Partners Walter Jaffe and Paul King first moved to Portland in 1996 with the intention of going into the food business. After looking at starting a gourmet takeout joint (Elephant’s beat them to the punch), they looked at buying a chocolatier. “I weighed 325 pounds,” says King, who’s a Cordon Bleu–trained chef. “So I was thinking, this is a bad idea…”
Jaffe had sat on the board of the Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, where they’d lived before Portland. In 1997, the company contacted Jaffe before a west coast trip to say that he and King should present a performance in Portland. Neither had any idea what to do, but they asked for help, created a logo, and bravely (foolishly?) booked the Schnitzer, hoping that if they scheduled it, an audience would come. Fourteen hundred people turned out, and White Bird Dance was born—although it took them five years to feel confident enough to add ‘Dance’ at the end, thinking all along that eventually the audience would stop showing up and they would turn back to chocolate.
Paul Taylor Dance Company
“Most organizations start off small—as a vision and a small core group that nurtures it from infancy to full grown,” says King. “White Bird was full grown from the beginning. We were in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall—the size of Carnegie Hall. We always appeared to be an organization that had been around a long time, but in reality there were just two guys and a bird.”
White Bird Gala
Over the past 15 years, the pair has presented over 160 companies. As we reach the grand finale of their 15th anniversary season with the return of the company that started it all, Paul Taylor, the White Bird name is now known and beloved in the dance community around the world. Indeed, as other dance presenters have disappeared—the total count in the US fell from 36 in the 1970s to just over a dozen now—Portland finds itself the lone (and lucky) American stop for many international companies thanks to King’ and Jaffe’s perseverance.
If Sam Adams were still mayor, he would no doubt dub the upcoming week White Bird Dance Extravaganza Week. In addition to the Paul Taylor Company’s run tonight through Saturday, White Bird hosts its first gala in five years, Feathered Follies, on Sunday to give its first awards: a lifetime achievement award to Taylor and the new $15,000 Barney Choreographer prize to Alonzo King. And then next week, it presents the virtuosic Australian circus troupe, Circa.
Jaffe and King sat down with me in their West Hills home, the downstairs of which houses the office, to take a little memory voyage through the past 15 years, before giving a preview of the season to come.
After the success of the first Taylor performance, Jaffe and King thought they’d try another: Steve Petronio (above: middle poster second to the right) at the Newmark in May 1997. Then they did the world premiere of Bodyvox (above: bottom right poster), which has gone on to be one of Portland’s longest running and most successful companies. “We had 760 subscribers the first season,” says King. “At the end of that first year, as a special event, we brought in two nights of White Oak with Mikhail Baryshnikov. We went from 760 to 1800 subscribers.”
Their next big step came with the creation of their second subscription: the White Bird/PSU Dance Series at Lincoln Hall, which they started with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in 2000. “It was a very deliberate choice because of her close connections to the Northwest and here in Portland,” says Jaffe. “She was very instrumental for dance at Reed. And one of the first performances of [her seminal piece] Set/Reset was here in Portland at the Portland Center for Visual Arts.” Brown returned last October as another bookend in the anniversary season.
In 2001, White Bird gave a $40,000 commission to Brown to create her 9/11 piece, Geometry of Quiet. “We paid that off for a long time,” laughs King. “But part of our mission is we believe in commissioning. Every Portland artist we do, we commission the work.” In addition to Bodyvox, the lucky local artists have included Gregg Bielemeier, Skinner/Kirk, Northwest Dance Project, Teeth, and many others. Overall, the organization has commissioned 29 works, has a $100,000 commissioning fund, and just created the annual $15,000 Barney choreography prize.
Perhaps the pair’s most ambitious early commission was 2001’s Spirits by local puppeteer Michael Curry. “The dance wasn’t so great, but the puppets were amazing,” says Jaffe. “That really stretched us because we were producing that show instead of just presenting.” With that season’s addition of the PSU series, the pair had gone from six shows to 14, and they finally hired their first employee. “It was the most stressful year,” says King. “I went back up to 290 pounds.”
In 2008, Lincoln Hall closed for seismic upgrading, leaving the White Bird/PSU Dance series homeless. “We decided to move around to alternative spaces and renamed it White Bird Uncaged,” says Jaffe. “That was a huge challenge and experiment in a way. We were doing extremely well—selling out. So what would it mean to go outside the boxes?” Uncaged started at Reed with Kidd Pivot, and then traveled across the city, from the Portland Opera’s studio space to the YMCA to the dance pavillion at Oaks Park. In each venue, they had to bring in raisers, all the sound and lighting equipment, and, in some cases, even their own generators.
In 2010, they returned to Lincoln Hall but kept the name Uncaged. “It wouldn’t only mean alternative spaces, but that the work itself was uncaged,” says King. “That’s the mandate of the series: to try to find work that pushes buttons and that’s provocative and exciting. The big challenge is how to remain uncaged and go back in the cage.”
Besides commissioning new work, another primary focus for White Bird is community engagement and making dance accessible. This has taken the form of yearly curriculums developed in partnership with Portland Public Schools, which bring students in for regular free matinees, as well as the NEST program (No Empty Seats Today), which gives unused subscriber seats to health services nonprofits.
Their community engagement reached a new critical mass with the opening performance of this season, Le Grand Continental. Over 160 Portlanders of all ages, shapes, sizes, and skill levels spent multiple hours a week over 10 weeks to rehearse 30 minutes of choreography from Montreal-based choreographer Sylvian Émard. The result was the biggest line dance Portland has ever seen. “I was so proud of those 160 people that stuck with this,” says King. “They became a family. We had people that said they were suffering from depression or a breakup, and that this really helped them. It’s become like a really good cult.”
For something that started as a happenstance, one-time risk, White Bird has grown into one of the country's most respected dance presenters, even winning the Association of Performing Arts Presenters' programming award last year. Looking forward to next season, which sees the return of many of the presenter's favorite companies as well as some ambitious new ones, it's clear that Jaffe and King have no intention of closing up the coop anytime soon.
“Wally and I, we feel very fortunate to work together—we’ve been together 31 years,” says King. “This has become our life’s work: we don’t get a salary, we work out of our home, we’re the biggest contributors to White Bird. It’s a huge undertaking. You could say our collective middle name is excess. But we always said, if the audience doesn’t want it, they won’t come. It's the audience and the community that keeps us going.”
White Bird Season 2013–2014 Preview
White Bird Dance Series
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
This will be the third visit by this major, ballet-based contemporary dance company. The performance will include the work of the exciting young choreographer Norbert de la Cruz, who has worked with Northwest Dance Project.
Compagnie Maguy Marin
“We first presented Compagnie Maguy Marin in ‘01/’02, and it was probably the most divisive experience our audiences ever had,” says Jaffe. “They basically had dancers in circles dressed in jeans who would walk over to electric guitars and make awful noises. Some audience left; other people said this was by far the best thing they’d ever seen. There were arguments afterward.” Jaffe says Salves, this US premiere by the important French choreographer, is like a rollercoaster into a house of mystery—and far more accessible.
Sydney Dance Company
Oz’s leading contemporary dance company returns after six years with a new artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, to perform in front of a pulsing LED matrix. “This is all out dance,” says Jaffe.
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Feb 26, 2014
Called “the country’s most innovative contemporary ballet troupe” by the New York Times, Cedar Lake returns after a prominent appearance in The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. The company will feature work by two choreographers White Bird audiences know well: Canada’s Crystal Pite, who runs the fantastic Kidd Pivot company that was at the Newmark last year, and Great Britain’s Hofesh Shechter.
Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
Mar 4, 2014
Based in Taiwan, Cloud Gate is the most important contemporary dance company in Asia. For what Jaffe sees as one of the most exciting event in the series, the company will fill the Keller stage with three-and-a-half tons of rice for a performance evoking a spiritual pilgrimage that is sheer, breathtaking spectacle.
Apr 30, 2014
Returning after a ten year absence, New York’s Ballet Hispanico, which focuses on dance from Spanish speaking countries, brings with it a new artistic director, Eduardo Vilaro, and company member Jessica Alejandra Wyatt, the daughter of one of Portland’s most beloved ballet teachers, Elena Carter.
Lucy Guerin Inc.
Having been presented by PICA twice, this aussie's company makes its White Bird debut (she did, however, have work in Baryshnikov’s White Oak show). “She’s amazingly innovative,” Jaffe says. “This piece is called Weather and is inspired by weather patterns.”
Phillip Adams Balletlab
Jan 23–25, 2014
“We’re calling this season an Aussie festival, because there’re three Australian companies,” laughs Jaffe. Inspired by the impact of the body under catastrophes and by crash victims, Adams’s dance-theater piece, Amplification, involves skidding, sliding, and crashing into a world of body bags, pain, healing, reality, and unreality. “It’s very abstract,” Jaffe continues. “It will push people’s buttons for sure.”
Stephen Petronio Company
Mar 6–8, 2014
For his fifth White Bird performance, Petronio will present his newest work, Like Lazarus Did. Exploring themes of death and resurrection, the piece will rise from Petronio’s athletic dancers, the Pacific Youth Choir, the composer Son Lux, and visuals from artist Janine Antoni.
Apr 10–12, 2014
Inspired by the 1960 Italian boxing film Rocco and His Brothers, the Amsterdam-based company will create a boxing ring on the Newmark stage and then give audience members an opportunity to sit ringside as four dancers perform as alter egos of the boxers.
White Bird Exclusive Events
Portland loves tango. This French tango company of mostly Argentinian dancer knows how to tango.
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
Apr 2, 2014
The men in tutus return to Portland for one night at the Schnitzer. “Inevitably they’ll do the Dying Swan and their version of Swan Lake,” says Jaffe. “They’ll also do riffs on Cunningam and Jerome Robbins. But really they do classical ballet, they do it well, and they make it very funny.”