Oslund+Co/Dance: Childhood Star
by Robert Tyree
Each year, White Bird commissions a brand new work from a Portland choreographer. It’s a pretty rad service to our local dance community. The opening night of Childhood Star from Oslund+Co/Dance at PSU’s Lincoln Hall was packed, and the remaining two shows on Friday and Saturday are nearly sold out.
A classic newbie strategy, when I first arrived in Portland, I spent way too much time hovering over the tables of pamphlets outside of dance studios. The Oslund+Co/Dance material stood out immediately by virtue of its design and print quality. Mary Oslund has been steering her dance company since well before I was born, and Childhood Star packs a wallop of local heritage.
The evening starts with Drift by Keely McIntyre, danced in duet with Noel Plemmons. I’ve seen various iterations of Drift twice before, once at Conduit and once at the Headwaters. The performance at Conduit is in my top ten. We could feel the dancers’ weight passing through the floorboards of a studio that is almost haunted by the richness of the experiences it’s housed.
At its best moments, Drift makes you believe that the air on stage is somehow different than the air in the rest of the theater. It’s an exquisite alchemy that fine performers invoke.
In most duets, there is the palpable reserve of self-preservation, a bit like similarly-charged magnets that hesitantly slip away from each other’s surface. It’s tiresome to watch partly because such deficit of trust in our physical rapport with others is so damn mundane; just imagine when a stranger’s leg grazes your own while seated in a theater.
But this is a job. And now, a brief personal anecdote: Four people in one studio for three hours over-and-over for months. We know each othervery well, but there’s still a deeply-ingrained societal prejudice to keep one’s body to oneself. One rehearsal, we spend five minutes in pairs trying to make a perfect egg shape, our bodies as tightly compressed and interlocked as possible. All up in each other’s business is just business, man.
Often enough, as I leave a rehearsal studio, I’ve greeted Keely and Noel heading in. Perhaps you’ve seen them perform in tEEth pieces. These two have rehearsed and performed together for hours and hours upon hours and hours.
Undoubtedly, Noel and Keely’s toenails have sliced into one another’s skin, or they’ve dropped something very sensitive onto blunt, hard bones. They’ve also learned how avoid that. And, more importantly, how to avoid fear seeping into their movement. Their duetting is a gem of our local dance scene. It exudes a trust in coordinated movement that I swoon over, spectacular as an extended alley-oop. At times in Drift, their bodies seem to exert a gravitational pull on each other, making for movement so cohesive that it seems inseparable, as if each dancer were the opposed haunch of a larger creature’s unfathomable anatomy as it jaunts past in another realm.
It’s a nice set-up for the night’s otherworldly main attraction, Childhood Star. The set design by Portland-based Christine Bourdette is unplaceably strange. Sculptural, interactive, spare. The score by Australian composer Darrin Verhagen passes through a range of textural motifs and includes several locked-in rhythms that had me nodding along to the staged movement.
Oslund+Co is a dance company with core dancers who have worked together for years. It was a treat to see so many of my favorite Portland performers on stage together. Each performer adds unique qualities, and the collective talent expressed throughout the work is impressive. There are a variety of bodies types, and the choreography seems to highlight each body’s strengths. Long limbs make glorious lines while others transfer momentum with deft precision.
At times, the stage bustles with bodies in a frenetic swell of varying rhythms, feeling just this side of controlled. Other sections offer a meditative space as simple duet phrases sweep slowly along the stage. A few subtle crowd pleasers build here and there, but the work is largely focused in carrying its aesthetic.
I question the use of large-group, syncopated choreography. But in view of the piece as a whole, it does fall nicely into the overall composition of staged dynamics. My unease such syncopated choral movement is that it is extremely difficult to perform well, which is why it’s so impressive. Most often though, the lack of precision demands more attention than anything else. It’s worth noting that most of the productions White Bird stages, where we might appreciate such syncopation, have been performed dozens and dozens of times by dance companies nourished by an arts ecology that supports extensive research and development in dance with dedicated funding.
Hats off to White Bird for supporting this weekend’s work.
Oslund+Co/Dance’s Childhood Star runs this Friday and Saturday, 8:00PM at Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. More info here.