The news, Tahni Holt says, came as a surprise: the Portland choreographer had won $15,000 to develop and stage a new work.
“Recognizing that there are outside forces supporting me is very helpful,” says Holt, who has been presenting her highly conceptual dance pieces in town for almost two decades. “I was super-psyched.”
The unexpected prize came from local presenter White Bird, known for showcasing large-scale, often acrobatic dance from around the globe—not exactly the kind of intimate, cerebral work Holt usually makes.
“We’ve always been impressed by Tahni’s total commitment to whatever the piece is,” says White Bird’s Walter Jaffe. “She’s almost uncompromising in her vision.”
Paul King, who cofounded White Bird with Jaffe in 1997, agrees. “She is a very serious and gifted artist,” he says. “She is of the caliber of anything we’ve ever put on our stage.”
With that 2014 Barney Creative Prize—open to choreographers from 15 different states—Holt has created Sensation/Disorientation. It’s a 60-minute work performed in the round for an audience of 200, another break from tradition for White Bird, whose visiting troupes often fill Lincoln Hall’s 475 seats. The piece features six performers, all women, ranging in age from 15 to 59, who spend much of the hour in very close physical contact—entangled and wriggling on the floor as in a “puppy pile,” Holt says, or seated and gasping for air in tight embrace. At other times, they move spastically to the point of exhaustion.
Putting together a multigenerational group of women was paramount for Holt. “This constant contact of all female-bound bodies is really vulnerable and personal,” says Holt, who will be 42 this month. “It feels really radical. There’s just something so emotional about feeling the lineage of this sisterhood, expressed simply through this deep, somatic practice.”
Then, of course, there’s the second half of the title: disorientation, which has served as a primary animating force in Holt’s nearly 20 years of making dance in Portland. She’s less interested in telling a single story than in eliciting emotional responses and inviting space for audience interpretation. In a previous work, 2014’s Duet Love, four dancers in ever-shifting poses and couplings raised questions about masculinity and femininity. (Holt won a highly competitive National Dance Project Touring Award for that piece, allowing her to take the production to Seattle and Houston.) Another piece, 2012’s SUN$HINE, also spurned narrow interpretation, while harnessing visual oomph from towering stacks of cardboard boxes and sequin-clad dancers.
Holt, who manages North Portland’s Flock center for contemporary and experimental dance artists, is juggling her White Bird commission with other work. She’s developing a solo performance that explores sexuality, nakedness versus nudity, and motherhood. (She has a 4-year-old daughter.) Both pieces challenge Holt’s normal instinct for minimalism. In Sensation/Disorientation, that manifests most obviously in voluminous, wildly patterned costumes: big, blousy tops and long, roomy skirts—outfits that immediately announce the dancers’ femininity while also concealing their shapes.
“Onstage, I’m an aesthetic minimalist, but I’m trying to be a little suspect of it,” Holt says. “I’m using this idea of being ‘too much,’ which is also something that in a patriarchal society is put on those of us who are big and make noise and are ourselves. The ‘too much’ is part of the experience of the costumes—too long, too flowy, too female, too feminine. What if it’s not too much? What if it’s just right? What if it’s perfect?”
Sensation/Disorientation runs Jan 18–22 at Reed College Performing Arts Building, Diver Studio Theatre.