind).
Mathern is known for her analytical, sculptural movement and her new work, Pivot, was more of the same.
Based on the idea of examining the idea of transfer, "the fulcrum between balance and risk," her cadre of dancers leaned on one another, bounced off one another and used each other as levers and fixed points—all to a clamorous soundtrack of live Mingus-esque jazz performed by local drummer Tim DuRoche,
two sax players, a guitarist and a viola player and moody, shifting lighting from Mike Mazzola
. The group also manipulated a cool, giant sculpture that spanned the hall's ceiling created by David Eckard,
which looked like four helicopter blades decorated with hanging loops of fabric and iron Japanese lanterns. At various points in the work, the dancers would swing and pull the arms of the sculpture around a central pivot, effectively breaking up the audience's plane of vision and creating a new backdrop for the show. Dressed in odd pointy-sleeved shifts and short yoga pants by fashion designer Paloma Soledad,
they looked like space aged stewardesses guiding hovercrafts in for landing.
Mathern, who performed in the piece herself, is great at cutting up space—grouping and pairing her dancers in odd patterns on the floor, constantly shifting the focus to different sides of the room (and, in this case, audience). But her emotionless choreography, all measured movements and repetition, can be monotonous. At points, I found myself focusing more on the frenetic soundtrack than the action happening in front of me on the dance floor. Although her dancers may have shifted tempo now and again, the exploratory piece went nowhere. And at a running time of 40 minutes (that's my best guess), that's a long time to wait for an answer and not get one.
Sharper—and shorter—was Tran and Mathern's sinuous duet, Twine.
Much has been made of the fact that this is the last time Tran will perform (he's going to stop dancing and start focusing on choreographing works ). And really, it's a damn shame. This tiny Vietnamese man is a fabulous, compelling dancer, both lyrical and energetic—like a silk shift thrown over a power line. Soledad's oddball purple, metallic fishing net costumes only succeed in making the pair of dancers look like a pair of shipwrecked waifs
(see the photo at the top of the post), but the vibe of the work, which focused on small points of contact between the dancers' bodies, neat lifts and tender embraces, was far more Tatiana and Oberon on acid. My True Blood
-obsessed friend remarked that due to its gauzy atmospheric soundscape Twine
was also was reminiscent of "Jason Stackhouse on V,"
which makes me incredibly happy. (Skip to 20 seconds into the video link to see what she's talking about.)
For such good friends and close collaborators, you couldn't find two more different dancemakers than Tran and Mathern, a contradiction that was made vividly apparent as Tran's Kiss, which chronicles the gay dancemaker's 20 year long journey out of the closet—exploded onto the floor.
His dancers entered to Heather Perkins' soundtrack of heavy breathing wearing a look that I quickly jotted down as "Red Rocky Horror Harajuku Mess"
—with silky, flowing Asian-inspired red shifts, ratted up hair and more liquid liner and red eyeshadow than even Darcelle would feel comfortable sporting. The dancers looked like brokedown hos, but the dancing was clean and confident.
A series of short duets played with height and body differences between the movers—pairing short, relatively curvy Riho Katagiri with willowy Carla Mann, tall, yoga-yoked Jesse Berdine with blonde bombshell Angela Caceres—asking one dancer to carry and cradle the other at times, shifting from friendly hugs to desperate clutches and Tarzan-like over the shoulder grabs. At one point Tran himself leapt toward Berdine's prone form on the floor, only to be caught by a trio of his female dancers. They gently lowered him toward Berdine's face over and over—swaying, swinging and always pulling him up just moments before the two men made contact.
The vibe was graceful and tentatively sexual, and beautiful to watch.
But as Tran's sexual identity became more problematic (his family disowned him for six years after discovering he was gay) so did the piece.
For long stretches of a time the dancers were lost in a messy clutter of clunky, terribly conceived costume changes, wall of sound-meets-bodily function and weather soundtracks and bizarre lighting effects that looked like Mazzola had been instructed to vomit a rainbow circus on the floor (to be fair, I really think this is what Tran told him to do). At one point the dancers disappeared and the action focused on the giant square of dance floor, which featured projections of writhing body parts and red silk. It looked and sounded remarkably like Samwell's "What What (In the Butt)" YouTube video.
If all this was meant to convey a decade of confusion, it worked. It was also irritating and unnecessary.
There was still more to come, as the dancers shifted to high gear sexuality in the form of ripped t-shirts printed with a litany of stereotypes from "RICE QUEEN" to "TOP" and "TRANNY," which they wore as they paraded across a floor crisscrossed with pink catwalks. Again, all the rhetoric and stage tricks lasted far too long, obscuring Tran and crew's quality dancing. If fact, it's not until they start taking all those clothes off that the show becomes truly pleasurable again,
leading to a finale that I don't have the heart to spoil for ticket holders. Let's just say that Tran knows how to come out in the most flamboyant, regal style possible.
(and this whole evening of dance itself) is rife with problems and needs an editor as badly as a James Cameron movie. But even amidst the problematic Big Top atmosphere Tran's created, his dancing—sharp, sensuous and truly lovely—shines through.
Minh Tran & Company and Tere Mathern Dance perform at the World Forestry Center, 4033 SW Canyon Road. 8 pm Thursday-Sunday Jan. 21-24. $16-$26. Info at whitebird.org or fertilegroundpdx.org. SOLD OUT, but call Whitebird at 245-1600 to double check.
Photo of Tran and Mathern performing
Twine courtesy of Chris Roesing/White Bird. Photos of Mathern's
Pivot and Tran's
Kiss during the show's dress rehearsal by Gordon Wilson.