Before the dancers came onto the floor at Polaris Dance Theater, this Saturday night for the Groovin Greenhouse performance, as part of Fertile Ground Festival, the floor shone an aquamarine blue in the dark theater, like an illusory pool under spotlight. From a corner speaker, M’Liss Quinnly’s voice broke the soft blue silence of the floor and hushed the crowd’s conversations to introduce the night’s first performance, entitled Pierce. Quinnly is a founding member of Polaris Dance Company and she choreographed Pierce to be performed by Polaris Dance Company dancers. It is about confidence, she explains, and about being comfortable with whom we all are. She tells the packed audience that when choreographing the piece, she participates in a synchronized swimming competition and connects this experience to her ideas for the performance design and goal: for the dancers to move closer to self-certainty by challenging themselves and working with others.
Maybe that’s why the light cast on the floor gave off a cool, aquatic ambiance to me. I was thinking of synchronized swimming, and how I loved to tune in to the Olympics to watch the competitions when I was younger. The aerial view of legs moving in a circle, seemingly independent of the blurred, underwater bodies but in unison with those of someone else’s was like watching flowers bloom in fast motion, one pedal opening after another. It was fascinating to watch the graceful and athletic strength of those bodies, somehow even making the intractable white water splashes look like part of the performance. Each swimmer’s efforts created something synergetically dazzling and vigorous. Their intrinsic drives to achieve something carved out and contributed to their roles as part of a team. Along with with Quinnly’s opening words about challenging ourselves, this stuck with me for the rest of Saturday night’s diverse line-up of dance.
I sit in the front row on the floor level. This seat in the Polaris space puts you at arm’s length and eye level with the dancers. So when the Pierce dancers come out, about ten in all, and start dancing to the ambient pulses of Metric by Apparat and Ellen Allen, I can see the sweat on their foreheads and hear quick pants after the more rigorous moves. I can hear each step and slide of their feet on the floor. Arms swing and reach, shoulders dip and roll over swiveling knees extending legs out to rest weightlessly on heels in stylish and swift moves. Each motion at this distance can be separately discerned, and you can track the steps as if you’re not just watching but trying to learn them yourself.
I can sense the performer challenging themselves individually at this range. There is no aerial view. It’s difficult to watch the dancers as a collective so close up; my eyes dart from one dancer to another, fixing on one for a few moments, as if bestowing a spotlight on each as they perform solos. The broader, distant view of larger theaters presents the accumulation of all the dancers and their steps in one big picture. I appreciate this perspective here however, as I can closely watch as each dancer works things out on their own. With their eyes set intensely straight ahead and not on one another, each dancer has their own obstacles and boundaries. But then they start to dance together physically, touching one another, hoisting each other up. They respond to each other and shadow one other’s movements. They alternatively resist and give in, share and surrender space. This ultimate collaboration seems to consummate the aim of the choreographer, or at least it begins the process.
Next up is the PDX Dance Collective. A smaller troop this time moves to the tapping of two traditional tap dancers on either side of the stage, each standing on wooden platforms like two octagonal islands on the floor. I focus on the two tap dancers for the duration of the performance. The beats are singular and strong. They keep their eyes on each other from across the floor, raising eyebrows at times as if to cue a new direction. They nod at each other, pause and raise their upper bodies in sync before plunging their heels down for another go. They’re testing one another in a way, smiling back and forth, playfully on the edge of trying to upstage the other and it suddenly feels like a tap-off that I’m caught in between.
Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance, the night’s third performance, is bright and thoughtful. The work, West Rising Sun, features choreographer Rachel Slater and two other dancers moving to the music of Ayub Ogada, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis in floor lighting that resembles the first white burning of dawn. The dancers are young women but as the dance unfolds, I’m recalling the experimental play of young girls. They are wearing identical tank tops of varying colors and jean shorts cut off just above the knee. The dance puts them together and apart as they flirt and tease. Their bond is tested again and again, like they’re on a playground, aloof and off in their own imaginations at times, dancing erratically and alone. But they return to be once again united in a huddle, interacting with each other’s moves, and moods.
The Portland Bellydance Guild caps the show with six fine and diverse performances. It makes for a great finale. Bare bellies, for the most part, and heavily painted eyes smile and penetrate through the audience. I have never seen a bellydance performance and underestimated how engaging it could be. It feels like the audience is circled around the dancers, clapping to the beat, howling and whistling, awaiting their own turns to jump into the middle.
Hips rock, twist, and sway. In costumes ranging from fitted bras and sequined hip belts to full length gowns, they channel the bellydance traditions of Egypt, India, the Middle-East and American tribal style. The movements are both fluid and quick, shoulders and chests shimmying atop hips rising and falling like waves and backsides punctuating in springs and pops. The dancers challenge each other and the audience to consider the enduring artistry and value of these old, traditional styles. Incorporating the customs and rhythms of other times and places, they begin to tell new stories.
Saturday night’s Groovin Greenhouse induced a spirit of collaboration, of breaking down barriers of all kinds to work together, to be comfortable with who we are and who others are, and to create beautiful dance.