In the course of the past 96 years, the Ford Building has been an auto factory churning out Model T's, a booze storage facility for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, a publishing company and a busted-down shell, home to rats and echoing train whistles. This Thursday, March 11, the recently renovated building, which squats on the corner of Southeast Division Street and 11th Avenue, gains another identity: dance partner.
The people who've asked the 82,000-square-foot brick behemoth to dance are a pair of San Francisco imports, a wiry former Human Rights Campaign activist named Noel Plemmons, 38, and Mandy Christiansen, a no-nonsense Pilates studio owner and mom of two, who moved to town in 2007. Together, the pair goes by the name POV Dance, which makes site-specific, contemporary "architectural movement."
"We're about partnering with bodies and space and structures," Plemmons explains. "The window was the first thing that caught me," Christiansen says of a sunlit glass wall on the Ford's south side, with a slim sill and a little hook above that could be a perfect handhold. "I was like, 'Oh man, this place is awesome. We have got to do something here.'"
Dancer Paige McKinney plays on the Ford's first floor window. IMAGE: Patrick Weishampel
The pair makes dances using the nooks and crannies of places as much as people; as accustomed to slithering down flights of stairs and balancing on windowsills as they are lifting and supporting other dancers. The handful of pieces POV's performed in Portland have been small and built through a series of improv play dates in, on and around a space. Until this week, the largest group of dancers POV had ever featured was three.
"The first time I saw POV it was in a tiny place—we actually had to crawl into the space. It was under a stairway in one of the Everett Street Lofts [gallery] spaces," Conduit dance hub co-owner Mary Oslund remembers of the duo's first local show in '07. "There was only room for about 10 people to watch Noel and Mandy dance. It was like being under a microscope. It was wonderful."
This weekend, the duo expands its focus with POV's first evening-length work, an ambitious piece for nine dancers that travels through much of the first floor of the Ford Building, two stairwells and a giant freight elevator.
It's easier to think of it as a dance tour than as a show. A guide will lead groups of 30 people to points of interest around the building—from closets and hallways to the building's wide, polished-concrete-floored atrium. Viewers are invited to choose a vantage point from which to watch the dance—maybe the top of a flight of stairs or the floor, only feet away from the sweaty action. Each choice fractures the audience over and over, creating even more unique viewpoints. None of the dance vignettes—languid, dreamy little things—lasts more than 10 minutes; then everybody moves to another spot in the building.
The constant motion and a thrumming minimalist soundscape by Jay Clarke create an atmosphere (at least, during a recent rehearsal) of change and excitement. Very quickly, The Ford Building Project turns into a child's game of trying to guess how the dancers will use different elements of a room. Will they twirl around the banister next to the wheelchair ramp? Could they somehow dance on that door—crouching on its push bar and using its overhead hinge as a handhold? Is it possible to dance on the ceiling? (Yes, yes and no…not yet.)
An exceptional scene unfolds in the landing between flights of the Ford's wide marble staircase, where a quartet of dancers launches across the stairs over and over, trusting their partners to catch them. Their movements are graceful and hypnotic, but my feelings bounced between enjoyment and apprehension as I noticed the precise placement each foot and hand had to make in order for their little house of human cards not to topple.
Portland has had a burst of interest in "site specific" dance in the past five years, with local choreographers even staging works in the Keller and Lovejoy fountains (Linda K. Johnson's epic City Dance for 2008's Time-Based Art Festival). White Bird's Uncaged series, which ended last week, allowed international dancemakers to run wild in venues like the Oaks Park Pavilion and a YWCA basketball court. But regardless of the quality of the dancing, all too often "site specific" is bland shorthand for "not performed on a stage," with little thought given to the connection between the setting and the dancers.
POV is different, according to Oslund, who is now a member of the company's advisory board. "I think they really try to work with the building themselves instead of just plopping a dance in a new space," she says. "[In their works,] the architecture of the space seems to be an equal player to the bodies somehow."
Plemmons and Christiansen make clear that they owe much of their style to their former teacher and dance company head, Lizz Roman. A fixture in the San Francisco modern-dance scene, she has been staging work in weird, intimate spots since 1993. When, by chance, both company members moved to Portland (Plemmons says he was sick of high rent and pretension; Christiansen was in search of a more family-friendly town), they aimed to bring Roman's intimate being-to-building dance aesthetic with them.
"Dance was secondary when it came to moving to Portland. But I really miss the S.F. dance scene," Plemmons says, as Christiansen nods vigorously in the background. "Portland has a lot of cerebral dance.... It just doesn't require anybody to push themselves physically; just to create beautiful dance. We weren't able to jump right into a company that [already] did what we do, so we were like, 'We'll just create our own.'"
With The Ford Project, they took on the additional challenge of schooling a handful of local dancers in Roman's partnering techniques. "Our dancers are blossoming!" Christiansen says happily. "The first two months of rehearsal [in the Ford Building] was just trying to get them comfortable with being upside down…" says Plemmons. "And trusting that somebody dancing with them could actually carry their body weight."
Thanks to the open-minded tenants of the Ford Building, in particular show sponsor Gallery Homeland ("we talked to a lot of other building owners around town [about performing in their places] and they were like, 'Hell no,'" says Plemmons), POV has had the run of the building since last September. The group has investigated the use of different architectural features—in a sense, "played monkey"—in Ford's common areas for months while dodging computer designers and Taoist Tai Chi Society of the USA members, who hold class in the building." Every once in a while we make somebody a little angry," Plemmons admits. "We've started repaint the walls on a regular basis. We scuff them up with our shoes."
Sadly, this may be the only time the Ford Building is used as a dance lab. The concrete floor is a killer on the joints, to the point where the dancers must wear shoes—mostly Converse low tops—while they perform. The kind of site-specific dance POV performs in general is very tough on the body. During a recent rehearsal, Christiansen dislocated her fibula after a partnering move with Plemmons went awry and she slammed her right knee into the concrete floor—she'd injured the same knee during a POV show last year. POV dancer Sally Garrido-Spencer was favoring her right wrist that same practice session. ("I made her do a bunch of handstands the rehearsal before," Plemmons admits.) He's not dancing in the piece at all—he's recovering from an inflamed shoulder joint.
"We've had no catastrophic injuries, but [the concrete's] brutal," Christiansen says. "We need to find some nice, soft wooden floors for our next piece. My 33-year-old body cannot handle this."
When one door closes....
Watch POV Dance perform CONTAINED at the Core Gallery at Everett Station Lofts (October, 2007). (.mov file)
takes place at the Ford Building, 2505 SE 11th Ave. 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, 4 pm Sunday, March 11-14 and 18-21. $15. Tickets at brownpapertickets.com. Info at povdance.org.
is funded in part by grants from the Regional Arts & Culture Council and Work for Art and sponsored by Gallery Homeland. Note: Noel Plemmons didn't take his first dance class until age 27. He started training as a dancer at age 30.