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Art Scatter     April 22, 2008

Mary Oslund: the wonder of the dance

Posted by Barry Johnson

At the conclusion of Bete Perdue, Mary Oslund's beautiful new dance, singer Lyndee Mah, still in the glow, said it was like a symphony. I think she was talking about how it cascaded by, sometimes in unison, all eight dancers carving space similarly, according to his or her "voice," sometimes in solos or duets or trios that mixed, matched and reformed, sometimes in pairs of duets or even four duets, weaving in and out, occasionally interlocking. It swept by, pulsing with action, small moments and large, establishing its own time. When it was over, how long had it been going on? It was hard to guess, it was so absorbing. And so, yes, like a symphony.

If someone had taken a psychogram of audience members during the performance it would have registered many different states, and that's like a symphony, too. Let"s see: delight, reverie, anxiety, keen attention, even a series of undifferentiated states that could turn into almost anything, from aggression to love, the stem cells of all our emotions. But mostly satisfaction, not as in "fat and happy," but as in this typifies the complexity, tension and release, and ultimate harmony of great art.

That's not a claim I make lightly. But building on the great success of last year's "Sky," this dance finds Oslund creating something amazing at both the smallest and largest levels, micro and macro. A shoulder shrug from dancer Keely McIntyre sends a shiver of recognition and contains deep expressive possibilities. So does the rush of multiple dancers, arriving and departing, lifting and being lifted, sliding past each other in erratic orbits. Like a symphony, it’s too much for the brain to process, but you can "uunderstand" it in your own particular way as a whole.

If someone asked me what it was about, that's what I would try to say. Layers, lots of layers. The soundscape by Obo Addy and Katie Griesar had a similar effect, drawing on the simplest drumming rhythms to clouds of sound, a parallel enterprise that somehow fit the dance, surprisingly so to me at least. Otherwise, all the meaning was coming from the dancers -- the costumes (by dancer Rinda Chambers) were simple, the set was the Imago Theatre stage well-lit by Jeff Forbes.

The dancers. They can be a problem in Oslund performances. (I have watched her dances since the mid-'80s when she moved here and added her Merce Cunningham ideas to the stew of Portland dance, which actually was a pretty good fit.) So much rides on them, on their ability to create something worth seeing within the phrases Oslund constructs. If she (women have predominated in Oslund's companies) is intent on simply executing the "steps" in a given amount of time, getting from Point A to Point B in the smoothest possible way, all is lost. Because then the shoulder shrug or the hip rotation or the peculiar neck angle -- all at once -- will be lost. And they are everything. An Oslund movement phrase, to my mind, has little to do with Points A and B and everything to do with the infinite number of possible points in between and the choices the dancers make to deeply inhabit a certain number of them. There's a certainty to the way McIntyre dances Oslund's dances that makes her way of dancing them right somehow, vehicles of deep expression.

Not everyone can do it, and when they are onstage with those who can, the difference can drive you crazy. There have been times, recent times, when that has happened, when I found myself watching in horror as a dancer or two or three absolutely DID NOT GET IT. How do I know: They clump or tip-toe about, they try to look graceful, they try to add emotion with melodramatic facial expressions, they crash and burn phrase by phrase, worse when they are dancing alone. And they say nothing. Part of it is degree of difficulty. These aren't easy phrases, twists, stretches, lifts, partnerings. They can get to the edge of a dancer's ability to control them, although there aren't any tricks involved, 27 pirouettes in place or a leap that ends in a split. And that's been a problem, too.

I didn't feel that way about anyone in this particular ensemble, which is good because then you can watch without worrying. And some of the dancers are fabulous. McIntyre, for example, short and dark, with a lion-hearted approach to each second of her time on stage. She's been with Oslund for three years and understands exactly what's going on, what's at stake. Sometimes it takes longer. Jim McGinn is now great fun to watch in an Oslund piece, but it took him a long time to get there. Is he the best Oslund male dancer ever (not the best dancer, the best Oslund dancer)? Maybe so, but whatever, he's an Oslund dancer and that's saying something important, from where I sit. On the other hand Michelle Rogers is in her first year with the company and has figured things out immediately, an excellent visual balance to the shorter McIntyre, though they both have the same kinetic intelligence and commitment to the moment. I won’t do a report card on everyone, though -- who am I to hand out grades, after all, and the success of the whole itself implies the success of the parts.

But let's say I was asked to provide an Oslund primer for prospective dancers. What might my rules be:
  • No faces, neither looks of consternation nor happiness. Just dance.
  • Every gesture means something. Be there for it.
  • Avoid the timidity implied by "washy," indistinct movements, which means…
  • Be aggressive. Don't dance carefully. Commit.
  • Don't rush, you have time to say something if you have something to say (and you should have something to say).
  • Be aware. There are others onstage with you, learn from them, amplify them, serve them.
  • Find your own way. Oslund's choreography gives you expressive space. Create something amazing in it.
But really, all I'm saying is "be an artist." And we all know that's a lifetime's work. Which bring us back to Oslund herself. Bete Perdue is a wonderful dance, a great dance even, the work of an artist, the work of a lifetime. There really isn't anything more exciting than that, not for those of us who love dance. It's the same sensation I get watching Cunningham or Balanchine and what Lyndee meant when she said it was like a symphony. I want to see it again. Now.

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The Oregonian     Monday, May 21, 2007

Oslund portrays a strange horizon
"Sky" - Dancers move and merge to glitchy electronic music on a stunning set

by Marty Hughley
The Oregonian

"Proper posture and balance . . . to execute sequential movements . . . in accordance with the posture of the head and neck . . . the execution of a wide variety of movements . . ."

Culled by composer John Berendzen from a neurobiology textbook, odd phrases and sentence fragments such as these wafted through Imago Theatre on Friday night during a portion of "Sky," an intriguing new work by Oslund+Company/Dance. Murmured by vocalist Ammon Morris amid Berendzen's glitchy electronic atmospherics and a shifting, nervous pulse from drummer Tim DuRoche, the words were more for mood than message.

But they weren't meaningless. Even with their fractured, elliptical grammar (Berendzen said he took lines from a book but removed any scientific terminology), the words seemed a fitting adjunct to the fascinating play of motion onstage. Not direction or description, they were more like stray strands of code, bits of the DNA of dance.

Distilling methodology into poetry is a specialty of the choreographer Mary Oslund, a mainstay of the Portland contemporary dance scene since the 1980s. Equal parts intuition, rigor and collaborative generosity, her approach values expressive freedom first, interpretive constructs only later. You might find her dances hard to follow, but only if you're expecting them to take you someplace particular and easily defined. Let them play out as a dynamic form of visual art, a mix of the abstract and the real-world, and they'll pull you along with them.

In its way, "Sky" did take you someplace. To my mind, it evoked a kind of open-air social laboratory, some futuristic or abstracted setting in which strangers get to work out -- kinetically, wordlessly -- desire, irritation, cooperation, mimicry and the many other aspects of being with others.

The deep stage at Imago gave the dancers plenty of open space, but the show's most striking visual aspect was a set installation by Christine Bourdette. The artist played a big role in Minh Tran's recent show, "Forgotten Memories," with a series of small, intricate stations at which that dance and its reflections on the Cambodian genocide could take place. Here, Bourdette took a very different tack, creating a single large, curving golden wall at stage left with a few feet of gray wood sloping up to it.

The slope altered the angle of the dancers' bodies to the floor, and thus made them look somehow apart when they stood or lay upon it. The wall created a shadow play of the movement, adding another layer to the already complex ensemble work of the eight dancers. These elements could have been exploited even more.

The movement was mostly structured in duets and solos, but often in flurries of activity that saw couples multiplying, switching partners, moving rapidly into the performance space, then back behind the wall or between curtains at stage right. Characteristic Oslund movement motifs appeared repeatedly -- a leg raised sideways with the knee angled skyward; a downward crouch, with the legs turned out wide and the body gliding smoothly sideways; a sudden sideways drooping of the head and neck; two bodies coiling quickly together in what looks at first like a clash, then like a caress. With countless variations and new ideas, and set on a divergent group of bodies, these familiar moves only became more interesting, a fruitful proxy language for the emotional interactions of the group.

Not all of the dancers had the same facility, but their differences became part of the sense of social diversity in the piece. And there was always something to enjoy in the soulful ease of Keely McIntyre, the steely control of Jim McGinn and the emotional intensity of company newcomer Michelle Rogers.

Jeff Forbes' lighting shifted between stark and moody, and the eerie music kept cresting, receding and building again. And somehow, it all seemed part of the execution of a wide variety of movements.

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The Oregonian     Monday, April 17, 2006

Oslund adds video to show, but doesn't let it upstage dancers

by Catherine Thomas
Special to the Oregonian

Mary Oslund is no stranger to provocative multimedia. Some of her most memorable performances have featured dancers attached to luggage handles, dissolving into projections of close-up body parts or performing in stage-within-a-stage wavering boxes. But in more than 25 years of dance-making, she's [seldom] used video. That made Oslund's "The Object of Unreal," part of a four-dance program at Imago Theatre this weekend, a watershed of sorts.

At its best, David Bryant's infrared video transformed the stage into a swirling vortex, like looking up into a forest canopy and seeing a swarm of naked branches in a whirlpool overhead. Combined with Katie Griesar's ominous score's chanting reverb, prairie-town loneliness, pulsing frequencies and tinny old-time movie soundtrack feel, the effect was more than a little hallucinogenic.

Oslund's dances don't come attached to narrative, but "The Object of Unreal" suggested black magic and witches' covens, transgression and ritualistic supplication. Dancers shudder and collapse and shield their eyes, body rolls look wrenched and painful, lunges slowly stretch and fold, the stage pools and empties, time and equilibrium suspend.Mbr>
Ultimately, it's not the video that pulls the eye. Clusters of movement discharge at all corners of the stage, spatially complex, colliding and overlapping, each stamped with curiosities. Imago's deep-set stage and intimate seating serve that aesthetic.

In Oslund's "Awkward Duets," the dance pulls and lurches in a see-saw of formidable speed and floppy trots, and that perfectly suits Darrin Verhagen's eccentric score, which marries crunchy menace to music hall calliope. The most awkward aspect to the dance is Genevieve Dellinger's milkmaid-meets-Harlequin costuming, which moves like sackcloth. Of course, that could be the premeditated effect. Dancer Margretta Hansen, the outsider in red, steals the eye.

At eight minutes long, "Further" is short but punchy. Oslund calls it a "scrapbook duet" --10 years of dances, sampled in 48-second increments. Like the best of sampled scores, it's filled with surprising hybrids, and it's not strictly a duet (neither is "Awkward Duets"). Hansen, in a fury of limbs, slashes and sways on a scalpel's edge, runs in jagged little hops and appears to infect Jim McGinn, who forces his body into fitful pendulum swings, slams sideways onto the stage and pauses from the assault to strut, pose and trade lifts with Dana Loewen. Loewen, for her part, manages the task of screwing her limbs into opposing angles and making it look elegant.

"Further" is aided immensely by the surreal onstage vocals of baritone John Berendzen and contralto Leo Chapeau. What starts as disorienting sound --breathy expulsions and simultaneous singing of two sets of lyrics --quickly ratchets into a disembodied swirl of droning voices.

Surprisingly, the score works against Oslund's "Crazy." Michael Stirling's East Indian ragas lull the ear into a kind of hypnotic dream state, and visually, the dance succumbs. Oslund is playing with contrast here (gentle lifts against abrupt staggers), but these are snapshots frozen in the middle of what reads like a baptism in an ecstatic communal ritual.

The Oregonian     Friday, April 14, 2005

Lyrical, abstract and extreme

by Catherine Thomas
Special to the Oregonian

Mary Oslund has ancient mystic poetry and decay on her mind in two new dances, which makes her latest show at Imago Theatre an excellent prospect for admirers of movement that’s lyrical, abstract and extreme.

“Crazy” touches on hallucinogenic body states, while “The Object of Unreal” trades in a different form of illusion: The stage is a video-enhanced diorama of scenes within scenes, and it plays with viewers’ perceptions on multiple levels. Expect stretched and warped distortions, even on the dancers’ faces.

Also on the program for Oslund+Company/Dance: “The Awkward Duets,” a retooled quintet that infuses a strangely graceful drama into corrupted motor impulses; and “Further,” a smart and edgy work to live vocals that samples a decade of Oslund’s dances in 8 short minutes.

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The Oregonian     October, April 28, 2005

Something in the air

by Bob Hicks

Imago Theatre gets all Notted up in language with its newest show, a pair of Caryl Churchill short plays with dance interludes choreographed by Gregg Bielemeier and Mary Oslund. "Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen" (that's five "nots" without a breath) is partly about repetition, the stark circularity of Churchill's dialogue, which director Jerry Mouawad has used as a cue in designing the set.

The title play, written in 1971 for BBC radio, is about a dystopian London in 2010, where abortion is mandatory, birds are extinct and it's getting very hard to breathe. The second play, "Heart's Desire" (1997), is a play about what happens when the rules of the story keep falling apart.

What the always inventive and challenging Imago will make of all this is intriguing to contemplate. The addition of Bielemeier and Oslund, two of Portland's most interesting and stage-smart choreographers, kicks the anticipation up a notch. Hold your breath.

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The Oregonian     Monday, April 18, 2005

Works at Imago hit audience full-tilt

by Catherine Thomas
Special to the Oregonian

Choreographers Mary Oslund and Linda Austin both took on imbalance at Imago Theatre over the weekend. To watch Oslund's acid anti-ballet "The Awkward Duets" against Austin's absurdist work-in-progress "The Edge of the Fell" was to see a simple movement phrase -- namely, the tilt -- shredded and stretched to distortion.

Oslund is an abstractionist in the vein of Merce Cunningham, interested in the formal questions of composition over literal narrative. Austin is a genre-bending experimentalist, a solo performance artist with a penchant for twisting everyday objects into bizarre props. Both artists have a way of subverting audience expectations by skewing elegance to expose deviation, even grotesquerie.

True to form, Austin has populated her dance with peculiarities. And while Oslund's "Awkward Duets" contains the complex geometry and propulsive movement style that marks all her work, the program she presented -- three new works along with a reprisal of last season's "Band of Innocents" -- is a clear turn from the high-octane, whip-launched fury of her previous work.

That's good news. Oslund's trademark kinetic assaults are visceral, exciting and unyielding, but we've come to expect them. The four works on offer at Imago, by contrast, are filled with a quieter, strangely lurid drama.

Austin, too, is exploring new terrain. For her latest dance, she's abandoned the solo form to craft what is, for Austin, a large group work. The challenge is for Austin's seven dancers to inhabit her surreal sense of satire without letting it devolve into farce. They succeed incrementally: clad in trekker's pants, bodies strained and mouths gaping, the dancers stretch for imagined footholds, balance precariously on wheel chocks, get sucked into a wind tunnel, run in place with a whistle kazoo, and perform a bouncing jester jig in porcupine matchstick hats. They're accompanied by onstage musician Angelina Baldoz, playing a bleating animal disguised as a trumpet, which also blows amplified bubbles and moans and spurts in chippery sonic expulsions.

At less than seven minutes long, Oslund's "The Awkward Duets" is also a study in maladroitness, but filtered through a cinematic lens that frames the action as discrete schisms, the natural impulses of the body tweaked and counter-pulled and thwarted. The score whirs and clamors, creaks and growls, like chamber strings percolating through distorted frequencies.

It's an appropriately helter-skelter accompaniment to movement that is inherently at odds with itself, pristine lines and close-proximity trajectories subverted by kinetic anarchy -- the launched spins that snap down, the grasp that doesn't connect, the walk that falters.

Amid the scissoring tumult of Oslund's "60 Seconds," images hang in the air as if suspended against the pull and snap and brute force of the collective momentum: the almost imperceptible shake that penetrates the bones of dancers Jim McGinn and Sarah Dulaney; the slow, elastic walk that has Dana Loewen's feet preceding her spine and head by paces.

"Band of Innocents" erupts in bursts of speed and dangerous lifts, with bodies caught, arrested and ripped back against an unexpectedly romantic piano score. And "Fog" is a study in contrast: Loewen's earthiness and McGinn's slash against an ethereal Margretta Hansen, with a pair of disembodied hands as supporting character.

Oslund may have blunted her harsh edges and body-on-body impact for a softer shade of dissonance, but the entire company dances this new choreographic terrain with conviction.

The Oregonian     Friday, April 15, 2005

Dramatic personae

by Catherine Thomas
Special to the Oregonian

The soft rain misting outside Conduit Studio's big-view windows at a recent rehearsal seems to have seeped into the bones of Mary Oslund's nine dancers, washing even violent lifts and a rush of backward momentum in sepia-toned nostalgia.

It's an arresting impression. Oslund's dances -- in particular, "Band of Innocents," which the choreographer reprises this weekend at Imago Theatre -- seem like thunder squalls: big, space-gobbling maelstroms of movement, risky catches, rapid speed.

Even when Oslund is minimalist and abstract, she's emphatic. To watch her mostly new tribe of dancers -- her band of innocents, as it were -- take on her exacting, razor's-edge movement style is to see the vehemence but also the lush shadows erupting from the tempest.

"Band of Innocents" shares the bill with three new Oslund dances and a work in progress, "The Edge of the Fell," by another brainy Portland dance maker, Linda Austin.

Set to an original score by the electric violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, "60 Seconds" is a torrent of overlapping movement filling all corners of the stage. Bodies rushing in retrograde, pushed into ricochet or fast rewind. The eye fixes on little cinematic oddities: a curious, stretched-out walk, spine bent back to extremes; a single arm dangling in the air as if it's leering at the viewer.

All this against Roumain's romantic score that sounds steeped in another time: mournful, nostalgic, a languid daydream pushing the edge of hard and loud.

Where "Band of Innocents" deals with suspense and rescue, Oslund says, "60 Seconds" is about arresting the eye with the unexpected. Both take as their point of departure, in spirit if not narrative, from a collection of obscure art-house films: the experimental shorts of "Lumiere & Company," directed by an assortment of 40 filmmakers, and Tsai Ming-Liang's "Goodbye, Dragon Inn," respectively.

"Those films were so minimalist but so rich with suspense," she says. "I think of the cinema as being able to work immediately. It grapples with people's emotional lives. Once you seat an audience in a theater, you're toying with expectations. There's room for softness inside of minimalism, discrete images that are dark and light. Even an outburst of propulsion, I need it pared down and sharp."

For "Fog," a trio set to a commissioned score by Christian Cherry that Oslund calls "turgid and nervous at the same time," the choreographer says she was "working with creature instinct -- herding and flocking and the way animals instinctively group -- and, formally, from an interest in the movement of body systems . . . flesh, blood, muscle, skeleton and nerve . . . and something I haven't been able to investigate for a while, very bound, slow movement."

"The Awkward Duets" is set to an electronic score commissioned from Australian composer Darrin Verhagen, who also composed the humid-turned-icy score for "Band of Innocents." For "Awkward," Oslund asked the composer for a "tilted, off-kilter, oddball, dancehall chamber piece."

Precarious states of balance also inform Austin's "The Edge of the Fell," a work for seven dancers. It's set to live music -- Angelina Baldoz on trumpet, bubble blower and pans -- and, true to Austin's style, includes a few surreal props.

The title takes its cue, Austin says, from the fells of England's Lake District, "the craggy, bleak, treeless high places where Wordsworth and all those guys wandered about. I like the form of that landscape: Everything exposed; you can see clearly the bones of the Earth. 'The Edge of the Fell' is about the edge of your vision, the body itself as landscape. And the idea of that carefulness -- when you're walking on a rocky path, scrambling up a hillside -- that kind of attention, the edge that's not always physical, but also about consciousness."

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The Oregonian     Saturday June 12, 2004

Oslund's dancers ably handle the vortex that is 'Undertone'

by Catherine Thomas
Special to the Oregonian

Mary Oslund opened her latest ocncert of new and repertory dance to a small but rapt audience Thursday evening with "Undertone," a dance that plays with such surreal cinematic clarity on the Imago Theare stage that it's difficult for the rest of hte program to compete.

In part, that's because Oslund's core company of dancers know this piece in their bones. Set to Darrin Verhagen's turbulent electronic score -- a dense subsonic wash overlaid horror film screeches and caressing lullabies -- "Undertone" is an unrelenting vortex of shadow duets and tense collisions, and Oslund's dancers pitch their bodies through it with pistonliek attack. Jim McGinn and Margretta Hansen are especially powerful, so crystalline in their precision that a brief unison duet stretches into suspended time.

Their studied detachment is at the heart of Oslund's slash-and-spin abstraction.The best of Oslund's dances area paradox: Her dancers look like their playing existential solitaire, even as their bodies ricochet off one another or lock in contentious bouts. Isolated worlds collide by accident, unseen triggers catapult dancers to the floor, volatile encounters are dispatched with icy efficiency.

It's why Oslund's dancers always look intriguingly not-quite-human, even when they're doing pedestrian things: when pockets of dancers spontaneously break to applaud the action in "Undertone," it's unnerving. They look programmed.

That makes moment of genuine expression intensely dostracting. When dancer Adolpho Pati clutches McGinn's throat in "Band of Innocents," a new work tha tplays like a continuation of "Undertone," his face's telegraphed emotion rips the fabric from the enigma and makes it drama. So too with "Thicket," Oslund's recently choreographed solo for guest dancer Sarah Ebert. All switchblade angles and staccato shudders in an unrelenting race around the stage, Ebert blurs the movement's intensity with her affected defiance.

Even when Oslund's choreography is intimate, as in "Volant," it's never sentimental. That's a trick her seasoned dancers have mastered. Daniel Addy is fearless in the spine-bending backward leaps of "Band of Innocents." And Rinda Chambers is coiled, impersonal steel in "Volant," putting the scalpel's edge to the flux of strokes, shakedowns and clutches unfolding around her.

Oslund's is an exceptional company -- besides Addy, Chambers, Hansen, McGinn and Pati, Michelle Ainza, Jesse Berdine, Robyn Conroy, Julie Katch and Angelle Hebert -- and the sight lines of the Imago Theatre are ideal for observing Oslund's bizarre dioramas unfold.

Dance Magazine Online     June 2004

Oslund + Co.
Lincoln Performance Hall
Portland, Oregon
January 8–10, 2004

Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

No Portland choreographer has been more misunderstood by the local press than Mary Oslund, whose highly intelligent, meticulously crafted work has been dubbed, quite mistakenly, robotic, alienated, and inaccessible. While there are elements of alienation and disengagement in Behavior (a section of which was reprised in the company’s January season), to suggest that her dancers are mechanical or inhuman, or that nuanced, gestural detail and space-devouring movement cannot be understood except by the cognoscenti, is not only unfair but misleading, serving neither audience nor art form.

Undertone, premiering in its complete form (a section premiered last fall), with an atonal score by Australian composer Darrin Verhagen that matches the dynamics of the movement, showed choreographer and dancers at their best and features gentle, shapely choreography juxtaposed with Oslund’s trademark edginess. A duet for company stalwarts Rinda Chambers and Margretta Hansen, the latter a classically trained dancer who has magnificently internalized Oslund’s Cunningham-based movement, is both charming and elegant as the dancers weave their way through intricate partnering. Former dancer Katherine Gray designed the flowing brown and rust costumes and is also responsible for the regrettably unworkable ones for Volant, the closing premiere commissioned by White Bird/Tiffany & Co. New Works Fund.

Danced to a more lyrical score by Daniel Bernard Roumain, with guest artists Michele Ainza and Eric Skinner, who along with the company regulars seemed underrehearsed and uneasy with both costumes and movement, Volant is uncharacteristically sentimental, although crafted with Oslund’s customary logic. The costumes, some in welcome, bright colors, are made of a stiff fabric that detracts from these dancers’ smooth, easy line, making them look awkward. On the other hand, the gently waving fringed set conceived by Katherine Gray and lighting designer Jeff Forbes is fantastic, moving with the dancers as the costumes fail to do, completing an elegant picture. Forbes lighted the evening with his usual skill at supporting Oslund’s visually oriented work.