For all the big name (in avant-performance circles at least) national and international acts that come to town for TBA,
some of my favorite festival moments over the years have come courtesy of the Seattle and Portland performers featured in Ten Tiny Dances,
the semi-annual local performance series created and curated by Mike Barber. Nothing in this this year's lineup quite reached the heights of hilarious past highlights such as tEEth's axe-wielding deconstruction of the 4'X4' stage a few years ago, or the blue moon landing that would have outraged any Republican senators who happened to see it. But just about every performance was at least entertaining, and as a group, they demonstrate the astonishing inventiveness and variety so many local artists bring to the extremely limited space and time allowed.
This summer's show actually opened with audience members climbing onstage to shimmy with founder Mike Barber after his intro—a nice symbol of the way the show brings so many Portlanders together to celebrate creativity amid constraint, which is kind of a metaphor for underfunded Portland art in general. Jack Moebius's
confident solo performance of Seattleite Wade Madsen's herky jerky Thang
(set to music by Dim Dim) set a bouncy, vibrant tone for the evening. That modern statement was followed by a dancer (unnamed in the program) from Kalabharathi School of Dance
performing a South Indian dance called a Thillana. What's literally striking about this example of an ancient dance form called bharathanatyam
is the dancer's feet, which tattoo a constant percussive beat. As in other Asian dances, the dancer's face (especially eyes) and hands require enormous expressive ability, and this one delivered a smiling, upbeat performance. Still another solo act, Janet Pants,
followed with an ingenuous aerobic workout that managed to be peppy and entirely unmemorable. However, I felt the same way about her performance at Left Bank last year, and other audience members seemed to enjoy both.
The fourth performer, Noel Plemmons
of POV Dance, provided one of several examples of this year's 10td dancing outside the box. His gripping untitled solo took place not on the stage but in and around one of the seats in the old high school auditorium as he clambered, spider-like, around the handrails, stairs, landing and chairs, displaying terrific site-specific agility and inventiveness. That was followed by a solo by one of my favorite local choreographer/dancers, Cydney Wilkes.
Her deliberate, subtle approach to Grapefruit
was the polar opposite of its high-energy predecessors. As she slowly pivoted, gradually shifting postures in a manner reminiscent of Robert Wilson's slow-motion theater or kabuki, Wilkes' exquisitely nuanced postures and apparently placid, almost imperceptibly shifting facial expressions conveyed more controlled tension and emotional resonance than all the busy motion that preceded it. It was like sipping a fine oolong tea after a six pack of colas. Heather Perkins'
atmospheric music worked well with Wilkes's glacial movements.
Next came a deliciously catty duet by by the white-clad, Hot Little Hands
duo of Dorina Holler and Jessica Hightower. Their faux-sincere smiles contrasting sharply with their physical expressions of clinginess, domination, competitiveness, and eventually battle, the crowd-pleasing Bedazzled
enacted a metaphor for passive aggressive women's relationships, a physical manifestation of high school mean girls, or like watching adorable kittens tussle with sharp claws.
Notable for her absence was the next scheduled act, the redoubtable Linda K. Johnson,
who was scheduled to perform (accompanied by music from another Portland arts stalwart, Tim DuRoche), but was unable to make it back from her new gig teaching at Oakland's Mills College. I certainly don't blame Johnson for taking a position at the Bay Area school that's been a West Coast beacon for dance for nearly a century. But the fact that the city couldn't offer a more attractive alternative to one of its most accomplished and enterprising creative artists and arts administrators—last year's amazing Artist in Residence program at the South Waterfront was just the latest in a string of impressive artistic achievements extending back two decades—is a depressing signal about the health of our artistic economy. I hope she'll return.
Fortunately, another Kalabharathi dancer,
this one male, stepped in to provide another entertaining performance—ankle bells ringing, feet pounding, smile beaming. At one point, he tossed one of his rings to the floor, and it was difficult to keep from watching his rapid-fire feet just miss it.
Another of Portland's most visionary companies, Fever Theater,
(see photo above) followed with a swimsuit and goggle clad trio who were enticed by a watermelon wielding comrade into a messy, seed spitting, twisting munchfest. Always Moving but Going Nowhere
's comic effect was diluted a bit by its length, but the performers' deft facial and body expressions kept the crowd tittering. So did Sarah Johnson
's energetic solo, which took place on a double stacked platform and in a clingy white bag that resembled an amoebic blob as she kicked and rolled (kept onstage by audience members stationed around the perimeter) and made all sorts of other movements, whose import became apparent as the blob expelled her clothes, item by item, and finally a nude, grinning Johnson.
The evening concluded with yet another of Portland's most compelling performers, the irrepressible Kaj-anne Pepper,
whose engaging combination of extraordinarily graceful movement and sly humor is always entertaining. In the comically ritualistic Forget
, the barely-clad Pepper and Michael Zero circled and pounced on each other as a Priestess figure (Stella Maris) presided, with a flock of colorfully costumed acolytes writhing on the floor below. A giant eyeball floated above, and then exploded, showering everyone below with sparkles
in a suitably climactic closer.
As much as I enjoyed 10td from my lucky ringside seat, I had several friends whose view wasn't nearly as clear. With the show always attracting such big crowds, and so many dancers doing floor work, I hope PICA will re-think the stage configuration at future festivals, so that more fans can really appreciate one of the city's most audacious showcases for its teeming artistic talent.