White Bird, the West Coast's only all-dance presentation company, just announced that the forthcoming season will have one cohesive theme: diversity.
This is new. Worldliness may seem inbred in a company that has, since its inception in 1997, built a reputation for headhunting international troupes like the Batsheva Dance Company and Grupo Corpo, which might not otherwise make it to Portland from their homelands in Israel and Brazil, respectively. As Portland's top importer of high-profile dance acts, White Bird's lineup consistently packs venues like Lincoln Performance Hall and Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. But this year, the company is calling out diversity as its mission and highlighting three African-American choreographers.
"Recent events make it clear to me that now more than ever, we must all speak our truths," says Camille A. Brown, the New York choreographer kicking off White Bird's season with her most recent work. BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play is a live-scored, explosive piece about what it means to discover your voice as a young, black female. This is the second in Brown's Identity Trilogy, following 2013's Mr. Tol E. Rance and an upcoming dance exploring the naissance of hip-hop, called Ink. Although BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play is personal, inspired by Brown's own childhood experiences, she knows that bringing a piece about race to a city known as one of the whitest in the nation is a political statement in itself.
"BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play's content isn't 'political,'" says Brown. "It's about childhood and innocence. But because this story is being told by black female bodies it automatically makes it political."
Audiences across the country are looking to pieces like Brown's to understand how to talk about these more controversial issues. The reality is that this is not an etiquette guidebook for white people. "My hope through this piece is that black girls see their nuances, something we rarely see in the media. We are all things," says Brown. "The question of whether it's an artist's obligation to tell those stories has come up a lot. I don't think so. Choreographers should be able to create the work they choose."
For Brown, it's all about the language. BothBLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play and her forthcoming show about the birth of hip-hop try to capture language in dance form to show how African-American communities can, in Brown's words, "speak their truths."
"The racial tensions in the United States call for our greatest attention and for all of us to tell our stories exactly how we want," says Brown. "I am pulling from African tradition and my own experiences in order to create the movement language."
Brown says she's curious to see who joins the conversation in Portland. "Bravo to Paul [King] and Walter [Jaffe, White Bird's co-founders] for challenging conversations about race in a city that holds historic tension on the subject," says Brown.
At performances in other cities, the audience response has been vocal: "A black woman stood up and said, 'This piece affirms that it's good to be me!'" says Brown. "Then, she proceeded to take her wig off."
BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play is at the Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 503-248-4335. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 13-15. $26-$68.